Mexico is a popular beach destination for Canadians and North Americans especially this time of year when its freezing cold throughout the country. An escape to the Caribbean coast in the winter is a chance to experience summer all over again. Plenty of sunshine, warm weather, beautiful beaches and hammock time! It all sounds fantastic but the question many travelers face is where should I go in Mexico. Which beach town/destination is right for me?
With so many resorts and beach destinations to choose from it can be overwhelming and confusing. In this post we will try to outline the different personalities of the Mexican Caribbean coast or the Riviera Maya and help you pick your perfect beach destination.
1. The Urban/Metropolitan Diva
If you’re looking for a home away from home that has all the comforts of any big city in North America, Cancun is your destination. The Riviera Maya technically starts a few kilometers south of Cancun from the town of Puerto Morelos but since most people fly into Cancun, we ought to include it on our list. Cancun is a tourist bubble filled with fast food chains like Starbucks, McDonald’s at every corner and plenty of shopping malls. Cancun is paradise for resort lovers and people who are looking for an all-inclusive, hassle free vacation. It’s also popular among families and kids, as resorts offer fun activities for everybody in the family to enjoy. Cancun reminded us of Miami and South Beach, if you like to party all night long, eat at fancy restaurants and shop till you drop, you will love Cancun. Cancun is built for tourists so don’t expect to have an authentic Mexican experience, unless you venture out away from the hotel zone and into downtown where the locals hangout. We run far far away from places like Cancun 😛 It’s not our style but that doesn’t mean it’s not yours.
2. The Sophisticated Party Animal
If Cancun is the heart of the Mexican Caribbean coast, Playa del Carmen is the heartbeat. Located in the middle of the coastline, it’s an ideal base and a good jumping off point for most activities in the area. Scuba diving in Cozumel, exploring the cenotes and theme parks of Xcaret and Xplor and taking day trips to historic sites of Coba and Tulum are all convenient. Playa del Carmen is what Cancun used to be many years ago, don’t be mistaken though, it’s still filled with tourists but has a slightly classy vibe. It’s the perfect place to do your activities in the day and relax at a beach club at night or hang out on the popular 5th avenue – a street lined with shops, restaurants and bars. If sipping on margaritas with your toes in the sand, people watching and chilling in beach clubs with sassy live music and DJ’s spinning tunes till wee hours into the night are your thing. Playa del Carmen is your best bet.
3. The Laid back Traveler/Backpacker
Isla Mujeres is a small island off the coast of Cancun. Hop on to a ferry and take a 20 minute ride to this charming island. Most visitors take a day trip to the island from Cancun but to experience the island mojo you have to stay there for at least a night or two. We rented a golf car for a day and explored the entire island. It’s a laid back island popular among backpackers, honeymooners and families. The most popular beach is Playa Norte with beach bars with swings and hammocks serving delicious concoctions and fresh ceviche. The stretch of beach that faces Cancun along the ferry port is calm and best for swimming and indulging in fresh seafood. Best part for us though were the sunsets! You can’t see the sunset over the horizon from the mainland.
4. The Adventurer and Diver
Cozumel is a scuba divers paradise! We did a diving trip from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel and although the dive was spectacular it was exhausting spending over 2+ hours travelling to and from the Island. We will definitely stay in Cozumel for a few nights on our next trip, to easily reach the world-class diving sites around the island. Cozumel is also a popular cruise destination which brings loads of tourists to the island in the day during high season. But, most tourists from the cruise ships leave the island by 5. So if your scuba diving in the day you will probably miss all the crazy crowds from the cruise ships, and have a nice, peaceful island for the rest of the day. Win win!!
5. The Beach Bum
Moving south along the coast are the quiet beach towns and fishing villages of Puerto Morelos (between Cancun and Playa del Carmen) and Akumal. If all you want to do is relax on the beach, interact with locals and stay away from tourists then you wont be disappointed with either of these destinations. We prefer Akumal as it’s located between Playa del Carmen and Tulum and would be a good base to explore either towns. Akumal is also famous for its shallow reefs, turtles and snorkeling. This is a great spot for families to have some alone time and relax on the beach. It’s also close to the Xcaret theme parks, zoos, dolphinary and cenotes in the area. You will definitely need a car though if you choose to stay in any of these towns.
6. The Bohemian/Eco Friendly Hippie
Tulum has a unique personality; it’s rustic, charming and peaceful. In our opinion it has the best beach on the coast and you can walk for miles on the soft sandy beach lined with cute eco-friendly boutique hotels, yoga centers and beach cabanas. If you want to experience staying in a beach cabana/cottage footsteps from the ocean, you can’t beat Tulum. For a secluded “cast away” experience pick a cabana east of downtown on the Boca Paila road after the police checkpoint – the further you go, the quieter it gets! Visit the famous Mayan ruins of Tulum overlooking the Caribbean sea, indulge in local food and watch the moon rise from the horizon from the hammocks on the beach. We absolutely loved Tulum and can’t wait to return.
7. The Explorer
If you have more time and want to explore beyond the average tourist, venture out to Sian Ka’ an Biosphere Reserve. Sian Ka´an, or “Origin of the Sky” is a UNESCO world heritage site and is one of Mexico’s largest protected areas. This biosphere reserve has tropical forests, mangroves, marshes, and barrier reefs. This reserve is home to jaguars, pumas, ocelots, tapirs and 300+ varieties of birds. If kayaking through mangroves, spotting manatee’s, crocodiles, dolphins and birds are your thing then head down to Sian Ka’ an. Beware though, the dirt road to the reserve is notorious for potholes. It’s a 90+ minute bumpy ride from Tulum. Rent a jeep from Tulum and head south towards Punta Allen and get exploring!
We spent most of our time in Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Look forward to more detailed posts on each of these destinations and information on – How to avoid tourist traps, must see/do’s, eating like a local and hotel recommendations.
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