The Beaches of Cancun and the Mayan Riviera

Cancun Beach
Cancun Beach.

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The Mexican Caribbean is a popular destination for sun lovers everywhere, from people seeking to be pampered at high-end luxury spas to backpackers who prefer more rustic accommodations. The one thing most travelers to the Yucatan Peninsula have in common is the quest for the beach.

From Cancun to Tulum and in between, each area has its own unique qualities to offer, each beach its own vibe. Turn a bend on the coast and the landscape changes, from long stretches of flat white sand and rolling waves to fabulous rocky outcroppings and inlets filled with coral and sea life.

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Tulum Ruins Beach

Tulum Ruinas beach

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

Zona Hotelera Tulum, 77765 Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico

One of the most stunning vistas in the region can be enjoyed at the site of the Mayan ruins called "Tulum". After hiking through the jungle and walking through the ancient stone buildings of the walled city, one is suddenly struck by the vision of the shocking blue ocean against the backdrop of the ruins and cliffs. It will take your breath away. After descending the steep staircase, you find yourself standing on powder-soft sand at the base of a wall of rock, with el Castillo (the castle) overhead and the playful waves of the Caribbean at your feet. It's the perfect place to connect with nature and history.

Tulum is a popular day trip from all parts of the region, often combined with a visit to the nearby eco-park, Xcaret, to enjoy encounters with the flora and fauna of the jungle and sea. The nearby town of Tulum is known for its rustic palapa-roofed hotels and charming restaurants, and there are a few sprawling luxury resorts in the outlying area.

Tulum is located about 120 kilometers or 75 miles south of Cancun airport, about a 90-minute drive on the main highway.

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Half Moon Bay, Akumal

Half Moon Bay

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

Playa Akumal, Carretera Tulum, Yodzonot, 77776 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico

Nestled between Tulum and Playa del Carmen, Akumal is the perfect beach to do a little snorkeling or kayaking. The small inlet is protected from harsh seas and supports an area rich with coral and sea life. Just walk offshore and you step into an amazing underwater world. It's home to turtles, barracuda (take off your shiny jewelry when snorkeling!), a variety of small fish and yes, even a harmless shark or two. The beach itself is quiet and relaxing, though there are lots of shells and coral on the shore, water shoes make the walk more enjoyable.

Half Moon Bay is mostly populated by privately owned condos, often available for rent for weeks or months at a time. There are a couple of hotels and the nearby town of Akumal has a few intimate restaurants and a small grocery store. Dive shops are open seven days a week for trips to the nearby reef. Don't miss the great little beach bar "La Buena Vida", a relaxing spot for lunch on the beach and a few cold cervezas. Climb up their crow's nest, in a palm tree, for a great view of the colorful bay.

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Playa del Carmen

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Playa del Carmen, Mexico

The area, affectionately known as "Playa," covers a huge stretch of the coast of the Riviera Maya.

The beaches in the town of Playa del Carmen itself are popular with locals and tourists alike. Festive beach clubs with lounge chairs, umbrellas, entertainment and waiter service on the beach draw crowds to the shores of this hip, growing town. The main town beach is the place for families to gather and play soccer or volleyball until the sun goes down, eating picnic lunches and fresh fruit with chili sauce, or just jumping in the surf with the kids. The town boasts chic boutique lodgings on the beach and more economical rooms just a few blocks away.

Playa is an easy day trip from Cancun or the Riviera Maya and is a great place to find a beach party and some real fun in the sun.

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Punta Bete Beach

Punta Bete Beach

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

A little-known beach in the Riviera Maya, Punta Bete sits between Playa del Carmen and Puerto Morelos, a secret hideaway for those who want to get away from it all. This little slice of paradise is a study in contrasts as the beach is shared by ultra-chic luxury boutique hotels and a few rustic places where cabanas can be rented or you can pitch your tent in the sand. People seeking very different kinds of vacations converge on this remote stretch of sand, all in search of peace on the sea. There is public beach access as well, so the locals also come out to enjoy their days off with their loved ones.

Pull up a beach chair at a beach-side restaurant (Los Pinos is popular) and enjoy fresh seafood and cold drinks as you soak up the sounds of the surf and the scent of the salty air. The area can be a little rocky so water shoes can be useful. Just to the south of Punta Bete, you'll find Xcalacoco, another little gem of small cabanas and remote beach.

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05 of 10

Puerto Morelos

Puerto Morelos Beach

TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

This vibrant fishing village is located halfway between Playa del Carmen and Cancun. Puerto Morelos boasts one of the finest, largest stretches of pristine, publicly accessible beaches in the Riviera Maya. Small boats dot the shore, ferrying snorkelers and scuba divers to the nearby reef to discover the delights of the coral formations and abundant sea creatures. Musicians stroll the sand and fresh (the freshest!) ceviche is available from the wandering vendors with their brightly colored coolers. The Ojo de Agua Beach Club is a busy hangout for tourists and locals alike. Rent some chairs and an umbrella and enjoy ice-cold drinks with service on the beach.

There is rarely rough surf and there are very few rocks or shells along the shore. This is a perfect spot for swimming and walking in the clear blue waters. There are still very few large hotels in the area, but houses and condos are available for rent, from basic rooms in town to luxurious beach houses with pools and Jacuzzis.

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Cancun Island, East Side Beaches

Aerial view of the east side beaches in Cancun

TripSavvy / Elliot Jonch Garcia 

The island of Cancun, the "hotel zone," is shaped like a giant number seven, with the top of the seven being the north side facing the Bay of Mujeres and the long part of the seven running down the eastern shore. The ocean on the east side of Cancun is what you see on billboards and in travel magazines, the infinite shades of blue in the crystal clear water. These beaches were damaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, but a beach reconstruction project which took place in 2009 and early 2010 has restored the grand stretches of cool white sand that Cancun became famous for.

The surf on the east side can be moderate to heavy. Take caution while swimming, heed the flags and the lifeguards and don't swim alone or while intoxicated. Enjoy long walks down the nearly 20 kilometers of beach, get up early to watch the sunrise over the Caribbean Sea, or rent a jet ski for some fast fun in the waves. The hotels on the east side are mostly grand all-inclusive resorts, no cabañas or tents on this stretch.

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Beaches of Cancun Island, North Side

Sunset at a north side beach in cancun

TripSavvy / Elliot Jonch Garcia

The beaches on the north side of Cancun are quite different from those on the east side. This stretch of the hotel zone is protected from the surf by Isla Mujeres, a small island across the Bay of Mujeres. The water is not quite as brilliantly blue and the surf is usually quite mild compared to the east side. With calm waters and large white sandy beaches, the north side of the island is a great destination for families young and old; a safe place for all to enjoy the warmth of the Caribbean Sea. The north side is perfect for water sports; you'll find many people kayaking, sailing or jet skiing, or simply playing a little ocean volleyball. The north side is home to some of the older hotels in Cancun, and condos and houses are also available for rent.

08 of 10

Isla Mujeres

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Isla Mujeres, Q.R., Mexico

A thriving island just a short ferry ride from Cancun, Isla Mujeres is a hot spot for travelers and day-trippers from the mainland. Playa Norte or North Beach is a hip locale with cozy beach clubs and beautiful calm, shallow waters. Perch on a swing at the bar or rent a beach bed with a canopy and you'll meet people from around the world. Yachts and boats anchor offshore to join the throngs of sunbathers on the beach.

Snorkeling excursions to the nearby reef are a must; some incredible sites for discovering coral formations and sea life surround the island. Rent a golf cart and give yourself a tour of the island. Be sure to hit Punta Sur or South Point, it offers some spectacular views of the sea, waves crashing on the rocky cliffs and a large population of iguanas. You'll feel like you're on the edge of the world.

The island boasts many small hotels in town and on the beach, and some larger resorts have started to pop up or are in development. Isla Mujeres is a popular destination for longer-term trips with many vacation apartments available to rent. The center of town has many small shops and restaurants; there are ATM's and banks and many amenities.

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09 of 10

Isla Blanca

Isla Blanca
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Just 25 minutes north of Cancun lies an undisturbed peninsula of white sandy beaches and virgin jungle. Isla Blanca is framed by the Caribbean Sea and the Chacmuchuk Lagoon and is a secret little hideaway, a great getaway from the hustle and bustle of Cancun. Camp on the beach, rent a rustic cabin for the night or just visit for the day—it's a tranquil oasis for those who want to escape the large resorts and busy beaches. A kiteboarding school attracts the adventure crowd, their brightly colored sails dotting the sky over the lagoon.

To get to Isla Blanca you'll definitely need a car: it's down a remote stretch of dirt road, no public transportation (or traffic) here. The island is not connected to city services so electricity is often provided by the wind or solar energy or diesel generators and there is no phone service and no nearby convenience stores. This is truly getting away from it all.

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Isla Holbox

Isla Holbox
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Isla Holbox, Quintana Roo, Mexico

A small island off the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, Isla Holbox is a mostly undiscovered treasure. Three hours from Cancun and one ferry ride and you find yourself stepping back in time. No sprawling resorts, no banks or ATM's or shopping, just a tiny village of fishermen and small palapa-roofed hotels. The beaches are unparalleled, stretches of fine white sand as far as the eye can see.

The island is a hot spot for people looking for the experience of a lifetime: a swim with the whale sharks who make the area their home for a few months a year. Holbox is also a bird watcher's paradise, with over 100 different species nesting or passing through, including great flocks of flamingos. The hotels are all small and range from rustic palapas where you can hang your hammock to luxury "eco-rustic" boutiques that will take care of your every need. The Gulf of Mexico water is more green than the blues of the Caribbean side of the peninsula, but it is warm and calm, the beach is soft with very few shells or rocks and you can float all day in the gentle surf.

The Yucatan Peninsula awaits, with the gift of sun and sand for every type of traveler. Families, honeymooners, old and young alike, give yourself the beach break you deserve in the Mexican Caribbean.

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The Beaches of Cancun and the Mayan Riviera