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Thanks to cruise-ship tourism, an excess of cookie-cutter all-inclusive hotels and every North American chain restaurant known to mankind, some argue that the Riviera Maya’s largest hot spots are played out. And it’s not just Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel that are taking a hit from overtourism. The Cut recently reported that the once boho-chic Tulum is now suffering from the effects of growing just a little too fast, with problems ranging from “failing infrastructure, overzealous developers, drugs, [and] too many DJs.”
But don’t panic just yet. Although practically none of the beach towns in Mexico’s Quintana Roo state remain “undiscovered,” it’s still possible to get a little off the typical tourist circuit. Instead (or in addition to) visiting Tulum, Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Cozumel, consider these alternative destinations. You won’t be able to avoid tourists completely, but these spots are generally more peaceful than some of the other main towns along the coast.
Part of the Sian Ka’an biosphere, this is the perfect place to stay for a quiet visit with nature. Besides beautiful beaches (though you may encounter seaweed as you might in many other coastal areas of the Riviera Maya), there’s plenty of jungle and lush mangroves that you can tour via kayak. The Sian Ka’an has a number of lagoons, cenotes and canals which you can boat through — you can even combine a boat tour with a visit to the Muyil Mayan ruins, which are delightfully void of tourist hoards. Plus, the Punta Allen waters and reefs are ideal for snorkeling. For those wanting to stay safely ashore, there’s always bird-watching, as the area is home to many different species of parrots and toucans. Just expect that infrastructure, plumbing and electricity may not be what you’re used to at home.
Getting there: Punta Allen is a three-hour drive from the Cancun International Airport (CUN). Although ongoing improvements are being made to the roads, the end section may be rougher. It is possible to take a water taxi from the Sian Ka’an visitor center to Punta Allen.
This tiny car-free paradise is situated in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean sea. The island is as low-key as it gets and you can explore tranquil beaches and the colorful main village via bicycle. Besides epic ocean views, expect to encounter street art, a variety of tropical birds, artsy boutique hotels and charming, family-owned B&Bs. The name Holbox means ‘black hole’ in Mayan and describes the island’s vibe well: It’s a serene spot for those wanting to truly unplug from a hectic, busy lifestyle.
Getting there: Drive or take a bus from Cancun International Airport (CUN) to Chiquilá, where you can hop on a 15-minute ferry to Holbox.
Although this island is no secret, it’s only an hour from the Cancun airport, making it an ideal weekend getaway. Isla Mujeres is also car-free, offering golf cart and scooter rentals to visitors. Driving around the entire island earlier in the morning will ensure you get to see some spectacular rocky sea views with virtually no one else around. Those looking for privacy should spend some time in the south of the island, and for a bit more of a scene, Playa Norte has a number of happening beach clubs.
Getting There: Take a taxi to the Puerto Juarez dock in central Cancun, where ferries leave every 30 minutes to Isla Mujeres.
One of the oldest tourist beach towns in the area, Akumal has still managed to retain a bit of its charm. Sandwiched between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Akumal Bay has been named a marine refuge, protecting a population of sea turtles that snorkelers and divers can spot within its waters. Some areas are blocked off for private snorkeling tours, but you can see some turtles, as well as stingrays and tropical fish in the public waters too. When you get tired of snorkeling, visit the nearby cenotes and the Aktun Chen Natural Park, known for its caves.
Getting There: Akumal is just over an hour drive from the Cancun International Airport (CUN).
Word has already gotten out about Puerto Morelos, where many Mexican locals have been vacationing for years. With a cute, crooked lighthouse and an approachable village center, this long stretch of beach no longer remains a secret from tourists. Many beach clubs will offer free chair rental with a food or drink purchase, allowing you to lounge comfortably as you enjoy the crashing waves. An eclectic mix of chic bars, local taco haunts and seafood spots offer visitors many options when it comes to an evening out on the town after relaxing beach days.
Getting There: Driving to Puerto Morelos from the Cancun International Airport (CUN) takes less than 30 minutes.
This unique area is the only place on this list not located along the coast. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy turquoise hues. Bacalar is situated on a lake and often called the Lagoon of Seven Colors thanks to the clear blue-green shades of the water. You may want to brush up on your Spanish, though, as this spot is more popular with local visitors than foreigners. Kayak, stand-up paddleboard, swim or fish in the stunning blueish-colored water, which looks different from every angle and in every light. Nearby excursions include the Oxtankah Mayan ruins or a visit to the Museum of Mayan Culture and the manatee sanctuary in the nearby town of Chetumal. If it’s saltwater you’re after, day trip over to the beaches of Calderitas, a small fishing village.
Getting There: Bacalar is about a four-hour drive from the Cancun International Airport (CUN).
Beachcombers and divers alike will love visiting this fishing town on the Mexico–Belize border. Some of the best diving in Mexico may just be found here, as the area borders the Xcalak Reef National Marine Park. Expect to see some pretty impressive coral, loads of tropical fish and if you’re lucky, manatees. Non-divers can roam the stretches of sandy beach, and there are few lighthouses to visit. Although you won’t have many hotel options, you can always consider a home rental, which are slowly growing in popularity in Xcalak.
Getting There: One of the farthest spots on the list, Xcalak is almost a five-hour drive from the Cancun International Airport (CUN).
Feature image is of the beach of Calderitas via Wikimedia Commons.
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