Mexico’s furthest east coast was a backwater for most of modern Mexican history, its tropical forests exploited for their mahogany and chicle (from which chewing gum is made), but otherwise unsettled, a haven for outlaws, pirates and Maya living beyond the reach of central government. In the 1970s, however, the stunning palm-fringed white-sand beaches on the Caribbean and the magnificent offshore coral reefs began to be developed for tourism: the first highways were built and new towns settled, and Quintana Roo finally became a full state (as opposed to an externally administered federal territory) in 1974.
Along the north coast, facing the Gulf of Mexico, remote spots like Isla Holbox feel relatively untouched by time. But the stretch of coast between Cancún and Tulum, known as the Riviera Maya, is one of the most heavily touristed areas of Mexico. Cancún and Playa del Carmen, along with the islands of Mujeres and Cozumel, have become desirable package-tour destinations, and are overdeveloped as a result. Images of the Maya appear everywhere, but the foreign-owned, all-inclusive resort companies make sure little of their profit ever goes to Mexico, much less to the indigenous villages that dot the jungle.
Further south, the scene is a bit calmer: sea turtles nest on the beaches within the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, while the inlets shelter manatees and the mangrove swamps clamour with birdlife. The coast south of the biosphere – dubbed the Costa Maya – is on its own development trajectory, but it’s still your best bet for hammock camping. The vast, beautiful Laguna de Bacalar is a crystal-clear lake that’s rich in wildlife and an affordable alternative to the beaches. Chetumal, the state capital and a duty-free border town, is chiefly important as a gateway to and from Belize.
Inland Quintana Roo is barely populated, let alone visited. There are some Maya sites, though they are not as accessible or as restored as the pristine open-air museums of Yucatán state. Cobá, a lakeside ruin between Tulum and Valladolid, has some of the Maya world’s tallest temples, but is only partially excavated, hidden in jungle swarming with mosquitoes. The early Classic site of Kohunlich, famous for its giant sculpted faces of the Maya sun god, lies in the heart of the Petén jungle that stretches into Guatemala and Belize.Read More
If nothing else, Cancún is proof of Mexico’s remarkable ability to get things done in a hurry – so long as the political will exists. In the late 1960s, the Mexican government decided to develop a new resort area to diversify the economy. Computers crunched weather data, and surveyors scouted the country’s natural attractions to identify a 25-kilometre-long barrier island just off the northern Caribbean coast as the ideal combination of beautiful beaches, sparse population and accessible position. Construction of the resort paradise began in 1970, and when the first hotel opened in 1974, it relied on a generator for electricity and trucked-in water. In the twenty-first century, Cancún has struggled to shed its reputation for tacky fun (Spring Break happens only a month a year, after all), and it has also successfully courted Mexican tourists. But it is facing a mild crisis as seasonal storms in recent years have significantly eroded parts of the beach, the city’s literal raison d’être.
Independent travellers often find the glitz of the hotel strip off-putting and the beachfront pleasures expensive, and, for anyone who has been out in the rest of the Yucatán or is eager to get there, all the concrete can be a downer. But a night spent here on the way in or out doesn’t have to be wasted, so long as you appreciate the city as an energetic, successful frontier experiment, rather than lament its lack of history. A closer look reveals lively salsa clubs, bare-bones beach bars and inexpensive taco stands, all frequented by cancunenses who are friendly and proud of their city’s prosperity.
Cancún has two parts: the zona comercial on the mainland (also called the centro or downtown), which has developed a bit of soul in its short lifetime, and the zona hotelera, a narrow, 25-kilometre-long barrier island lined with hotels and tourist amenities. It encloses a huge lagoon, so there’s water on both sides. Paseo Kukulcán runs the length of the hotel zone, from the airport up to Punta Cancún (where the road splits around the convention centre and a warren of nightclubs and bars) and back onto the mainland. From Punta Cancún it’s a half-hour bus ride to Avenida Tulum, the main avenue in the downtown area that runs north–south and eventually turns into Hwy-307, the highway that follows the length of the Caribbean coast.
Just a few kilometres off the easternmost tip of Mexico, ISLA MUJERES is substantially mellower than Cancún, drawing people for long stays despite the lack of tourist attractions and wild nightlife. A hippie hangout in the 1970s, the tiny island still retains an air of bohemian languor, with wild-haired baby-boomers passing on travel wisdom to a new generation of young backpackers.
Physically, however, Mujeres is hardly the desert island it was thirty years ago, and its natural attractions have been developed considerably. Thousands of day-trippers visit from Cancún, and the Garrafón coral reef off the southern tip is now almost completely dead (though fish still flourish here). Prices, too, have risen. But the island can still seem a respite to those who’ve slogged across Mexico, or to anyone overwhelmed by Cancún – the low wooden buildings and narrow streets have a genuine Caribbean feel.
The attractions here are simple: first there’s the beach, then there’s the sea. And when you’ve tired of those, you can cruise around the island to more sea, more beaches and the tiny Maya temple full of female figures that the conquistadors chanced upon, which gave the place its name. But you’ll want to be back under the palms on Playa Norte, the big west-facing beach, by late afternoon: Isla Mujeres is one of the few places along Mexico’s eastern shoreline where you can enjoy a glowing sunset over the water.
Isla Mujeres is just 8km long, and even at its widest point is barely a kilometre across. A lone road runs its perimeter, past the dead-calm waters of the landward coast and back along the windswept, rocky eastern shore. The most popular beach, just five minutes’ walk from the town plaza, is Playa Norte – curving up and around the northern tip of the island, but protected from the open sea by a promontory on which stands a large resort.
If you’ve had enough of the beach and wandering round the main town (the grand tour takes little more than 30min), rent a bike or moped to explore the south of the island, where there are other residential areas and various natural attractions. Heading south from town, about halfway down the length of the island lurk the barely visible remains of the Hacienda Mundaca, to which scores of romantic pirate legends are attached. The place has been criss-crossed with a few too many concrete paths, and there’s a rather dismal zoo, but the jungly shade in the back garden makes for a prime picnic spot. Across the roundabout, another road leads to a government-run turtle farm and research centre, which breeds endangered sea turtles for release in the wild. Entrance helps fund the preservation project.
Just south of the roundabout, Playa Lancheros is a small, palm-fringed beach that is virtually deserted except at lunchtime, when the good, very simple restaurant fires up the grill for tikin-xic fish.
At the southern end of the island, the Garrafón reef is enclosed in a nature park (wwww.garrafon.com) with a zipline and “snuba” (swim underwater with an oxygen line). It’s pricey, and can be crowded with Cancún day-trippers. For snorkelling, you’re better off going on a trip with the lancheros. The entrance to the park is almost at the southern tip of the island – beyond, the road continues to the old lighthouse, surrounded by faux-Caribbean houses containing shops and a restaurant. From there you can visit a somewhat gratuitous sculpture park and the Templo de Ixchel, at the southeastern tip (M$30; free with Garrafón ticket). It’s not much of a ruin (the fertility figures the Spaniards spotted here have been removed), but it is very dramatically situated on low rocky cliffs.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen
Once a soporific fishing village where travellers camped out en route to Cozumel, Playa del Carmen (often called simply Playa) has mushroomed in recent years to become a trendy place touted as the next Miami Beach – and, from a local’s perspective, a goldmine of employment in construction. Not only do Mexico City’s elite pop in, but so do day-trippers from Cancún and passengers from cruise ships. As a result, the town’s main centre of activity, Avenida 5 (also called La Quinta), a long, pedestrianized strip one block back from the sea, is often packed to capacity with tourists rapidly emptying their wallets in pavement cafés, souvenir outlets and designer-clothes shops. Nonetheless, the low-rise development and numerous European-owned businesses make it, compared with Cancún, seem positively cosmopolitan and calm. The nightlife in particular has a hip edge, and you’ll also find sophisticated cuisine, hotels for most budgets and diverse shops. Everywhere visitors will want to go is compact and pedestrian-friendly – even a walk to the Playa Norte, the better beach on the north side of town, is an easy one.
For anyone interested in scuba diving, Tank-Ha, on Calle 10 between avenidas 5 and 10 (t984/873-0302, wwww.tankha.com), is a good place to start. The shop offers PADI certification courses, one- and two-tank dives and twice-daily snorkelling tours (9am & 1.30pm; US$40; 3hr). Kiteboarding specialists Ikarus give basic instruction on the beach in Playa, then take you up or down the coast for in-water lessons; visit the shop on Avenida 5 at Calle 20 (t984/803-3490, wwww.kiteboardmexico.com) for details.
A forty-kilometre-long island directly off the coast from Playa del Carmen, Isla Cozumel caters primarily to the mainstream tastes of the cruise-ship passengers that put ashore here – during the high season, up to twenty liners a week dock at the piers south of the main town of San Miguel (often called just Cozumel). But you can escape to the wild, windy eastern shore – or underwater, as the island offers the best diving in Mexico, with spectacular drop-offs, walls and swim-throughs, some beautiful coral gardens and a number of little-visited remote reefs where you can see larger pelagic fish and dolphins. The island is also good for bird watching, as it’s a stopover on migration routes and has several species or variants endemic to Cozumel.
Over the years, island culture has developed distinct from that of the mainland, with cozumeleños relishing their lifestyle, which is somehow even more easy-going than on the rest of the coast; San Miguel hosts a particularly colourful celebration of Carnaval, the decadent week prior to Lent.
Before the Spaniards arrived, the island appears to have been a major Maya centre, carrying on sea trade around the coasts of Mexico and as far south as Honduras and perhaps Panama. This ancient community – one of several around the Yucatán coast that survived the collapse of Classic Maya civilization – shows evidence of large-scale trade, specialization between centres and even a degree of mass production. A US air base, built during World War II, has erased the ancient city, however, and the lesser ruins scattered across the roadless interior are mostly unrestored. (The airfield did bring a degree of prosperity; converted to civilian use, it remains the means by which many visitors arrive.)
After about 1600 Cozumel was virtually deserted. In the mid-nineteenth century, though, as the Caste Wars made life on the peninsula unstable, the island became a place of refuge, and by the 1880s, the town of San Miguel was established as a home for the growing population.
are among the richest and most complex ecosystems on earth, but they are also very fragile. The colonies grow at a rate of only around 5cm per year, so they must be treated with care and respect if they are not to be damaged beyond repair. Follow these simple rules – and advise your guide to do so as well – while you are snorkelling, diving or in a boat.
touch or stand on corals, as the living polyps on their surface are easily damaged.
disturbing the sand around corals. Quite apart from spoiling visibility, the cloud of sand will settle over the corals and smother them.
remove shells, sponges or other creatures from the reef, and avoid buying reef products from souvenir shops.
use only biodegradable sunscreen in reef areas; oils in standard formulas are pollutants and will stifle coral growth.
anchor boats on the reef: use the permanently secured buoys instead.
throw litter overboard.
where you are allowed to go fishing.
your diving skills before you head out to the reef, especially if you are a new or out-of-practice diver.
New Year’s Day
(Jan 1). Beginning of the Feria de los Tres Reyes in the cow town of Tizimín, an important religious and secular gathering during which lots of steak is consumed.
Fiesta de Polk Keken
(Jan 6). Celebrated in Lerma, near Campeche, with many traditional dances.
Día de la Virgen de Santa Inés
(Jan 16–21). An ancient festival with roots in Maya tradition celebrated in Dzitas, north of Chichén Itzá.
Día de la Candelaria
(Feb 2). Candlemas: colourful celebrations and candlelight processions at Tecoh and Kantunil. The whole week before (beginning Jan 25) is a fiesta in Valladolid.
(the week before Lent; variable Feb–March). At its most riotous in the big cities – especially Mérida – but is also celebrated in Tixkokob, Campeche and Chetumal, as well as on Isla Mujeres and Cozumel with particularly Caribbean flair. The village of Hocaba adds a sombre note, with re-enactments of the Inquisition of the Maya in the sixteenth century.
Feria de las Hamacas
(March 20). In Tecoh, a hammock-producing village near Mérida.
(March 21). Huge gathering to see the serpent shadow at Chichén Itzá (see p.000).
(Holy Week). Celebrated with particularly colourful Passion plays in Mérida and Maní.
Festival of honey and corn
(April 13–17). Traditional celebrations in Hopelchén.
Fiesta de San Telmo
(April 14–22). Progreso celebrates the patron saint of fishermen.
Día de la Santa Cruz
(May 3). The excuse for another fiesta in Hopelchén; also celebrated in, among other towns, Celestún and Felipe Carrillo Puerto.
Feria del Jipi
(May 20). In Becal, celebration of the Panama hat, which is the major industry in the town.
(last weekend in May). Occasion for a town-wide party in Puerto Morelos.
Fiesta de San Pedro y San Pablo
(June 26–30). Celebrated on Cozumel and in Panaba, north of Tizimín.
Fiesta de Nuestra Señora del Carmen
(July 15–30). Festival for the patron saint of Ciudad del Carmen. Motul also celebrates, with lots of dancing.
Feria de Holbox
(July 31). Celebrations on Isla Holbox.
(dates variable). Held in Edzná for the god Chac, to encourage, or celebrate, the arrival of the rains.
Día de la Asunción
(August 15). Assumption Day, celebrated in Oxcutzcab for a week prior, and in Izamal the week following.
Día de San Roman
(Sept 14). In Dzan, near Ticul, the end of a four-day festival with fireworks, bullfights, dances and processions. In Campeche, the Feria de San Roman lasts until the end of the month. Also marks the beginning of the season of “Los Gremios”, the workers’ processions to honour the Cristo de las Ampollas at the cathedral in Mérida; daily pilgrimages begin on Sept 27 and continue until Oct 17.
(Sept 21). Another serpent spectacle at Chichén Itzá.
Día de San Miguel
(Sept 29). Celebrated with a major festival in Maxcanú, as well as on Cozumel.
(Oct 18). Centred on Izamal, in honour of the miraculous Black Christ of Sitilpech, it starts ten days of celebration, culminating in dances on the night of Oct 28.
Feria del Estado de Yucatán
(first two weeks of Nov). Typical thrill rides, agricultural exhibits and fried foods at the fairgrounds south of Mérida.
Día de los Muertos
(Day of the Dead; Nov 1–2). Celebrated everywhere as Hanal Pixan, the Maya equivalent, though usually as a private event. Mérida is the exception, with altars on display in the centre.
Día de la Inmaculada Concepción
(Dec 8). Widely celebrated, but especially in Kantunilkin, Izamal and Champotón, each of which has a fiesta starting several days earlier. Izamal’s and Kantunilkin’s fiestas include bullfights.
Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe
(Dec 12). Celebrated everywhere, but look for runners on the roads around Mérida in the days prior; church groups organize days-long relays as penance. On Isla Mujeres, the week prior celebrates the church’s statue of the Virgin.
Día de Nuestra Señora de la Estrella
(Dec 27). Peto celebrates until Jan 2 with a trade fair, bullfights and dancing.