Today we're sharing with you our ultimate guide to Cancun and the Riviera Maya based on our experience in the area, whether you're visiting for a quick holiday or an extended stay like us, we hope this Blog will give you all the helpful tips you'll need to get the most out of your trip to this beautiful region in Mexico.
Cancun is a Mexican city located in the state of Quintana Roo, and is the most populous city in the state, with almost 1,000,000 residents.
Cancun airport is the gateway to the riviera maya and is Mexico's second busiest airport, after Mexico City Despite the recent pandemic, In 2021, Cancun airport handled over 22 million passengers and over 30 million passengers in 2022.
It's important to note that unlike other airports in Mexico, when you arrive in Cancun you will automatically have your passport stamped for a 6-month visa, so if you plan on visiting the Riviera Maya for an extended trip, we highly recommend making Cancun your first port of entry.
Known for its 5-star resorts, entertainment district and pristine beaches, Cancun is the traditional landing spot for most tourists travelling to the area.
Although we haven't spent a lot of time in Cancun outside of the all-inclusive resorts we stayed at, mostly due to the high prices of transport and accommodation, it is a great place to start your travels as there are so many places to go and things to do from the city.
If you're looking for an all-inclusive holiday, we highly recommend the Wyndham Altra resort, although we only spent 24 hours at the resort we thoroughly enjoyed our stay, the food was second to none and the service was 5 stars.
We also stayed at the worst-rated resort in Cancun and we can tell you from experience, there is no comparison.
From Canun you can take a quick ferry ride to either Isla Mujeres or Isla Holbox, both of which are amazingly stunning islands, but for us, Holbox takes the cake.
Isla Holbox is located just 60 km from Cancun and is accessible by ferry, the island itself is stunning and is 40 km long and only 2 km wide, with about 34 km of beach to the north
The boat to Holbox leaves from the port of Chiquila daily from 6:00 am to 9:30 pm every half an hour. The Ferry costs around $ 7 dollars and crossing to the island takes 20 minutes.
We spent a couple of days exploring the island by bike which costs around 250 pesos for 24 hours, there is also an option to hire a golf cart on the island as there are no paved roads or cars on Holbox, however, be prepared to pay a much higher amount for this option.
Holbox itself still feels relatively untouched in comparison to some of the other islands in the area, which made it one of our favourite spots to visit during our time in Mexico.
Accommodation is relatively cheap on Holbox, we stayed at the "Villas El Jardin" which cost us around 150 US Dollars for 2 nights.
The hotel itself was quite reasonable however the location was the biggest selling point as it was right in the middle of the downtown area of the island making it easy to get around.
If you're visiting the Island there are 2 key things you MUST do during your stay,
Visit Punta Mosquito, Punta mosquito is located to the northern tip of the island and is accessible by bike, golf cart or our preferred method, walking the huge stretch of sandbank surrounded by pristine crystal blue waters.
If you're lucky enough to be on Holbox during the summer months chances are you'll get to see some of the amazing local wildlife including pink flamingos that migrate to the area.
Bioluminescence, because on the island of Holbox there is a large number of species known as phytoplankton, a luminescent effect is generated underwater at night in just a few select places.
Therefore you will need to book a tour in order to see the bioluminescence and depending on the time of year, you may need to take the tour either very late at night or early in the morning.
Isla Mujeres, translated in English to "the island of women" Is known for its warm and transparent waters, which make it the perfect home for dolphins and turtles, and swimming with them is one of the most popular activities that can be done here.
To get to the island, you have to take a ferry from Puerto Juarez, the crossing takes 15 minutes and will cost you around $20 return.
Although there are cars and paved roads on the island, the most popular mode of transport is by golf cart, however, be prepared to pay around $80 per day for rental, we opted for a scooter which cost us $700 pesos for 24 hours.
The most popular beach on Isla Mujeres is Playa Norte, which is especially beautiful due to the fact that it is one of the only beaches in the area that doesn't seem to attract any sargassum (seaweed).
Isla Mujeres has some amazing restaurants and bars, although don't expect much to be open past midnight, we had the pleasure of staying in a unique Airbnb while on the island, which was a docked sailboat, the area was very quiet and relaxing, and the hosts were amazing, it also happened to be attached to an authentic Italian restaurant that served some of the best pizza we ever tasted.
Isla Contoy is a small island around 30 kilometres north of Isla Mujeres.
The island is only 8.5 km in length and has an area of just over 3 square kilometres
Since 1961, Isla Contoy has been protected by the Mexican government and was declared a National Park in February 1998. Supervised eco-tourism and regulated commercial fishing are allowed on and near the island.
Although, only a few tour companies have permission to bring at maximum of 200 daily visitors to Isla Contoy. Visitors also need to apply for permission to visit the island at the park offices in Isla Mujeres or Cancun.
Four species of turtle find a safe haven for nesting on the beaches of the island, and the reserve is also a sanctuary to approximately 152 tropical marine birds, unfortunately, our scheduled tour to the island was cancelled due to bad weather, but it was one of the most highly recommended destinations for us to visit in the area.
Puerto Morelos is the main port of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. and is located just 33 km south of Cancun.
Puerto Morelos, despite being a small town located between two great internationally recognized tourist developments has an older history than Cancun and Playa del Carmen, which is made obvious by the beauty of the downtown area, including the iconic leaning lighthouse which was inclined by Hurricane Beulah in 1967, and has been left as is, ever since to symbolise the unshakable character of the people of the area.
With a great seafood restaurant and street food scene, Puerto Moreles is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen and is often a favourite destination for expats looking to move somewhere a little quieter but still close enough to the action.
Here you can find much cheaper accommodation and food prices than in surrounding areas, but also be prepared to go with certain luxuries such as gyms and large supermarkets.
Playa Del Carmen
Playa Del Carmen has been our home base of choice for the last 5 months on and off, mainly due to the many amenities such as grocery stores, gyms, restaurants, and hospitals.
It's also super easy to get around as the centro area is laid out in grid format with the main walking street of 5th Avenue being the centre of the town, which also runs parallel with the beach,
As long as you're staying within a few blocks of 5th avenue you should be able to walk pretty much anywhere, alternatively, you can purchase a bike for quite cheap here, we bought ours for around 2000 pesos each and the seller will even buy it back off you when you decide to leave.
Although there are a lot of affordable options for accommodation in Playa del Carmen it really depends on where you want to stay, if you're close to the action of 5th avenue expect to pay up to $2000/Month. The further you get back from the centro area the cheaper your accommodation will be.
Our 1 bedroom apartment which is only one block back from 5th avenue but down the quieter end of town costs us around $900 per month, while it isn't anything amazing it has everything we need including fast internet, a balcony and a rooftop pool, it's also dog friendly and has lots of local shops and restaurants close by.
Playa del Carmen is a tourism hotspot, with many activities to do in the area including diving, fishing, cenote tours, sky diving and of course nightlife.
If you're visiting the Riviera Maya for an extended period of time we highly recommend making playa Del Carmen your home base, it's centrally located and although it attracts a lot of tourists it still has a large ex-pat and digital nomad community.
The island of Cozumel is located around 20 km off the coast of Playa del Carmen and is accessible by ferry, there are two main ferry companies that run to Cozumel, Winjet and Ultramar which both run daily every 30 minutes and the cost is relatively cheap too at only $7 each way and both are pet-friendly.
The island of Cozumel is about 48 km long and 16 km wide, you can actually drive around the whole island in just under an hour, the best way to get around is by scooter or jeep, we opted for jeep when we visited as we had our dog bear with us, the jeep cost us around $95 for 24 hours but was worth every cent as the drive around the island is simply breathtaking.
We stopped at possibly one of our favourite beaches in the area, "Playa Chen Rio" which was a dog-friendly beach with a restaurant close by, you can rent an umbrella there for the day for a small fee, and spend the day in the shallow rock pools or simply sit back and relax while sipping your favourite drink.
While we were on Cozumel we visited a great little brewery called "Cerveceria Punta Sur" that had amazing craft beer and pizzas and also allowed us to bring our dog with us, the town itself isn't exactly a party town, but there are plenty of great restaurants to choose from, as for accommodation it is quite cheap for the area, we paid just $65 for a hotel room which was pet-friendly also, we will leave the link to the hotel down below.
Akumal is a coastal resort about 30 minutes south of Playa del Carmen, Akumal Beach has white sands, a coral reef and warm waters rich in marine life including turtles.
To the north, Half Moon Bay has a curved beach, while Yal-ku Lagoon teems with colourful tropical fish, plus stingrays and barracudas, we visited both the beach and the lagoon while we were in Akumal and we found the lagoon to be very refreshing although a little crowded.
Akumal is mostly famous as a destination for snorkelling, where visitors can swim with endangered green sea turtles, who visit the shallow bay to feed on seagrass, however even if you aren't snorkelling, be prepared to pay an entrance fee to the beach as it is a protected area, to be honest, it wasn't one of our favourite places to visit, when we went it was quite crowded and unless you're really into snorkelling and don't mind paying a large fee, there isn't really much else to do as the town itself is quite small.
Tulum is known for its beaches and well-preserved ruins of an ancient Mayan port city. The main building is a large stone structure called El Castillo, which sits on a rocky cliff above the white sand beach and turquoise sea.
Near the ruins is the Parque Nacional Tulum, a coastal area with mangroves and cenotes.
There are plenty of cenotes to visit in the area including El Gran, Calavera, Escondido, Dos Ojos, Tortuga and many more.
Tulum is known for its more laid-back, hippy vibe than Playa del Carmen and Cancun, with lots of boho-style bars and restaurants downtown as well as in the hotel zone near the beach, if you're staying downtown though you will need some form of transportation to get to the beach as taxis can be quite expensive.
We were lucky enough to visit the oldest Mexican restaurant in Tulum called "Don Cafeto" where we ate some delicious authentic Mexican food while street performers danced for us, while Tulum was one of our favourite places to visit, the layout of the city isn't the best for getting around which is the reason we decided not to make it our home base.
While we were in Tulum we stayed at the beautiful Moroccan-themed Layla boutique hotel, we highly recommend this hotel as it was close to downtown and also offered an amazing rooftop pool and bar, as well as second-to-none service.
Rooms at the Layla hotel start at around $160 US dollars, but if you use our exclusive booking platform you can expect to save up to 70 Percent on resorts and hotels, not to mention we receive a small commission for every booking.
Last but definitely not least, is Bacalar.
Bacalar is a small town around 3 hours south of Playa del Carmen not far from the Belize border, It’s situated on Lake Bacalar, also called the Lagoon of Seven Colours due to its beautiful blue and turquoise hues
We were lucky enough to stay at the cutest little cottage just across the road from the lagoon and the maracuya beach club, which was one of the coolest beach clubs we've ever been to, they even served bright blue beer.
This was another dog-friendly destination as not only were we able to bring Bear to our Airbnb but he was welcome at the beach club too, he literally spent the whole day jumping off the pier and swimming with the staff at the club who were all extremely friendly.
The downtown area of Bacalar itself is beautiful also, centred around the town square which has lots of beautiful art and luscious plant life.
But perhaps our favourite part of Bacalar was spending time at possibly the coolest bar we've been to in Mexico... I Scream bar.
Here you will find people dancing and singing on tables until all hours of the night, the staff are great at attracting new patrons and seem to have just as much fun as the customers too.
Although Bacalar is a bit further away than the rest of the places on this list, it's definitely worth a visit, you can also visit the famous cenote Azul and los rapids when you're there, where you can float down the river either by kayak or simply just using a life jacket and snorkel.
So that's it for our guide to the Riviera Maya, we hope you found this video helpful.
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