Cancún is the great magnet at the top of the Mayan Riviera, with lavish hotels, shopping and dining of every kind, wild nightclubs, theme parks, water parks, and other entertainment spread out along one of the world’s finest beaches. To the south is Playa del Carmen, a trendier, more compact vacation town, and family-friendly eco-parks that provide an unforgettable introduction to the nature of tropical Yucatán. For a change from resort life, in the same area there are also places where the frenetic pace of modern life still seems delightfully far away – in the ever-mellow Puerto Morelos, at the spectacular bird reserve on Isla Contoy, and on lovely, laid-back Isla Mujeres.

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1. Cancún Beach

Every one of the Riviera’s beaches has the same wonderful fine white sand, which stays deliciously cool to the touch, but Cancún’s is unquestionably the finest, stretching the whole 14 miles (23 km) of Cancún Island. Along it, in the Hotel Zone, are resort hotels, shopping and entertainment centers, watersports and snorkeling, and fun parks, plus the Mayan site of El Rey (see Cancún).

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The white-sand arc and azure waters at Cancún Beach

2. Puerto Morelos

This little fishing town was the biggest place on this coast before the rise of Cancún. It has avoided overdevelopment and retains a low-key atmosphere, much loved by the many foreigners who own houses here or stay whole winters in its small hotels. There’s a beautiful white beach, and a superb reef close offshore, now protected as a marine park. Local dive operators and fishing guides give individual, friendly service.

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Puerto Morelos

3. Cancún Town

On the mainland at the north end of Cancún Island, Ciudad Cancún, also known as “Downtown,” was created at the same time as the Hotel Zone in the 1970s. It has developed an atmosphere of its own, though, and the main drag of Avenida Tulum and the nearby squares and avenues are enjoyable places to explore, with plenty of shopping and great restaurants.

4. Isla Holbox

prac_info Passenger ferry from Chiquilá: 8am–7pm daily • www.holboxisland.com

This tiny peninsula (see Isla Holbox) is fast becoming the Yucatán’s hippest destination. Set beside a wide lagoon filled with birds and dolphins, and accessed by a 15-minute ferry journey, Holbox is a wonderfully relaxed village whose sandy streets are lined with small hotels and restaurants. There’s a vast beach and, in season, the waters offshore are temporarily home to migrating whale sharks.

5. Punta Bete

Often unnoticed (see Punta Bete) between Puerto Morelos and Playa del Carmen, and kept off the beaten track by a bumpy 2-mile (3-km) access road through the jungle, this point (see Punta Bete) is flanked by lines of palm-fringed bays – perfect arcs of dazzling white sand by a turquoise sea. They are shared by a few resort hotels, and far more small-scale, cheaper clusters of beach cabañas.

6. Playa del Carmen

The Riviera’s most vibrant street life, by day and night, and its hippest crowds can be found in its fastest-growing resort town (see Playa del Carmen). Playa’s long-established cool bars and backpackers’ haunts mix with modern hotels ranging from big resorts to cozy guesthouses. As well as having wonderful beaches, it’s great for diving and snorkeling.

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Shops at Playa del Carmen

7. Isla Mujeres

Although it’s only a short ferry ride away from Cancún, this 5-mile (8-km) long island, the first place where Spaniards landed in Mexico in 1517, has a very different atmosphere, with few big hotels, one small town, a good choice of inexpensive places to stay, and a very easy-going, unhurried beach-village feel. Isla Mujeres is also an excellent diving, snorkeling, and fishing center, with an exciting range of reefs to explore offshore.

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Isla Mujeres beachfront

8. Isla Contoy

Mexico’s most important sea-bird reserve covers the whole of this uninhabited island. The terrain is a mix of mangroves, beaches, and coral lagoons that are home to over 50 species of birds – they contain turtle breeding grounds too. Day tours are offered by dive shops on Isla Mujeres.

9. Xplor

prac_info Federal Highway 307, km 282 • (998) 883 3143 • Open 9am–5pm Mon–Fri (until 8pm weekends) • Adm • www.xplor.travel

A trip to Xplor is the ideal day out, which the whole family can enjoy. Seven different circuits await, including 14 ziplines; two 3-mile (5-km) long amphibious vehicle paths, running along jungle tracks, over rope bridges and through caves; two underground river-raft circuits; and the chance to swim along a subterranean river amongst amazing rock formations.

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River-rafting in Xplor

10. Xcaret

The largest of the Riviera’s growing number of eco-parks (see Playa Del Carmen: Xcaret), just south of Playa del Carmen, this provides a wonderful introduction to the tropical environment of the Yucatán and a full day’s worth of things to do – from snorkeling and swimming to eye-popping animal and butterfly collections.

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Leopard, Xcaret

THE CHICLE BOOM

Long before tourism, this region’s biggest business was chewing gum. When gum was first invented in the 19th century it was all made with natural chicle, found in the wild sapodilla trees of the Yucatán. Villages such as Puerto Juárez and Puerto Morelos were all founded as harbors for exporting chicle, brought in by sapodilla-tappers, who roamed the forests inland.

CANCÚN TO TULUM

TopTen

DAY ONE

Begin by exploring the more traditional side of Cancún with a desayuno at one of the Mercado 28 restaurants, in the town market. Then rent a car and drive south through the Hotel Zone along Boulevard Kukulcán.

Call in at the fascinating Museo Maya and the atmospheric El Rey site. Stop off at Playa Delfines, for crashing surf and a spectacular view back along Cancún Island.

Pause at Puerto Moreles for a lunch of seafood ceviche and a cool beer at Los Pelícanos, watching the pelicans hang in the breeze. After snorkeling over Puerto’s reef, continue on to Playa del Carmen. Check out the beach and the shops on Quinta Avenida. As darkness falls, join the strolling crowds along the Quinta.

DAY TWO

After breakfast, continue south towards Tulum. Your route will take you past Xplor and Xcaret, as well as the glamorous vacation spot of Puerto Aventuras, and the gorgeous beaches of Xpu-Ha and Akumal. In Akumal, have lunch at Tequilaville. On arrival in Tulum, take time to explore the cliff-top Mayan site, then spend the rest of the day swimming and sunbathing on the beach, before enjoying dinner cooked over at open fire at Hartwood.

The Best of the Rest

1. Playacar

The plusher side of Playa del Carmen, with a fascinating jungle aviary in the midst of landscaped avenues lined with big resort hotels and private villas.

2. El Rey Site, Cancún

prac_info Open 8am–5pm daily • Adm

This was a relatively small Mayan city, but its layout, with a clearly visible “main street,” makes it easy to imagine people bustling about, buying and selling.

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The atmospheric El Rey Site

3. El Meco Site, Cancún

prac_info Open 8am–5pm daily • Adm

The remains of an important Mayan city, were probably founded here in about AD 300. They feature impressive carvings of animals and monsters.

4. Cenote Kantun-Chi

prac_info Open 9am–5pm daily • Adm • www.kantunchi.com

Visitors can enjoy a revitalizing swim in the cenote’s clear, freshwater pool. There is also a beautiful underground cavern to explore.

5. Wet’n Wild, Cancún

prac_info Blvd Kukulcán, km 25 • (998) 881 3035 • Open 10am–5pm daily • Adm • www.wetnwildcancun.com

With a 350-yard (320-m) lazy river and a Wet’n Wild water park, this is the biggest of its kind in the Riviera.

6. Puerto Juárez and Punta Sam

The little passenger (Puerto Juárez) and car (Punta Sam) ferry ports for Isla Mujeres are older than any other part of Cancún.

7. Acamaya

A secluded spot perfect for getting away from just about everything, Acamaya is set at the end of the bumpy beach road north from Puerto Morelos. There’s a small cabaña hotel and a camping site.

8. Crococún Crocodile Park

prac_info Highway 307, km 31 • (998) 850 3719 • Open 9am–5pm daily • Adm

Crocodiles are the key attraction here, but monkeys and parrots, along with stranger elements of the local wildlife, are also a draw.

9. Punta Maroma

Among the palm-fringed bays at Punta Maroma are several reserved exclusively for guests at the luxurious Maroma retreat.

10. Moon Palace

One of the largest and best equipped of the Riviera’s resorts, the Moon Palace is set in its own area of jungle to the south of Cancún.

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The beautiful Moon Palace resort

Beaches

1. Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres

The beach bums’ favorite on Isla, this compact strip of white sand has plenty to keep you entertained, from pedalos, kayaks, and snorkeling to great bars under the palms.

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Visitors enjoying the waters off the popular Playa Norte beach, Isla Mujeres

2. Playa Gaviotas, Cancún

prac_info Blvd Kukulcán, km 9

One of the best beaches on the east side, and located in the partying center, Playa Gaviotas is the perfect place for after-party relaxation. Adjacent is the City Beach Club.

3. Playa Delfines, Cancún

prac_info Blvd Kukulcán, km 18

A great place to find space to stretch out, with huge banks of white sand above pounding ocean surf. There’s an amazing view north along the beachscape of Cancún Island.

4. Playa Secreto, Isla Mujeres

This broad, sheltered, shallow inlet tucked away from the main North Beach is especially good for small kids. Its waters are always tranquil, and the beach is rarely crowded.

5. Isla Holbox

For lovers of real seclusion, with miles of beach from which to pick a spot that’s just right. The island (see Isla Holbox) faces the opal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, however, so there’s no coral.

6. Puerto Morelos

Excellent for carefree swimming, Puerto Morelos boasts not only fine, uncrowded white sands, but also a reef full of vivid underwater life just offshore.

7. Playa del Secreto

A short way south of Puerto Morelos, this big, broad, white-sand beach is mostly fronted by private villas, with scarcely any hotels, so there’s never any shortage of space.

8. Punta Bete

One (see Punta Bete) of the most beautiful spots on the whole Riviera – palms, white-sand bays, and turquoise sea. A terrible access road helps keep it that way.

9. Playa del Carmen

Playa’s main town beach (see Playa Del Carmen) is the place to go to survey other sun worshippers, and to showcase your skills at beach volleyball and other seaside pursuits.

10. Chunzubul, Playa del Carmen

Keep walking along the beach north from Playa to find endless space, the best snorkeling and diving spots, and nudist beaches (see Personal Security). It is safest to avoid leaving bags unattended in the really quiet spots.

Places to Shop

1. La Casa del Arte Mexicano, Cancún

prac_info Blvd Kukulcán, km 4

The gift shop at this folk-art museum, in the grounds of Xcaret, stocks high-quality crafts from all over Mexico, including some fun toys.

2. Forum by the Sea, Cancún

prac_info Blvd Kukulcán, km 9.5 • Open 10am–midnight daily

Highlights here are perfume and jewelry stores and brands such as Harley Davidson and Zingara. It also has a huge Hard Rock at its center.

3. Coral Negro, Cancún

prac_info Boulevard Kukulcán, km 9.5

A rambling jewelry and handicrafts bazaar a few steps from the Forum. You can find fine traditional craftwork here, as well as a lot of junk.

4. Plaza Caracol, Cancún

prac_info Blvd Kukulcán, km 8.5

One of the biggest and most varied of the Cancún malls, with engaging toy shops, beachwear, fine jewelry, and a huge choice of restaurants in an attractive, light-filled building.

5. La Isla, Cancún

prac_info Blvd Kukulcán, km 12.5

One of the most stylish of the Hotel Zone’s malls, built as an artificial island surrounded by Venetian-style “canals.” It’s the place for top names such as Hugo Boss, Diesel, and Zara.

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The canalside stores of La Isla, Cancún

6. Mercado 23, Cancún

prac_info Off Avenida Tulum, on Calle Cedro

This colorful little open-air market is where locals go to shop for meat, vegetables, herbal cures, and even party supplies and piñatas.

7. Mercado 28, Cancún

prac_info Av Xel-Ha and Av Tankah

The town market (see Mercado 28 Restaurants, Cancún) offers old-style shopping with stands of huarache sandals and panama hats, and tables full of fresh vegetables and fruit – plus a great food court.

8. Avenida Hidalgo, Isla Mujeres Town

This is Isla’s main street, and its main drag for leisurely browsing. Here and in parallel Av Juárez small shops offer painted wooden birds, and local shell and coral jewelry.

9. Super Telas, Playa del Carmen

prac_info Constituyentes, Plaza Las Perlas

Fine quality Mexican textiles (telas), in traditional or original designs, can be found in this original shop.

10. Caracol, Playa del Carmen

prac_info Av 5, from Calle 6 to 84

The specialties at this two-story boutique are textiles and embroidery from all over Mexico – particularly Chiapas – and from Guatemala.

Clubs

1. Coco Bongo, Cancún

prac_info Blvd Kukulcán, km 9.5 • (998) 883 5061 • Open from 10:30pm daily • Adm

Cancún’s most high-powered, high-tech, multilevel mega-club, Coco Bongo has a wide-ranging menu of music options.

2. Palazzo, Cancún

prac_info Blvd Kukulcán, km 9 • (998) 883 3333 • Open from 10pm daily • Adm

Big on audio and lighting systems, Palazzo offers live gigs by well-known acts.

TopTen

A gig by the Bingo Players, Palazzo

3. Dady’O, Cancún

prac_info Blvd Kukulcán, km 9.5 • (998) 883 3333 • Dady’O: open from 10pm daily; Sweet: open from 6pm daily • Adm

Popular with college students, Dady’O holds bikini nights and other rowdy fun. Sweet, next door, often hosts live bands.

4. Captain Hook’s Pirate Night, Cancún

prac_info El Embarcadero, Blvd Kukulcán, km 4.5 • (998) 849 4452 • Check in 6:30pm daily • Adm

Dinner cruises are normally more sedate than clubbing in Cancún, but Captain Hook’s, with its “pirate crew,” is pretty boisterous.

5. Grand Mambo Café, Cancún

prac_info Plaza Hong Kong local 31 • (998) 844 4536 • Open from 10:30pm Wed–Sat

The best place to let your hair down in Cancún, Grand Mambo Café features bands from Central and Southern America, and the Caribbean.

6. Cun Crawl, Cancún

prac_info Blvd Kukulcán, km 9.5 • (998) 165 0699

Chill out in the lounge area, or hit the dance floor, as the DJs mix and play creative blends of European music at this chic nightclub.

7. The City, Cancún

prac_info Blvd Kukulcán, km 9.5 • (998) 848 8385 (ext 115) • Nightclub open from 10pm daily • Casual dress but no sandals or bathing suits • Adm

This huge, modern nightclub also includes a beach club, restaurant, bar, and lounge.

8. Mandala, Playa del Carmen

prac_info Calle 12 Av • (998) 883 3333 • Open 10pm–4am daily

An Asian-inspired club, Mandala is massive, and fills up quickly on the weekends. Bottle service is available.

9. Coralina Daylight Club

prac_info Calle 26 • (984) 204 6009 • Open 11am–7pm Tue–Sun

Coralina capitalizes on the Caribbean sun and sand and its enviable beachside location to attract partygoers long before the sun goes down.

10. La Vaquita, Playa del Carmen

prac_info Calle 12 Norte • (998) 848 8380 • Open 11pm–6am daily • Adm

This lively nightclub, whose name means “Little Cow,” is anything but pastoral, and has a man dressed as a cow, offering shots to the crowds.

Drinking and Entertainment Spots

1. La Madonna, Cancún

prac_info La Isla, Blvd Kukulcán, km 12.5 • $$

An elegant bar-restaurant in the La Isla mall, with decor that’s a hybrid of Baroque and Art Nouveau.

2. Alux, Playa del Carmen

prac_info Av Juaréz 217 • $$

This restaurant-bar has the most unusual setting in Playa: an atmospheric cave. It is a good spot for an evening drink or dinner, though prices are a little high. Later in the night, dance to DJs or live jazz.

TopTen

The quirky cave setting of Alux

3. Señor Frog’s, Cancún

prac_info Blvd Kukulcán, km 9.5 • $

Beside Laguna Nichupté, this (see Señor Frog’s, Cancún) is one of the most popular Cancún outlets of the Anderson group. Party atmosphere, often with rock bands, guaranteed.

4. El Pabilo, Cancún

prac_info Av Yaxchilán 31 • $

This cozy café, with a Bohemian feel, offers a welcome respite from loud nightclubs. Live music by local musicians and Cuban expats on weekends.

5. Lola Valentina, Isla Mujeres

prac_info Av Miguel Hidalgo • $

With a bit of everything, Lola Valentina offers breakfast smoothies and a cocktail menu featuring more than ten margaritas, including chipotle and sriracha. Only cash is accepted here.

6. El Café Cito, Isla Mujeres

prac_info Av Juárez, corner of Av Matamoros, Isla Town • $

This mellow place, a few streets from the beach, offers excellent breakfasts and superior coffee, and fresh juice combos later in the day.

7. Mamita’s Beach Club, Playa del Carmen

prac_info Beach at Calle 28 • $

One of the nicest beaches in Playa is also the most popular daytime party spot, with loungers and hammocks for rent alongside the usual chairs, a DJ, and strong Margaritas.

8. Amarula

prac_info Av Carlos Nader 104 • $$

Amarula is perfect for those who wish to sip on craft cocktails. The menu is heavy on Caribbean spirits and locally sourced ingredients.

9. Pez Vela, Playa del Carmen

prac_info Av 5, by Calle 2 • $

Ever popular bar-restaurant with a huge outside terrace that’s a fixture on the Quinta Avenida promenade. The style is hippy-Caribbean, helped along by reggae and rock bands.

10. Diablito Cha Cha Cha, Playa del Carmen

prac_info Calle 12 at Av 1 Norte • $

With comfortable sofas and a stylish clientele, this is the place to warm up before hitting the bigger dance clubs.

Places to Eat

1. Le Chique, Cancún

prac_info Puerto Morelos, km 27.5 • (998) 872 8450 • $$$

With classic dishes, such as cochinita pibil, appealing to the palate and the eye, Le Chique is a perfect place to celebrate special occasions.

2. La Habichuela, Cancún

prac_info Calle Margaritas 25 • (998) 840 6240 • $$$

A specialist in Yucatecan and Mexican tropical seafood, this restaurant (see La Habichuela, Cancún) is set in a softly lit garden by the tranquil Parque de las Palapas.

3. El Chapulim, Isla Holbox

prac_info Av Tiburón Ballena • $$

Don’t let the lack of a menu deter you from trying out this bistro, which has the best fresh seafood in town and over 25 varieties of Mexican beer.

4. La Parrilla, Cancún

prac_info Av Yaxchilán 51 • (998) 193 3973 • $$

With daily mariachi music creating a warm atmosphere, La Parrilla offers a good range of Mexican favorites such as grilled meats, soups, and fondues.

TopTen

Grilled platters, La Parrilla

5. Mercado 28 Restaurants, Cancún

prac_info Av Xel-Ha and Av Tankah • No credit cards • $

The courtyard of the town market is packed with canopied tables spilling out from restaurants. The traditional food served, such as pollo con mole, is fun and cheap.

6. Da Luisa, Isla Mujeres

prac_info Av Jesús Martinez s/n • (998) 888 0107 • $$

Enjoy Caribbean-Mediterranean fusion cuisine (fresh seafood, pork, or chicken) with skyline views at this quiet, romantic restaurant.

7. Los Pelícanos, Puerto Morelos

prac_info On the Plaza • $$

Linger over the renowned seafood cocktails or one of the subtle fish dishes at one (see Los Pelícanos, Puerto Morelos) of the all-time best beach-terrace restaurants.

8. Imprevist, Playa del Carmen

prac_info Av Norte 1 • (984) 168 7025 • $$$

This restaurant blends culinary influences from around the world to create its gourmet menus. Diners rave about the morning bread basket.

9. Los Aguachiles, Playa del Carmen

prac_info Corner of Calle 34 and Av 25 • $

A low-key open-air snack joint, this place offers an array of delicious tacos and tostadas and an even larger selection of salsas and condiments with which to personalize them.

10. Las Brisas, Playa del Carmen

prac_info Carretera Federal Cancún, Playa del Carmen • $$$

This big terrace-restaurant has a simple style, but its fresh local seafood is some of the best in town.

PRICE CATEGORIES

For a three-course meal for one with a beer or soda (or equivalent meal), taxes and extra charges.


$ under $15 $$ $15–$35 $$$ over $35

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