Mexico’s Mayan Riviera is the go-to holiday destination for North Americans looking for winter sun.
But as a Brit who was unfamiliar with the different resorts in this part of Mexico, I wrote this guide after my trip to help other Mexican resort newbies pick a place that’s right for them.
It’s all surprisingly simple once you arrive in Cancun.
Your transfer will take you down Highway 307, a modern, safe motorway which serves every Mexican resort from Playa del Carmen and Tulum to Akumal and Puerto Morelos.
It’s the location of many of the luxurious beachfront homes in Mexico that you’ve seen on TV property shows, and you’ll also spot palatial all-inclusive beachfront resorts on the drive, all of which enjoy private stretches of sand; this same road goes all the way down the coast to Belize.
But how far should you journey on the road south from Cancun? Well that all depends on the holiday vibe you’re searching for.
When I first decided to visit Mexico for myself I was confused about which resort to choose.
But once I spent some time in the area around Playa Del Carmen and Tulum – probably the more famous of Mexico’s resorts on this stretch of coast – I understood the differences and distinctions between the various resorts and attractions in this part of Mexico.
Here’s an at-a-glance summary of what separates one Mexican Resort on the Gulf of Mexico from the next.
So, Which Mexican Resort On The Mayan Riviera Is right for you?
Could It Be Cancun?
As the second most popular airport in the country, serving all the Mexican resorts which are dotted down the coast heading south of Cancun, you will undoubtedly land in Cancun if you’re headed to the Yucatan on holiday.
As the main hub for all tourists coming into this part of Mexico, Cancun is a city not just a holiday resort, so the first thing you need to ask yourself is whether you’re coming on holiday to Mexico to get away from it all? If so Cancun may not be the one for you, because you’re more likely to find it ‘all’ right here.
This lively area at the northern end of the peninsula is home to hundreds of hotels and resorts, casinos, clubs, bars, restaurants, and shops and is known as the party capital of the area, if not the whole country. Cancun’s reputation precedes it.
If short transfers times and perfect package holidays are what you’re looking for Cancun couldn’t be a better choice, but though there is a brash side to the resort, if you want to find a more local flavour that’s totally possible too.
Those heading to Mexico in search of sun, sand and sports won’t be disappointed here: there are plenty of opportunities to try everything from horse-riding, boating, golfing and snorkeling, plus you can still find the elusive chilled out vibe on the nearby islands, Isla Mujeres and Isla Hotbox.
Possibly Puerto Morelos?
I have to admit a bias up front here and say that I stayed longer in Puerto Morelos than in any of the other resorts on the Mayan Riviera, because I was attending a yoga retreat in Mexico.
Puerto Morelos today still feels very much like the quaint fishing village that it once was, and retains a lovely, sleepy small town atmosphere. But, all bias aside, what is the overall draw of Puerto Morelos as a holiday location?
Well this town plays host to some small boutique hotels and family run restaurants and tends to be more popular with tourists looking for an authentic experience.
Yet with the easy drive down the highway to all the other resorts on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, you can base yourself here and make forays out to the more populated areas for activities and shopping by day, and come back to relax by night.
Can It Be Playa del Carmen?
Again I’d like to confess that PDC as it is known, or sometimes just Playa, is somewhere I personally enjoyed. But don’t just take my word for it – this resort is popular because it is a great middle ground.
Yes this place is pretty touristy with plenty of hotels and hostels and many of the tourist attractions Cancun is known for; cocktail bars and souvenir shops, restaurants and boat trips.
But while this feels like a very typical holiday resort you really only have to go a couple of streets away from the ‘strip’ – that is the pedestrianised main street, Fifth Avenue, or the beachfront, to find authentic local flavours and atmosphere and it is laid back and friendly.
And What About Akumal?
Akumal Bay is about halfway between PDC and Tulum, and less than half an hour’s drive, so if you’d like to swim with turtles one day (and who wouldn’t) there’s no need to fully base yourself here to do so, though some people enjoy the smattering of hotels and private villa rentals in this area.
Akumal really is one of the best places in the world to swim with turtles (Akumal even means ‘place of the turtles’) and this is where I fulfilled a lifelong ambition to swim with sea turtles and it was honestly an amazing experience that I will remember forever.
Take Off To Tulum?
Last year Tulum was named as number one of TripAdvisor’s best destinations on the rise meaning this is one of those areas which hasn’t succumbed to high rise hotels and discos on every corner yet, and hopefully it never will.
Famous for its archaeological ruins, the 2-kilometre stretch of beach and the areas around it have become a hip and alternative place to head to in this part of Mexico, synonymous with a more discerning crowd and fashionable clientele.
Tulum is the perfect alternative resort – it still has wonderful white sandy beaches, and amazing swimming and snorkelling but is more zen and hippyish than the resorts further up the coast.
If you are looking for a fashionable fitness retreat or a dedicated design hotel, there’s a high chance this is where you’ll find it.
It may be that you’ve heard about this area’s amazing cenotes – the magical underground environments which occur all around the Yucatan Peninsula, enabling you to swim, snorkel and dive in clear water surrounded by nature.
If that sounds good, the area from PDC to Tulum has a high concentration of these unique swimming spots, including the Grand Cenote so that may help you make your decision about where to be based.
And finally, in case you’ve heard of the other famous Mexican resorts of Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta, and are wondering where they are – just a reminder that those happen to be on the west coast of Mexico, facing the Pacific Ocean – a whole other holiday away.
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