Best Mexico Beach Destinations
Mexico is a fascinating country with a range of travel options for prospective vacation makers. The beaches of both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts are undoubtedly one of Mexico’s main attractions. Mexico also has some of the finest ancient Aztec and Mayan ruins such as Chitzen Itza, along with some beautiful colonial towns. The landscape is splendid throughout the country – from deserts in the north to tropical rainforest in the south.
Cancun, a specifically built vacation city, is the hub of the Riveria Maya in Mexico. With excellent beaches, great diving opportunities and a multitude of luxury 5-star resorts and hotels overlooking Cancun beach, it is Mexico’s premier package vacation destination. Charter flights operate into Cancun and the nightlife can be wild, especially during Spring Break. There are various Mayan ruins that can be visited on a day tour. This vacation city in Mexico is definitely not for everyone.
Cancun is an all-inclusive vacation package type place, but there are numerous tours and excursions that visitors can undertake while staying an any of the luxury hotels in the city. Most common is the tour of Chitzen Itza, some of the finest Maya ruins in Central America. There are also ruins at Tulum and Uxmal that can be reached in a day tour. Scuba diving, snorkeling, and watersports are popular things to do in Cancun itself.
Over a million tourists visit the island of Cozumel every year. Most spend just one day as they visit on a cruise ship. This is a shame as cruise ship passengers only get a fleeting image of Cozumel, which is a charming place for an extended stay, especially if you get away from the camera-wielding cruise ship crowds.
There’s plenty of things to do in Cozumel. First of all, the scuba diving in Cozumel is legendary – and regularly cited as being in the top 10 list of best places for scuba diving in the world. And secondly, the beaches are great. There’s also great golfing as well as many excellent restaurants.
Hotels in Cozumel are varied in standard, but those seeking the utmost in luxury might be a little disappointed. If you really want to splash out, you’ll find better luxury hotels on Mexico’s mainland. Most hotels are found on the West coast of the island. There are very few big resorts – most places to stay are small, stylish places. Scuba divers should stay on the South West of the island as this is where most of the best dive sites are found.
San Miguel is the only town on the island and is where the cruise ships dock. The plaza is very scenic, especially when the tourist hordes aren’t around. Sunday evenings are good fun as a variety of local bands usually appear to play music in the plaza – witnessing these music shows is one of the most entertaining things to do in Cozumel. The airport is just a few miles outside of town – there are flights available from various travel hubs in the USA, as well as Mexico City.
3. Holbox Island
Holbox Island (or Isla Holbox in Spanish) is a beautiful destination of low key hotels, endless sandy beaches, and beautiful tranquil waters. The island itself is 25km by 3km, so there is plenty of space for tourists. Development is generally low rise, with plenty of colorful Caribbean style houses. The town of Holbox has sandy streets, very few vehicles and a laid back vibe – it’s a great place to hang out for a while on your vacation to Mexico. Holbox is very peaceful – a far cry from the hectic Cancun – and in the low season bars and restaurants are often shut by 10 pm. It’s a great Mexican vacation destination if you like lazing in a hammock under palm trees or hiring a golf buggy to explore some secluded beaches.
As part of Mexico’s Yum Balama Reserve, the island is a sanctuary for much wildlife – flamingoes, dolphins and whale sharks (lots of them in the summer-friendly ones!) are often spotted in near Holbox Island. Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of mosquitoes, so you’ll need to bring plenty of repellents, especially if visiting during the rainy season.
Most restaurants and hotels are found near the main plaza, though there are a few more secluded options on the North Coast of the island. Hotels in Holbox are very varied in standard – everything from budget to luxury, meaning that the island is a great place to visit for all.
To travel to Holbox, there are numerous daily ferries from the port of Chiquila on the mainland of Mexico. Departure times of ferries to Holbox are often timed to coincide with the arrival of buses from other nearby destinations such as Merida, Valladolid, and Cancun. For those driving, it’s easy to leave your car in a car park in Chiquila.
4. Playa del Carmen
What used to be a sleepy fishing village has rapidly exploded into one of Mexico’s most popular beach resorts. Though development has been rapid (the population is now over 200,000), Playa del Carmen does still retain a degree of charm. For example, developments are generally low rise (unlike in Cancun, which is 30 minutes travel North), and the atmosphere remains quite laid back and hip.
Playa del Carmen’s beaches are fantastic too – long, white, sandy beaches with very calm, crystalline waters. As one of the Riviera Maya’s larger resorts, there’s plenty of activities on offer too – sailing, scuba diving, snorkeling, bike riding, etc. Playa del Carmen also proves a good base for visiting some of Mexico’s nearby ruins such as those at Chitzen Itza and Tulum. There is also a range of excellent sophisticated restaurants, as well as many bars and a buzzing nightlife, especially so during spring break, when hordes of young North Americans descend on this coastal region of Mexico – the Yucatan Peninsula.
Playa del Carmens’ hotels are highly varied in standard – all budgets are catered for. Note that during Mexico’s low season, prices are often as much as 40% less than during the peak tourism seasons, when the resort can get very busy. There’s certainly no shortage of hotels – in the center, almost every building seems to be a hotel. Hotels are generally upmarket, and there are many good boutique style hotels to be found.
Playa del Carmen rivals Cancun as the Maya Riviera’s top vacation destination. If you seek a buzzy, vibrant destination with fine beaches, it’s a great option. While Cancun is rather blighted by large franchise and chain hotels, Playa del Carmen retains a more individualistic feel to the place. It’s also less expensive, and there are more budget hotels to choose from.
Tulum refers to both the Maya ruins and the small town of the same name. The ruins themselves aren’t as spectacular as many of the other Maya ruins found in Mexico, but what is spectacular here is the setting. A handful of small old buildings sit perched atop a cliff with stunning views down to the beach and the beautiful azure waters of the Riviera Maya. The beach in front of the ruins of Tulum is quite fantastic, making the site an extremely popular day trip from other nearby resorts on the coast. As such, the ruins and beach can become very busy – best to visit very early or very late to truly appreciate the spectacular setting of Tulum.
The village of Tulum is about 4km South of the ruins themselves, and is an increasingly popular resort, though it remains small and low key by the standards of the Maya Riviera’s larger resorts North up the coast. There is a very good range of hotels in Tulum. There’s more budget accommodation than luxury hotels here, hence it’s a popular place for backpackers to sample Mexico’s Caribbean coast. There are many good value cabanas on the beach that can be stayed in. There are also a variety of scuba diving operators.
All in all, Tulum is a great place to sample some of Mexico’s lovely beaches, especially for those on a tight budget or who seek a smaller resort on the Maya Riviera.
Acapulco is one of the most popular beach vacation destinations in Mexico. Situated in the state of Guerrero on Mexico’s Pacific coast, a short flight from Mexico City, Acapulco has excellent beaches, great restaurants and a range of luxury hotels and all-inclusive resorts suitable for a wide variety of vacations. There are direct flights from various cities in the USA, making it a very popular Mexico vacation spot.
Most hotels in Acapulco are first-class luxury all-inclusive resorts offering beach view rooms, perfect for a relaxing vacation in Mexico. There are, however, budget hotels that are not located on the beachfront. Acapulco can get very busy and rowdy during spring break as young vacationers descend on mass for a party vacation. The nightlife is legendary at clubs such as the Palladium Acapulco. The Palladium Club is certainly one of the best places for partying vacations. In addition to the numerous clubs and bars, many tourists visit this part of Mexico to experience many of the excellent Mexican restaurants.
Found amid nine scenic mountain backed bays, Huatulco is a pleasant and picturesque purpose-built beach resort that is far smaller and more tranquil than many others on Mexico’s Pacific coast. It’s a good place to get away from things – a peaceful resort with plenty of opportunities for indulgence and luxury. Just as Cancun was developed as a beach resort in the 1980s so was Huatulco – however, development was limited to buildings of no more than 4 stories here, and large areas of land were left untouched as ecological reserves. Four of Huatulco’s 9 bays are protected areas, where no development is permitted – they remain almost virgin in nature. Compared to other resorts in Mexico, Huatulco seems very spacious indeed. It also feels less artificial and is upmarket without being too expensive. Nightlife is also limited compared to other options along this coast – for a party vacation, it’s best to travel elsewhere.
Huatulco is now an up and coming package holiday destination, though the vast majority of tourists are Mexican rather than foreign. There’s a great number of lovely beaches very close by – over 30 beaches in total, many of which remain untouched by development. The area is rarely crowded or feels too busy – a real rarity on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
Activities are centered around Huatulco’s peaceful beaches. A great way to explore the area and orientate oneself is to take a cruise day trip soon after you arrive. The mountainous and rainforested area inland also offers opportunities for hiking and adventure tourism.
Huatulco is divided into three distinct zones – Crucecita, Santa Cruz and Tangolunda. Tangolunda is the most developed of the three. Further afield, the colonial city of Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most beautiful and is the ideal place to combine with a vacation to Huatulco.
Manzanillo is a well established, traditional Mexican beach resort well known for its fine sandy beaches, excellent deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, and golf courses. There is also good birdwatching in the lagoons just outside of town. It’s a large Mexican city – and has Mexico’s busiest seaport. The city center, where the port is found, is full of commercial activity, while the Santiago Peninsula to the North is home to the vast majority of the hotels in Manzanillo. Here is a very different experience of visiting other places on Mexico’s Pacific coast – after all this is a real city, not one that relies on tourism, let alone a place such as Cancun that was specifically built for tourists. A trip to the Manzanillo city center’s waterfront plaza offers a great insight into Mexican city life.
Manzanillo’s sandy beaches are fine, golden and curving – much like the local people you might meet in the local salsa clubs (see photo). Many of the resorts have what are, in effect, private beaches. Head to the public beaches for a glimpse of the colorful local life. On the Santiago Peninsula, Playa Audiencia has the best swimming. Playa San Pedrito is the busiest beach, mainly because of its location so close to Manzanillo city center. Playa Miramar is where the surfers hang out. Las Brisas is a little north of the city, en route to the Santiago peninsula – there’s an assortment of hotels here in addition to a fine beach.
Why visit Manzanillo? It’s unlikely to be many people’s first choice for a beach vacation in Mexico. For those looking for a real Mexican city experience combined with excellent beaches and all the holiday activities that come with them, it’s a great choice.
9. Puerto Vallarta
With over 3 million annual visitors, 30 miles of fantastic beaches, a very agreeable climate, Puerto Vallarta is one of Mexico’s most popular beach resorts. Development may be a high rise and intensive, but it does still maintain a high degree of charm, particularly so in the cobbled old town (known as Old Vallarta). Whether your after a golfing holiday, family vacation, honeymoon or a hedonistic spring break – everyone is catered to in Puerto Vallarta.
What makes Puerto Vallarta stand out from many other Mexican beach resorts is its culture. There is a thriving art scene, in part because of the area’s great beauty, and gourmet restaurants with celebrity chefs abound too. November is a great month to visit as almost all the month consists of the Puerto Vallarta International Gourmet Festival, with plenty of sailing regattas, art shows, and live concerts.
The old town has exploded in size, and now “Puerto Vallarta” refers to a long 30-mile strip of beaches and resorts. To the North, this strip commences at Punta Mita, where there are various upscale, large resorts and golf courses. A little further South one finds some fine surfing beaches, plus upmarket retirement communities and vacation home developments near Bucerias and La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. Further South is Nuevo Vallarta, with a lovely long sandy beach and populated by the occasional large all-inclusive resort. Then comes Marina Vallarta, where there is a mixture of condos and hotels. Further south still is the Zona Hotelera (or “the hotel zone”), where there is a mix of many major chain hotels. This is central Puerto Vallarta, where the beaches are especially busy and backed by many bars and restaurants. To the south of the center are various other beaches including Conchas Chinas, Mismaloya and Boca de Tomatlan. Even further South are a variety of lovely beaches that are only accessible by boat. The more exclusive hotels are found in the south of the center. There is an enormous range of different types of hotels in Puerto Vallarta – everyone is catered to in this region of Mexico.
10. Zihuatanejo & Ixtapa
Separated by just a few miles of beaches, the twin resorts of Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa are some of Mexico’s most laid back vacation spots. The rainy season is from July to October, but the rains are less frequent here than at other resorts on Mexico’s Pacific coast such as Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta.
Ixtapa is a very well organized, purpose-built resort with many high rise hotels and modern infrastructure. Zihuatanejo, on the other hand, is rather more hap-hazard, charming and authentically Mexican. These two neighboring resorts make for an interesting contrast. Of the two resorts, Ixtapa is more luxurious, Zihuatanejo slightly more rustic and hippyish.
Popular activities in the area are deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, boat tours to remote beaches or Ixtapa Island, as well as golfing holidays.
Like so many other resorts on Mexico’s coast, Zihuatanejo used to be a sleepy fishing village until a couple of decades ago. Blessed with some of Mexico’s most lovely beaches at Zihuatanejo Bay, this is now one of Mexico’s most loved resorts for those in the know. Zihuatanejo has a larger range of accommodation options than Ixtapa – everything from stylish boutique hotels to cheap budget places can be found.
Ixtapa is a relatively small resort, with only a few dozen places to stay, most of which are high-rise beachfront hotels. It lacks overly luxurious hotels, making it a much better value beach vacation destination than many of the bigger resorts on this coast. Because of its fine beaches, manageable size and reasonable price, Ixtapa is a popular choice for family vacations – take care of the dangerous currents though.
Luxury hotels in Ixtapa include the Las Brisas, Westin Resort, Dorado Pacifico, the NH Krystal Hotel, the Sheraton and the Sunspree Resort, to name just a few.
11. Cabo San Lucas
How times change. Cabo San Lucas used to be a sleepy beach town on the tip of Baja California. The airport used to consists of a single, large cabana. For better or worse, those days are gone.
Cabo San Lucas is quickly becoming the place to be among Mexican beach resorts. Rock stars, Sammy Hagar, own bars and sing songs about the place. The marinas have some impressive and expensive boats. Previously bare mountains are now covered by large and impressive homes. Heck, there are even traffic jams!
Still, there is a reason all this is going on. Cabo San Lucas is simply a top-notch place to go on a vacation. The sunbeams all day and there are activities galore. You can go deep-sea fishing, kayaking, surfing or just loaf on the beach. Cafes and bars populate the beaches, but you don’t get the hectic feeling found in Acapulco. For nightlife, Cabo San Lucas can’t be beaten with legendary bars and quality restaurants.
If you’re “forced” to go to Mexico on vacation, either Acapulco or Cabo San Lucas is a good spot. All and all, I prefer Cabo, but to each their own.