El Cuyo – A Hidden Gem in Yucatán, Mexico
El Cuyo, Mexico is a travel hidden gem found on the northwest coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, 2 ½ hours from Cancun, located in the midst of the precious Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Take a step back in time and travel to this fishing village of 2,000 people, a place yet to be discovered but with just enough services for travellers and lots of local experiences to enjoy. Walk for miles along its virgin beaches, take a tour to learn about and see flamingos in the wild and enjoy the flavours of Mexico with a gourmet meal at El Chile Gordo.
The biggest question that everyone has about Mexico, especially solo travellers is “Is it safe to travel to Mexico?” Mexico is often in the news about the drug cartels and the violence associated with those cartels. I can’t answer this question for all of Mexico because it’s a large country, but I can say that during my travels to El Cuyo, Valladolid, Las Coloradas and Holbox, I always felt safe.
I did ask about safety as I travelled and everyone said the same thing, that the state of Yucatán is the safest area in Mexico. Is that really true? I don’t know, but I do know that I didn’t have any safety issues during my time in the Yucatán.
How to get to El Cuyo from Cancun
The closest international airport to El Cuyo, Mexico is Cancun. The three options on how to get to El Cuyo from Cancun are by taxi, public transportation or renting a car.
As a solo traveller I believe that the arrival at a destination always sets the tone for an incredible visit, therefore safe transportation is one of my first travel planning concerns. El Cuyo is definitely off the beaten path and that’s what makes it so special and also a bit more challenging to get to, especially if you are like me and don’t rent cars in foreign countries.
As I was planning my 2nd trip to El Cuyo, Mexico in April, I was extremely happy to hear that Jorge from Casa Del Ritmo in El Cuyo has set up taxi service from the Cancun airport to El Cuyo. Travelling to this little paradise just became a lot easier. Both of my drivers, Alfredo and Ricardo were fantastic. The taxi is not cheap but then again tourist services in the Cancun area are expensive. Contact Jorge at Casa Del Ritmo for current prices and book your reservation once you know your arrival date and time.
The 2nd option is to take public transit from the Cancun Airport to El Cuyo. Now that I’ve been in this area a couple of times, I would definitely feel comfortable taking the bus but there are a couple things to consider, what time does your flight arrive? And can you get to El Cuyo before dark? For more specific details, check out this website for instructions and schedules Cancun Airport to El Cuyo
The final option is to rent a car. I don’t typically rent cars in foreign countries because as a solo traveller there’s too many risks, including getting lost, car break downs, accidents and my limited language skills. Of course, all of this can be mitigated but for me, I choose not to rent a car.
Where to stay in El Cuyo, Mexico
There are lots of options for where to stay in El Cuyo, Mexico and you’ll find a variety of different price points. Often the price is dependent on the distance from the beach, amenities, size and age of the accommodation.
I book my accommodation through Airbnb for El Cuyo, Mexico and have now experienced four different Airbnb’s in El Cuyo. There are lots of other options but I’ll share the pros and cons of where I have stayed.
Casa Maria Bonita
Casa Maria Bonita is a house with four different units and I’ve stayed in two of the four units. The house is located in a quiet area about three or so blocks from the beach with easy self-check-in using a lock box for the key. Cathy is the manager of these units and takes impeccable care of her visitors, each unit has thoughtful touches in décor and necessities. The beds are comfortable, linens are great quality, a coffee machine with coffee supplied, lots of drinking water, great shampoo/conditioner (important for my crazy hair), absolutely spotlessly clean and excellent Wi-Fi.
If you are staying at Casa Maria Bonita bring a small flashlight or headlamp with you. El Cuyo doesn’t have street lights all the way from the main village back to the house so bringing your own light is a great idea.
The largest unit is a wonderfully bright one bedroom apartment on the top floor accessed by a set of stairs. There is a private bedroom with its own patio and double bed. In the main room there is a full kitchen and two single sofa beds. Outside is a lovely patio with a picnic table and hammock. I have already booked my stay here for my next trip. The pricing is very reasonable, around $60 CDN/night, click here for current pricing on Airbnb.
The other unit that I stayed in is around the back on the ground floor and it feels like you have your own backyard. This is a one room bachelor suite with a private bathroom and all the same details as the apartment upstairs but without the kitchen. There is a small bar fridge, a 1 cup coffee maker and lots of drinking water. Outside the sliding doors is a lovely patio with a picnic table made for one or two and a hammock strung between coconut trees. I would happily spend all day laying in this lovely hammock.
I would definitely stay here again. The pricing is very reasonable, around $35 CDN/night, click here for current pricing on Airbnb.
The Flamingos Nest is beachfront heaven and the patio has the most incredible view of the beach and water. There is nothing like getting up and taking a morning walk along the beach, absolute pleasure.
The Flamingo’s Nest is a full ground level apartment with two bedrooms, three beds, two bathrooms and a full kitchen and living room. The listing on Airbnb for Flamingos Nest is accurate, the unit does need some TLC but it’s clean and has everything you would need for a holiday stay.
As a solo traveller, this apartment just had too much space. I prefer a more intimate stay. Also, be aware that sound/noise can be an issue as there is another Airbnb next door. The pricing is reasonable especially for the location, around $100 CDN/night click here for current pricing on Airbnb.
Barefoot and Lazy
One of my favourites. I stayed here on my first trip to El Cuyo and loved every minute of my stay. The expat owners, Lorena and Stefan, live on one side of this recently built attached house and the Airbnb is on the other side. The unit is cozy, has perfect seaside décor, extremely clean, has a well equipped kitchen and is located in a quiet area about two blocks from the beach.
I would have stayed here again for my 2nd visit to El Cuyo but they had a long term rental and now, they will be renovating and expanding their house for the rest of 2019. This unit will be available for rent once again in January 2020.
I look forward to staying here once again in 2020. The pricing is very reasonable, around $87 CDN/night, click here for current pricing on Airbnb.
Where to Eat in El Cuyo
There are many options of where to eat in El Cuyo, Mexico. I had the option of making my own food as each of my Airbnb’s had full kitchens (except one) but I couldn’t resist my two favourite restaurants Naia Café and El Chile Gordo. I did go to a couple others, Hotel Casa Cielo’s restaurant which seemed brand new and wasn’t quite ready for customers and Luma Restaurant at Luna Arena Hotel, this one was really good the first time and then the next visit was not as good. El Tiburon has been highly recommended for their ceviche and grilled fish. I haven’t been there yet but next time I will check it out.
Make your Own Meals:
There are a few options for buying groceries in El Cuyo but if you have specific requirements be sure to stop for groceries at one of the bigger cities on your way to El Cuyo. In El Cuyo, La Sirenita Supermarket is good for general groceries but definitely check out the local shops, the fruiteria for fruit & vegetables, the tortilleria for tortillas and the panadaria for baked goods.
There are also a couple of unique options for buying produce in addition to the fruiteria. The first option is buying produce out of the back of a car from a group of ladies. This car is equipped with a loud speaker and drives around El Cuyo announcing their arrival and their goods for sale. They stopped beside Naia Café while I was there and I just had to look and buy some tomatoes, avocados and mangoes. The other option is from a small outdoor market beside the El Tiburon Restaurant where three Mayan ladies come to town every morning to sell their produce.
In general, I don’t cook for myself when I’m on vacation but I do like to have enough groceries to prepare light meals, breakfast and some snacks. My grocery list in El Cuyo included mangoes, avocados, bananas, eggs, bread, cheese and coffee. Awesome coffee can be purchased at El Chile Gordo.
Let’s talk about my two favourite restaurants.
Naia Café is owned and operated by Emily and Juan who came to El Cuyo, Mexico a few years ago to kite surf. Naia Café is more than just a café. Definitely start your day here with healthy options for breakfast and lunch along with a fabulous cup of coffee. You can rent a bike or paddleboard, buy eco-friendly sunscreen, water bottles to help eliminate single use plastics, meet others and be part of this community hub where free Wi-Fi is available.
This is a café that educates by example and always considers the environment. For example, there is no single use plastic here, your drinks are served with stainless steel straws and paper bags for your takeaway. Naia Café is also a fantastic source of employment in El Cuyo. Open from 8am to 2pm 7 days a week and sometimes open for dinner too, check their Facebook page here Naia Café for dates and times.
I have many favourites here, Banana Pancakes with bacon and a fruit salad, Poached Eggs with avocado toast and the Salmon Breakfast with smoked salmon and salad. Check out Naia Café’s menu for yourself and be sure to order a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice too.
El Chile Gordo:
El Chile Gordo is found in El Cuyo, Mexico, this is not your typical small town Mexican restaurant, its very special and has a local village experience. El Chile Gordo is owned and operated by Cathy and Oscar who came to El Cuyo almost two years ago. Oscar is a professionally trained chef and has created an outstanding menu of contemporary Mexican plates with influences from his grandmother’s family recipes. And Cathy is the most welcoming host that you will ever meet.
El Chile Gordo is thoughtfully designed, with an open kitchen, inside and outside seating and a view through the trees onto the lagoon. The atmosphere is cozy and the décor is tasteful Mexican, with colourful textiles, wooden plates and a couple sombreros for an added touch.
I have a confession, my experience with Mexican food is very limited and includes mostly tacos but I definitely know delicious food when I taste it. El Chile Gordo’s specialties are flame grilled poblano chilies filled with flavourful ingredients and they are now my favourite Mexican dish. Dinner begins with a carafe of the day’s natural fruit water, an appetizer of tortilla chips with the salsa of the day (yum!) and for a few more pesos, freshly made guacamole too.
Check out El Chile Gordo’s Facebook page here El Chile Gordo to see their menu, it’s available in both Spanish and English and they are open Thursday through Sunday from 5:30 pm until 9:30pm. Make a reservation and you’ll get a free ride on a moto-taxi from wherever you are in El Cuyo to the restaurant.
5 Awesome Things to do in and around El Cuyo, Mexico
Take a tour of the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve and see the Flamingos
If you do nothing else in El Cuyo, Mexico you must take a tour to see these magnificent flamingos. At the height of the migration season there are approx. 40,000 flamingos in the area, you will see them feeding, preening or at rest and maybe some of their courting activity too. There are flamingos in the reserve all year around but the largest numbers are during the nesting season of April to June.
There are a few options for exploring the flamingo habitat in the Ría Lagartos Biosphere. The access to the reserve has become more restrictive over the past year, so a trip into the biosphere requires a certified guide. I have no problem with this as the tourism continues to expand, these precious ecological areas need protection.
Travel to Las Coloradas by bus or taxi to see the pink water and from there you can hire a guide to have access to explore the reserve and if you’re lucky, get closer to the flamingos. Flamingos are free and wild so there are no guarantees of where they might be or of seeing them.
Travel by bus or taxi to Rio Lagartos (the town) and take a boat tour. The best time of day is either early morning or before sunset, this may require an overnight stay in Rio Lagartos in order to catch the early or later tours. I have not taken this option yet but I have done my research and I’ve had some email conversations with Rio Lagartos Nature Tours and they have been very professional and informative, so definitely my first choice for a boat tour.
From El Cuyo, contact Saul at Valerio’s Restaurant and request a flamingo spotting tour. Arrange your tour which could include a trip all the way to Las Coloradas to see the salt lagoons and pink water. For me, I just wanted to spend some time to observe and photograph the flamingos. My guide was Orlando who picked me by ATV and on time at 7 am. As they say, “the early bird gets the worm” and that is the case when you want to have the beautiful morning light captured in your photography.
We drove along the coastal road between El Cuyo and Las Coloradas and stopped wherever I wanted. Orlando pointed out the flamingo colony off in the distance, there were thousands of these pink beauties, what an amazing sight to see. There was no stopping and no pictures allowed anywhere near the colony. After some time, we found a group of a dozen flamingos and decided to sit and observe, we were there for at least 90 min, a few hundred pictures later and almost 50 flamingos had gathered in front of us.
Rent a Bike and Say Hello to the Locals
Rent a classic cruiser bike from Naia Café, it has wide tires, a basket to carry your stuff, a holder for your water bottle and a lock to keep it safe. The current cost is 100 pesos (around $6 US/CDN). I usually like to walk everywhere but this was an awesome way to explore all of the streets in this village and see more of the local’s daily life.
There are many different kinds of roads including paved, dirt, sandy and there are a few hills too. You will be sharing the roads with cars, moto taxis, ATV’s and other bikes. Watch for uneven roads, potholes and all of the different kinds of speed bumps which keep the traffic moving slowly.
There is much to observe throughout the neighbourhoods. Be sure to stop and spend a few pesos at the various corner stores that you’ll come across and definitely share a smile and say hello or “buenos dias” to the locals as you pass them by, these are the moments that I treasure the most throughout my travels.
Endless beach walking
The beach in El Cuyo, Mexico is truly endless and feels like you are stepping into the flip flops of Robinson Crusoe. It only takes 15 min before you have left behind the village and any of the people on the beach. There is a strange feeling as you keep walking and the beach is all yours, we are so conditioned to be with people all the time that this feeling of having the world all to yourself is so calming.
The beach is not groomed, there is often a lot of seagrass washed up on the shore especially in the afternoon when the winds and waves are strong. The sea is calmest in the morning and by afternoon there are lots of waves. You will notice a lack of garbage along the beach in El Cuyo, this is a community who is learning that garbage is bad for the environment and for the tourist economy too. They often have days where the whole community comes together to pick up trash.
On a typical day, there are a variety of birds that will keep you company on your beach walk, you’ll see only small shells on the shore’s edge otherwise the El Cuyo beach is sand as far as the eye can see. Take your time, bring water and sunscreen, go for a swim, bring a towel and enjoy a peaceful day at the beach.
Note: The Río Lagartos (river) flows into the sea about 16 km east of El Cuyo. Do not walk to this point, this is a popular feeding area for the crocodile residents of the El Cuyo lagoon.
Kite Surfing Lessons
El Cuyo was discovered by kite surfers from around the world and you could definitely learn to kite surf too. I’m not a kite surfer so I can’t add anything too intelligent about the topic other than it’s difficult to photograph the kite and surfer in one frame. It is fascinating to watch the kite surfers of all levels of experience. I’ve always wondered how a sailboat or a kite surfer gets back to shore. What I’ve learned is that the winds in El Cuyo are perfect because they are mostly north-easterly winds and so always blow you back to shore rather than further out to sea.
Kitesurfing is not a sport that can be learned overnight, it takes several lessons to progress and be able to surf and come back to shore. I was watching a lesson being taught by Ryan from Come Kite with Us. He had a headset on, coaching his student and always communicating with him. Safety was part of the package with the student wearing a helmet and life vest. I spoke to the student as he was walking along the beach while his coach Ryan was bringing the gear back to the starting point. This young man was excited and obviously having the time of his life.
As I walked away, I thought that I might have to take a lesson or two next time I’m in El Cuyo. I learned how to waterski at Club Med in Cancun, why not learn to kite surf in El Cuyo?
Day trips or longer from El Cuyo
There are some fabulous day and overnight trips from El Cuyo. Three interesting destinations near El Cuyo, Mexico are Holbox, Valladolid and Las Coloradas/Río Lagartos.
Taking the bus to any of these destinations from El Cuyo is fairly straightforward. The best resource on how to take a bus from El Cuyo in any direction is on the elcuyo.net website, click here for more info on El Cuyo Transportation.
I was anxious the first time waiting for the bus in El Cuyo. Was I on the right corner? Will it come on time? Will I know when to get off? etc. There are two options for public transportation, the Noreste big buses or the local Collectivo, a van for eight riders. I ended up on the Collectivo because I was anxious (it happens) and wanted to get to Valladolid as soon as possible.
The Collectivo is a local experience that shouldn’t be missed. It has a schedule and a route but doesn’t leave town until it has enough passengers. As people were picked up, locals would come up to the van to let the driver know that a family member needed to be picked up and where, then the driver would go to where the passenger was waiting. I couldn’t do this every time that I wanted to go outside of El Cuyo, but it was a fascinating glimpse into daily transportation for this village.
Onto the destinations, each location deserves its own blog but here’s a brief description for now.
Holbox is an island paradise with more services for tourists than El Cuyo. Take a boat from El Cuyo or a bus (actually two buses) to Chiquila and then a ferry over to the island. There are golf cart taxis waiting to take you to where you want to go or even better rent a golf cart or a bike and explore the island. What will you see? The island landscape, quiet beaches and a colourful town with many services for tourists. Look for a restaurant in the shade and enjoy a cold drink and some people watching too. Holbox is home to the largest concentration of whale sharks in the world. Here you can take a tour to swim with the whale sharks from mid-May to mid-September. Find a reputable tour operator and have a once in a lifetime experience.
Valladolid was established in the 1500’s, built on top of the Mayan town Zaci and is in the midst of the history and culture of the Yucatán. Valladolid is about 150 km from El Cuyo and is a perfect overnight destination. I recommend staying at this Airbnb Colonial Casita on the beautiful colonial street named Calzada de los Frailes. Take a day tour from Taxi Lira Tours ask for Carlo and visit ruins, cenotes, flamingos and/or the pink lakes. Carlo will even teach you a few Mayan words and take you to taste authentic Mexican food.
Nearby Valladolid are the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza (45 km), Ek Balam (28 km) and undeveloped ruins which include Yaxuná (78 km) and Kuluba (90 km). There are thousands of cenotes in Mexico and many are open to the public. Be sure to enjoy a few cenotes because they are all different. Start your day early and have a cenote all to yourself, it’s magical to enjoy the light and hear the sounds of birds and nothing else.
Las Coloradas and Río Lagartos are small villages that are access points to see flamingos and the pink lakes in the biosphere reserve. The pink lakes are one part of the immense salt evaporation pond operation in Las Coloradas. The pink colour is part of the process to harvest the salt which is man-made rather than natural but does make for some great photos for Instagram.
The best part of both Las Coloradas and Río Lagartos is access to the biosphere reserve, by guide only, where you can observe flamingos and some of the approx. 400 species of birds in the area, see a very prehistoric looking Atlantic horseshoe crab, have a Mayan mud facial and go on a boat tour to get a closer look at this protected area.
And so much more to explore. I keep discovering new ideas for destinations in Yucatán, Mexico. Some ideas to explore further include Merida for Mayan culture, Celestún for more flamingos and Izamal, the Yellow City and City of Hills. Let me know if you’ve been to any of these, I would love to hear about your experience.
Solo Travel Tips and More Things to Do
- Bring cash, there are no ATMs in El Cuyo, Mexico and there are lots of places where credit/debit cards are not accepted.
- Bring a headlamp or flashlight to light your way back to your accommodation because street lamps are not everywhere.
- It’s always fun to practice a few words of the local language, in Mexico it’s Spanish although there is a lot of Mayan in the Yucatán. Learn some Spanish and a few words of Mayan or have Google translate available so you can ask simple questions and understand the answers. But no worries though because there are lots of expats in El Cuyo too and they will be happy to help you.
- Support the environmental initiatives in El Cuyo and bring a reusable shopping bag, water bottle and a sandwich sized plastic container. Learn about the environmental/local employment initiatives created by the expats in El Cuyo. BTW the container is for the brownies that you will want to take home from Naia Café.
- Bring lots of environment friendly sunscreen and a beach umbrella. There is no shade on the beach and the sun is directly above at midday – it’s hot.
- There a couple times during the year that it is party time in El Cuyo which you may want to avoid or join in the festivities. I would definitely avoid. The parties happen on Easter weekend and the 1st weekend in August for the El Cuyo Beach Festival. Mexicans leave the city and head to the beach towns with their families, beer, ATV’s, music and have a great time.
- Explore El Cuyo and look for the beautiful street art depicting the nature and animals from the area. The biosphere reserve is home to jaguars, turtles, crocodiles, many species of birds with the highlight being the flamingos. See how many you can find in the art around El Cuyo.
- Important to note that there is a one hour time difference between El Cuyo and Cancun during winter’s standard time but no time difference during summer’s daylight savings time.
- Learn about history in the state of Yucatán. Did you know that the Yucatán was a sovereign state twice during the 19th century? My current read to learn more is, “After the Meteor, Surprising History in Yucatán,” by Robert D. Temple and a few more all about Mayan civilization.
- Support the local economy of El Cuyo. Buy from the local shops and book local tours.
- Do absolutely nothing, read a book and live the simple life for a few days.
Have you found an off the beaten track destination for your solo travels? Send me an email! I would love to hear about where you would like to travel and explore. Any questions please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Take a look around my Solo Travelz website for lots more inspiration. and sign up for my email series “6 Weeks to Solo Travel Ready” click right here
For a similar experience but a destination further away, check out Solo Travel in the Greek Islands
Planning your solo travel adventure tips are here: Best Solo Trip Ever
And safety tips that will make a difference Solo Travel Safety Tips