Visiting the Caribbean coast of Mexico nowadays makes it really difficult to imagine that only 15 years ago most of these places were completely off the radar. Unlike the Pacific coast’s century old tourism, the Costa Maya history starts with the history of Cancun. The same year (1975) the Mexican government decided to create a new sparkly beach town to attract even more US guests, Quintana Roo, the youngest of the Mexican states was born. Although youngest, this Caribbean haven quickly became one of Mexico’s fastest growing states. Nowadays, it’s enjoying all of the benefits (and downsides) that the growth of the tourism industry brings.
When it comes to our own preferences, we try to steer away from mass tourism locations and resorts and are always on the lookout for those quiet, pristine places where you can enjoy nature in its purest. Here’s a review of some of the more popular and those less known resorts along the Costa Maya.
(Cancun and Playa del Carmen are not included on this list. If you’re looking for overcrowded all inclusive shopping malls by the beach with absolutely no authentic experience, be our guest.)
The only Mexican island in the Caribbean sits a short 40 min ferry ride across from Playa del Carmen. It is also the biggest cruise ship port on the Mexican Caribbean with at times more than 9 ships per day mooring in its port and only town, San Miguel de Cozumel. Luckily, you can easily escape the crowds by heading towards the south-east side of the island. This side is basically one 20 km long beach, a windy endeavor on most days but with beautiful, long strips of sand to wander along.
The sea can be pretty rough on this side though, so make sure to watch out for warning signs such as red flags on the beach. Still, with fun activities such as beach volley or just chilling out in the sand with a cool drink, there’s no lack of ways to spend a beach day among the locals. Make sure to bring a hat or a sun umbrella because shade is very scarce on this side and the sun can be super strong.
The restaurants on this side offer spectacular views and substandard food, so we’d recommend them only if you’re ravenous. Otherwise, get a cocktail and head back towards the western side of the island.
The beaches on the western side are protected from the wind which also means that most of them are a part of a restaurant or a resort. It’s easy to reach them by motorbike or a bike (separate bike track) and most are free to explore with your own equipment. Most of the diving spots are also on this side of the island.
Although I’m very far from being fans of Tulum, I did want to comment on its beach, as it’s one of the most frequented and famous beaches of the Mexican Caribbean.
The beach in Tulum could be divided to three parts. First, in the very north is the part close to Tulum Ruins (and adequately called, Playa Ruinas), a part of the beach frequented by a lot of locals on the weekends as it has one of the biggest public access spots. The other two parts of the Tulum beach are to the left or to the right from Avenida Coba, which is the main access to the beach from Tulum village. The north part of the beach from Coba has a bit bigger strip of beach as well as one public access while the southern part is lined up with hotels, restaurants and cabanas. For some, this part is the best, most beautiful and popular, while others steer away from it and prefer to enjoy the public spaces.
One thing that is true is that the sand on Tulum beach is one of the softest, most beautiful powdery sands you’ll ever encounter. This texture alone, combined with its white color and turquoise sea definitely makes for a great match (not to mention a perfect backdrop for all those IG posts).
For me, the public part in the north is the best part of the beach, I love the fact that you have the ruins overlooking the sea, so it really feels special when you’re swimming in this backdrop. I also love all the Mexican local with their coolers filled with Corona and Sol, because this is what Mexico is like and about.
In contrast, the southern part is packed with “eco chic” “cabanas, soft mattresses on the beach and fancy cocktails being drank by even fancier glitterati, which is not really my style. One of the facts that I also don’t appreciate is that in order to spend time on this part of the beach, you have to enter a resort/hotel/restaurant and use their facilities, order drinks or have food which is often way overpriced.
However, Tulum definitely has something for everyone, if you want to escape Playa and Cancun but still not be too remote.
Our two top tips for spending a beach day in Tulum are these: make a stop (if not spend the entire day) at “La Eufemia” beach club. This charming locally owned taqueria is definitely the best value for money on the crowded resort end of the beach.
The second tip is to avoid the Pemex gas station on the main road going down to the beach. They are notorious for their scams, one of which unfortunately happened to us as well.If you must fill up, keep your eyes and ears widely open!
Head down even more south from Tulum and you’ll enter a big nature reserve and a Unesco World heritage site, Sian Kaan. If you want to visit the reserve and all its natural beauties, the best thing is to book a tour, either from Tulum, or up the highway, close to the bigger town, Felipe Carillo Puerto. There is a local cooperative that takes you into the biosphere by van and boat, with expert guides that will show you all the area has to offer. If you’re just looking for a spectacular stretch of beach where you will be by yourself, then you can just get in your car and head south.
As this is a protected area, there is no infrastructure (except for some beachside properties at the entrance, which was disheartening to see – I hope they won’t allow them to spread further south) so make sure you bring everything you might need with you, i.e. water, shade, food, mosquito repellent etc. Specifically mosquito repellent, as this area doesn’t get sprayed against mosquitoes like the tourist resorts do.
The beaches are wild and remote, so you can expect everything, from wildlife to piles of sea grass on the beaches. Unfortunately, some spots also have big piles of trash, which is brought in by the current. This is not unusual along the entire Costa Maya and is more due to the currents than actual littering. Especially in the Sian Kaan reserve, which is really well taken care of and people so have a sense of protecting the nature. Unfortunately, the currents bring in the trash from even the other part of the world and it’s a stark wake up call for anyone who wants to pay attention. This is however a topic for another long debate which we will tackle at some point.
This little ex-fisherman village turned cruise ship destination is certainly one of the hidden gems of the Mexican Caribbean coast. Having spent two months in Mahahual, there is a very good reason we chose this spot exactly for our time in Quintana Roo, although we did visit all of the other mentioned, and much more.
Mahahual town still boasts the charming village vibe, with not too much going on except for the sea, sun and diving (with the amazing reef just meters in front the beach and Banco Chinchorro, one of the largest atolls on the northern hemisphere only an hour and a half boat ride away, it’s a scuba heaven).
What sets Mahahual apart from much of the rest of Costa Maya is this Mesoamerican Reef System or as the Mexicans like to call it, the Maya reef. Although this reef structure, the largest on the Northern hemisphere and second largest on Earth runs along the entire Caribbean coast, it is closest to the shore in Mahahual (150 – 300 meters). What this means is that the reef gives the beach protection from the big waves that can often form in the open sea and creates almost a natural swimming pool. The waves break on the reef and never disturb the swimming area too much, meaning you can swim, snorkel, dive or just chill in the warm, crystal clear water for as long as you wish. The lack of waves also means that the beach itself is not filled with the super soft sand you can for example find in Tulum, because waves are what break down the corals and create the sand. If you ask me though, I prefer being able to swim every day all day, snorkel and enjoy the sea more than I prefer to lie in the sandy beach and get it all over and in me.
The beach in Mahahual, although also lined up with beach clubs and restaurants is not gated like we’ve seen in the other towns (especially Tulum). In most places, if you buy a drink, they will let you use the beach and won’t even make any fuss about it if you just lie down on the sand with your towel and not use the sun chairs. There is also a part of the beach at the beginning of the town, just next to the lighthuse that is still left wild. Here, you can come, choose a palm tree you want to chill beneath, lie down your towel and enjoy the breeze. If you ask me, this is always a better choice than man-made shade in the beach clubs.
The only thing that is left to say is that I truly hope Mahahual stays the way it is or at least develops sustainably. I would hate to see it become another Playa or Tulum where everything just revolves around profit so that locals and tourists alike can’t enjoy the beach to their liking any longer.
The Bacalar laguna is very well known around Mexico and everywhere you go you’ll hear people talking about this “Pueblo Magico”. The most interesting fact about this, quite large laguna is that it features 7 different shades of blue, depending on the bacteria that lives within each area. Yes, there’s only bacteria living in the lagoon, no other living things (except for some moss, but no animals). So while the sight of the lagoon is certainly something spectacular, one thing that put me off a bit was the sweet water and muddy sand on the bottom. You have this gorgeous water that looks like the sea but then you get in and it feels more like a lake and the bottom is all mushy. Yes, it can be a welcome change for all of you whose skin gets irritated from the salt, but with the Caribbean so close, I would always prefer saltwater to swimming in sweet waters.
Another thing that really put me off in Bacalar was the inability to access the lagoon from all the resorts, restaurants, boutique hotels etc. They’ve taken over the entire waterfront and only a few public places are left where you can chill and swim for free, or with a little cover.
One of them is Cocalitos – a private property that hasn’t been taken over by a resort, but kept almost intact. The older couple that own it let people camp here for a small fee, they also have a simple restaurant where you can get some snacks and drinks or you can just chill on the grass or swim among the thousands of years old stromatolite formations.