After an all-inclusive Cancun experience several years ago (gorgeous and relaxing, but not my travel style), I mostly wrote off the Riviera Maya area as cookie cutter resorts. But last year, friends' plans brought us back to the area, and we've enjoyed several long weekends now exploring Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Tulum, and Cozumel.
While they may be mega American tourist destinations, the beaches are world class, the living's affordable, and a flight to Cancun takes less time than many trips within the continental U.S. For a little vitamin D, it's an option worth considering. And there's plenty to do within 1-2 hours of Cancun.
Taking a taxi from the airport to Cancun's strip of hotels is around $40—just pay in any of the taxi stands inside the airport. For a professional, reliable airport transfer to Playa Del Carmen, go with USA Transfers (about $60 USD to PDC from Cancun). Uber isn't allowed in the area, but once you're in Playa Del Carmen or Cozumel, taxis are plentiful and reasonably priced.
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WHERE TO STAY
Between the airport to the south and the city to the north, you have the stretch of land that's referred to as "Zona Hotelera," or the hotel zone, where most tourists stay. There are dozens of waterfront properties with phenomenal views and beaches in the hotel zone, so it's hard to go wrong if you pick something with good reviews.
Live Aqua is one of the best all-inclusive resorts in Cancun. All of the restaurants on the property are excellent, the service is on-point, the views are beautiful, and—no kids allowed!
JW Marriott is a great upscale option if you're looking for a stay that's not all-inclusive. While the property itself is a little bit dated, we enjoyed the on-site restaurants, bars, and pool. It's family friendly and also has a great location—we were able to venture off property to some excellent restaurants that were within walking distance, like Rosa Negra below.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Rosa Negra : Love the trendy-jungley decor here. Apparently this is where Cancun's local see-and-be-seen types post up, but for good reason. Start with a smokey mango mezcal cocktail and make your way through the empanadas and the most tender of grilled octopuses. Pass on the tacos, though.
Puerto Madera : I had to roll home after this indulgent surf-and-turf spread of delicious lobster, steak, empanadas, and ceviche. Like Rosa Negra, it's a somewhat trendy spot with plenty of well-dressed locals. Still dreaming about the Argentinian pinot noir we had here.
La Parilla : Should you make your way downtown, sneak into the lunch buffet here for a hearty and authentic meal. Rich and flavorful all-you-can-eat chicken soup, mini arepas, cochinita pibil (bbqed pork), and an assortment of sweets.
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PLAYA DEL CARMEN
WHERE TO STAY
We've enjoyed staying in Airbnbs and VRBOs in the Playacar area. It's a gated community of several resorts and condo properties at reasonable prices. All-inclusives are a convenient option, but there are so many great dining and drinking options in Playa Del Carmen that I personally like the excuse to get off-property.
Our friends have also loved staying at the adults-only Royal Hideaway Playacar, which is farther away from the strip. The staff here is very attentive, and the property itself is lovely. (The food I've found to be hit or miss).
If you're looking to stay on the main strip (called 5th Ave) of Playa Del Carmen in the middle of the action, there's a modern, highly rated Live Aqua boutique hotel that would be perfect for a couple.
WHERE TO EAT
El Fogon : This casual joint might be PDC's most talked about spot—stop by for authentic street tacos.
Axiote : Inventive Mexican fare recommended by Rick Bayless of Tortas Fronteras fame. We enjoyed the duck tacos and the excellent hibiscus cocktails.
La Fisheria : This restaurant serves up fresh seafood in a casual yet upscale setting—ceviche is a highlight.
Da Vino: If you're there for a week-long trip and can't eat another fish taco, Da Vino is one of the few restaurants right on Fifth Ave that didn't disappoint. Have a glass of wine, indulge in freshly made pasta, and people-watch.
WHERE TO DRINK
Almirante Peche : This restaurant bar is farther north along the strip, but still gets pretty buzzy at night. They have some fruity concoctions and a fun vibe.
Cantina No. 20 : This trendy 2nd floor restaurant bar, part of the Thompson Hotel complex, is packed on most nights and has the best cocktails I had on Fifth Ave.Fah Bar : This low-key spot always draws a crowd in the evenings with its live music; the food was surprisingly solid, too.
Zenzi Beach Club : If you're looking to relax and have drinks on the beach, the wooden benches and party music here draws fun crowds in the evening.
Diablito Cha Cha Cha : We've had a couple of fun nights starting with cocktails here. It's also right across from Mandala, a popular club, if your night is heading in that direction.
While we didn't spend a lot of time in Tulum, we loved our short stay there: It's Brooklyn hip meets Venice Beach chill with a jungle vibe.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
- Cenzontle : This was our runner-up option to Hartwood. While the food was overall solid, I'd recommend it in particular for pre-dinner cocktails in a romantic jungle setting.
- Gitano : Delicious mezcal drinks with a live DJ. Gitano is your "going out" plan in Tulum.
- Matteo's : Right next to our dive shop, this is the Tulum favorite for sunset drinks.
- Posada Margherita : While it might seem counterintuitive to enjoy Italian in Mexico, multiple people raved about their seafood and pasta dishes.
- Casa Banana : This indoor-outdoor Argentinian restaurant is basically my backyard #goals.
- Hartwood : This internationally renowned spot has inspired the restauranteurs to release a cookbook. You'll need to email several weeks in advance to make a reservation.
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WHERE TO STAY
The Westin Cozumel is a beautiful property where we felt truly relaxed. It's a short drive from downtown Cozumel, so while there isn't much that's within walking distance, it feels private and secluded. The views from our room were stunning (the header photo above) and the facilities are excellent.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Playa Del Carmen, you can take the ferry from the pier right next to Senor Frog's. It's about USD $14 to take the ferry to Cozumel.
WHERE TO EAT
We only stayed in Cozumel for one night but had an excellent meal at Kinta—creative cocktails and wood-fired fish, octopus, ribs and more in a twinkly, jungly setting.
Cavern diving : Mike dove Dos Ojos, one of the most well known of the cavern diving spots. We highly recommend diving with Mariano at MexiDivers (about $140/person for two dives). I didn't even dive (had a little something funny to eat...) and wanted to because Mariano was one of the best dive masters I've been around—so smart and passionate about diving. I'd recommend doing the afternoon if you can; the caverns have less tourists at the time.
Ocean diving : In Cozumel, we dove with Aldora Divers while in Cozumel—they were one of the few (possibly only?) dive shop on the island that uses steel tanks, meaning our dives were 60-75 minutes long. Anywhere else, I'd be bored and ready to surface in less than that anyway—but the diving is spectacular in Cozumel. We saw stingray, sharks, lobsters, shrimp, and some incredible coral. In Cancun, we've gone with Cancun Scuba Center, whom we absolutely loved. Though at first we regretted not making the effort to go to Cozumel from Cancun that morning, we weren't disappointed. Two 45-minute dives were a super reasonable $90/person, the diving was great, and the staff was exceptional.
Fishing : For any serious fishermen, Mike had the time of his life fishing with Captain Salas, departing from Playa Del Carmen.
Visit the ruins : The world renowned Chichen Itza is a bit of a hike from the Cancun / Playa del Carmen area, but worth a trip if you have the time. The ruins in Tulum are much less impressive, however, it is a special little thrill to swim in emerald waters right next to them.