You’ve heard of Quintana Roo, even if you don’t think you have, as this is the Yucatán’s famous Caribbean playground. It is the home of Cancun and once-quaint Riviera Maya destinations such as Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Cozumel. While development since the 1970s seems determined to turn every bit of sugar sand beach into massive all-inclusive resorts, there are still areas that remain the realm of the fisherman who have called them home for generations. Most importantly, the Sian Ka’an Bioreserve protects over a million acres of pristine marine, coastal, and terrestrial ecosystems. Should you tire of the beach, the Mesoamerican Reef lies just off-shore. Inland you will find cenotes, vast wetlands, and a few ruins to explore.
Exploring Quintana Roo
We either visited the following locations (generally listed from north to south) or wished we had.
A peninsula rather than a true island, Isla Holbox lies where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea. Most famous as the jumping-off point for whale shark tours during the summer, this is a laid-back beach town the rest of the year. It’s what I imagine Playa del Carmen was like ten or twenty years ago – after it had been discovered by tourists, but before the mega resorts moved in. The beaches here don’t compare with those of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, but they are nice enough and they aren’t crowded.
Cancun is the major tourist hub of the Yucatán. The city actually has two very distinct sections: the Downtown where the locals live and conduct their business and the Hotel Zone where almost all of the tourist amenities are located. The Hotel Zone is located on a narrow sandbar that juts into the Caribbean, which means there are ocean or lagoon views in every direction. This tiny strip of pearly white sand is fully developed with dozens of high-rise towers along the beaches, upscale shopping centers, and (apparently) a hopping night-life. We ended up there by accident and, to my surprise, I loved the place.
Despite several friends telling us that we would love Isla Mujeres, we didn’t get here. (You can’t get everywhere in a three-week vacation!) This beachy Caribbean island is known for its laid-back charm and it sounds delightful – I suspect we would have enjoyed it much more than Playa del Carmen. Oh well. It is definitely on my list for a future visit and I’m guessing it should be on your list too.
The Riviera Maya
Mexico markets the Caribbean coast between Cancun and the Sian Ka’an as the Mayan Riviera. The area has miles of sugar sand beaches – some of which are fully-developed as wall-to-wall all-inclusive resorts, others are still mostly Mayan fishing villages, and few rare tracts remain nearly pristine. The Mesoamerican reef is just off-shore, providing plenty of opportunities for snorkeling and diving. There are also a few Mayan ruins here, including the atmospheric sites of Tulum and Coba. Along with Cancun, this is where most visitors to the Yucatán end up.
Traveling down from Cancun along the coast, you would come to the following locations:
We didn’t stop in Puerto Morelos, reportedly a still a traditional fishing village, but with good restaurants, a thriving arts scene, and only a few expats and resorts. While the beach here isn’t as fine as in some other places, the reef is very near shore and there is some shoreline protection in place, assuring good snorkeling and bird watching. The Dr. Alfredo Barrera Martin Botanical Garden is also located here, which consists of 150 acres of gardens displaying the peninsula’s plants and flowers. Puerto Morelos will be on my itinerary for my next trip to the area.
Playa del Carmen
There is a quaint fishing village somewhere in the overdeveloped mass of upscale shopping, expat mansions, and all-inclusive resorts that Playa del Carmen seems to have become. I know this because friends have told me so. However, I am not entirely convinced that the Playa they remember wasn’t finally redeveloped out of existence. To be fair, we were mostly secluded in the far reaches of the well-heeled and fully-sanitized Playacar district. We didn’t get to explore much else, so there may still be a charming fishing village hidden away in some corner I didn’t reach. I’m not counting on it though.
Playa del Carmen was the biggest disappointment of the trip, as I had heard so many good things about the city and was eager to spend time here. While it probably is worth a closer look, I doubt I’ll include it on a future itinerary.
We saw very little of Cozumel, but what we saw looked enticing: developed areas with fun shops and lots of restaurants, beach resorts of all sizes and levels of luxury, and plenty of areas with little or no development. We spent our time here on and in the water. I wish we’d spent more of it on dry land.
Part theme park, part beach resort; Xcaret is one of several eco adventure theme parks in the Maya Riviera. Each has its own niche, with Xcaret having the broadest scope as an archeological, cultural, and natural adventure park. (Most are strictly natural adventure parks, with zip lines and cave diving and such.) Xcaret itself owns most of these parks now, including Xel-Há where visitors snorkel with hundreds of fish and Xplor with its underground rivers and grottoes to explore.
Not really the Mayan Riviera since it isn’t along the coast, the ruins of Cobá are an easy trip inland. The remains of what was once a large Mayan city, today Cobá has been largely overgrown by the jungle. It’s said to be highly atmospheric and was high on my list of places to visit, but in the end we didn’t get there. It will be on my list again for the next trip.
Draped along three bays, Akumal seems to be a laid-back beach community. The setting is said to be gorgeous, but it was raining when we arrived so we skipped the beaches and headed straight for lunch at an amazing seafood restaurant. We didn’t see a lot of the town, but we liked what we did see. Akumal seems like it would be a good alternative for those seeking to escape the mass-tourism of Playa del Carmen while still having access to plenty of good restaurants and basic tourist facilities.
The seaside Mayan ruins of Tulum draw hoards of day-trippers to this otherwise laid-back span of sugar sand beaches. While the city of Tulum has a hotel zone, it’s nothing like the hotel zones in Cancun or Playa del Carmen. The resorts that line the beaches here are generally pretty small with a beach bum vibe. Even the very chic and elegant resorts seem to have a level of casualness to them. The area is apparently becoming the preferred location for yoga resorts and spas, which brings its own twist to the laid-back beach vibe. Despite the influx of yogis, it’s a place that hasn’t yet been taken over by fully-packaged mass tourism. I’m hoping it stays that way for a long, long time.
Sian Ka’an Bioreserve and Muyil Mayan ruins
Thanks to the Sian Ka’an Bioreserve, 10% of Quintana Roo (1.3 million acres) is protected from development. This UNESCO World Heritage site includes freshwater and coastal lagoons, mangroves, savanna, tropical forest, and barrier reef. Along with the animals, birds, and fish that live within the reserve, it also protects ancient Mayan ruins and canals. We visited just a tiny bit of it. I’d love to spend a lot more time exploring this watery wilderness.
The Mayan Coast
Planning Your Trip
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