A Beach Lover’s Guide
If you love beaches, you’ve come to the right place. Remember that beaches in Mexico are public; hotels can “claim” an area by setting out guest-only lounge chairs, but you are free to lay out your towel and umbrella wherever there’s space.
Cancún’s beaches are in the Zona Hotelera and are famous for their deep, powdery white sand. Along the Zona Hotelera are numerous public access points, so people staying elsewhere don’t have to pass through hotels to get to the beach. Be aware that the surf can be quite heavy at times.
Playa Chac-Mool is centrally located and has parasailing and other beach activities. The high-rise hotels behind it cast cooling shadows over the beach in the afternoon.
Playa Delfines is at the southern end of the strip and the only one not backed by hotels. It has the largest waves of Cancún’s beaches—you may even see a few surfers—and there’s a small Maya ruin just across the road.
Playa Marlín is near Plaza Kukulcán mall, which has numerous restaurants, shops, and even a kids club if you need a break from the sun (or each other).
Isla Mujeres’s best beaches are located at the northern tip of the island. Unlike Cancún, the beaches here have virtually no surf, making them ideal for families traveling with small children.
Playa Norte has soft white sand and water so shallow and calm you have to wade out nearly 100 meters (328 feet) before it’s deep enough to swim. Beach gear can be rented, and there are several oceanfront restaurants.
Playa Sol is around the corner from Playa Norte and is also quite beautiful. Larger and nearer to the ferry pier than Playa Norte, it can get crowded with day-trippers from Cancún.
Cozumel is better known for its diving than its beaches, but there are a few spots where you can catch some rays. The island’s west side has calm seas and several public beach clubs, while the east side has scenic windswept beaches and heavy surf.
Playa Palancar is the most low-key of the west-side beaches, with a well-maintained beach area and a restaurant serving tasty meals.
Playa San Francisco is another fine west-side beach, with a string of large beach clubs. It’s good if you want a bit more action than the scene at Playa Palancar.
Playa Chen Río is one of several beaches on the east side but is the only one protected from the waves so you can swim. It can get crowded on weekends, but it’s wide, so a quiet spot always can be found. A lone restaurant serves pricey meals—do like the locals do and bring your own grub.
Playa Norte is Isla Holbox’s main beach, extending several miles and backed by a low coastal forest. The sand and water here aren’t as classically idyllic as, say, Tulum, but are still lovely and striking in a Robinson Crusoe–type way. Plus, a long sand bar has emerged just offshore; covered in an inch or two of water, it’s perfect for wading and cooling off. (Here’s hoping it sticks around for a while!)
The Riviera Maya
If you’re staying at a resort in the Riviera Maya, you’re likely to have a great patch of sand just steps away. But there are plenty of great ones accessible to all travelers.
In Playa del Carmen, Playa Tukán is a long swath of blond sand with medium surf. Though increasingly squeezed by resort developments, there’s still plenty of free space to set up your own beach blanket. Beach clubs here rent chairs and umbrellas, and offer meal service and even small swimming pools.
South of Playa del Carmen, Xpu-Há is easy to miss but rewards those who find it with a broad white-sand beach and mellow surf. There are fewer services here than elsewhere—and fewer people, too—but a couple hotels and restaurants make Xpu-Há a great beach getaway.
Farther south, the town of Akumal has a long curving public beach with great snorkeling. Hotel guests can use beach chairs; others should bring a towel and umbrella of their own.
For maximum isolation, Playa Xcacel has a small parking lot, simple restroom area, and over a mile of gorgeous white sand. (There’s a small freshwater cenote, too.) Located between Xel-Há ecopark and Chemuyil community, Xcacel is a sea turtle nesting ground, so it’s off-limits to construction. Good for the turtles…and for beach lovers, too!
Tulum and Southern Quintana Roo
Many people consider Tulum’s beaches to be the best of Mexico’s Caribbean coast. It’s hard to disagree with white sand, gentle azure surf, and a backing of palm trees and bungalow-style hotels. Southern Quintana Roo doesn’t have much to offer the hard-core beachgoer, though the fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, and diving are all stellar.
Tulum’s northern beaches are easier to reach if you’re not staying at one of the hotels, with several public access points and affordable restaurants and beach clubs.
Tulum’s southern beaches are truly stunning, plucked right from a postcard. Hotel guests have easy access, though nonguests must park just south of Punta Piedra and walk down the shore. Bring your own supplies, as the beaches here are wonderfully isolated.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition