My husband O and I celebrated our five-year wedding anniversary this past August 2019 by doing something new. We went to South America when we could, which meant a five-day trip from Chicago to Santiago to San Pedro, Chile. It might sound like a hot minute, but it felt like a full week’s vacation!
We both loved this trip.
Our travel time mostly consisted of sleeping on overnight American Airlines flights. We started Friday night with a small layover in Miami, followed by an overnight flight (two meals included) and then arriving 4 am in Santiago. We found showers in the VIP lounge ($45/person, included showers and food) and left via a $100 Sky airline flight to San Pedro, where the Atacama Desert is located. We regret not paying the extra $100 to bypass the Saturday morning layover in Santiago and arrive sooner to the desert. We arrived by 5 pm.
We then quickly got our rental (Econocar) and spent Saturday evening by checking into the beautiful Hotel Poblado Kimal, dining at their delicious restaurant, and exploring the desert around the town for sunset and star gazing. The hotel and quaint town of San Pedro was close to everything. We loved this little town. Good night life, too. Never have I ever seen so many people dancing and drinking in beanies and sweaters in a bar.
We then spent the next two days checking out:
Lagoon chaxa (south- in Salar Atacama)
Lagoon Cejar (south- nearby San Pedro)
Salar de Tara (east)
We had a 7 am flight back to Santiago on Monday, and then a 1/2 day layover in the city. During our layover in Santiago, we checked out:
1) Plaza del Armas
2) Saint Lucia
1) pack more pants and sweaters for Chile when visiting in early September
2) American Airline flight attendants might be incorrect when they say the overnight flight only gives snacks, so don’t bring additional food on the plane
3) order the rica rica, but stay away from the governor
4) watch out for nausea as a result of higher elevations in Salar de Tara 🤢
5) enjoy your partner for as long as you can. everything can change in an instant.
Late last night, I returned from a much needed spring break with my husband (O) and four kids. My husband and I, along with my three step-children teenagers and preschooler, spent seven days (3/22/19-3/29/19) along the Caribbean sea in the towns/islands of:
• Playa del Carmen
We traveled by air, bus, sea, and car, and discovered along the way that my four-year old is prone to sea sickness. 😃
Paparazzi at Fogoncito at Mexico City airport
Excited for tacos at Fogoncito
AIR TRAVEL: O set up price alerts on Google flight and Kayak to notify him of cheap flights to Mexico City (CDMX). We found $360 flights into Mexico City and then took another flight to Cancun ($100). (We usually aim to pay $270 for flights from Chicago to CDMX). All flights were through Aeromexico. My in-laws joined us later in the trip, however, they took a direct flight from Chicago’s O’Hare into the Cozumel airport on American Airlines. Aeromexico provided lunch/supper on the longer flight and snacks on the shorter flight, which we appreciated with insatiably hungry teenagers. In addition, each seat had their own individual movie screen with a wide choice of movies/TV. We arrived in Mexico City Friday night and stayed nearby in the airport’s Marriot hotel. Free breakfast was included (always a must for us). Saturday morning we woke up early for the breakfast and our morning flight to Cancun, and we were pleasantly surprised when Aeromexico offered us $1500 to take the earlier 9 am flight due to the 11 am plane being overbooked. It was fortunate that we stayed close to the airport because we quickly took the complimentary Marriot shuttle to the airport and paid for our next spring break trip in advance. 😀
GROUND TRAVEL: After we took the earlier flight and landed in Cancun, we walked briefly to the bus depot at Terminal 2 in Cancun airport to take the Ado bus for $10/person to Playa del Carmen. O bought Ado tickets on-line. Since we arrived early, he asked if we could take the earlier bus, and they had no problem with it. The buses seem to drive the 45-minutes out to Playa del Carmen every 30 minutes or every hour. Very comfortable spacious buses made for happy kids. Saving money with two flights made for happy parents.
SEA TRAVEL: The Ado bus dropped us a few blocks from the Playa del Carmen ferry stop. We had an hour before our 4 pm ferry ride so we spent time at the little park near the beach. There were two ferry choices; Ultrajet and Winjet. We bought roundtrip tickets through Winjet and rode on the top deck (however on our return trip, discovered the bottom deck to be more comfortable).
TAXI / RENTAL CAR TRAVEL: We arrived in Cozumel after the 45-minute ferry ride. While it was a bumpy ride and we had a few complaints of sea sickness, no one needed the aid of dramamine. Our condo for the three nights on the island was slightly past the cruise ship port, but in the 80 degree weather and with all of our luggage, we chose to pay for an overpriced $7 five-minute taxi ride to El Cantil Condos. This helped us decide to rent a car for the day that we would be exploring since taxis were a little pricey. The next day we paid $100 for the day for an eight-passenger minivan. We had to put in $10 in gas, but drove half-way around the island (past Punta Sur to El Pescador restaurant).
Loved our morning coffee on the balcony
We were near the Cruise ship port
El Cantil Condos were beautiful inside
ACTIVITIES WE ARE RECOMMENDING at COZUMEL:
• The Money Bar: great food, live music, snorkeling at their beach while you wait for your food to arrive and during sunset. Best time I have had with my step-children.
• La Pescadora restaurant and beach: isolated restaurant (we ordered fried fish to be on the safe side) with a beautiful beach for swimming and snorkeling. We chose this free activity over paying $16/adult and $8/child for entrance to Punta Sur. We brought our own swim shoes and snorkel gear. My daughter was tired, so instead of swimming, she took a nap on the beach chair outside the restaurant. Perfect place for swimming or napping.
ACTIVITIES NOT RECOMMENDED at COZUMEL:
• Chankanaab: nothing special. When we paid for our entrance fee, we were told it included dolphins for the kids, but found out it was an additional $99/person to swim with dolphins. While our teens enjoyed the snorkeling, it was similar to the free snorkeling we did at the Money Bar. I saw no reason to pay an entrance fee as nothing was exceptionally different. We made an amateur mistake by paying for an exclusive beach when there are many free beaches on the island to dive into, or better yet, get lunch at a beach-side restaurant and use their beach to snorkel. We brought our own snorkel gear and swim shoes with us.
SEA TRAVEL to CAR RENTAL: The guy who rented us the minivan offered to give us a ride to the ferry, so we saved on another taxi and tipped him instead. We sat at the bottom of the Winjet ferry and arrived in Playa del Carmen. We took lunch at one of the many restaurants and then walked the small pedestrian streets to the car rental company, America. We rented a Surburban and were pleasantly surprised with the low cost of the car rental insurance ($80 for three days). We drove to our next reservation at Bahia Principe residences in Akumal. All of our drives were about 30 minutes apart. When we arrived at the four-bedroom house we rented in Bahia, we were given a three-bedroom by mistake due to technical problems with the air conditioning. When they offered a credit, we asked if they would consider offering the day pass at the Bahia Akumal resort instead. They gave us eight free day-passes ($60/person), which included three meals and access to the resort’s two of three locations (Bahia Coba and Bahia Tulum). They also offered 10% off our total booking price. It was fortunate that the air conditioning broke because we were able to access all of the resort perks while also enjoying the larger house we reserved and its private pool. Because we booked through hotels.com, we also received two free hotel nights from this vacation.
Arrived to three-bedroom property at Bahia Principe in Tulum
ACTIVITIES WE ARE RECOMMENDING at AKUMAL:
• Dos Ojos Cenote: $15/person (but our four-year old was free) and worth every peso. It’s an incredible value. We brought our snorkel gear and while this was our first time cave snorkeling, we saw incredible things, especially in the second eye. Although it is intimidating, you must swim past the rock in the back of the second eye and dive to see the underwater cavern. It helped that the scuba diving tour was happening as we were in the water and their lights shed more clarity on the submerged underworld. Incredible beyond words. Highly recommended for teens and adults. Grandma and grandpa watched our four-year old as the water was too cold for him. There were many cenotes to choose from, but we recommend Dos Ojos.
ACTIVITIES WE ARE NOT RECOMMENDING at AKUMAL:
• Playa del Akumal: O and I snorkeled at this once public beach seven years ago, and we were fortunate to see many sea turtles feeding on the sea grass. It was the best snorkeling I had ever done. We took the kids with this expectation in mind and found out the beach had been privatized. Turtle snorkeling tours were being offered at $35/person in addition to the $5/person entrance fee to the beach. I understand how it can conserve and protect the turtles, but we had not budgeted to spend an additional $175 for turtle tours, so we had to pass this one up. It took forever to park and walk to the beach. People were constantly trying to sell us life jackets and tours. In hindsight, we wished we had skipped Playa del Akumal all together.
CAR RENTAL to BUS RIDE to FINAL STAY: We drove our Surburban rental back to America car rental in Playa del Carmen, but stopped for gas along the way first. The gas lines are long in Playa del Carmen. We then dropped off the grandparents at their ferry going to Cozumel. We drove to America car rental and the guy was so kind and offered us a ride back to the bus depot. Highly recommend this car rental place. We then rode the comfortable Ado bus back to the Cancun airport at $10/person (bought on-line). Our hotel in Cancun did not have a free shuttle, so O booked through a shuttle company, who was there 20 minutes after we arrived by bus. No bathrooms in the bus depot area of Cancun airport, so make sure your toddler uses the Ado bus bathroom. The shuttle took us to our Cancun hotel, The Royal Carribean, which was were we spent our last night of the trip swimming and playing at the beach.
The entire crew (four kids, Orlando and Emily) plus the in-laws.
How did we pay for this trip:
We decided to do a road trip from Chicago to Canada. We paid for food, gas and an overnight hotel stay on the way to Niagara Falls.
How did we get there:
We have a 2017 Toyota Sienna SE. If you are familiar with the SE model, the van comes with a wide-screen TV and a Blue ray player. If you have small children then you already know that TV + Blue ray = peaceful drive. If you are thinking about buying a Toyota Sienna, this is how we rate our van:
Comfort: 10/10 – Pretty spacious seats even for the back row. Everyone was comfortable and we had a full van (8 people).
Performance: 4/10 – It’s a van and that is all there is to it.
Gas mileage: 6/10 – Yes, we load this van with 8 people plus luggage. It all fits, but at a cost. We get about 22 MPG Highway.
Entertainment: 9/10 – Widescreen TV, Blue ray player, HDMI inputs, video inputs and nice sound system. Do I need to say more?
Where did we stay:
Our first stop was Toronto. We stayed at the The Westin Prince, Toronto. Overall, it was a beautiful hotel with a good breakfast and good amenities. However, the restaurant staff was limited and it took a while to get an omelet and even a cup of coffee.
Price: $150 per night.
Family friendly rating: 8/10
In Niagara Falls we stayed at the Sheraton on the Falls. The stay came with free passes to a nearby water park. The water park is connected next to the hotel so you never have to go outside to go to the water park. The hotel is a bit outdated, but it’s perfect for the kids. The location is perfect (a few blocks from the falls) and near the tourist area.
Price: $200 per night.
Family friendly rating: 10/10
The falls during the day and at night:
The falls are beautiful day and night. During the day you get to see the beautiful nature of the falls. At night you get to see the falls illuminated by different colors. Since we were so many, we did not buy tickets to see the falls up close, but instead walked the boardwalk, which was still plenty misty from above. Bonus: Go during the winter for an amazing icicle experience.
The tourist area in Niagara Falls:
You will know where this is once you see it. Although it’s full of touristy stuff, it’s worth walking around and watching people. Our teenagers really enjoyed walking around. Go to the Hershey store for the ultimate dessert deal ($6 for a shake and a cupcake), but don’t drink it before walking the falls (yikes!).
Downtown Toronto is easy to walk, but finding parking is difficult and traffic is heavy. St. Lawrence market is nearby and highly recommend you visit the market. Go to the marina and enjoy the outdoor sellers and the music that is randomly played near the food sellers.
Fallsview Indoor Waterpark:
The children had a lot of fun, especially the toddler. The waterpark is smaller than your typical waterpark in the US, but it had enough activities to keep the kids busy for half of the day.
We wish we would have stayed a day longer in Niagara Falls. The kids really loved the tourist area and the waterpark. We also wish we had enough time to cross to the US side. Toronto had some attractions that were closed due to the weather and other reasons, so we should have checked ahead of time.
We bought tickets 7 months prior to the trip. We started tracking prices with the Kayak app. We received a notification that tickets were $230 to Mexico City on Delta so we bought eight tickets right away. We did not use any miles, but the tickets were so cheap it didn’t bother us paying for all our tickets.
What Airline(s) did we fly on:
We flew economy on Delta Arlines. We really like Delta, unfortunately, Delta only took us to Detroit and from there we flew on Aeromexico. We decided to give Delta Airlines the following ratings:
Comfort: 7/10 – Pretty spacious seats for economy. Everyone seemed to be comfortable.
Food: N/A since there was no food service.
Service: 8/10 – Flight attendants seemed happy.
Kid Friendly: 9/10 – Delta called for parents with small children and we were not give a hassle about all the kids tagging along for the pre-boarding process.
We flew economy on Aeromexico from Detroit to Mexico City.
Comfort: 7/10 – Pretty spacious seats for economy.
Food: 7/10 – Food was tasty for airplane food.
Service: 1/10 – Flight attendants and people at the gate, especially in Mexico City, seemed to be upset at the company which really shows when dealing with clients. When I complained about the pre-boarding with children, I was put on the side for additional screening.
Kid Friendly: 1/10 – No pre-boarding with small children. I was told it is company policy.
Entertainment: 2/10 – The entertainment consisted of a 7 inch, 90’s style, overhead TV with a pre-selected movie.
Where did we stay:
We stayed with family in Mexico City in the Iztapalapa neighborhood. We recommend staying in the Condesa, Coyoacan, Reforma, Polanco or Santa Fe neighborhoods for a more safer, central location in Mexico City.
We also traveled to Guanajuato and Leon. We stayed at the Courtyard Leon at The Poliforum. Breakfast was included and really tasty. The service was excellent and at $110 per night, you can’t beat the value.
Rent a car:
If you are a big family, rent a car. Make sure your hotel has a free garage to store the vehicle. If you drive to the Zocalo be prepared to spend lots of time finding parking. Better yet, take an Uber or two. If you do rent a car, drive outside of Mexico City. It’s pretty safe as long as you stay on the interstate until you get to your destination and you drive during daylight.
Zocalo, Coyoacan, Xochimilco, Chapultepec Park, Santa Fe Mall and Reforma/Polanco:
There are many neighborhoods in Mexico City and each one offers its own set of attractions. Zocalo, Coyoacan, Xochimilco, Chapultepec Park, Santa Fe Mall and Reforma/Polanco neighborhoods have the most visited attractions. You can’t leave the beautiful city unless you visit most of the neighborhoods in this list.
Another must do activity. Teotihuacan is outside of Mexico City in what is considered the state of Mexico. Teotihuacan is not too far, but the pyramids are worth the trip. Go early!
Leon and Guanajuato:
We drove to Leon to spend New Year’s eve with an uncle. Leon is your typical big city in Mexico with no attractions, except lots of shoe stores. However, Guanajuato is a couple of hours away. Guanajuato is a must see city in Mexico and one of the most beautiful cities we have ever seen.
If you rent a car, be prepared to pay as much as you would in the US or more. Having a car in Mexico is really expensive and the insurance is no joke. We ended spending over $1000 more on additional fees and insurance.
Don’t fly on Aeromexico unless you really have to. The Airline is not doing well, why go through the hassle if you have other options?
Hit the beach instead. Although the weather was beautiful in the city, we felt a little bit sad that we didn’t hit the beach instead. Mexico City would be perfect for September or October.