With an excellent mix of gorgeous beaches, adventurous activities, tasty cuisine, and rich culture, Mexico has unsurprisingly become a popular travel destination for people around the world. However, while most folks head to destinations like Cancun and Cabo, the islands in the region have a lot to offer, too. Islands off the east coast of Mexico are best for beachgoers, and are easy to tack onto an itinerary as a day trip or long weekend. You can expect to find soft beaches, a relaxed vibe, and some stellar snorkeling and diving here. Over on the west coast, it gets a bit more wild, with volcanic islands that are less about the beach and more about the marine and bird life. Many of these islands are uninhabitable and are usually visited on day trips. Below, we rounded up seven of the best islands in Mexico. Just be conscious of your footprint, remember to pick up trash, wear biodegradable sunscreen, and avoid touching any of the wildlife.
Isla Mujeres is just a 15-minute ferry ride from Cancun, making it an easy day trip and an excellent alternative to the madness of Cancun’s Hotel Zone. Don’t get us wrong, the vibe here is still decidedly touristy, but it manages to maintain some of its authentic flare and personality. Plus, the busy downtown area is small and fairly contained. Several locals have cars, though the preferred method of transportation is golf carts. Prices in the artisan street stalls, pharmacies, restaurants, and bars are a little less steep than in Playa del Carmen or Cancun (for now, at least). For an island, there are surprisingly few beaches — most people come here for the atmosphere or underwater activities — though Playa Norte serves up a white patch of sand in the northernmost tip of the island. Venturing south takes you away from the bustling blocks filled with vendors, restaurants, and bars, but it rewards with quiet, relaxing, and much more natural surroundings.
2. Islas Marietas
This uninhabited group of islands was once used as a bombing test site for the Mexican military, but thanks to the efforts of high-profile conservationists, including Jacques Cousteau, they are now valued for their rich marine life, bird populations, and biodiversity. They’re also part of a protected park, which has a UNESCO designation. Tourists flock to the islands, just a handful of miles off the coast of Riviera Nayarit and Puerto Vallarta, to see blue-footed boobies, sea turtles, dolphins, and even whales in winter months. However, Islas Marietas is probably most famous for its jaw-dropping, Instagram-worthy Love Beach, a “hidden” keyhole crater that opens up to a white sand beach and turquoise waters during low tide.
Isla Holbox, a sleepy island off the northern tip of Quintana Roo, offers a winning combination of soft beaches, gentle breezes, and lots of sunshine. Word is spreading fast, though, and it’s only a matter of time before this destination becomes filled with shops, bars, and hotels galore. Luckily, it’s not as easy to reach, requiring a two-hour drive plus a ferry ride. For now, you can expect hammocks stretched over the water, lazy days spent on the sand, wooden beach bars and fish restaurants, and small boutique hotels.
4. Isla Contoy
If you’re looking for an exclusive getaway, Isla Contoy is a solid pick — only 200 tourists are allowed to visit per day. Measuring just over one square mile, the small but beautiful island is part of a protected natural park. It’s about as unspoiled as it gets for any touristed island — lush jungle, sugar-sand beaches, and crystal clear water combine to create a heavenly setting. However, don’t expect a party; this area is strictly for ogling only. Biologists lead tours that introduce visitors to various bird species, but you can also have a barbecue fish lunch, snag some shade under a beach palapa, or take a dip in the lagoon. In keeping with the eco-consciousness of the island, biodegradable sunscreen is a must, and proceeds from the island’s activities, excursions, and souvenir shop go toward ongoing research projects.
Cozumel is perhaps an obvious addition to this list — and we love it most for what’s under the surface. Famous for its snorkeling and scuba diving sites, this popular island provides easy access to both the underwater sculptures of the Museo Subacuático de Arte and a section of the Mesoamerican Reef, which contains the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. Visitors can also swim in cenotes, visit pearl and cocoa farms, rent ATVs to explore the island, or post up at one of the many beach clubs. Plus, there’s an endless amount of shopping to give your wallet a workout.
6. Isla Socorro
Love diving? Consider a trip to this small island off Cabo San Lucas. Unlike all the other islands on this list, Isla Socorro is almost exclusively visited as a water attraction and is an absolute must for divers. Many have likened the volcanic island’s wildness to something out of Jurassic Park. Also nicknamed Mexico’s Galapagos, this island is home to unbelievable underwater life, including giant manta rays with wingspans that are up to 16 feet wide, Galapagos sharks, whale sharks, and more. Getting onto the island, you’ll find mostly rock, a lagoon, and numerous bird inhabitants. Aside from a small naval station that form a bare-bones village, there are no humans here, so you’ll have to either come on a day trip or live aboard boat.
7. Isla Partida and Isla Espíritu Santo
Since Isla Partida and Isla Espíritu Santo are only separated by a thin channel of water, they’re a perfect two-for-one deal in Mexico. Both are a part of a protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserve area in the Gulf of California and operate as eco-tourism destinations. The beaches here are phenomenal, with soft sand, striated rock formations, and gorgeous emerald and turquoise water. Tours to the islands can include everything from snorkeling and swimming to hiking and camping. There are no restaurants on the islands, so either pack your own or book a tour that includes lunch. The islands are uninhabited by humans, but are home to a colony of sea lions that aren’t shy. Other wildlife to look out for: dolphins, whales, pelicans, sea turtles, and colorful reef fish.
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