Mexico is a true paradise for those of us who love never-ending summer and Listerine-blue waters. With a non-stop flight from Washington, DC, Cancun is just a couple hours away. If it’s a dreary rainy early morning, you can be sipping margaritas on a beach by noon.
Don’t let unfortunate bad PR deter you from visiting this paradise. Service, food, history, ruins, art, and nature never ceases to amaze me and there is something new to be discovered on each trip. On the east coast of Mexico, you have quite few options catering to a variety of styles. Here is a simple comparison of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
Vibe: Typical touristy destination appealing to families, couples, and groups of friends. Very commercialized and Disney-like. I’m not putting it down, just pointing out for those looking for culture, history and authenticity, this wont be the spot. For those, who have zig-zagged Mexico back and forth, Cancun is a perfect quick getaway to sun and beach when you have only a long weekend to spare.
Beach: Best beach on Riviera Maya. Perfect blue sea, rarely rough, wide white sand beach. Lots of activities going on the beaches by the hotels. Those include volleyball games, foam parties and other nonsense.
Transportation: Airport is only about 10 min out of the city’s hotel zone and you can be on the beach within 30 min of the airplane touching the ground. Once at the hotel, if you want to see the little touristy downtown area, a cab is always available and cheap. Not that that there is much to see.
Accommodations: All kinds of all-inclusive and well-known luxury hotels. Due to Cancun being the oldest and most established Riviera Maya destination, many mid-range hotels might feel run down. Choosing a luxury brand like JW Marriott or the Ritz will ensure a comfortable stay. Keep in mind, hotels are very close to each other, so if you’re staying next to Hard Rock Hotel, there will be a party going on next door at all hours of the day.
Restaurants: Like the town itself, restaurants here cater to all. You can find sports bars, family-friendly places, fast-food, really nice restaurants, and if you dig deeper, local hole-in-a-wall, but more like a shabby-peer-on-the-bayside type of places. Everywhere you’ll find a superb, genuine service, English speaking staff and an American cuisines if that’s what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a great dining experience, there are plenty of restaurants with ambience, amazing food and beyond fantastic service.
Things To Do: Cancun itself does not offer anything besides a perfect beach. However, the dolphin center, Dolphinaris Cancun, is the best thing you can do in Cancun. The water is not chlorinated, they focus on education and preservation instead of making it circus-like.
If you want to add sightseeing to your Cancun getaway, there are lots of day trips to Mayan ruins, cenotes, zip lining tours and alike to choose from.
Playa del Carmen
Vibe: Used to be cool, chill place for those trying to get closer to real Mexican culture than Cancun can offer, but lately became a mini version of Cancun. Still lightly less a party town than Cancun.
Beach: a notch lower than Cancun’s. The water tends to be more rough and thus not as neon-blue as in Cancun, but still an amazing beach. There are couple make-shift “beach clubs” where locals rent lounge chairs, umbrellas, bring you drinks and food.
Transportation: 45 min from Cancun airport. You can take a taxi or arrange a shuttle with the hotel/airbnb you’re staying at.
Accommodations: A mix of boutique hotels, all-inclusives, and Airbnbs. If you’re choosing a boutique, many of them are in the downtown area that can get very loud at night so be aware of that. For the same reason, if you’re looking for a quieter getaway, look for hotels more south, closer to Playacar area. You can still walk downtown, but your sleep won’t be interrupted by techno music.
Restaurants: Like Cancun, it has something for everyone. Lots of tourist trap places with mediocre food, sports bars and great local restaurants with uncomplicated but fresh and exciting food and decent wine lists.
Things To Do: Tulum and Coba ruins are closer to Playa than to Cancun. So are the dozens of cenotes. You can also take a ferry to Cozumel. Look for smaller tours and start as early as possible.
Vibe: If Cancun is a Hawaiian shirt or even worse – a sport jersey-wearing crowd, Tulum is hippy, eco-chic-oriented with a wif of pot in the air. A town full of vegan and raw food eateries, boutique hotels and open air yoga studios.
Beach: the hotels that are situated in small bays can get muddy water and a ton of seaweed. The beach along the main hotel area is much better. Waters can be a bit rough, but signature azure color and white as a snow sand are solid. The beaches by the Tulum ruins are the most picturesque on the East Coast.
Major con: the main road that goes along the hotel zone has as many potholes as speed bumps and zero sidewalks. Makes it a bit hard to explore the town when you have to share the road with tons of taxis trying not to loose their tires in the potholes.
Transportation: It can take up to 2 hours to get here from Cancun. Cabs go up and down the “main road” and will get you anywhere you need to go.
Accommodations: No mega all-inclusives, mostly boutique hotels and airbnbs.
Restaurants: As mentioned earlier, many cute places for vegans, vegetarians and alike. Lots of really great restaurants set in a jungle with innovative cuisines and superb service. More of a cocktail culture and very small wine lists. During the day, you can find small local eateries for lunch. If visiting in a rainy season, keep in mind a lot of these places are outside without real roof so it can get a bit wet..
Things To Do: Cenotes, Tulum ruins and Coba. All these are close by and won’t take the whole day unlike if you’re visiting them from Cancun. Go early for less crowds. You can literally bike to the ruins.
A Note About Safety
Mexico gets a lot of bad PR – cartel violence, kidnappings, hurricane season, lately – the alcohol poisoning at the big resorts. It’s unfortunate for the hospitality industry and the people working there and a huge loss for those who are discouraged from visiting this beautiful place because of this.
When you hear about these incidents, read carefully and understand that news spin facts. Cartel violence and kidnappings do happen but mostly in the areas close to the border, center of the country and west coast. Yucatan peninsula is rarely on “do not travel” list and violence is never directed at the tourists.
Bad stuff happens everywhere, it shouldn’t mean that you decide to never leave your house. People are friendly, hospitable, and they want the same thing as everyone else – safety and economic stability, which in this region is strongly dependent on hospitality. Be smart, respectful, aware of your surroundings and you’ll get to fall in love with this amazing country.