When you start dreaming of a warm and tropical getaway with your toes in the sand and a cocktail in hand, you might want to look into a short flight hop down to the Riviera Maya of Mexico. Stretching from Holbox Island down to Tulum, in between you’ve got Isla Mujeres, Cancun, and Playa del Carmen, with resorts for every budget scattered along the way.
That whole stretch of sand and Caribbean sea makes up a distance of 81 miles, so you should choose carefully and figure out the logistics of how you’re going to get to where you’re going. For the closest spots you can just take a taxi or book transportation through your hotel, but for the far-flung places it can be a long and expensive transfer unless you bus it.
For better or worse, most vacationers don’t tend to venture very far from where they’re staying after arrival and some don’t even bother to leave the resort. (That means your Cancun packing list can be a rather short one.) If you do want to go explore, you can book excursions or even get a rental car delivered at most large resorts.
Here’s where to stay on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, with the pros and cons of each option in the Riviera Maya hotel zones.
You don’t really head to Holbox island for wide stretches of white sand in front of big resorts. You come here for the chilled-out island life where transportation is on foot or by golf cart and most of the properties are intimate. Much of the island is a nature reserve and it’s a jumping-off place to go swim with whale sharks out in the ocean at the right time of year. There are some good snorkeling, fishing, and diving spots nearby.
The island is a couple hours from Cancun unless you catch a prop plane flight, so plan accordingly. See our round-up of the three best resorts on Holbox Island.
Getting to Isla Mujeres (island of the women) requires a ferry ride from a dock north of Cancun, then another ride to your hotel, so it’s a bit of an ordeal to get here from the airport, which is a good bit south of Cancun. Make sure to figure all the transfers out in advance. Once you arrive though, you’ll find an area of long sandy beaches that are more mellow than the Cancun hotel zone, with plenty of room to roam.
We haven’t reviewed any of the island properties here on Hotel Scoop, but on our sister site you can find a detailed review of the top luxury property Zoetry Villa Rolandi. The others, mostly independent properties, are primarily clustered on the public beach, which can get crowded with day-trippers and then empties out in the evenings. There are some budget options that aren’t right on the water. See prices here.
Not to be confused with the island, this formerly pristine stretch of sand got the full “If we build it they will come” treatment right before Cancun hotel occupancy plateaued and then a global pandemic hit. Now lined with a few massive chain resorts that have hundreds of rooms, this is the kind of area where you get shuttled to your hotel and then don’t go anywhere unless it’s to play golf. There’s not much life or diversion to this area, but the resorts are glistening and new.
The top choice is probably the adults-only TRS Coral Hotel pictured above, but you’ve also got Finest and Excellence, Beloved Playa Mujeres, a Secrets, a Dreams, a Grand Palladium, and more to choose from. One of these days we’ll make it there and provide some more detailed rundowns, but for now just see who is running the sweetest deals to entice you to come.
Cancun is the most popular resort zone in North America, getting millions of visitors in a normal year. The airport receives hundreds of flights a day from the Americas and Europe, with planeloads of people coming for sun and fun. It’s got a place for every budget, from partying spring breakers to posh guests who choose the Ritz-Carlton. All the money flowing through allows the state to rebuild the beach after a hurricane or clear the seaweed when that comes rolling in.
It’s easy to get to Cancun from where you live probably and after a ride from the airport you can get around the hotel zone easily without a car. The beach goes on for miles, so it’s great for a sunset stroll. This has the most lively nightlife on the coast if that’s your thing.
We’ve published a fair number of reviews from Cancun, so these will give you a feel for what it’s like from the mid-range (Emporio Cancun, Grand Park Royal, Panama Jack) to the higher end (Fiesta Americana Coral Beach, Westin Lagunamar, and Hyatt Ziva), to luxury all-inclusive (Live Aqua Cancun, Secrets the Vine, and Le Blanc Resort).
This is the laid-back Mexico of old that you used to find up and down this coast before the cement trucks and big developers moved in. It feels more like a Mexican town than any of the others highlighted here, plus there’s some terrific snorkeling just off the shore because the reef gets quite close here.
A few of the larger resorts are north of town (including one for swingers). There’s a stretch of development south of town that includes Grand Residences Riviera Cancun and and a “Now” all-inclusive property that’s a sister to Dreams and Secrets.
The Mayakoba complex is a unique development that was built around the existing topography instead of trying to completely obliterate it. There’s a golf course and several hotels, but also a waterway snaking through the complex that’s a favorite for birds. Most of the hotel rooms, suites, and restaurants are set well back from the beach so when a hurricane hits most of the properties won’t take a direct hit and vegetation can protect the coast from erosion.
Just outside the Mayakoba gates you’ll find Blue Diamond All-inclusive Resort sharing the same beach and with a similar layout. This was built as a Mandarin Oriental originally and is a gorgeous place to stay where you can pay one bill and be done.
Playa del Carmen
In the space of a quarter-century, Playa del Carmen has gone from a sleepy fishing village with dirt roads to a full-blown city that keeps sprawling outward and upward. The beach has lost a lot of sand over the years from storms, so that’s not the main attraction. Instead you’ve got a walkable city where the main pedestrian street goes on for miles, filled with shops, bars, and restaurants.
There are more than 100 places to stay here, from small boutique hotels to a huge Grand Hyatt facing the water. See our Hotel Scoop reviews of Paradisus Playa del Carmen and Reef 28. See some sister site reviews of Thompson Resort and Royal Hideaway Playacar all-inclusive.
There’s a planned development just south of town called Playacar where you’ll find Reef Playacar, that Royal Hideaway Playacar, and a Rui.
Known more as a cruise ship stop than a place to stay on vacation, this island is nevertheless one of the best spots around for diving and snorkeling. Reached by a ferry from Playa del Carmen but also having an airport, resorts include an Intercontinental, a Westin, a Secrets adults-only all-inclusive, and a Fiesta Americana all-inclusive.
Southern Riviera Maya and Tulum
If you ask me, the Tulum stretch of sand is overhyped and overpriced, but it does have a nice beach and it seems custom-made for the Instagram age, with 100 artsy backdrops for self-obsessed people to pose in front of. Don’t expect any bargains here since everything is pegged at U.S. prices, plus the hum of generators and the smell of diesel are constants at night in this location off the electric grid.
The hotels are hip, funky, and fun though, making this a favorite of crowds who do yoga by day and sip fancy cocktails with their artfully designed taco plates at night. Our sister site has reviews of the three best luxury resorts in Tulum and you can see others that won’t require a second mortgage at this link.
North of the Mayakoba development and south of Playa del Carmen are dozens of resorts, from huge mass-market ones to luxury retreats to timeshare schemes. Some of my favorites at the high end are Hotel Escencia, Unico 20 87, and Grand Velas, but if your budget is lower you’ll find plenty of great values along this coast. See our reviews of Hotel Akumal Caribe and Riu Palace Riviera Maya.
Ideally, don’t go for the very cheapest all-inclusive in any of these areas or you’ll end up with rot-gut liquor and uninspiring meals. Once you get above the lowest level though, you’re more likely to be surprised to the upside and feel like you really scored.
Where have you stayed in the Riviera Maya hotel zones and would you recommend it?