One of my goals for our time spent living in Mexico is to visit as many of the 31 states as I can. In fact, this lofty goal, coupled with the fact that my mother-in-law loves the beach, is what led us on our most recent adventure to Mexico’s easternmost state, Quintana Roo (pronounced “keen-tah-nah row”). Typically, we don’t spend quite as much time (two weeks!) in one state, nor do we often have the luxury of visiting four separate cities and two islands on one trip; however, we definitely wanted to be thorough here because these are some of the most popular tourist destinations both within Mexico and internationally! So, if you’ve always wanted to head on down to Riviera Maya, here’s my summary of what you can see, do, and expect:
Cancún / Isla Mujeres
Our first stop was in Cancún for many reasons. For one, Cancún International Airport is the second largest in the country, which means there are tons of flights in and out from a huge variety of locales. Another solid, practical reason to start in Cancún is the fact that it’s located at the very tip of the Yucatán peninsula, meaning flights from east of the Mississippi are quite short and very affordable. Personally, I also wanted to start in Cancún because I had (erroneously, as it turns out) thought that Cancún would be my least favorite of the cities on our itinerary, and I’m very much a save-the-best-for-last kind of person.
The Best Parts:
Speaking of bests, one of our favorite experiences in Cancún was kayaking among the mangroves in the Nichupte Lagoon. As a planned city, Cancún has several distinct “zones”, and the Nichupte Lagoon is actually what separates the Hotel Zone from the city center, making it very convenient regardless of where you’re staying. The lagoon is part of a protected reserve and boasts incredibly clear and calm water as well as a plethora of flora and fauna. Another must-do, as far as we’re concerned, is a catamaran ride to Isla Mujeres. On a whim, we booked an all-day package that included a catamaran ride, snorkeling through MUSA (an underwater art museum), an open bar, a buffet, and several hours of free time on the island. It was amazing! Dancing to the macarena with a group of strangers was the cherry on top of the perfect beach day. Of course, all the beaches on Cancún and Isla Mujeres are glorious. I have never felt sand so powdery soft or seen such beautiful water both on the shore and out at sea. I totally get why people fall in love with these beaches.
Things to Note:
For me, Cancún (and really all of Riviera Maya) is not the place to go for true Mexican culture. It is a tourist haven, and there are essentially zero Quintana Roo locals. Cancún, especially, has a bit of a Vegas vibe as the city is divided into the Centro and the somewhat remote Hotel Zone – the Hotel Zone being very much like “The Strip”. We actually learned the hard way that getting around Cancún isn’t as easy as it usually is in Mexico. Ubers are banned from the airport and the Hotel Zone, taxis do everything they can to ensure they’re getting their money’s worth, and the buses (while frequent) are quite crowded and more expensive as well. The resorts can also be a bit of a headache for those who are staying downtown. Although, by law, all beaches in Mexico are open to the public, private hotels can and have put up walls that require a long walk around to specified access points along the Hotel Zone. That said, once you’re on the beach, you can walk anywhere you want, and there’s nothing they can do about it!
Playa del Carmen / Cozumel
Our next stop was Playa del Carmen, another resort-focused city along the coast and without question a part of the infamous Riviera Maya. As it’s only about an hour from Cancún, it’s really easy to travel from one to the other, and like Cancún, Playa del Carmen also has a famous island destination right off its shores: Cozumel. Interestingly, I had been to Cozumel as a pre-teen while on a family cruise, but to be honest, my memory of it was almost non-existent…maybe that should have been my first clue as to how I would feel about it as an adult.
The Best Parts:
But first, the positives. The center or anchor of Playa del Carmen is a long shopping/restaurant street called Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue). Here they have everything from high-end malls to beach trinkets and 5-star dining to taco stands. We ate at Aldea Corazón, which had an absolutely delicious take on modern Mexican cuisine. They also have a waterfall and cenote in the outdoor dining area, so the atmosphere is as excellent as the food. After Cancún, it was nice that everything: hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. were all running parallel to the beach, just one block inland. I appreciated not needing any form of transportation while seeing the sights. Playa del Carmen is also beautifully placed directly between Cancún and Tulum, making it easily accessible from either direction.
Things to Note:
Okay, now I’ll be the first one to admit that sometimes you have bad days or bad experiences while traveling (it has definitely happened to us on more than one occasion), and it doesn’t usually affect how I feel about a particular destination. However, our time in Playa del Carmen, definitely had some extreme travel lows. Tourist scams are abundant, upcharges are frequent, and Cozumel is catered to cruise ships. All I can say, is you’ll have to pay A LOT to see and do things that were honestly better in Cancún and Isla Mujeres. Another thing to note (really in all heavily touristed areas/large cities) is to be aware of your surroundings. While we were in Playa del Carmen, we witnessed a serious street fight that got out of hand and could have easily escalated into something much worse. Remember it’s not only family vacationers that frequent high-end resort areas.
After our day in Playa del Carmen, we drove down to our next destination: the highly touted, Tulum. If you consume a lot of travel-related media (like I do), Tulum is/was most likely already on your bucket list as well. Mayan ruins on the cliffs, underground rivers and cenotes, eco-tourism at its finest! I think for this particular trip, Tulum was the city I was looking forward to the most.
The Best Parts:
The things that have put Tulum on the map are definitely the main reasons to visit. The Tulum ruins are incredible! There is so much history and beauty in these sites (although I do have to say that Uxmal, which is closer to Mérida in Yucatán, is still my favorite Mayan site. Yes, even over Chichén Itzá.) The cenotes, of which there are so many in this area, are also well worth the trip. Crystal clear freshwater swimming holes that have so many interesting facts and stories surrounding them – what’s not to love? Downtown Tulum isn’t quite as developed as either Playa del Carmen or Cancún, but the number of independently owned, vegan/vegetarian-friendly restaurants is certainly top notch. The main road through the city is the aptly named Avenida Tulum, but I highly recommend walking parallel to the main drag (on either side) to get a little more of the real day-to-day life of Tulum. And if you are planning to stay in Tulum, I cannot recommend Casa Libélula enough – such a beautiful little oasis tucked away in the chaos that is a burgeoning tourism hub.
Things to Note:
As I mentioned, Tulum is still a growing tourist destination, meaning there are some kinks they’re still working out. Sidewalks are mostly present, but not always, and the locals are still figuring out the right prices for their wares…in my opinion, they’re aiming quite high at the moment. Unfortunately, another thing that goes along with these up-and-coming tourist destinations is the yolo mentality (on both sides). The tourists are yolo-ing it up with a lot of noise and trash (and no resort personnel to clean up after them), and the vendors are making the most of a current fad that they know might not last forever by taking advantage when and where they see fit. In addition to the pandemic-related slump that has affected tourism globally, over the past few years, the Caribbean coast of Mexico has also been inundated with sargassum, or seagrass, and Tulum is unfortunately not immune.
Finally, our last stop on this epic journey, the future tourist hot-spot of Bacalar. Bacalar is about 4 hours south of Cancún, an hour north of Belize, and sits on the pristine Bacalar Lagoon. Unlike the other three cities we visited, Bacalar had not been on my radar until after we moved to Mexico. This is a favorite among locals, and anyone who visits can easily understand why. During our time in Bacalar, I actually felt quite sad thinking about whether or not it’s going to become the next Tulum or Playa del Carmen, but I have to think that it will always retain the special type of mágico that exists there now. ¡Ojalá!
The Best Parts:
Immediately, one of the best parts of Bacalar for me was that it felt much more like the Mexico that I have come to know. It is much more laid back (even with the growing tourism industry). Bacalar has a more traditional main square, an old Spanish fort, and plenty of places to just sit and chill out in the shade. Thankfully, price-gauging hasn’t become an issue in the local shops, and here, more than anywhere else on our trip, was my Spanish needed (as it should be!). Then there’s the lagoon itself. 42km by 2km (26mi by 1.2mi) of incredibly clear blue water (in fact, Bacalar Lagoon is known for having 7 distinct shades of blue). As there is a lot of shoreline available along the lagoon, it’s very common and affordable to stay right on the water, which is what we did. We stayed at Seven Blue House and had an amazing time swinging in hammocks on the dock, kayaking in the lagoon, and watching the sun and wind play on the water from our balcony right over the edge of the lagoon.
Things to Note:
Of course, with Bacalar being so much smaller than the other notable cities in Quintana Roo, the amenities are limited (no Señor Frog’s here!). It’s also not on the beach if that’s something you’re looking for. The lagoon is a couple of hours from the nearest Caribbean beach and all that accompanies it (like sand, for instance). Bacalar is also the furthest away from the big airports and most famous sites of the Yucatán peninsula, so if you want to do and see it all, Bacalar is not a likely home base for a trip like that.
Ultimately, this was a trip full of surprises for us, which shouldn’t actually be so surprising given all the expectations and preconceived notions we came into it with! In summary, I do feel a little guilty about how hard I was on Cancún (before I even visited) because in reality I enjoyed the variety it had to offer. Playa del Carmen isn’t really my vibe, but I can see the draw. I wish I had traveled to Tulum 10 years ago, but it’s still such a sight to see. And with Bacalar, the baby of Quintana Roo’s tourism industry, all I can do is wish it well and hope it remains as unique as it is in this moment.
And with that, another extraordinary trip is in the books! Just so everyone knows, I still pinch myself quite often over the fact that we’re able to do and see all that we have. What an incredible planet we inhabit! Hopefully everyone reading this is currently planning their next adventure, but if not, I hope you enjoyed living this one through my eyes. Here’s to the next one!