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Cancun is infamous for its beaches and happy hours, cruise ships and an all-you-can-eat brand of tourism. But it can also be viewed as a useful gateway to get beyond the mass tourism and experience a more authentic side of Mexico.

The airport has easy and frequent shuttle service to alternative destinations such as Playa del Carmen and Tulum, where you can be on a crowd-free beach within a couple of hours of lifting your bags off the luggage carousel.

Playa del Carmen
From the airport, hop on one of the shuttles headed down the highway to the former fishing village of Playa del Carmen. Over the last ten years or so, the coastal resort has evolved into a modern tourist destination, with all the amenities of Cancun, but with bigger beaches and a slower pace of life. The 45-minute ride drops you into the heart of Playa, on pedestrianized Quinta Avenue, and there are lots of cabs outside to get you to your hotel.

Quinta Avenue (or 5th Avenue), about a block from the beach's white sand and blue water, has a wide selection of restaurants, bars and clubs.  Restaurant staff and local tour operators will hawk their places as you stroll by but it is all good natured. The beach itself is long and wide and if you are not staying at one of the hotels on the beach, hire a lounger for the day. From Playa you can also make easy day trips to snorkel or dive or visit nearby Cozumel or Mayan ruins.

There are all-inclusive hotels in Playa but due to stricter building codes they are low-rise and generally sport local flair with a modern chic layout. The recent condo boom shows a range of style and contemporary design that is heartening to see in Mexico.

After exploring Quinta, head one block up to 10th Avenue. Around the intersection of 6 Calle you will find plenty of local and excellent taquerias, for a fraction of Quinta Avenue prices -- though mostly without alcohol on offer. One more block, 20th Avenue, is a hub of stores and cafes where locals have their lunch. If you are feeling homesick there is also Starbucks, McDonalds and Burger King to keep you company.

When you are ready to go another gear lower, get closer to nature and really chill out, then take a 50 minute bus ride farther south from Playa, to Tulum. Known for its Mayan ruins overlooking the ocean, Tulum has attracted backpackers for more than 15 years. Tourism has steadily grown with all budgets now catered for, while still retaining the low-key feeling of a relaxed town by the beach.

Essentially Tulum comes in two parts, the town -- with restaurants, grocery stores, the bus station and several hotels -- and the long stretch of beach 3km away.  Lining the beach is a long, low key stretch of hotels and cabanas. North of those are the famous Tulum ruins with an incredible ocean backdrop. Working north to south the hotels go from backpacker to simple beachside cabanas, and then up to honeymoon retreats with full hotel service on offer.

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