Least Crowded (and Still Awesome) Beaches in Mexico

It is one of the many ironies of life that we have a harder time looking at what is right before us. If you ask me where the most beautiful beaches of the world are, I won’t hesitate to say Mexico, but I sometimes forget it when I’m here. Planning my Easter holiday, I made a list of affordable and underrated beaches, I present you with the results.


La Paz, Baja California Sur

When people think of Baja Sur, they usually think of Los Cabos. While Los Cabos is beautiful, it is far too produced for me, and far too crowded. La Paz is definitely not as chick, but the vibes there are amazing. You can take long strolls down the port or along the Magdalena Bay, even catch a glimpse of whales. The Malecón is the perfect place to ride a bike, and you can take a bus to Todos Santos, a small, pintoresque town some 40 minutes away.

La Paz is very chill. If you’re into snorkeling and whale-watching you can take a boat to some of the neighboring islands. You can even camp in some of them, like Espíritu Santo. La Paz is one of my favourite cities in Mexico, and the food, specially the lobster, is just amazing.

Sayulita, Nayarit

Not far from busier beaches like Puerto and Nuevo Vallarta, Sayulita is an alternative destination especially popular to surfers. It’s beaches are usually busy but not crowded, and it’s a place in which you can get a quite afternoon and then join a party later.

The streets of the town are very picturesque, with papel picado and street art in every corner. There are many eco-friendly hotels along the beach, as well as local-produce restaurants. Perhaps the coolest part of Sayulita is the conservation projects you can take part in, such as turtle camps where you can help baby turtles into the sea and help the night patrols.

Rincón de Guayabitos, Nayarit

Guayabitos is basically a huge bay. It was a very popular destination some years ago, but now it’s very calm. There are two islands close by in which you can do snorkeling with a certified guide. It is mainly frequented by locals, and there are many small bungalows for rent, as well as eco-friendly hotels. Although the nightilife is good, it is mostly a family spot.

A few notes

  • The Easter Holidays draw thousands of tourist to Mexico’s most popular beaches every year: Acapulco, Cancún, Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos. As a consecuence of irregulated tourism and big touristic complexes, all of these once beautiful places are now polluted, mistreated and even dangerous. The impact of irresponsible tourism has taken its toll on the environment, and it painful to see the beloved beaches of my childhood covered in trash, its locals moving away and selling their land to big companies.
  • That’s why I hesitate to recommend beaches in my country, but after some thought I decided it was best to point out some not-so-popular destinations that are beautiful and, more importantly, have now eco-friendly options of accomodation. These are not destinations to get trashed and party, but to take a (responsible) look at nature and wildlife, explore small towns and go on a hike or two.
  • If you’re interested in doing some snorkeling or hiking in any of these beaches, I recommend you go to a certified guide. Also, many locals will offer you whale or shark swimming/watching experiences in Mexico, but most of them are not qualified to work near wildlife and would end up harming them. Please don’t buy on-the-spot wildlife tours.
  • Taking with you metal straws, reusable water bottles and thermos is essential when traveling, specially so close to the ocean. Every time i go to the beach I’m so sad to see how many cigarette butts are in the beach, if you smoke don’t throw them in the sand, they’re plastic!
  • Be sure to remember the 7 principles of Leave No Trace.

I would love to hear what you think of these places if you travel there!

Aaaand, don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter. Happy traveling!

Cenote Dos Ojos

Apart from its beautiful beaches, pink lakes and mouthwatering food, the Mayan Riviera is also known for its many cenotes. A cenote is basically a hole that exposes an underground body of water. There are more than 6,000 cenotes in the southern peninsula of Mexico, and while the biggest ones are taken care of and charge you for entering, there are many small ones where you can just jump in (at your own risk). Cenotes in both Yucatán and Quitana Roo are part of an underground river that still flows, so the water is crystal clear, cool, and clean.

One of the cenotes we visited is only 20 minutes away from the archeological site of Tulum, in Quintana Roo, and it is called Dos Ojos (“two eyes”), because there are two main bodies of water in the area, connected by tunnels. Altogether, there are five cenotes there and the entrance fee depends on how many you want to visit and wether you want to hire equipment. We hired a somewhat basic tour of the main cenotes and an area called the “bat cave” because, well, it is basically a cave with a lot of bats. So, for 300 mexican pesos we got some snorkeling equipment and diving suits (yes, it was like 35ºC outside but the cenotes were cool and the water was COLD, so get the funny suit). The tour took around 45 and there were only like 8 or 10 people including us. Afterwards we could stay there for as long as we wanted. Best spent money of the trip, let me tell you.

The tour is really okay. It was not, thank God, one of those wannabefunny tours, but an informative account of how cenotes came to be, which animal species live there and other interesting facts. But the real reason the tour is worth it was the bat cave. Without a tour guide there is no access to this area, because it is quite difficult to get there: there are narrow passages, very shallow and very deep areas, and it is in complete darkness (they give you flashlights but still, it’s important to be with someone who knows the way).

The cave is small and its roof is comepletely SWARMED with bats. It is really a surreal experience to hear them chirping and feel them flying around you. Also, the cenotes in Dos Ojos are not really “open”— there’s an opening on the side from where you get it and where the light comes in, but they’re not open from above like other cenotes. This means you can’t really see the sky from the water. Instead, the roof is covered in stalagtites (and stalagmites will most definitely mess up with you) and the light that manages to come in has a blueish colour, which I think is way cooler.

Once the tour is over you can swim around, dive, snorkel or just sit somewhere. There are areas for scuba divers too, but you have to present your certification and bring your equipment. The park itself is really big and so are the main cenotes; however, it was surprisingly not crowded when we were there, which was weird after going to Tulum, which was really full. I understand that the park only allows a certain number of people every day because of safety and ecological reasons.

There was an area with lockers and changing rooms where we left our things (and our cameras). I did manage to take some underwater pictures, but I they all look like these:

 

 

 

Anyway, here’s a video that hopefully conveys the experience. Of all the cool things we got to do in Quintana Roo, this cenote was really one of the best. It is really one of those places that make you realise how strange and beautiful nature can be, and how there can be a balance between tourism and environmental care. So if you’re traveling to the south of Mexico, cenotes are really a must visit. There are many options, the most famous being Ik Kil in Yucatán, or a very similar but smaller option called Yokdzonot. There are also the ones in Xcaret, in Quintana Roo (this park offers some activities in underground rivers and caves), but Dos Ojos was really an amazing experience.

Have you visited any cenoted? Which ones do you love?

Holbox

On our third day in the Mayan Riviera, we drove north for two hours, from Playa del Carmen to a town called Chiquilá, to take a ferry to Holbox island (pronounced holbósh). Despite the island’s very recent popularity, we were a bit disapointed to see that a lot of people were going there, huge ferries going and coming every half hour or so. Nevertheless, we parked near the docks for only $50 mxn and got on the Holbox Express for $150 (each way). The trip takes about 30 minutes. We got decent seats on the top part and, were it not for the loud reggaetón music, it would have been an enjoyable ride.

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Holbox

I heard of Holbox some four years ago and that image stayed with me: a small haven in Quintana Roo the big hotels hadn’t spoiled yet. Perhaps it was so then. Now, even when there are no big hotels, there however many small fancy restaurants, beach clubs and small hotels. The unpaved streets and the fact that finding an ATM is pretty hard give the place some kind of deserted island vibe, but a look around the beach would shatter that perception. Holbox, however, is the perfect weekend getaway: bad phone service, quiet beaches by day, plenty of coffee and gelato places and a growing number of environmentally-conscious tours by boat to see the whales, dolphins and sharks.

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Holbox has one of the most beautiful beaches too, the only one were sargasso was not a problem. You could walk towards the sea for about 300 meters and the crystal clear water would barely reach your knees. For the same reason, the waters is a bit warmer than at the mainland, but by morning is good for paddling and kayaking. The island is the perfect Caribbean location: palm trees, snow-white sand, clear blue sky and an even clearer sea. The streets and plazas of the town are covered in urban art with Mexican motifs and so there’s plenty to see both at the beach and in the town.

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We hired some (overpriced) hammocks at the beach and left our stuff there while we swam, we read a bit and found a place to eat as the afternoon approached. As we did not spend the night there, we had to take one of the last ferries at 6:00 pm, but anyway that was enough time to take a look around, chill and swim.

For lunch we went to a place called Mandarina, which belongs to the hotel Casa las Tortugas. The food was amazing and not so expensive, the location is perfect as it is right in front of the beach. The beachside restaurants and bars reminded me a bit of Tulum in style and vibes: Holbox is one of the most relaxing places I’ve been to, and people there are somehow so chill and fashionable at the same time, everybody walks or rides a bike along the sand-covered streets and the biggest vehicles around are golf cars and quads.

All in all, Holbox was one of my favorite places in Quintana Roo, I just wish he had stayed longer there.

Have you been to Holbox? What are your thoughts on it?

Cancún & Playa del Carmen

This Summer some friends and I visited the area known as the Mayan Riviera, which comprehends some 140 kilometers along the coast in the state of Quintana Roo, México. We made base in Playa del Carmen and drove to different towns and beaches along the Riviera from there. Although Cancún is a very popular and touristy place, it is also one of the most beautiful spots of the south of Mexico in terms of nature: sand as white as snow, the clearest, bluest water and lots of vegetation. Also, not everything is big chain hotels and luxury resorts, recently there has been a boom in ecotourism in the area, so apart from finding ecological, little hotels along the coast in Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancún, you can also enjoy nature in many of the natural reserves (like Sian Ka’an) and see some of the native animal species (like sea turtles, jaguars and monkeys) without harming their environment.

Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is 50 minutes away by car from Cancún International Airport. We stayed there because it is a bit cheaper than Cancún and is right in between Cancún and Tulum. There’s a lot going on in Playa, as well as many beaches that are worth visiting, although in my opinion they’re not as beautiful as Cancún’s. This season I got to see the problem that has been haunting the Mayan Riviera for the last couple of years: sargasso. While we parked out battered rented car some 600 meters away from the beach, we could already smell the decomposing seaweed. Even when it is a real environmental threat possibly caused by global warming and the authorities are doing everything they can to take it away from the beaches, it is not really harmful in any way. Every beach we visited in the Riviera had the same problem, except for the islands.

In Playa del Carmen we went to Playa Paraíso (although many people recommended us to go to Mamitas), and we had a nice, quiet time once we walked away from the hubbub around the parking area. Most public beaches are busy during the Summer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a quiet spot if you walk far enough. As it happens in many places in México, vendors of all kinds of food and drinks (specially coconut water and fresh mangoes), so a towel, sunscreen, a book and some cash will be all you need to spend a morning in the beach. There are some hammocks and umbrellas for rent, too.

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Playa Paraíso and sargasso.

Playa del Carmen’s most famous street is called the Quinta Avenida, a long street that goes parallel to the beach and where you can find all kinds of shops, restaurants, cafés, malls, bars and nightclubs. During the day it is nice to take a stroll there as you can find many places where they sell handcrafts and traditional food. During the night, this is definitely the place to go for dinner and drinks. We had really nice cocktails at a place called Patio 8, and would have gone partying to Mandala, but went home instead (*sigh*).

The Quinta Avenida is a really interesting place to be at night, full of street performers, mexican pop culture everywhere and in many bizarre shapes and more foreigners than locals (as I think happens in all of the Mayan Riviera’s touristic places). The atmosphere from the bars and nightclubs seemed to reach the streets, people would walk along singing, sit on some bench to talk or eat ice-cream, boisterous laughter came from everywhere. All in all, I think Playa del Carmen is a perfect place to have one of those relax-during-the-day-party-at-night holidays. Not being our type of holiday, it was good to only spend the nights there and two or three full days.

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Cancún

Cancún is perhaps the place in Quintana Roo I am most familiar with and my favourite time to go there is definitely October. The weather is good all year round, altough Summers can be rainy and too hot, so the “colder” months are the best option, but bear in mind that December and January are the busiest, so everything from flights to accommodation will be more expensive. This year we went in July and it was perhaps too hot, but not too crowded. Cancún’s hotel zone is in the furtherst end of the Riviera, a street with hotels and seaviews on both sides, and also some of the prettiest public beaches.

 

On this trip we did not spend much time in Cancún itself, but we had a lot of fun in Playa Delfines. Parking there is free and renting some chairs was cheaper than in other beaches (300 mxn for the whole day). It is a nice beach to practice surfing and other aquatic sports, but if you want to do it you should arrive really early; when were there, arounf 12.00 pm, the waves were already too strong. The beach is a typical Caribbean beach, with white sand, clear blue water and many palm trees and vegetation. It is a good sport for a run too (the beach is 30 km long), or just to relax. We found that around 4pm many people started coming with beer and loud music, so perhaps the mornings are better if you’re not carrying beer and a speaker yourself.  

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Playa Delfines

Cancún, just like Playa del Carmen, is a great place for partying, but not being big on parties myself, I recommend you leave Cancún to find more exciting day activities and less crowded natural spots. You can visit any of the beaches along the hotel zone, or you can just visit one the nature parks along the Playa del Carmen-Cancún road, like Xel-Há, Xplor or Xcaret. Xcaret is definitely my favourite, because even if the admission is a bit more expensive (around $1,800 mxn), it has a bit of everything: you can be there from 8am until 10pm, swim in cenotes and underground rivers with all equipment included, have food in many different restaurants, see the wildlife (monkeys, jaguars, flamingoes), while being sure you’re not damaging them in any way, snorkeling in the sea, doing some more extreme things like ziplining and scuba diving, and finally enjoy some dinner or drinks while watching traditional mexican dances. If you’re only into adventure and extreme sports, however, the best option would be Xplor. Of course you can also find other cenotes on your own, as well as water activities in public beaches, but I really recommend any of the parks as a one-day activity.

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Xcaret

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Xcaret

Finally, when it comes to food, both Playa and Cancún offer great food from every place in the world, as well as wonderful mexican food and mouth-watering seafood. I believe, however, that both cities offer a kind of travel experience that is becoming less and less interesting for me: luxury resorts, fancy restaurants and giang nightclubs. But I am also happy to notice that ecotourism is making a big arrival in the area, as well as in some other areas of my country (Yucatán and other parts in Quintana Roo like Tulum and Holbox being ahead in that respect). Few things beat the beauty of the Mexican Caribbean, but it saddens me to see that what has made these cities famous around the world is also very damaging for both the environment and the local people. If you’re interested in reading about harming tourism in Quintana Roo, this article might be helpful (athough the author mistook Quintana Roo for Yucatán).

Tulum

During our road trip along Quintana Roo and Yucatán, one of the first stops was Tulum. The archeological site of Tulum, which means “enclosure” or “wall”, was a very important city for the ancient Mayans, functioning too as an observatory. Now, the ruins of Tulum are inside a natural reserve, not far from the modern town of Tulum and the hotel zone— the whole area goes by the same name.

The ruins

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Our first stop in Tulum, after a one-hour drive from Playa del Carmen was, of course, the ruins. The entrance to the ruins. We parked in the archeological site for $100 mxn, then we walked through some kind of shopping/food court area, and finally made it to the entrance. You can either queue to buy the tickets from a booth or buy them from a ticket machine, which is faster. We were there on a Thursday in July, and even when there were many people, it was nowhere near as crowded as some other places in the Mayan Riviera. The tickets cost $70 mxn per person.

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Once there, it took about three hours to walk around the ruins. The day was sunny and very hot, and there are not many shadowy spots, so water and appropiate clothes for walking are a must. Although they are not the most impressive Mayan ruins, they are the only ones that overlook the sea. The sights of The Castle, the most famous building in the archeological zone, facing the sea, are unbeatable. The variety of the vegetation is also a distinctive trait of Tulum, because the ruins are surrounded by grass, palm trees and other tropical plants. Also, iguanas abound in the area and they’re not afraid to go near people.

For those interested in history and prehispanic culture, a guided tour might be the best option, although for me it was enough to read some information about the uses of each structure from the signs on the grass.

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Another iguana

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Touristic area

About 15 minutes away by car from the archeological zone, there is Tulum’s most famous area, the hotel zone along coastal highway 15. This is really just a narrow street along which there are shops, restaurants, cafés and hotels on both sides. Most of the restaurants sell organic food and many of the hotels are small, eco-friendly huts. Finding a good place to have lunch or dinner is just difficult because there are too many options. However, when it comes to dessert, I believe you should go to Matcha Mama, a nice hawaiian-like hut that has one of the best matcha ice-creams I’ve had. They also have matcha tea in different presentations, as well as other dishes and juices.

The hotel zone in Tulum was one of my favourite places in Quintana Roo. Not because of the shops or restaurants, but because of the vibes. Everybody, locals and tourists alike, seemed chill and friendly. Highway 15, surrounded by palm trees and surfboards is a small hippie paradise, specially tranquil during sunset. However, it is one of the most expensive areas in the state, so be prepared for overpriced meals. Also, as much of the Riviera Maya this time of the year, Tulum’s beaches are being badly affected by sargasso, a recent problem in the Caribbean, caused by climate change.

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Tulum sign right outside the archeological site.

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Turquoise sea, sargasso.

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Chill vibes at sunset