Cancun and the Riviera Maya: Discover the Caribbean coast

Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula draws millions of tourists each year who come for the crystal clear waters, year-round sunny climate and beautiful beach resorts, but it's not all about the glitz and glamour of the well known party spots. From popular attractions to more sedate nature reserves and beach hangouts, I travelled to Cancun and the Riviera Maya to find out more...


Cancun is built for tourism, and being so close to America it's a favourite with American college students who descend upon the area in March and April each year for its bars, clubs and entertainment venues.

Aerial view of Cancun, Mexico © safa - Wiki Commons

In contrast, the resorts along the 14 miles of coast to the south cater more to the high-end tourists who want to relax on the pristine beaches and avoid the party goers. Cancun's by far the most expensive though and everything here is pricey from a night out to arranged tours.

If you do fancy a fun night out, don't miss Coco Bongo - a unique combination of Cirque du Soleil and music, owned and influenced in part by actor Jim Carrey.There's a Coco Bongo in Playa del Carmen too.

Swimming with whale sharks - image courtesy of

If it's wildlife you're after, aim to visit between May and September when the surrounding waters are frequented by whale sharks during their annual migration. A day trip is easy from Cancun and, although it isn't cheap, swimming with these placid creatures is an experience you'll never forget.

The Underwater Museum sculpture, Mexican Caribbean © Jason deCaines Taylor - Wiki Commons

The Mexican Caribbean coast is also an underwater mecca that lures divers to its clear waters, and the Cancun Underwater Museum is an added attraction. For island lovers, Isla Mujeres is just a boat ride away and only accessible from this popular tourist destination.

The Riviera Maya

Further south along the Yucatan Peninsula is the Riviera Maya, a more natural region than Cancun with protected areas and eco-parks full of mangroves, lagoons and cenotes (sinkholes) for swimming and snorkelling.

Xel-Ha Inlet, Riveria Maya, Mexico © Angelique800326 - Wiki Commons

This area is also home to Xel-Ha, the largest natural aquarium in the world. An all inclusive day pass to Xel-Ha park includes snorkelling equipment, access to 20 activities, and a selection of food and drink options.You can also stroll through the surrounding jungle, swim with dolphins, get up close and personal with manatees or simply enjoy a day relaxing in the natural environment.

Playa del Carmen and Tulum are generally more popular with Europeans but even these destinations, although just one hour apart, have their own identities.

Playa del Carmen, Riveria Maya, Mexico © Elelicht - Wiki Commons

Playa del Carmen has everything you need including boutique shops and cafes. There's just as much nightlife as Cancun all within walking distance of your accommodation, but instead of all inclusive prices you have the freedom to bar hop. Although a lot smaller than Cancun, the beach is just as nice and there's always the stunning island of Cozumel just across the water off the Yucatan Peninsula.

Tulum has more of a travellers' feel and is less touristy with authentic restaurants and chilled out bars (including one with swings!). It's great for those on a budget, although you can still find the all inclusive hotels along the beach. The beach here actually tops the others and is quite untouched, however, if you're not staying there you may need to catch a bus to get to the beach itself.

Mayan ruins near Tulum, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Riviera Maya Tourist Board

The Mayan ruins of Tulum are easy to spot on the cliffs above the beach, while the ancient ruins of Coba are a short hop away, and you can reach the famous Chichen Itza from any of the destinations mentioned. Away from the main strip and further south is a more laid back vibe with a hippy feel and yoga retreats for those wishing to escape the crowds.

Cancun airport serves all three destinations but if you're still unsure which one to visit, why not combine all three? Getting around is so easy with the Ado buses that run regular services between Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

Getting to Cancun and the Riviera Maya, Mexico

Sandwiched between the US and Central America, the Yucatan Peninsula is up to 11 hours' flight time from London. Numerous holiday providers and airlines fly to Cancun, including:

Mexico is a year-round destination as it lies within the tropics although there's a risk of tropical storms in September and October. If you want to avoid the humidity December to April is the best time to go. Mexico's Caribbean coast is suitable for everyone, and whether you're looking for a relaxed, lively or budget holiday, you're guaranteed to find it here.

Have you enjoyed the delights of the Yucatan Peninsula? Tell us about your experiences in Cancun and the Riviera Maya below...

Lisa Eldridge

Lisa Eldridge
Posted on Tuesday 15th October 2013 in: Adventure Beach Caribbean Excursions

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