The southern stretch of the Riviera is the less publicized, less built-up part of this coast, but it still offers the choice between luxury resorts and out-of-the-way places – except that here the resorts are not so hectic, and the untouched corners are more remote. Offshore, Cozumel is a super-relaxing island that offers fabulous diving opportunities. Onshore are some of the Caribbean’s most dazzling tropical beaches, such as the seven bays of Xpu-Ha and the crescent of Media Luna Bay. They lead down the coast to the great beach refuge of Tulum, with its Mayan temple sites. A little way inland is another massive Mayan site, the forest-clad city of Cobá.
Gleaming jewelry stores along the waterfront in San Miguel combine with an easy-going, small-town charm that has long made this island a favorite with families. Cozumel is a great place to settle into at a leisurely pace, maybe going diving one day, then exploring a little the next: around the island are Mayan sites, windblown cliffs, a fascinating natural wildlife park at Punta Sur, and lovely beaches and snorkeling spots on the west coast.
(998) 849 2885 • Open 8am–4pm daily • Adm
The remains of the Mayan capital of Cozumel, conquered by Cortés and his Spanish soldiers in 1519, are in the middle of the island. Its buildings are small compared to those of the great Mayan cities, but there are many of them – and discovering them, through woods full of wonderful scents, flowers, and exotic birds, involves a lovely walk.
Puerto Aventuras is the biggest, most opulent resort on the southern Riviera, a specially created vacation village around an inlet that’s now a pretty pleasure port lined with shops and restaurants. The nine-hole golf course is attractive, and the marina is the best-equipped on the whole Riviera, making it a popular base for serious deep-sea fishing enthusiasts. You can take a dip in another part of the harbor.
Home to a Mayan city perched up on a clifftop, a 7-mile (11-km) palm-fringed beach, and an array of inventive restaurants and boutique hotels, Tulum (see Cenotes and Caves) is one of the region’s most attractive destinations, particularly popular with independent travelers looking for a quieter spot than Playa or Cancún. There’s good fishing and diving offshore, and the area around is dotted with beautiful cenotes to explore.
Open 8am–5pm daily • Adm • www.inah.gob.mx
This huge Mayan city (see Cobá) was once home to around 50,000 people and was the great rival of Chichén Itzá. It’s a very different place to visit – it’s spread out around several large lakes, and to find its massive buildings you follow fascinating walks through thick forest full of birds. Yucatán’s tallest pyramid is here.
Long a favorite dive destination, with fabulous reefs and places for cave diving, Akumal has grown a good deal without being overwhelmed. It spreads over several long, lovely bays – Media Luna is the most beautiful, with the delightful Yal-Ku lagoon (see Laguna Yal-Ku, Akumal). There are more apartments, villas, and small hotels than big developments. The beaches near Akumal village are favorite turtle breeding grounds.
(998) 251 6560 • Open 8:30am–7pm daily • Adm • www.xelha.com
One of the most luxuriant coral inlets on the coast has been made into a “snorkel park” that’s one of the Riviera’s most popular attractions – experienced divers may find it tame, but the easy snorkeling is great for families. Around it is a forest park and a beach. Just outside the park and across the highway is the Mayan site of Xel-Ha.
Cozumel’s greatest glory is its 20-plus coral reefs, an awe-inspiring undersea world of caves, canyons, and coral “forests” teeming with life, from sea cucumbers and brilliantly luminous angelfish to graceful rays and the occasional shark. The water is almost perfectly clear and Chankanaab and Paraíso reefs are close inshore, so can be appreciated even by inexperienced divers and snorkelers.
Mexico’s largest wetland nature reserve, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sian Ka’an brings the Riviera to an end just south of Tulum. Its vast area of virtually untouched mangroves, jungle, and beaches contains an extraordinary range of birds and wildlife, and the one-day tours run by local organizations give a glimpse of the intricate, constantly surprising interplay of nature in this rare environment. The few inhabited spots along the coast are wonderful for fishing, and have a feel of tranquil isolation.
All along these seven gracefully sweeping bays, 2 miles (3 km) south of Puerto Aventuras, are some of the Riviera’s most idyllic beaches, with exuberantly alive reefs and some of the most exquisite turquoise waters. Several are now occupied by resort complexes. However, two (signposted X-4 and X-7 from the highway) are still open to anyone, and at X-7 there are some small cabañas, a camping site, and a dive shop.
Cobá was the center of the largest network of sacbé (or “white ways”), Mayan raised stone-paved roads, in the Mayan world. They connected the various parts of the city, as well as linked it to vassal-cities. About AD 800 Cobá built the longest ever sacbé, of over 60 miles (100 km), to Yaxuná in the west, to help reinforce it in wars with Chichén – unsuccessfully, as Cobá was defeated shortly afterward.
Start with breakfast, coffee, or a drink at Las Palmeras, watching the new arrivals off the Playa del Carmen ferry. Browse in the jewelry and souvenir shops along the waterfront and in the streets around the square, but don’t buy anything yet. Rent a car and head out of town down Avenida Juárez to the Mayan site of San Gervasio. If you hire the services of a guide at the entrance, don’t let them hurry you, but take time to notice the birds and vegetation – as much of an attraction as the site. Back at the main road, head left to meet the east coast at windswept Punta Santa Cecilia. Turn south down the road beside the rocks and waves for a lunch of mixed fish and seafood on the beach at Chen Río.
Carry on down the coast to Punta Sur Eco Beach Park. From the parking lot, walk down to Punta Celaraín lighthouse and the strange little Mayan temple called the Caracol, and follow the nature trail to try and see some crocodiles and flamingos.
You can snorkel at Punta Sur, but you’ll see more marine life if you carry on to Laguna Chankanaab. If all you want is a placid beach, call in at Playa San Francisco. Drive back to town, and don’t miss the sunset from the waterfront Malecón. Take another look at the shops, and buy anything you may have spotted on your morning walk.
Open 8:30am–7pm daily • Adm
Across the highway from the popular snorkel park, this Mayan city is one of the oldest in the region. On some buildings there are murals dating back to about AD 200.
Another fine swimming-hole cenote set amid rocks and woods toward Cobá. Snorkelers can explore the huge main cavern; divers (with guides) can go further.
Off the beaten track, Tankah is a placid, narrow beach with a fine reef, a restaurant, and a small cluster of villas and hotels. Behind the beach, by the Casa Cenote restaurant, there’s a broad, reed-lined cenote, so it’s a toss-up between swimming in the surf or the freshwater pool.
Dos Ojos is very possibly the world’s longest underwater cave system. The snorkeling or diving tours run by the diving tour operators are a memorable experience.
The Cobá road north from Tulum is one of the best places to find swimmable cenotes, and this is one of the most beautiful, a crystal-clear pool that’s a must-try for swimmers and snorkelers.
Open 8am–5pm daily • Adm
The location is the attraction of this old, atmospheric Mayan city set in hot, steamy jungle between the Highway and Lake Chunyaxché, in the Sian Ka’an reserve.
This giant cave (see Aktun-Chen) in thick jungle in a nature park has a series of chambers and stalagmite towers, plus an underground river.
Set in a tiny village by a forest lake north of Cobá, this nature reserve (see Punta Laguna) is one of the best places to see spider monkeys in the Yucatán. Villagers will act as guides.
Good for the adventurous, this is one of the bumpiest, rutted, overgrown, and deserted roads in the Yucatán, with great vistas of sea and forest.
These are two of the many great beaches on Cozumel’s southwest coast: San Francisco and others near it are good for relaxation; Sol is best if you want a beach with lots going on.
The place for people who want to find some seclusion in Tulum, with longer, broader, whiter beaches, acres of space, and quite luxurious comforts in some cabañas.
“Half Moon Bay” is an exquisite crescent of brilliant white sand and calm sea. The atmosphere is just as tranquil: around it there are condos and villas; at the north end is the lovely Yal-Ku lagoon.
A curving white-sand bay with a beach bar and cabañas. With over a mile (2 km) of beach, the campsite doesn’t obstruct the view, and the sands are never crowded.
Seven bays (see Xpu-Ha) with some of the coolest, whitest sand and most colorful coral on the Riviera. Several are occupied by resorts, but X-4 and X-7 are open to anyone.
This is the best beach on Cozumel’s rugged eastern shore, with a sheltered cove for swimming, with surfing further along. There’s a beach restaurant worth a special visit.
A bustling beach in the center of Akumal; behind it there’s a good choice of low-key bars and shops.
The beaches at the north end of Tulum are great if you want to hang out and meet people in the inexpensive cabañas. They also have the best view of the Mayan site.
Getting to these remote, deserted beaches involves negotiating the wild, rutted road between Boca Paila and Punta Allen.
Shaded by palms, this near-empty beach feels remote, even though it’s only down a dirt-track from the highway. A few boats and a bar (see Oscar y Lalo, Punta Solimán) are the main signs of habitation.
449 Av 15 Norte, between Calle 8 and Calle 10
Watch artist Greg Dietrich engrave blown glass to create unique vessels and lamps at this quaint art gallery. Paintings, jewelry, and other items made by local artists are also on display.
This leisure mall set in the cruise terminal has major international fashion names plus upscale handicrafts and glittering gem stores.
(984) 115 8441 • Carretera Boca Paila, km 1.5 Quintana Roo, Tulum
Inspired by the tropical and relaxed vibe of the Tulum beaches, this chic boutique sells fashionable accessories and clothing for women.
An amazing hotchpotch of stores in true Mexican flea-market style. Souvenirs, Mayan handicrafts, textiles, and jewelry abound. Be ready to haggle for the best deals.
Av Rafael Melgar 27, by Calle 8
This Malecón handicrafts store is the place to do all your souvenir shopping in one go – clothes, tablecloths, jewelry, glassware, metal or papier-mâché birds and animals, and more.
Av 5 Sur, near Calle 1 Sur
A big, varied crafts dealer, with especially good ceramics and painted wood. There’s junk as well as quality pieces, but it’s a great place to browse.
Av Tulum, between Calle Orion and Calle Centauro
Get dressed for a Tulum-style beach party at this cool shop selling hippy-style clothing plus sleeker items that you could wear when out clubbing.
Av Adolfo Rosado Salas 198, corner of Av 5
First port of call for self-sufficient sea-explorers, with every possible kind of diving and snorkeling gear.
A small, stylish group of shops. Among the cigars and sophisticated jewelry, you’ll also find Mexican designer clothing at Arte Maya and fine handicrafts at El Guerrero.
Av Tulum, opposite the bus terminal
This little store has a high-quality collection of colorful craftwork from every part of the country.
Xpu-Ha Beach • Open 11:30am–9pm daily • Adm
The exclusive Al Cielo offers guests one-of-a-kind events on Xpu-Ha Beach, often with the moonlit ocean as a backdrop. It features top-class musicians, dancers, and other entertainment.
(987) 869 1289 • Av Rafael Melgar, by 7 Sur and 11 Sur
With a focus on beers, this bar offers a fine selection of international and Mexican brews, specially sourced from craft brewers around the country.
Av Melgar at Av Juárez
Cozumel doesn’t have a particularly wild nightlife. Instead, San Miguel’s central plaza is the best place to be – especially on Sundays, when there’s usually live music.
Beach Road, km 4.6
La Zebra’s Sunday night salsa party draws people from up and down the beach as well as from town. Come early for free dance classes.
Av Rafael Melgar 2A • Open from 10pm daily • Adm
The Mayan-style architecture of the building makes this a stunning location for the rock memorabilia chain. Occasional live music.
Av Rafael Melgar 799, Col Centro • Open 9am–11pm Mon–Sat
On the water, with great views and familiar fare, this branch of the chain is a huge hit with visitors.
On the Marina • Open 4pm–1am daily
Joel’s Bar offers a wide range of entertainment, such as live music performances, preceded or accompanied by dinner.
Av Rafael Melgar 551 • Open from 11am daily
Cozumel’s biggest bar, restaurant, and music venue (see Carlos‘n Charlie’s, Cozumel) is the place where you’re assured of finding a (usually pretty raucous) crowd every night, partying in the open air to classic rock circa 1970 to present.
Calle Centauro Sur by Av Tulum and Andromeda Oriente
The main late-night hangout in the town of Tulum, featuring live bands and innovative drinks. Their mojitos, with freshly cut cane juice and rum, are a big hit.
Carretera Boca Paila, km 1.5 • Open from 11am daily • No credit cards • Adm
This stylish restaurant-bar combines luxurious indulgence with eco-friendly policies. Enjoy one of their cocktails while chilling to the sounds of guest DJs.
On the road between Tulum town and the beach, Teetotum is attached to the hotel of the same name. The cocktail list – try the “Mayan Elder”: mezcal, angostura bitters, orange, and cherry juice – and laid-back vibe make it a cool spot for an evening drink.
Av Rafael Melgar–Plaza Cozumel • $$
A big, friendly, Caribbean hut of a bar, Las Palmeras is set opposite the ferry landing on San Miguel’s main plaza. As well as being great for drinks, it does highly enjoyable breakfasts.
Av 10, between Av Salas and Calle 1 • $
Popular with divers and tours, this outdoor bar can get rowdy when an American football game is on. It’s the ideal spot for a beer and a burger.
Av Rafael E. Melgar • $
This is one of the few cafés with a sea view in San Miguel, serving margaritas, mojitos, and daiquiris, and classic Mexican and American food.
Av Rafael Melgar, by Calle 4 • Open 9am–5pm daily • $
This very relaxing, pretty café on the roof of Cozumel’s museum has a great view of the waterfront and good coffee. It does tasty breakfasts and snacks too.
Punta Santa Cecilia • $$
An old favorite, this laid-back beach restaurant is set in a wonderful location, where the cross-island road meets the east coast. Enjoy a soundtrack of crashing surf.
Deep shade and an ideal view over the beach make the bar in the Paamul cabañas and camping site a great place to recharge after time in the sun. Snacks are also available.
Puerto Aventuras’ favorite beach bar has a big palapa roof. Elaborate tropical cocktails are the specialty.
Punta Solimán has a desert-island feel, and so does its only bar. Oscar and Lalo, who also run the camping site and rent kayaks, are friendly and cook great fresh seafood.
Beach Road, km 5.5 • $
Many of Tulum’s cabaña-clusters have bars, but Paraíso, near the ruins, has the best view, with a big terrace for catching the breeze.
Av Melgar 23, between Calle 6 and Calle 8 • (987) 872 0946 • $$$
Known for its rich lasagne, Guido’s serves great Italian food. Enjoy your food outside in the garden.
Av Rafael Melgar 602, between Calle 7 and Av Quintana Roo • (987) 872 4405 • $$
The big fresh salads and sandwiches are great at this American-run café on the water. Save some room for a huge slice of apple pie or one of the other gooey desserts.
Calle 1 Sur • From 7am daily • No credit cards • $$
One of the island’s oldest venues, Casa Denis serves classic Yucatecan dishes at low prices.
Av Tulum-Boca Paila, km 7.6 • (984) 112 6823 • Closed L & Mon • $$$
“From fire to table” is the motto of this restaurant, where the menu changes regularly. Seasonal and locally-sourced produce is prepared by a chef who has worked in the world’s top restaurants.
Calle 8, between Av 10 and Av 15 • $$$
Set in a Caribbean-style wooden hut, this mellow place offers a range of Mediterranean-inspired dishes.
Plaza Marina • (984) 873 5418 • $$
This restaurant is located in a cabaña with a sea view. The menu offers a variety of classic American and Italian dishes.
Calle Principal • (984) 875 9022 • $$
This small eatery serves a pleasant selection of authentic Mexican food and, allegedly, the best hamburger in the Riviera Maya.
Calle Polar at Calle Orion • (984) 108 0681 • $$
A Mexico City-trained chef-owner turns out light, refined versions of Mexican classics such as chiles en nogada (stuffed chilies with walnut sauce) at this casual eatery.
Tulum Beach Road, km 7.6 • $$$
Across from the beach and set in lush jungle. Hartwood’s chefs cook over an open fire and produce top-class cuisine. You’ll probably have to queue, but it is worth the wait.
Chen Río Beach • No credit cards • $$
The best restaurant on Cozumel’s east coast, and a wonderful place to eat on the beach.