The Riviera Maya is the kind of magical place that manages to pack tropical beaches, wild nightlife, ancient ruins, boozy pool parties, amazing snorkeling, dazzling cenotes, luxe retreats, and bohemian vibes into an area that's not much larger than the state of Maine. The region is by no means a secret, with cities and towns like Cancun, Cozumel, and Playa del Carmen drawing millions of visitors for decades now. However, the options for a beachfront getaway along the Riviera Maya are almost too numerous to count, and the vibe changes drastically depending on where you're planning to post up. Read on for a quick breakdown of what you can expect in this Mexican paradise, and we promise that your next trip will be picture perfect.
Once a secret, but no longer so, Tulum is one of Mexico's most famous Pueblos Magicos (Magic Towns). And while intrepid travelers certainly lament the changes that have happened to this Riviera Maya enclave, it still has plenty of enchanting energy. The beaches here are exactly what most travelers want: blazing white, soft sand; neon aquamarine waters; and towering palm trees overhead. When you add ancient Mayan ruins to that mix, plus a frequent focus on health, wellness, and sustainability, Tulum exerts an outsized pull in the region. Tulum Pueblo is the official town center -- and it's where you'll find cheap tacos and a more local vibe -- but many travelers simply stick to the coastline. There, beachfront bungalow-style hotels offer a boutique-size getaways that often define a week in paradise. Inland, there are dazzling cenotes to explore. To be clear: Tulum is developing at a rapid clip, and its former unplugged yogi vibes are certain to change even more in the near future as development continues. For now, though, it's still has plenty of allure.
A Luxury Hotel Pick:
Playa del Carmen
Where Tulum aims to satisfy the tranquility-seeking traveler with its boho bungalows, Playa del Carmen is a livelier beachside experience. Resorts here are generally larger than those in Tulum, though there are a number of smaller boutique and budget hotels in town as well. Its beaches are beautiful and buzz with activity all day, though it's the underwater allure of Playa del Carmen that might be its biggest attraction. This is one of the best dive regions in the Riviera Maya, with excellent reefs found relatively close to shore. However, on land there's plenty to keep travelers busy as well. Most of the action centers on La Quinta -- or Fifth Avenue -- where boutiques, tourist shops, bars, restaurants, and nightclubs are lined up elbow to elbow. Playa del Carmen is also the jumping-off point for Cozumel, the cruise-popular island that sits just offshore. Many cruises opt for day trips to Playa del Carmen when they port at Cozumel, meaning that it can get busy in town. Most of the poshest hotel options are found outside of the city center, along the coasts north of town in Mayakoba, or south in Playacar. The budget-friendly hotels are closer to La Quinta in the center of Playa del Carmen. Keep in mind that depending on where you're staying, noise from nightclubs may be an issue.
A Romantic Hotel Pick:
At the northern end of the official Riviera Maya, Puerto Morelos combines a bit Playa del Carmen's upbeat vibe with Tulum's laid-back, hippie-inspired lifestyle. Like almost every town and village along this stretch of coastline, Puerto Morelos was once a sleepy fishing town that's been almost wholesale turned over to sun-seeking tourists. Even so, it still feels less overtly touristy than what you'll find in places like Playa del Carmen and Cancun. The sea here is calm and shallow, with great reefs just offshore, while a 15- to 20-minute drive inland leads to stunning cenotes that are worth exploring. What's more? The local government has taken steps over the last few years to make sure that development stays relatively tame here, preserving its laid-back vibe. The beach stays relatively free of the vendors found in the town's bigger neighbors, and its quaint town square sits near a popular local market.
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While it hasn't historically been part of the Riviera Maya, these days Mexico is pushing the boundaries of the region farther north to include Cancun. That makes sense as the city's international airport is essentially the gateway to the Riviera Maya. That also makes Cancun a fine place for a long weekend beach escape from the rest of North America. While the city of Cancun itself is a bustling and busy Mexican hub packed with markets, authentic taco joints, and clubs spinning salsa and reggaeton, the Hotel Zone is where most travelers head. Here, you'll find mile after mile of all-inclusive resorts packed between the lagoon and Caribbean Sea. Mexican restaurants that can't help but feel a bit touristy and tacky sling gringo-friendly fare alongside watered down tequila, while stretches of booze-fueled night clubs rage into the night. While the beach isn't the region's most peaceful, it is beautiful. And even though Cancun has its budget-friendly Spring Break reputation, resort options run the gamut from party destinations like the Grand Oasis Cancun to tranquil luxury all-inclusives like Le Blanc Spa Resort.
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A 12-mile boat ride from the Riviera Maya mainland, Cozumel is perhaps best known as a major cruise port -- according to Cruise Critic (Oyster's sister site), the island draws at least one million cruisers every year. That can mean crowds -- and lots of them -- though these tend to flood the island's west coast, between the cruise piers and downtown San Miguel -- the island's main hub. San Miguel is where you'll find the most commercial activity, including a number of dining and drinking options, plus markets and shops. While the island isn't huge, it's also not small, and has a wildly varied shoreline. While there are too many beaches to count, there are also numerous places where there are no beaches -- such as downtown San Miguel, and many of the areas that lay a few miles to the south of the city. The east side of the island can feel almost entirely undeveloped in many spots, and you're likely to find the most picturesque, away-from-it-all beaches there (though services are few and far between). On the west side of the island, there are numerous private beach clubs and resorts that open their doors to cruisers docking here for the day.
A Kid-Friendly Hotel Pick:
Long ago colonized by Mexico's neighbors to the north, Akumal has all of the vibes of a purpose-built resort area. Think: South Florida snowbirds by way of Mexican scenery. This isn't the kind of place you come to immerse yourself in local flavor -- though to be fair, most of the major beach towns in this region aren't exactly bursting with that. Instead, what was once a major nesting spot for sea turtles is now packed with condos, resorts, and Americans and Canadians lounging on some of the Riviera Maya's prettiest -- and intensely developed -- shoreline. The pristine natural landscapes that helped make this part of the coast so popular are no longer apparent, but Akumal's five bays make for excellent, calm swimming in seas so blue they look straight out of a photo shoot. It's a popular place for mature couples looking to avoid the loud parties in Cancun and Playa del Carmen, and those who prefer to sidestep the new age indulgences in Tulum.
An All-Inclusive Hotel Pick:
Like Cancun, Isla Mujeres sits at the far northern extreme of the Riviera Maya, and only has only recently been included as part of the region. It's by no means a deserted island, but the atmosphere here is far more laid back than back in Cancun. Many travelers visit the island on day trips from Cancun, though it makes a fine alternative for those who want lots of tourist-friendly conveniences with a little less tequila-fueled action that you'll find on the mainland. While it's not quite a natural and rustic oasis like Isla Holbox farther north, there are enough eco-related pursuits here to balance long days spent on beaches and by pools. Snorkeling, kayaking, and other water sports can all be had in abundance here.
A Luxury Hotel Pick:
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