Beyond Cancún: Great resorts in Mexico

June 22, 2018

Cancún – the colourful east coast resort which has put Mexico on the holiday map – is easy for Brits to reach and awash in tropical-themed party palaces.

But go a little further afield and you’ll discover lesser-known resorts with fewer skyscrapers and more charm on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, or consider flying to the west coast to discover the more mature Pacific resorts which have been drawing fans for more than 50 years, writes Anthea Gerrie.

Playa del Carmen

The ideal resort, Playa del Carmen is walkable, buzzy and strangely European in feel, thanks to the mainly Italian ex-pats who have set up restaurants cooking the authentic cuisine of home. As with St. Tropez, the beach – just OK compared with the neighbouring sands of the Riviera Maya – is not the thing so much as posing and perusing the chic shops of the main drag, Quinta Avenida.

Day trippers can cause overcrowding when the cruise ships are in, but the town just keeps growing to accommodate extra visitors, making Playa an upmarket rival to Cancún as an entertainment centre for singles and couples.


This island off the coast of Playa del Carmen is a long-established holiday playground and a renowned diving and snorkelling centre. But above the waves it can get busy when the tourist life around San Miguel, the main centre, buzzes a little too loudly.

Luckily, there are many forms of escape from jungle trails to secluded lagoons, tropical botanical gardens to their underwater equivalent, reachable by submarine as well as snorkel. Only 6% of Cozumel has been developed, and there’s plenty for families to enjoy.

Isla Mujeres

The original laid-back alternative to Cozumel, Isla Mujeres remains surprisingly rustic and unspoiled, with spectacular beaches turned pink by crushed coral making an idyllic picture postcard against the calm, almost unbelievably turquoise ocean.

Avoid the pier area which attracts day-trippers, many clutching snorkels to take advantage of the crystal-clear waters, and stay over a night or three to enjoy the relaxed dining and nightlife scene at better prices than the mainland. This is principally a couples’ resort with its romantic vibe.


Once a spectacular Mayan city, this coastal archaeological site has been beautifully integrated with its surroundings, the ruins connected to the beach and sea gardens via a broad walkway. No wonder Tulum has evolved into a resort, spawning hip lodgings like the sought-after Be Tulum and Palapa Playa (the latter is basically a village of posh tents, a high-design budget option), but the nearby natural attractions are not to be missed.

The Sian Ka’an biosphere is reached by boat or seaplane and offers everything from snorkelling to kayaking, viewing wildlife including nesting sea turtles to swimming in crystal waters. The area’s cenotes – natural pools within caves – are not to be missed for a thrillingly primordial alternative to the hotel swimming-pool. A natural retreat infused with Mayan culture, past and present, to inspire the whole family.


It sounds strangely British, but nothing could be more exotic than this laid-back island antidote to crowded Cancún. A complete ban on cars and just a few thatched-roof hostelries ensure an unspoiled end of the world island vibe families and couples alike will appreciate.

Activities on Holbox include swimming with the harmless whale sharks who migrate here from May to September, snorkelling the reefs of Cabo Catoche or simply revelling in the sight of thousands of flamingos and pelicans populating the lagoon which separates the island from mainland Quintana Roo.


Since Frank Sinatra invited fans to come fly with him to the world’s most beautiful bay, Acapulco has retained its sixties glamour, although it offers hotels and restaurants at every price point.

Highlights include nightly performances by terrifyingly bold amateur cliff divers at La Quebrada and sunset watching in hammocks, clutching a booze-infused coconut, at Pie de la Condesa, worth the longish ride out of town. Swap between three beaches, each with their own charms – Hornos is the most central.


Zihua, as aficionadoes call this remote resort, is still, to an extent, the rare little piece of unspoiled paradise on the Pacific coast it was until its discovery in the 1970s. Perhaps its location has saved it – the six-hour bus drive from Acapulco through endless coastal palm groves is spectacular, but you can also fly in.

Zihuatanejo has suffered a little from the development of neighbouring Ixtapa, a rather frenetic built-up resort, and the infiltration of cruise ships, but it retains its original essence as a fishing village of cobbled lanes where fresh catch is still sold on the beach every day. One for singles and couples.

Puerto Vallarta

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton put this best-known of Pacific resorts on the map when filming Night of the Iguana in the sixties, and today’s celebs, from Eva Longoria to KimmyK, are still visiting. Direct flights make the trip to Puerto Vallarta and adjacent Riviera Nayarit, a favourite of Kourtney Kardashian, easy to reach for Brits, but can also cause a crush.

Getaway spots include the rustic island of Yelapa, famous for its 30-metre-high waterfalls. Only accessible by boat, it has just one road, strictly for pedestrians, but a couple of boutique hotels and a yoga retreat permit an overnight stay to drink in the welcome sound of silence.


This thoroughly laid-back, mature family resort is the Mexican equivalent of a British seaside town. There’s nothing remotely chic about it, but this west coast playground which came up in the fifties remains an affordable family favourite for domestic tourists.

Join them at the Mazatlan Aquarium, where it’s possible to swim with at least some of the fishes, and make a point of visiting the old town, which has been beautifully tarted up a la Miami South Beach, recalling its mid-century glory days. The malecon, or promenade, remains at the shabby end of shabby-chic, but is one of the most glorious spots from which to watch the sunset – and families will enjoy miles of sandy beach and keen prices.


Have a comment or question about this article? You can contact us on Twitter or Facebook.

Latest travel tips and advice

Read more from the blog