Mexico‘s east coast is an exciting destination. While many head for the aquamarine beaches on the famous Yucatán Peninsula, each town offers something a little different. Partygoers descend on Cancun’s white sandy coast over the summer silly season, but there is so much more to the coast than the world-famous Spring Break spot. From Isla Holbox right down the Riviera Maya, here are some of the best places to visit on the east coast of Mexico.
The East Coast of Mexico
Where to Stay on the Riviera Maya
The beauty of the Yucatán Peninsula is that the range of accommodation varies vastly. From 5 star hotels to live in yoga retreats, eco-resorts, cute BnBs and some of the most stunning rental homes in Mexico, there is something to suit most budgets. If you are planning a trip in peak season, make sure you book early, particularly if you are hoping to stay in the more popular parts of the coast of Mexico, Tulum or Isla Holbox. The accommodation is limited and they are also both becoming increasingly popular spots, making it even harder to find a hotel at the last-minute. While you are waiting for a better deal, the entire town will sell out as I found from my own personal experience.
When it comes to the coast of Mexico, Cancun has to be one of the most famous places to visit. There’s a strange allure to Cancun, even for those over 18. Bright lights, late nights and chaotic and colourful delights await in the northern Yucatan hot spot. From the moment you turn into Kukulcan Boulevard on your way in from the airport you will start to see pops of blue and white sand peeking through the towers of high-end resort high rises taking up prime position on the beach. Common along this coast are large all-inclusive resorts, favoured by families and big groups who fly in for a week of fun between the beach and the party strip.
You’ll find cute little cafes, bars and shops selling souvenirs in the hotel zone, or hotel shuttle away if you can pull yourself away from your poolside lounger. For those who want to mingle, Mandala Beach Club is a great place to start during daylight hours. Set right on the sand with beach chairs, umbrellas, pools, showers, food and beverage service and activities, tickets start at about $US23 (for the family zone) upwards, depending on whether you are staying around past sunset for the DJ and the open bar. As the sun goes down the street starts to get a little wild with promo girls out in full force and less than full bikinis, wooing passers-by to come in for a cheap drinks and titillating entertainment. If you’re looking for an all night venue, Coco Bongo draws the biggest crowds. VIP access will set you back about double the cost of general admission at about $US130 but your ticket includes a show, premium alcohol, a private area and a little space away from the hoards of people.
Where to Eat in Cancun
- We loved The Surfin’ Burrito for their oversized burritos, one litre frozen margaritas and overcrowded tables where you’ll find yourself chatting to sun tanned strangers sitting on the high stools next to you.
- Just near by, Restaurante Natura is more low-key, serving delicious vegetarian food on their patio which was a lovely way to start the day.
- Selecto Chedraui Cancún Zona Hotelera up the top of Kukulcan Boulevard is an amazing supermarket where you can buy everything from clothing to deli goods and alcohol. The food court has some delicious food options too.
One of the great things about Cancun is the non-stop tours running nearby and right down the Riviera Maya catering for adrenalin seekers and families to nature and history lovers. Isla Mujeres is one of the best day trips you’ll find on offer close to Cancun. Isla Mujeres offers a complete contrast to Cancun; a relaxed island atmosphere, where you can relax, drive golf carts around to explore (a must-do), swim, snorkel, dive and feast on fresh local seafood.
Ferries run every half hour from Puerto Juarez in Cancun out to the island, depending on the boat it can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes to get out there. A private catamaran tour is the ultimate way to see the coastline and to reach the island. Full day tours generally include hotel pick up, the catamaran out and back and a little food and drinks. You’ll need to take a towel, sunscreen and some cash to cover the docking fee, souvenirs, food, drinks and activities on the island.
Related: The Ranch at Laguna Beach California
If you need somewhere to recover after a spell in Cancun, or party people aren’t your cup of tea, head down the coast. The Riviera Maya is the heart of Quintana Roo and feels like it’s a world away from Cancun. The area is home to some of the peninsula’s largest all-inclusive resorts, popular with couples looking to escape the crowds without having to leave their hotel grounds. For those that can manage to tear themselves away though, the area is full of beautiful Riviera Maya excursions, taking you straight into nature or even back in time. Read more about trips to the Tulum ruins, Chichen Itza and the cenotes in our Tulum guide.
We checked into a 5 star all-inclusive resort, Valentin Imperial Maya just outside of Puerto Morelos to unwind for a few days during our time on the Riviera Maya. From the moment we rolled our bags into the foyer, we felt like everything was taken care of. These big all-inclusive resorts are designed so you can leave you wallet in your suite safe and enjoy yourself without watching your budget. After all, you’ve already paid for it all. An adults only resort, the pools were full of couples and groups of friends pushing around floating mats while holding freshly made cocktails back and forth to the swim up bar. It was like watching ‘parents gone wild’ with many we spoke to telling us the week or so they had at the resort was their only holiday all year. They were enjoying every indulgent moment.
Puerto Morelos itself is a sleepy port town with a handful of Mexican and Western style restaurants and unrivalled snorkelling and dive sites thanks to the world-class Mesoamerican Reef.
Playa Del Carmen
The third largest city in Quintana Roo, Playa Del Carmen is a busy vacation destination. Playa is not only a popular spot for families and honeymooners, but also a daily port of call for cruise ships. There are plenty of beachfront hotels to choose from with a few smaller boutique hotels and BnBs back near the busy walking street Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue). Playa is the perfect destination for those who want a balance of a little down time, nightlife and access to magical marine parks, Xcaret Park, cenotes and Mayan ruins.
If you have heart of Mexico, there’s a good chance you have heard of Tulum. The hippie town turned tourist hot spot is widely considered one of the best places to visit in Mexico and attracts more than 2 million visitors a year with that number no doubt rising rapidly. Read our full Tulum guide here.
Isla Holbox (pronounced Hole-bosh), is often referred to as the ‘new Tulum’, these days. The tiny island located off the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula is the idyllic destination for those seeking peace, quiet and simple island living. The island is only about 30 kilometres long, it is car free and there are a limited number of hotels and cafes that call it home. Of all the places to stay in Mexico, Holbox will likely be the most peaceful spot you’ll find. You will spend you days diving into a good book, snorkelling just off the sand, searching for hatching sea turtles and trying to spot whale sharks and birds. Ultimately it’s the perfect place to wind down, well away from the clubbing scene in Cancun or your busy life back home.
Tips For Travel in Quintana Roo
- Pre book airport transfers through your hotel or a bus service. The transport desks in the arrival hall have an understanding that whichever service you approach first gets your business and they won’t negotiate with you. After waiting and observing for at least an hour when we made this mistake it appeared the Green Line shuttle (‘collectivo’) seemed to be getting guests to their hotels the fastest.
- Whichever way you transfer from your hotel to the airport, allow plenty of time for traffic. Kukulcan Boulevard can get very busy, particularly the closer you get to the hotel zone.
- You won’t find Uber in Cancun so expect the taxis to be quite expensive. Prices are set and your concierge will have a list. A half hour journey from Cancun to Playa Del Carmen will set you back at least $AUD80 each way for a ‘small car’ and the price just rises from there. So if you are moving hotels, ask your new hotel to include transfers in your tariff.
- Most prices around Cancun in particular are in US dollars. While it is generally more convenient, you will find you pay more on the conversion using dollars, than pesos.
- Book your tours through your hotel rather than the hawkers on the street. You will likely pay a little more but you have the hotel backing the service the tour will offer and the bigger hotels runs tours multiple times a day with the company they work with so they are invested in that customer satisfaction.
Skye is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Fit Traveller. She is a journalist, writer, photographer, intrepid traveller and a former personal trainer with a passion for helping others reach optimal health. As a TV journalist and producer, Skye has worked for household names such as 60 Minutes, Sunrise, TODAY and Nine News. She has also written for Women’s Health, Fodor’s Travel and Yahoo7 Travel, among many others.
Skye created The Fit Traveller as a beautiful online space and community where people feel inspired to escape the desk to move and explore more.
Equally comfortable in a 5-star resort or hiking a far-off mountain, Skye loves the unexpected and enriching life experiences that each trip brings and can often be found in a backstreet chatting to locals with her camera in hand.
Skye is based in Sydney, working to master the balance between motherhood and her insatiable appetite for adventure.