What springs to mind when you think of Mexico? Sombrero’s, moustaches & mariachi music? Tortillas, tacos & tequila? Or maybe you think of Mexican stand-offs and Netflix’s Narcos?! All of the above or none of the above?
There is no doubt that Mexico’s rich, diverse, complicated and fascinating culture makes it an irresistible travel destination. From Aztec pyramids to steaming jungles, the massive country has a hell of a lot to offer.
But did you know Mexico also offers amazing beaches? Yep, Mexico boasts 9300km of coastline and opens onto both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean.
In this post, we’re gonna take a look at some of Mexico’s best beach life as we map out a breath-taking Mexican beach break.
You’re backpacking your way through Mexico and try to see as much as possible? Why not spend some chill time and explore Mexico’s amazing beach and swim options?
If you have around 1 -2 weeks in Mexico, then we suggest you head for Riviera Maya or the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Riviera Maya is famous for its flashy resorts and hotel complexes. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for backpackers here. Indeed, there are actually plenty of cheap hostels in places like Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. So, you still get to enjoy the white sand beaches and azure waters on a backpacker’s budget.
Whilst the beaches here are stunning, there is a LOT more to the Riviera Maya than sea and sand. Many of Mexicos’ top Mayan ruins can be found here including Chichen Itza, As well as the ruins and beaches, there are also plenty of cenotes, botanical gardens, caves, and Mexico national parks to explore.
With 1 -2 weeks in Riviera Maya, you can quite easily skip around between the beach towns and the Mayan ruins – afterall, bus travel in the area is safe, comfortable, and affordable.
If you’re arriving by air, the easiest option is to fly into Cancun which handles international flights from across the world. A lot of package holiday companies use the airport so flights are plentiful and reasonably priced.
Cancun is Mexico for the masses or Mexico lite and may feel a bit inauthentic to many backpackers. However, if you can look past the high rise resorts and Spring Break-esque bars, Cancun actually has a lot going on. The MUSA (Museo Subacuatico de Arte) is an underwater sculpture park which you may have seen on Instagram. It’s by turns eerie and brilliant. The nightlife is also lively and we wholly recommend a night at Coco Bongo. The Isla Mujeres also makes for a wonderful excursion from Cancun.
If you really want to get out on Cancun, then at the least fill up on taco’s, sink some cerveza and sway to some mariachi music before moving on.
From Cancun, it’s just a few hours by bus to the famous Chichen Itza Maya ruins. There is a hotel just up the road which is well worth the investment – staying here means you can get onsite before the bus loads from Cancun arrive and have the place, kind of, to yourself for a bit.
It’s well worth paying for a guide here who will tell you all about this awe-inspiring place that’s one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
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Next up head to the colorful colonial town of Valladolid and spend some time exploring the cobblestone streets. The town is very laid back which is just what you will need after the madness of Cancun and the bus loadbusloadsds at Chichen Itza.
Valladool also has plenty of cenotes (freshwater sinkholes geologically unique to Mexico) which you explore and dive under. If you fancy some more ruins then, you can easily reach Ek Bala and unlike Chichen Itza, you can actually climb to the top of the main pyramid here.
After a few days in Valladolid, it’s time for the trendy town of Tulum – the hippest and most offbeat backpacker hub in the region. There are yet more Maya ruins here but these ones are our favorites. You can spend the rest of your time here bumming around la playa or hanging out in the top-notch restaurants and bars.
Tulum has become the trendy hotspot in the Riviera Maya, but thankfully it’s still backpacker-friendly. You can easily find a cheap dorm bed and rent a bicycle to explore the ruins and beaches. The affordable accommodation is situated back in the town which is a 10-minute bike ride from the beach. If you do want to stay right on the beach, there are some wonderful options but expect to pay more.
The absolute Tulum highlights are Playa Ruinas with its 13th-century castillo. Also check out Xel-Ha, an archaeological site on the city’s doorstep as well as the fascinating Muyil Pyramid. There are also more cenotes here to be explored.
Tulum is also a renowned Yoga centre and home to several spiritual retreats in Mexico, we recommend that you try it at least once.
Playa del Carmen
Continuing back up the coast, there are multiple choices of where to go next. Playa del Carmen is our pick though. It’s a popular beach town and a great place to party so if you’re looking for something a bit quieter, you may want to head to Puerto Morelos instead. Here you can have a few relaxing days before you have to get back to Cancun to catch your flight.
Playa del Carmen is a great choice for backpackers for two reasons. Not only are there plenty of hostels to choose from, but the nightlife is legendary.
More Mexico anybody?!
If you’ve got a bit more time on your hands, then you may wish to consider adding a trip over to Cozumel or staying in Isla Mujeres for a couple days. Both are accessible by ferry, so you can easily add that island getaway onto your Mexico trip.
Staying Safe in Riviera Maya
Mexico does have a mixed reputation for safety and statistics alone do paint a pretty drastic picture. We understand that some of you may be nervous about visiting Mexico.
However, Riviera Maya is Mexico’s most accessible area and millions of tourists visit each year, have an absolute blast and stay perfectly safe. Cancun and Tulum are generally safe.
The main issue here that you will have to deal with is instances of petty crime. As long as you mind your valuables (no unattended bags), and watch your alcohol intake you should be absolutely fine.
Also remember to use sunscreen, drink plenty of water and bring mosquito repellent!
Need help deciding between Cancun or Cozumel? Check out our helpful guide.
And for transparency’s sake, please know that some of the links in our content are affiliate links. That means that if you book your accommodation, buy your gear, or sort your insurance through our link, we earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you). That said, we only link to the gear we trust and never recommend services we don’t believe are up to scratch. Again, thank you!