How to save money and avoid getting ripped off in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum
From Cancun to Tulum, the Mayan Riviera is 90 miles of white-sand beaches, small towns, and big resorts between the deep jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula and the calm turquoise water of the Caribbean Sea.
Fortunately, this paradise can be quite affordable. Sure, staying at one of the fancy resorts can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars a night. But search out smaller hotels and eat in local restaurants in Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Puerto Morelos, or downtown Cancun, and you may find that a vacation in the Mayan Riviera is cheaper than staying home.
Elsewhere on this blog you can find my article Top Tips for Travelers to Mexico, which lists all the important ways you can minimize your expenses and maximize your fun on a trip to Mexico.
There’s some overlap with the tips on this list, but as the title suggests, these are specific to the Mayan Riviera, one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of Mexico—perhaps even the world.
1. Stay in a small hotel a block or two from the beach
The huge resorts in Cancun’s hotel zone and in other parts of the Mayan Riviera are a lot of fun, with all-day pool parties, unlimited booze, and all-you-can-eat restaurants.
Similarly, the fancy hotels right on the beach in smaller towns are lovely, that’s for sure. And while they may be cheaper than the big resorts or a similar hotel in your home country, if you are really looking to save money, you can find great value if you search for a hotel away from the beach.
By great value, I’m talking about as low as 200 pesos a night (about $10-12 USD) for a modest but reasonable room, nothing fancy but a decent place to crash. For a little more, say 400-600 pesos (about $20-35 USD) you can get something perfectly good, with a TV, hot water, and air conditioning.
Look for cheaper hotels in downtown Cancun (the beach is a 20-minute ride away on a local bus), two or three blocks from the beach in Playa del Carmen, in Tulum town (which is on the highway, not on the beach), or just off the beach practically anywhere else on the Mayan Riviera.
You can search for hotels online, but the best way to find the cheapest hotels is just by wandering around and looking for them, which is easy to do in low season.
2. Avoid high season
If at all possible, don’t go during high season, which is late December to early January, Semana Santa (the week before Easter), and late July. Besides more crowds, many hotels raise prices during those times.
If you can only visit during a high season, however, don’t cancel your trip—just give yourself a little more time to visit popular places like the Mayan ruins of Tulum or Chichen Itza.
3. Don’t pay in U.S. dollars
Use pesos for everything, especially for souvenirs and meals. Although many restaurants and stores accept dollars, the exchange rate they use will be outrageous, automatically adding 10% (or more) to the price.
Exceptions to this are big nightclubs like Coco Bongo and the big adventure parks like Xel-Ha, which have fixed fees in U.S. dollars.
4. Get pesos from an ATM
Exchange rates from bank ATMs are usually good, much better than changing money at the booths in the Cancun airport.
Make sure you use a bank, not a “private” ATM, which charge higher fees. Banks are all over downtown Cancun and in Playa del Carmen, and you can find bank ATMs in bus stations too.
Basically, if you see a machine on the street or in a restaurant with only “ATM” written on it and no bank logo, then you can be sure it’s a private ATM and will charge high fees and perhaps even give a bad exchange rate.
Common banks in Mexico include Bancomer, Banamex, Santander, Banorte, HSBC, and Scotiabank. Look for these to save on fees when withdrawing money.
5. Ignore the “tour guides” on the street
As you walk around Quinta Avenida in Playa del Carmen (5th Avenue, the long pedestrian street that follows the beach), guides will constantly call out to you, offering nightclub tickets, trips to ecoparks and ruins, trips to Cozumel…pretty much any activity you can imagine.
Sure, talk to these guys and ask them questions, but keep in mind that you don’t need them for anything. Taking public transportation to Tulum or Chichen Itza is easy. For Cozumel or Isla Mujeres, simply go to the ferry terminals. For the big adventure parks like Xel-Ha or Xplor, buy tickets online (more on this below).
It’s possible that these “guide” have discounted tickets for nightclubs, but before buying them, stop by the nightclub (or check online) to find out the regular price.
6. Buy tickets online for ecoparks and shows
If you want to go to one of the heavily-advertized theme parks like Xel-Ha, Xplor, or Rio Secreto, always check the prices online—they all have websites in English. Besides offering inflated prices, the salespeople on the street may pressure you into a package you don’t want or don’t understand.
7. Take public transportation to Chichen Itza and Tulum
If you read this article about Chichen Itza, you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of guided tours. For the famous Mayan ruins like Tulum and Chichen Itza, you can just show up in the morning when they open. (Go extra early in high season, however.) Then you can enjoy the site without being part of a big, noisy group. You can stay as long as you want and search out all the hidden corners.
Besides, it’s cheaper to take public transportation. Colectivos (passenger vans) constantly travel along the coast. In the towns they leave from specific places—easy to find, or ask at the front desk of your hotel. On the highway, all you have to do is wave at them. If one has space, it will stop for you.
And by cheap, I mean between $1 and $3 USD. (But pay in pesos, of course.)
For places inland, you can take the modern and safe ADO buses, which leave from bus stations in every town. Check schedules and prices on their website. At the moment it’s only in Spanish, but easy enough to figure out.
8. About resort and timeshare sales pitches
Some resorts offer a free drink and access to their swimming pool if you listen to their sales pitch. In my opinion, this is a huge waste of an afternoon, but go for it if you’re interested.
Ignore anyone offering this outside of the resort itself, or if someone wants to tell you about a timeshare opportunity. Listen if you want, but by no means give them any personal information, such as the name of your hotel.
9. On buying souvenirs
The same souvenirs are available everywhere—in stores, in markets, and from people walking around the beach.
The rule is, basically, the farther away you are from the beach or places with lots of tourists, the better the prices will be. So this means never buy from someone offering you something on the beach. (Unless you want to, of course, but understand that the prices will be higher.)
Don’t buy anything on Cozumel—prices are higher by like 200%. Cruise ships dock in Cozumel, and every day thousands of tourists pour out of them. They have no idea what the peso is worth and get ripped off like crazy.
The same goes for Isla Mujeres—even though there are no cruise ships, the tourists there are a captive audience. It’s an island, after all.
So, for your best deal on a souvenir, head to a place with lots of shops in one place. In Playa del Carmen there are a bunch of small shops just inland from the Cozumel dock, and in downtown Cancun there are several markets like Mercado 28 or Mercado 23 that are full of souvenirs.
10. On buying souvenirs in markets
Probably the best market for souvenirs is Mercado 28 in downtown Cancun, an easy walk from the ADO bus station. Lots of vendors means lots of competition between them, meaning lower prices.
The downside is that the vendors constantly call out to you as you walk around. You may find it annoying, but just ignore them. Don’t get excited about something you like, just calmly ask the price and move on. You’ll almost certainly see the same thing elsewhere—ask the price again, and keep looking until you hear a price you like. Which brings us to…
In markets and souvenir shops, if you don’t see price tags, then get ready to haggle. Expect to be quoted higher prices if you don’t speak Spanish.
Don’t show any emotion when haggling, positive or negative, like saying how nice the product is. Just ask for the price, and then either offer a lower price or ask for a discount. If you don’t like the price, thank them and leave.
When you start leaving, usually they say nothing. In this case, yes you’ve been given the final price. Go look in other shops for the same thing or come back to buy it.
Sometimes, however, when you start to leave they will stop you and give you a lower price. When this happens, the real haggling begins. You can probably get an even lower price than what they offered.
But please don’t do this when buying fruit or some non-souvenir in a regular market. Typically you get the real price when shopping for food, and haggling over nickels and dimes for a bag of oranges or a loaf of bread is a little rude.
12. The Russian Discount
I noticed this first in Moscow, which is why I call it the “Russian Discount.” A big sign in the souvenir shop window says “Everything 50% Off!”
Check the prices—I’ve noticed that, almost always, everything in the shop costs double what other stores charge, so your 50% discount really isn’t a discount at all.
13. Eating in
If you have a hotel that includes free breakfast, you will automatically save money by not going out for breakfast every day. The free hotel breakfast will also save time, especially with a big group—not discussing where to go, waiting for a table, looking at the menu…
If your hotel has a kitchen, you can save even more money by eating in. I’m not talking about cooking a huge feast—it’s your vacation after all, maybe you don’t want to make such an effort—but it’s a good idea to buy some fruit or supplies for sandwiches, which is particularly convenient to bring along on a day trip.
14. Choosing restaurants
Same as with souvenirs—the closer you are to the beach or a place full of tourists, the more expensive the restaurants will be.
But it’s not only price—the Mexican restaurants geared toward tourists are not only more expensive, but also not nearly as good. For authentic Mexican food—obviously much more delicious than the bland stuff made for tourists—look for modest restaurants away from the beach, such as in downtown Cancun or three blocks from the beach in Playa del Carmen.
The best way to find these places is to ask a local, but not a cab driver or even the person at the front desk of your hotel, as they will probably send you to their friend’s touristy restaurant.
Whoever you ask, make it clear that you want something real, what the locals eat.
15. Check your bill carefully
Overcharging is common—adding a few more beers to the count, thinking you won’t notice. Make sure you actually ordered everything on your bill.
Tip 10%, but check to see if it was included already.
Pay in cash, not with a credit card. If the wrong person gets hold of your number, they can empty your bank account. Besides, if you use your credit card for every meal, it will be hard to keep track of all the expenses—which ones are correct, which are not.
Bonus Tip: Buy my guidebook
Shameless plug: All these tips and many more are detailed in my guidebook to the region, the Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary. It’s for the independent traveler who likes the beach but also wants some culture. Besides saving a lot of money, you:
- Have two full days on two gorgeous beaches: Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
- Explore two Mayan ruins: Chichén Itzá, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, and Tulum, a sunny fortress built on cliffs overlooking one of the most iconic beaches in Mexico.
- Dip your toe into local culture in Valladolid, a small colonial town in central Yucatán.
- Swim, snorkel, or scuba dive in the clear, freshwater Dos Ojos cenote.
- Eat what Mexicans eat: seafood, tacos, and Yucatán specialties like panuchos and salbutes.
- Shop, party, get tan, and learn some Spanish, history, and culture. And, if time permits, explore more places in the region, including Puerto Morelos, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, the Cobá ruins, Xpu-Ha beach, and many more.
You can get a free Kindle reader from Amazon to read the guide on your computer, or you can now buy a paperback version.
This part of Mexico may be the most visited, but in some ways the least understood. I try to remedy this with my guide.
Please leave a comment if you have a question about any of these tips or my guide.
Got a hankering for some time on a tropical beach? Deep blue sky, turquoise water, gentle waves and soft sand? A styrofoam cooler by your side, packed with sweating Coronas? Yeah, that sounds about right.
You can find nice beaches all over Mexico’s 5,800 miles of seashore, but when you picture paradise, you’re probably thinking of the Mayan Riviera, the 90-mile stretch of Caribbean coastline from Cancun in the north to Tulum in the south (and beyond to Punto Allen, by some estimations).
Cancun, the unofficial capital of the Mayan Riviera, is famous for all-inclusive luxury resorts, with all-day pool parties and all-you-can eat restaurants. Similar though larger resorts are all along the coast too, like fancy communities with private beaches and activities for all ages.
Although the beach might be the big draw in the Mayan Riviera, those who venture out of the resorts (or stay elsewhere) can explore ancient Mayan cities, swim in freshwater cenotes (sinkholes and caves), run through the jungle, or visit charming colonial towns.
Most resorts arrange tours to these places, but if you don’t want to be led like cattle around mysterious pyramids in a noisy group of camera-wielders, it’s easy to use public transportation like buses or colectivos (passenger vans) for much cheaper and with the freedom to spend as much or little time as you want.
Or you could always stay on the beach all day, snorkeling and sipping margaritas. You really can’t go wrong in the Mayan Riviera—with so much to do and see, your trip may be the best long weekend, two weeks, or six months of your life.
This list contains 12 of the best, which of course is totally subjective. (I wanted Top 10, but couldn’t include less than 12. And still I’ve left things out…)
What you consider the best of the Mayan Riviera depends on what you’re into. If you can’t get enough scuba diving or snorkeling, for example, you’ll want to check out Akumal or Isla Mujeres, although you can find great dive sites everywhere. The Mesoamerican reef, the second longest in the world, follows the entire coast. Or, in Isla Mujeres, besides the reef you can check out the Underwater Museum of Art, which features more than 500 sunken sculptures.
And water sports like scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, and kite boarding are just the beginning. Landlubbers can golf, mountain bike, ride a zipline, explore an underground river, have a spa day, check out museums, go shopping in an air-conditioned mall, take a day trip to an island, explore an adventure ecopark, take the kids to a zoo, or relax on a beach that’s much less developed than Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
Here are my suggestions to help you plan your trip to one of safest and most interesting parts of Mexico—maybe the entire world.
By the way, details, directions, and extra suggestions for these places and many more are in my guidebook to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera, available here or at Amazon.com—but if you just have a quick question, I’ll be happy to answer it in the comments.
Click the book to view on Amazon.com:
Playa del Carmen
Cancun gets all the hype, and for good reason. Heavily developed, Cancun has plenty to do for all ages, a fun atmosphere, and a big beautiful beach.
But if you’re on a budget and want to walk barefoot from your low-key hotel to the beach every day, then look no further than Playa del Carmen. ADO, the bus from the airport to downtown Cancun, also has a direct bus to Playa.
Due to erosion, the main beach isn’t quite as wide as it used to be, but unlike Cancun with its huge resorts, none of the hotels and restaurants on the beach are taller than five stories. The pedestrian-only street Quinta Avenida (Fifth Ave) follows the beach, with an enormous selection of Mexican and international restaurants, trendy bars, world-class nightclubs, and no fewer than three shopping malls.
There’s nothing like an evening stroll on Quinta Ave, with mariachi groups, smiling hustlers, Mexican families, sunburnt foreigners, and pretty girls dressed for the club all competing for your attention. Although public drinking is not allowed in Mexico, on Quinta Ave no one seems to mind. Grab a beer or two from a convenience store and wander around.
Also, Playa del Carmen’s location roughly in the center of the Mayan Riviera makes it an excellent base for exploring the other places on this list, including the island of Cozumel right offshore. Ferries to Cozumel leave from the southern end of Playa del Carmen’s main beach, a five-minute walk from the central bus station.
If you want to enjoy nature, a short walk to the south of central Playa del Carmen takes you to the Xaman-Ha Bird Sanctuary inside the Playacar gated community. Yes, the entrance fee is a little steep at 300 pesos (about $15 USD), but you can see macaws, parrots, flamingos, iguanas, the cute jungle rodent sereque, and maybe a solitary spider monkey up in the trees.
Tip: If you find Playa’s modest beachside hotels and central location appealing, but not its shopping malls and party scene, then look into Puerto Morelos, a relaxed beach town about 30 minutes to the north, which is also a great place for snorkeling and scuba diving.
Technically not on the Mayan Riviera but in the state of Yucatán, Chichén Itzá gained international notice in 2007 when it was chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. About three hours from Cancun, this massive ancient Mayan city with its pyramids, skull carvings, and two cenotes will give you a taste of the history of the region that you certainly wouldn’t get if you only stayed on the beach.
Chichén Itzá’s most famous structure is the Pyramid of Kukulkán, the blocky, angular pyramid built to represent the Mayan calendar (for example, 91 steps on four sides, or 364, plus the platform, 365). The time of its construction is estimated to be between 650 and 800 AD.
But there’s much more to Chichén Itzá than the main pyramid, and you need hours to get through it. Although many people visit as part of a large, loud tour group, getting there on your own is easy, and doing it yourself means that you’ll have plenty of time to explore. Especially in high season, try to get there at 8 a.m. when it opens to make the most of your day.
Doing it in a day trip from Cancun is possible, especially if you rent a car, but the best way to see Chichén Itzá is to stay the night before in the pretty small town of Valladolid 40 minutes down the road.
Valladolid’s main claim to fame may be its proximity to Chichén Itzá, but its colonial architecture, authentic Mexican market, downtown cenote, 16th-century convent, and beautiful parks make it a great place for a short visit before going to the ruins.
Like nearly every Mexican city, the exact center of Valladolid is the zócalo, or central park (parque central), which is surrounded by hotels, restaurants, bars, banks, government buildings, the cathedral, and the Bazar Municipal food court.
In all directions from the zócalo, Valladolid’s narrow streets have more parks, museums, and churches—even a Buddhist temple. The best way to experience Valladolid is to simply wander around. If you’re not up for too much walking, however, choose one direction: either toward the convent southwest of the zócalo or to the cenote and market to the northeast.
This small town is worlds apart from the beach-going glitz of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. And by staying the night in Valladolid before you go to Chichén Itzá, you can have a head start on all the tour groups swarming the archeological site.
To get to Chichén Itzá from Valladolid, take a colectivo (passenger van) from the lot one block away from the ADO bus station.
Tulum can refer to three distinct places, all near each other: the Mayan ruins, the beach, and the small highway town. The ruins are some of the most beautiful in Mexico, mainly because of their location on cliffs overlooking the sky-blue Caribbean.
Don’t miss the little beach under the tallest structure, El Castillo (the castle), also known as the lighthouse. Despite its tiny size, it’s one of the most famous beaches in Mexico, routinely appearing on “Top X Best Beaches” lists. Swimming out in the gentle waves, turning around, and looking at the ruins from the water may impress you even more than gazing up at Chichén Itzá’s iconic pyramid.
Tulum the beach (not the little one under the lighthouse) is also considered one of the best in Mexico, with little development and miles of soft sand. It’s an easy walk from the ruins, or a short taxi ride from the town (and highway).
The town is nice too, though a little far from the beach. But you can find discount hotels and fresh Mexican-style seafood, and it’s a good base for exploring places like the ruins of Coba and more cenotes farther inland, or the immense Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to the south.
If you can’t get enough Mayan Ruins, then after you’ve explored Tulum and Chichén Itzá, Cobá is the next big ruin complex to check out, where you can rent bicycles to explore the large ancient city deep in the jungle.
The ruins are an about hour inland from Tulum town, and only one ADO bus from Tulum goes to Cobá and back every day. (Confirm on the ADO website.) Second-class buses are more frequent, but you’ll have to go to the ADO bus terminal in Tulum town to ask for the schedule. Try to leave early and come back late—Cobá is big.
There are no mountains on the Yucatán Peninsula, just a long expanse of porous, sponge-like limestone covered with jungle. A vast network of underground rivers and caves holds fresh water, essential to the inhabitants of the region. Where you have access to this network—a big sinkhole or cavern—you have a cenote, a great place to swim and explore.
You’ll see visits to cenotes advertised everywhere as part of the big adventure parks with funny names like Xel-Ha and Xcaret. But you don’t need to spend all day or $100 USD to visit a cenote. Smaller, often family-run cenotes are all over the Yucatán, which by some estimates contains more than 6,000 cenotes, some expansive and some little more than a hole in the ground. (Most aren’t developed for tourism, of course.)
Just south of Playa del Carmen is a cluster of four cenote parks across the street from the Barceló resort, which include Cenote Cristiliano, Jardin del Eden Cenotes, and Cenote Azul, all within walking distance of each other with entrances on the highway.
Several good cenote parks are also near Tulum, including Dos Ojos Cenote about 10 minutes north of the ruins and Gran Cenote on the way to Cobá.
Because of their low entrance fees (usually 100-200 pesos) and natural jungle settings, these smaller cenote operations are excellent alternatives to the big adventure parks. You can swim in all of them, and most offer scuba diving as well.
Big Adventure Ecoparks
You can’t miss the names: Xel-Ha, Xcaret, Xplor. From the moment you land at the Cancun airport, you’ll see them everywhere, rivaling the nightclub Coco Bongo in ubiquitous promotion. They’re also favorites of the guide/hustlers on Quinta Avenida in Playa del Carmen.
These places are big nature parks built around cenotes and beaches that have adventure activities and include all your food and drinks. If you want to go, I’m sure you’ll have a good time, but before you agree to a tour with someone you meet on the street, at least check the prices online to compare.
Three of the most famous ecoparks are just south of Playa del Carmen: Xcaret, Xplor, and Rio Secreto. Xcaret is the largest of these and has Mayan ruins, dolphin shows, and an emphasis on culture. Xplor, owned by the same group as Xcaret, is more about adventure activities—it has an underground river and a big zipline tower that you can see from the highway.
Across the street is Rio Secreto, which is more than a cenote, but a tour through one mile of an underground river. Unlike smaller cenotes where you can just show up, for Rio Secreto you should make reservations on their website.
Xel-Ha, another ecopark owned by Xcaret that they describe as an humongous natural aquarium, is closer to Tulum. While the three major ecoparks that begin with “X” all have nature and water activities, perhaps you could say that Xplor is more about adrenaline, Xcaret is more about culture, and Xel-Ha is more family-oriented.
By the way—elsewhere in Mexico, “x” is usually pronounced like an “h”, as in México (ME-hee-co). But in the Mayan Riviera, it’s usually pronounced like “sh”, as in Xel-Ha (SHELL-ha), Xpu-Ha (SHPOO-ha), and many more. But there are exceptions—Xplor, for example, is pronounced how you’d expect (explore).
Beach after beach line the Mayan Riviera, with many occupied by big resorts. Although Mexican law states that all waterfront is public land, if there’s no public access point, then essentially the beach is private. If there’s a specific resort you want to check out, take a look at their website to see if they offer day passes.
Hidden between the resorts, the public beaches on the Mayan Riviera are much less developed and more laid-back than Playa del Carmen and of course Cancun. Good ones include Tulum, Puerto Morelos, Akumal (especially for snorkeling), Xcacal, and Maroma. Also, if you have a rental car or don’t mind paying for a taxi, just north of downtown Cancun is Isla Blanca, a long, undeveloped, isolated penninsula surrounded by beautiful clear water.
For a long beach with a central location and little development, you can’t go wrong with Xpu-Ha, south of Playa del Carmen. You can get there on public transportation—get off on the highway and walk up the sandy road. There’s a convenience store and a restaurant or two on the beach, but little else, making for a great escape from pool parties and daytime club music.
Punto Venado is a hidden spot that’s also just south of Playa del Carmen. It has a small, isolated, pretty beach in a bay with a pleasant beach club. Mexican food (especially seafood) at the club is good and with reasonable prices, even for drinks.
But the real draw—at least for me—is its mountain bike park, which has trails for beginners but is definitely for people comfortable on a mountain bike. The well-maintained yet rugged trails pass through the jungle, with one stretch following the sea. It’s full of animals like iguanas, spider monkeys, coati, and crocodiles. Highly recommended. Check their website for entrance and bike rental fees.
On a clear day you can see the hotel skyline of Cozumel from Playa del Carmen. Only 6% of Cozumel is developed—the rest is jungle and beach—and it has an interesting history too. Besides being an important Mayan population center, this was also where Cortés first landed in Mexico before traveling to Veracruz and then inland to the Valley of Mexico to conquer the Aztecs.
There are excellent dive sites all around the island, so good that Jaques Cousteau called it one of the most spectacular places for scuba diving in the world. If you only want to dive, however, you can visit a Playa del Carmen dive shop first—they arrange dives off Cozumel too.
Cozumel is an easy day trip from Playa del Carmen—just walk to the ferry terminal, buy a ticket, and hop on. Several ferry companies make the trip all day, every day.
The ferry disembarks in the town of San Miguel de Cozumel. Its pretty zócalo (center square) is a straight walk from the ferry dock. All around the zócalo are restaurants and shops, and there are a few banks with international ATMs if you need money.
As the ferry arrives, you’ll see the big cruise ship docks to the south. Because of these cruise ships and the thousands of tourists who pour out of them daily, everything in Cozumel is overpriced, especially souvenirs. So, to save money on lunch or a scooter rental, walk outside of the downtown core. Once you get off the pedestrian streets, things get a lot cheaper.
The coastline of San Miguel de Cozumel is a seawall next to the road. It’s nice for a walk, but to go to a beach you’ll need to hire a taxi or rent a car, 4-wheeler, or scooter. Again, you’ll get better prices on all of these the farther you get from the ferry and cruise ship docks—three or four blocks away should suffice.
Most beaches are on the western shore, which faces Playa del Carmen, while much of the eastern shore is a rocky, wild coastline. A fun beach trip is to first go to Playa Palancar near the southern tip of the island. From there you can get a boat to El Cielo, a remote beach with crystal-clear, shallow water.
As if the laid-back town and perfect beaches weren’t enough, there are also several Mayan sites on the island. Two of the biggest are San Gervasio and El Cedral. San Gervasio is up a bumpy dirt road, so if you want to take a rental car there, tell them at the rental office to confirm it’s ok.
For a trip to an island that’s closer to Cancun (just north of the hotel zone) and has world-class beaches within walking distance of the ferry terminal (world-class scuba-diving too), head to Isla Mujeres.
Isla Mujeres (which translates to “Ladies’ Island,” supposedly named for goddess images found there in the 16th century) has spacious beaches and a cool little village on the northern end of the island, with parks, ruins, and beach clubs farther south. It’s a fun and easy day trip from Cancun or even Playa del Carmen, and there are lots of hotels if you want to spend the night. Like Cozumel, it has great snorkeling and dive sites, including the Underwater Museum of Art off the southern point.
Take a left out of the ferry terminal to get to Playa Sol, the beach facing the mainland, or walk a little farther for Playa Norte on the (you guessed it) north shore of the island, yet another candidate for the best beach in Mexico.
Although ferries to Isla Mujeres do leave from Cancun’s hotel zone, the cheaper and more direct ones leave from Puerto Juárez just north of downtown. It’s a short ride in a taxi or a local bus from downtown Cancun.
Playa Delphines in Cancun’s hotel zone
Perhaps you have noticed that nothing on this list is actually in Cancun! Don’t get me wrong—Cancun is a wonderful place, though it’s not exactly the best spot to appreciate nature or experience culture. In fact, if you don’t stay in a resort in Cancun, then you may not even go there, except for the airport of course.
Some geography: the Cancun known to travelers is a long, thin island full of big resorts, shopping malls, marinas, restaurants, and nightclubs. Called the Zona Hotelera (hotel zone), this is what people are talking about when they talk about Cancun.
Downtown Cancun is on the mainland, and despite the tourist industry is a typical working-class Mexican city. You can find good budget hotels and restaurants there, along with some interesting markets and city parks.
If you’re not staying in a huge resort in Cancun’s hotel zone but still want to spend some time on the famous beach, go to Playa Delphines (Dolphin Beach) about halfway down the island. There’s plenty of space, good swimming, and if you get there early enough you might find a shady spot under a wood-and-palm-frond shelter.
For some exploring, just across the road is El Rey, the largest archeological site in Cancun. Although not a giant city like inland Chichén Itzá or a stunning seaside photo opportunity like Tulum, it’s a great place for an afternoon stroll among the limestone structures and sunbathing iguanas.
And if you can’t get enough of all things Mayan, head north to Cancun’s Mayan Museum, which features the San Miguelito ruins, another small Mayan site reached by walking through the jungle.
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As I wrote above, there’s much more in the Mayan Riviera than these 12 places. But perhaps the best thing of all is to just slow down and take your time. Swim all day, spend a few hours walking Quinta Avenida in Playa del Carmen, or take a seat under a pyramid to contemplate a civilization that’s long gone, as groups of tourists hustle past, trying to get in one more photo before they are rushed away to the next preplanned destination.
After all, even though there’s so much to do in Cancun and the Mayan Riviera, remember—it’s a vacation! And it’s Mexico! Take it easy.
And for more places to see, insider tips, and hotel, restaurant, and transportation suggestions, please take a look at my guidebook. Thanks, and happy travels.
The first edition of my Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary was published in 2013, and I first updated it in Februrary 2016 and then March 2017, adding new restaurants, better hotels, and details on many more places to visit.
Though it’s designed for an independent traveler to hit the major highlights of the region in five days (or fewer), the guide contains enough info for three weeks or more, and includes insider tips for saving money, eating authentic food, and traveling farther into Mexico on your own.
You can buy the 3rd Edition of my Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary from Amazon.com, which provides a free reader for those of you without a Kindle, or directly from the publisher Unanchor.com, where it can be accessed online and downloaded as a .pdf.
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And here’s the beginning of the description with the link to Unanchor.com:
Most famous for Cancun, the Mayan Riviera is Mexico’s tourist fantasyland, a jungle coastline of white-sand beaches, ancient Mayan ruins, laid-back colonial towns, and clear-water cenotes… More Details
For a free excerpt from the book, please email me at nohaybroncablog (at) gmail.com or leave your email address in a comment below.