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.
Beyond that is the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve (www.cesiak.org), a Unesco World Heritage Site and home to a rich collection of mangroves, reefs and rare sea turtles who come to lay their eggs on the beach. Both day trips and overnights are possible from Tulum, with hikes and kayaks available to observe the wildlife. But costs are higher than local prices and the official cabins are the only form of accommodation if you prefer to overnight it in the Reserve. With Tulum's beach hotels sequestered to a single country road, Tulum is much more immersed in nature. There is one main grocery store but otherwise you are in the middle of nature, with the ocean on your left and jungle and the occasional house and restaurant on your right as you travel southward. The turquoise ocean and fine, white sand are out of the pages of a glossy brochure. In low season, from Mexican Independence Day (16 September) to early December, you could well score your very own piece of waterfront paradise. Low season also means low prices but some of the restaurants may have limited hours or be closed completely.
Two great eateries by the ocean that are open throughout the year are El Tábano and Posada Margarita. El Tábano (at Kilometer 6 on the beach road, just near the Maya Tulum Hotel; 984-134-8725) serves, from breakfast to dinner, local fresh, modern Mexican food in an open-air setting, across the road from the beach. The service is cheerful, helpful and very welcoming. Fresh flowers, wooden furniture, high thatched roofs and a relaxed staff make this a great place for a long breakfast, an escape from the midday heat or the perfect spot to drink the Mexican Petit Sirah over dinner.
Posada Margarita, (www.posadamargherita.com), which doubles as a small hotel, produces very tasty, if slightly expensive, Italian food by the beach. The decor incorporates local materials and art. As with all Mexican restaurants, your meal is preceded by a gratis helping of tasty chips and freshly made pico de gallo. Posada Margarita brings out a wooden block with four kinds of fresh bread, crudités of cauliflower, pistachios and cheese. Pasta, local fish and good wine are accompanied by the fresh ocean air and a view of the Milky Way if the sky is clear.
Although not close on the water, in town there are several places to eat, from French run cafes with fresh baguettes to tacquerias and more traditional family Mexican restaurants. Don Cafeto, (Av. Tulum No. 64 Lote 12) attracts lots of locals and the food is fresh and served quickly. A simple order of green salad and fish ceviche comes with pico de gallo and chips and a bowl of crudites including potatoes, carrots, peppers and half a bulb of garlic.
With all the edible treats, you might want to hire a bike to get around, and there is a great bike path from the ocean to the town. But bring a flashlight if you are out after dark as the beach road is not well lit. While in Tulum it is also worth swimming in any of the local cenotes - fresh water sink holes that make up the largest network of caverns in the world. Mayans consider them sacred places and they provide an important source of fresh water. For a small entry fee you can swim, snorkel or dive in fresh water and be surrounded by fossilized coral and limestone.
Contrary to what is often reported about Mexico, the Maya Riviera feels safe and open to tourists - there is an obvious police presence in both towns. Both locations make a great introduction to Mexico and with lots of English spoken it is an easy transition with rewards of white beaches, incredible food and a genuine welcome from the locals.