Here's my after-the-fact planning journal. First off, I owe a HUGE thanks to this message board for giving me so much help with information and ideas. This board is how I found my venue and all my amazing vendors â€” I am so grateful it exists, and I hope my planning journal will be helpful to all you future brides and grooms. VENUE: ANA Y JOSE HOTEL IN TULUM, MÃ‰XICO We decided right away to do a destination wedding, since my then-fiancÃ© had been to one before and swore it was the best out of the dozens of weddings he's been to. I didn't really care where our wedding was, but I was determined to have a small one. We're Chinese, and in our culture weddings are usually huge with over 200 guests, and I really didn't want that. So a small destination wedding seemed perfect for us. We looked for a venue that was 1) a short non-stop flight from NYC and DC, since most of our family and friends live in those two cities; 2) something â€œoff-the-beaten pathâ€, e.g. not a big all-inclusive resort. The boutique hotels we researched included Tensing Pen and Half Moon in Jamaica, the W in Vieques Puerto Rico, Le Reve in Playa del Carmen Mexico, and several places in Tulum: Hotel Jashita, La Zebra, Las Ranitas, and the one we ultimately chose, Ana y Jose. First of all, I have to say that if you are considering a wedding in Tulum, DO IT! Tulum is 1.5 hours driving from Cancun, and there are tons of flights to Cancun, so it's a great combination of â€œrelatively easy to get toâ€ while still maintaining that â€œsecluded beachâ€ feel. Every single one of our guests raved about Tulum, and I felt like it was incredibly easy to plan our wedding there because the location is so drop-dead gorgeous that there was really no way for us to go wrong. Here are some of our photos from Tulum: We ended up choosing Ana y Jose Hotel because in my opinion, AyJ is the nicest hotel in Tulum: gorgeous beach, lush lawns, 23 spacious rooms with air conditioning (rare in Tulum!), a swimming pool, and a beautiful palapa restaurant where we had our reception. AyJ also stood out among the other hotels for its flexibility and affordability. There is no location fee and no required packages. You just pick the food and beverage you want off the menu (ours came to roughly $120 per person for hors dâ€™ouerves, dinner, cake, coffee, 4 hours of open bar, wine during dinner, soft drinks, and tax + tip). Same with flowers, rentals, music, etc. â€” everything is a la carte, you only pay for what you want. They do have recommended vendors, but you are not obligated to use them and there is no fee for bringing in an outside vendor. Here are some photos from Ana y Jose Hotel: You know how sometimes, you see amazing photos of a venue but when you get there it's not really that impressive, and you realize the photos were just cleverly taken to emphasize the good angles and hide the bad ones? Ana y Jose is the opposite of that. The photos look great, and then you go there and it's even better than you thought it would be. And the staff â€” wow. Jackie (manager) was super responsive to all my emails and very helpful. Ignacio (concierge) is one of the friendliest, happiest people Iâ€™ve ever met. Sandy and Claudia (event coordinators) made everything run smooth as silk, and we didn't have to worry about a thing during our wedding. I actually have very high standards for hospitality; I'm quick to notice when the service is slow at a restaurant or when a hotel's towels aren't the fluffiest. But I found absolutely NOTHING to complain about at Ana y Jose. PHOTOGRAPHER: CITLALLI RICO OF CLAUDIA PHOTO Right after we booked our venue, the next item on our list was the photographer! I inquired with a number of photographers in the Riviera Maya region of Mexico â€” Claudia Photo, Del Sol, Ivan Luckie, and Fine Art Photo. They were all really professional in responding to us, and they all have impressive portfolios. Average rates were around $500/hr (with discounts for multiple hours). In the end it was a very subjective decision â€” we chose Citlalli Rico of Claudia Photo just because her vision and style really resonated with us. I cannot put it into words, but I just love her photographs! We also booked a videographer for 2 hours through Claudia Photo. Here are the reasons I love Citlalli: Super responsive and friendly on email. Unobtrusive photojournalist style. Except for the formal family and couple photos, she never interrupted us to tell us to pose or kiss. She just let us enjoy the day, and somehow magically knew exactly where to be to capture great moments. After our formal photos were over, I never even noticed her, but she was definitely there getting the shots. Technically excellent photographer and artist. She doesn't just capture all the great moments during your wedding; she nails them. The lighting, angle, colors â€” everything is just right. As an avid amateur photographer myself, I know that's not easy! All-around great person: friendly, warm, positive, calm. Exactly the kind of person you want around on your wedding day. Here are some of the amazing photos she took at our wedding: SAVE THE DATES: PAPERLESS POST We used Paperless Post for electronic save-the-dates. They were easy and super affordable, and we got a ton of compliments about them from our guests for being eco-friendly! We sent out save-the-dates 14 months before the wedding date. WEDDING WEBSITE: WEEBLY I made a custom wedding website for us using weebly.com, and we did digital RSVPs through a form on our website. The wedding website and password were included on our save-the-dates so guests could start their travel planning (although no one actually planned their trip until about a month before the wedding, sigh). Here's the information from the "Travel" pgae of our website, I hope it's helpful to someone! Quote: Location: Our wedding will be held in the beach town of Tulum in the "Riviera Maya" area of Mexico. Tulum is about 1.5 hours south of Cancun, and 45 minutes south of Playa del Carmen and Cozumel. Weather: Expect the weather to be around 85 degrees Farenheit. You will want plenty of sunscreen and bug repellent. Currency: Most places will accept US dollars, but you'll get better prices with Mexican pesos. It's easy to withdraw pesos from ATMs there, and you'll get a better exchange rate than at the airport. Flights: The nearest international airports are Cancun International (CUN) and Cozumel International (CZM). Car Rentals: We recommend renting a car, as you'll probably want one for activity excursions and taxis from the airport are quite expensive. Hertz, Budget, National, Avis, and Thrifty all have locations at the Cancun Airport and at Playa del Carmen. If you are interested in carpooling, please let us know on the R.S.V.P. and we'll match you up with another guest arriving and departing on the same day. Activities: Outdoors Scuba Diving (Cozumel): There are many dive shops in Cozumel, but we had a great experience with and highly recommend Blue Magic. If you don't dive, Blue Magic also does snorkeling tours.
Snorkeling (Akumal): Halfway between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Yal-ku Lagoon is a great place for snorkeling, with lots of fish and turtles.
Cenotes (Tulum): These natural underwater caves are beautiful places to scuba dive, snorkel, or swim. Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos Cenote are two of the best. $5 entrance fee. If you want to scuba dive, we recommend Acuatic Tulum.
Xel-Ha (Tulum): An aquatic theme park built around a natural river, Xel-ha has snorkeling, tubing, dolphins, and an all-day buffet. Good for kids.
Sian Ka'an Tours (Tulum): Owned and operated by locals, Sian Ka'an Community Tours offers one-day kayaking, hiking, and fishing tours in the jungle.
Kiteboarding (Tulum): Extreme Control Kiteboarding does lessons and rentals.
Whale Shark Natura (Playa del Carmen): Espacio Natura takes up to 10 people per boat snorkeling with whale sharks. Hotel pick-up and drop-off included.
Golf (Playa del Carmen): Grand Coral Golf and Playacar Golf Club are both well-reviewed.
Culture Tulum Ruins: Located ten minutes from Ana y Jose, the Mayan ruins in Tulum are beautiful but small, 1-2 hours to visit. Optional tour guides available.
Coba Ruins: About 45 minutes west from Tulum, the Coba ruins are much larger and you can climb to the top of the temple. Optional tour guides available.
Xcaret (Playa del Carmen): Xcaret is a Mayan theme park with snorkeling, wildlife, buffet food, and cultural performances. Definitely an all-day activity, good for kids.
KaoKao Chocolate Factory (Cozumel): See how chocolate is made and taste different samples. You must make online reservations.
Nightlife Playa del Carmen: Tons of restaurants, bars, lounges, and clubs, mostly concentrated near "Avenida Quinta" (5th Avenue).
Tulum: A few hotels will have live music on the beach each night (especially Zamas and Playa Azul). La Zebra has salsa parties on Sunday nights.
Yoga and Spa Yoga Shala (Tulum): Vinyasa, Hatha, and Ashtanga. See website for more information.
Maya Spa (Tulum): Free yoga classes every morning, massages, body wraps, salon and beauty treatments. See website for details.
INVITATIONS: A PRINTABLE PRESS + MERCURIO BROTHERS At first I didn't even want to do printed invitations, but eventually I gave in to stationery-lust. I ordered this papel picado design from A Printable Press, and had the invitations letterpressed by Mercurio Brothers. Then I got some hemp and red string to wrap around the invitations. My then-fiancÃ© and I put together about 60 of these in an afternoon (our one and only DIY project!) Here's what the finished invites looked like: We sent these out 4 months prior to our wedding, and we asked guests to RSVP two months in advance through our wedding website. I guess this is every couples' experience, but only about half of our guests had RSVP'ed by the deadline. The rest told us by phone or email whether or not they were coming, or RSVP'ed a few weeks later. Our venue was really relaxed about it (we didn't end up getting the final final headcount to them until the week before!), so I tried to be relaxed about it too. We invited about 100 guests, and ended up with 54 adults + 4 kids at our wedding. DRESS: NICOLE MILLER I stressed out about this WAY more than I should have. Let's be honest here â€” at the end of the day, many wedding dresses look pretty similar, and I think I would've been happy with a lot of different dresses. I felt a lot of pressure to find a dress I absolutely loved, "the one perfect dress", a dress that would make me look like a supermodel, a goddess, and a bride all at once, and that would make my mom cry as soon as I put it on. It was totally unrealistic. My advice for those of you shopping for a wedding dress: Do not spend hours looking at wedding dresses online. Don't shop at too many places. Just pick a dress you feel really pretty in, wait until the last possible day to buy it so you don't have time to change your mind, and invest in a great tailor. Anyways, the dress I ended up with was the Nicole Miller Dakota gown. They sell this dress at Nordstrom's and Bloomingdales and I've seen it pop up on wedding blogs a number of times, so I guess it's pretty popular. I really adore this dress â€” I just wish I hadn't stressed so much in the process of finding it! Here's a model in the dress: NECKLACE: BHLDN I wore the reflecting pools necklace from BHLDN. Here's a photo of me in the whole ensemble: GROOM'S OUTFIT: JOHN VARVATOS + JCREW My man wore the pants from a light gray John Varvatos suit, paired with a white linen shirt from JCrew. He's a very casual kind of guy, so a full suit was definitely not in the cards for him. We both went barefoot for the ceremony and the reception. Here's a photo of us (taken on a friend's iPhone) where you can see his outfit pretty well: FLOWERS: MARVIN KUNIL (MAYA DISEÃ‘O) I gave Marvin a budget of $1000 and told him to make a bouquet, 8 table centerpieces, and a chuppah for the ceremony. All I told him was that I wanted red flowers with a "wild", "natural" look to them, and he did a phenomenal job! I was really happy with the result. Here are the inspiration photos I sent him: and here's what my bouquet looked like (taken with my phone): The second photo was taken the day after the wedding, which is why there's a dropping flower. I don't have a photo of the table centerpieces, but just imagine the bouquet in a vase. In addition to the flowers, I also brought papel picado to decorate the palapa restaurant. I take no credit for those cool-looking lights â€” those are just part of the everyday decor at Ana y Jose restaurant. MUSIC: THE SHINE BAND We booked the Shine Band on the recommendation of JessiTaylor on this board. They were PHENOMENAL. We got 6 musicians, two dancers, and props for $2300. The band played 3 sets of 45 minutes each, and then the DJ played in between sets. The props were so great â€” they brought hats, maracas, mickey mouse ears, balloons. Our guests packed the dance floor all night, jumping up and down in their mickey mouse ears and hitting each other with balloons. We had a crazy, non-stop dance party until the hotel had to shut us down, which is exactly what we wanted! WELCOME PARTY: CABAÃ‘AS TULUM The day before the wedding, we held a welcome party for everyone at CabaÃ±as Tulum's Ziggy Beach, which is right next to Ana y Jose hotel. They did a buffet-style BBQ for us over an open fire pit, which was delicious and super fun. We even had smores! TIMELINE We arrived in Mexico a week before our wedding and spent the whole week with our family and friends. As the week went on, more and more friends arrived. I cannot describe how phenomenal this was â€” we got to go snorkeling with our parents, explore cenotes with our friends, enjoy long leisurely lunches and dinners, and have impromptu dance parties on the beach. The wedding day itself, we wanted to keep as simple as possible so that we could enjoy ourselves instead of running around worrying about details. We purposefully cut out a lot of things: bridesmaids, groomsmen, music during the ceremony, a first dance, garter and bouquet toss, cake cutting, slideshow, etc. I kept saying that all we wanted for our guests was to eat, drink, and be merry. It made for a really relaxed atmosphere, and we loved it! Here's our wedding day timeline: 1:00PM: Banished my husband from our room and started getting ready with my girlfriends. 4:00PM: Everyone dressed, photographer arrived for family and couple portrait photos. Photo time. 5:00PM: Ceremony on the beach 5:30PM: Cocktails and hors d'oeuvres 6:30PM: We all moved into the palapa for dinner. Food served family-style. 6:45PM: As soon as everyone had food, my best friend and his best friend gave their toasts. 7:30PM: Cake and coffee served. We didn't have a special cake, just from Ana y Jose's normal dessert menu. 7:45PM: Band started playing and the crazy dance party got underway. 11:00PM: End. Our ceremony was officiated by a family friend, and we wrote our own vows. We kept them short so that we could memorize them, and it's been really sweet because since the wedding we keep quoting them to each other. Our guests stood in two lines to form an "aisle", and we were each walked down the aisle by both our parents. As we walked out, they shook maracas and cheered, and then they gathered in a semi-circle around us for the rest of the ceremony. We kept the ceremony quite short â€” I think it was only about 10 minutes â€” so we didn't bother with chairs and everyone just stood around us. It worked out great. I loved doing photos before the ceremony, because I was super nervous and seeing my husband really calmed me down. It also meant that we got to spend cocktail hour with our guests rather than off taking photos! On a last minute whim, Ana y Jose found us a piÃ±ata so that we could break it instead of doing a first dance. How awesome is that? PLANNING NOTES + ADVICE If I could go back in time, this is what I would tell my newly engaged self: The first step is to figure out your guest list, and the second step is to pick a venue. After you've done those two things, honestly? None of the other decisions you make will really matter that much. Wedding guests only want 3 things: 1) to see you happy, 2) to catch up with some old friends they haven't seen in a while, and 3) to have plenty of food, alcohol, and music. That's it! When you're stressing about which dress or invitations to pick â€” just know that you really can't make a bad choice. Listen to your fiancÃ©. When he says that all the invitations and all the dresses look pretty and it doesn't really matter which one you pick? He's right. Be kind to your parents and to his parents. This idea of a "destination wedding" is new and weird to them, and while their reluctance about the idea stresses you out, you'll be glad later that you were patient and answered all their endless questions about travel, safety, food, etc. In the end they will come, have an amazing time, and go back home raving to all their friends about how great Mexico is. Don't believe anything you see in wedding blogs or Pinterest. Photos on wedding blogs are all about pretty closeups of flowers, food, and creative details, but your wedding day will not feel anything like those photos. I experienced my wedding day as a blur of all my favorite smiling faces in the whole world and everyone I care about the most in one room, loving us so hard it hurt. It didn't feel pretty; it felt raw and overwhelming. Don't get me wrong â€” the pretty details are a really fun part of the planning and I definitely spent hours pinning pictures to my Pinterest board. Don't let anyone make you feel frivolous or silly for caring about the pretty details. I'm just saying that the blogs are not an accurate representation of what a wedding actually feels like, and also when your wedding day finally comes around you probably won't give a sh*t about the flowers. Read A Practical Wedding. Here are some of my favorites: Your wedding is not a show, Your wedding is not an imposition, What do you remember?, and A Practical Wedding. Don't buy your dress too early. You'll just second-guess yourself and change your mind a lot. Don't stress so much. None of the big things you worried about will happen â€” it doesn't rain, no one gets food poisoning, and none of your guests will be kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel. Some small things will go wrong: some of the people you wish to be there won't be able to make it, and your mother will trip on the train of your dress while walking you down the aisle. But it's ok. The day will be so stuffed with love and joy that you will not notice or care about any of the small things. You will have a gigantic, ridiculous grin in all the photos, and nothing could've change that. Best of luck to everyone currently planning their weddings! I wish you so much joy and happiness in your wedding and your marriage.