Yes, you read this right. We are writing about beaches and we are ranking them! You can now safely unsubscribe. This travel blog is hopelessly ruined. In all seriousness, we are not beach people and rarely spend our vacations on a beach. In a normal year, you are more likely to find us roaming rural Cambodia, eating street food in China, or getting lost in European art museums. But 2020 was a special year, and our international adventures were limited only to a two-week visit south of the border. And because we have nothing else to write about in 2021, buckle up and enjoy our top 5 beaches of Riviera Maya.
- Puerto Morelos (36 km south of Cancun)
Puerto Morelos, a small sleepy port town between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, was our base for the entire two weeks in Mexico. To isolate and be away from people for as much as we could, we rented a house in a tranquil corner of Puerto Morelos facing the jungle and just two blocks from a public beach. The idyllic peacefulness of the place was interrupted only by morning shrieks of colorful birds nesting in the canopy of a tropical tree growing in the courtyard. The house was just perfect for decompressing after a stressful 2020.
The beach in Puerto Morelos, however, did not particularly impress us at first. On our first day, the beach was nothing like the pristine and spectacular Caribbean shores that are typically featured in Carnival Cruise or Corona beer commercials. The sky was grey and gloomy, the wind was blowing hard and spraying sand in our eyes, while seaweed and occasional garbage floated near the shoreline. Silently, I started to question whether we made the right call booking our entire two-week stay in Puerto Morelos. But in the following days, we came to see the true beauty of this off-the-beaten-track beach. With the sun out the next day, the Caribbean Sea started to sparkle and dazzle with its trademark turquoise blue colors. The minimal garbage and seaweed that bothered us the day before was nowhere to be found and turns out, it was more of an exception than the rule in the following days. The biggest draw of this beach is that it is in Puerto Morelos, a small place that is not ruined by mass tourism (at least for now). The beach is very low-key and attracts mainly locals and Mexican tourists. There are no mammoth all-inclusive hotels nearby, and, as a result, the beach has that local authentic feel. There is plenty of sand to spread out, lots of restaurants that offer umbrellas and chairs for the price of buying lunch for two, and the sea is lovely. If you do not want to deal with the craziness of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, Puerto Morelos might be a good fit for you. By the time we had to leave, we were completely in love with the beach and did not want to go.
- Xpu Ha (28 km south of Playa del Carmen)
During our two-week stay in Mexico, we regularly drove up and down Road 307, the main transportation artery connecting Cancun and Tulum, in search of unspoiled and unexploited corners of Riviera Maya. We quickly learned that some of the best beaches in Mexico are where you need to leave an asphalted road and take a turn on an unpaved, bumpy dirt road leading to a beach. And this was exactly how we found Xpu Ha beach. To say that this beach is undiscovered is a huge overstatement as there are road signs and billboards on 307 advertising the location. This beach is also quite popular with residents of Playa del Carmen who flock here in droves as beaches in Playa are average at best. (See! We are providing a high-quality, comparative analysis of Mexican beaches here). As with Puerto Morelos, Xpu Ha is a wonderful easygoing beach due to the absence of massive, overpowering all-inclusive resorts nearby. Several beach club restaurants make the area a bit more sophisticated and not as off-the-beaten-track as it could have been. The beach is wide open and stretches for miles, providing unparallel and clear views of the Caribbean Sea, as well as attracting water sport enthusiasts who come here for sailing, parasailing, and kitesurfing. Every time we visited, we found the sand and sea sparkling clean, primarily due to the efforts of the beach club restaurants. The only downsides are that the bottom of the sea can be rocky, and the food and service at the club restaurants can be a hit or a miss.
- Akumal (38 km south of Playa del Carmen)
Akumal is one of the most magnificent places in the entire Riviera Maya with beautiful white sand, tall palm trees, and a quiet picturesque bay. The main reason people come here is to snorkel and to get up close with giant turtles (“akumal” means “the land of turtles” in the Mayan language). The best part about snorkeling in Akumal is that you do not need to buy a snorkeling tour to get to the snorkeling spot as coral reefs are very close to the shore. You can just rent snorkeling gear at a dive shop (or bring your own), swim up to the reefs, and snorkel all day long. Without donning a wetsuit or scuba dive equipment, you can swim next to extensive coral reefs and feel like Jacques Ives Cousteau exploring treasures of the sea underworld. On the day when we visited Akumal, we did not get to see giant turtles but that did not spoil our visit as we swam next to colorful schools of fish, gaped at round spiny sea urchins resembling Scottish thistles, and observed from a distance shy (yet deadly) stingrays hiding in the seaweed on the seafloor. Swimming through the underwater canyons of coral reefs felt like floating in space or exploring a new-found world. Akumal was absolutely epic! The only downside of this beach is that local “guides” can be a little bit pushy trying to sell you a snorkeling tour. But once you get passed them, you can enjoy the beauty of this place in peace and quiet. Another small note – there are no beach clubs where you can rent an umbrella and a chair, so you will need to find your own palm tree shade to rest or bring your own umbrella.
- Paamul (18 km south of Playa del Carmen)
We found Paamul by accident after a traumatic attempt to spend a day at Tulum beach. We genuinely hated Tulum. The dreamy fishing village from 20 years ago has regrettably turned into overdeveloped, overpriced tourist trap full of obnoxious, self-important, and not-mask-wearing Instagrammers, influencers, and “enlightened” and “spiritual” types. Traumatized and exhausted, we immediately left Tulum behind, desperately trying to salvage our day and find a low-key and unpretentious beach. Once again, we took our chance by exiting 307 on an unpaved road full of potholes to find a beach that became one of our favorite places in the entire Rivera Maya.
We spent three days in Paamul and never got tired of this place. The bay at Paamul is small and feels worlds away from the busy beaches nearby. We felt as if we had stumbled into a hidden paradise, carefully planted and tucked away from strangers’ eyes. The row of neat colorful vacation houses on the rocky outcrop flanked one side of the beach, providing a beautiful backdrop. The water here is very calm and with very minimal waves. The clarity of the water is unparallel and we could see our toes no matter how deep we went into the sea. Due to its size and hidden location, we never saw this place crowded. The vibe of the place is also different from other places that we visited in Riviera Maya as this beach, it appears, is popular with Mexicans who live in the U.S. We often heard English with a Mexican accent or Spanish infused with English words. The beach has one spacious restaurant serving decent Mexican food and allowing patrons to rent palapas (thatched roofs made of dried palm leaves) for a day. The downside of this beach: none! We loved Paamul!
- Playa del Norte, Isla Mujeres
This was the best beach we visited. I do not think I can find enough superlatives to describe it. Instead, I should probably just post a bunch of pictures and call it a day. This beach scores high in all categories and it regularly makes the list of best beaches in the world for a reason. Yes, it takes some work to get there by waking up early and taking a ferry from Cancun, but the beach is totally worth it. The seawater here is soft and clear and magnificently changes color through the day displaying 50 shades of blue: from cobalt to sapphire blue. When the sun is at its zenith, the color of the water is especially gorgeous and almost unreal, shimmering as if someone has spilled blue-colored sparkles into the water. The crushed seashell sand is white, soft, and smooth. Tall palm trees provide the remaining piece of a paradise puzzle. The place is truly self-indulgent and hedonistic and can satisfy even the most fastidious beach snob. The only downside of this beach is its popularity which can make the beach crowded very fast. If you are searching for a quiet beach, Playa del Norte may not be the best place for you.
In this blog, we have mentioned many times that we are not beach people. It seems now that this statement may no longer be true. We had such a fun and relaxing time in Riviera Maya that we might even schedule another beach vacation soon. As soon as we visit Ireland, Colombia, Tanzania, and a long list of countries we wanted to visit in 2020 and had to postpone. But then, right after that, we are definitely visiting another beach!