You've heard it more times than you can count: "endless stretch of pristine beach . . ." "soft white sand caressed by turquoise waves . . ." So let's get right to what you really need to know. The Yucatán's Caribbean coast reaches 380km (236 miles) from Cancún to Chetumal, at the Belize border. The northern coast, from Cancún to Tulum and down the Punta Allen peninsula, has been dubbed the Riviera Maya; the southern half, the Costa Maya. In between is the vast Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve.
The region's greatest geological asset is the Great Mesoamerican Reef, which extends south to Honduras and protects most of the Caribbean coast from harsh currents and waves. Playa del Carmen's beaches, such as Playa El Faro, are among the area's most beautiful, with soft sand and minimal surf. Lined with small hotels, Tulum's uninterrupted beaches are ideal for getting away from the crowds and strolling on the sand. Head to Paamul's wide, curving beach for a relaxing swim in the warm turquoise water.
Things to Do
A single highway connects many of the coast's major off-the-beach sites. Visitors interested in Maya archaeology should head to Tulum or Cobá for stunning ancient structures. Go caving in Akumal's Aktun Chen, with a forest of stalactites and stalagmites leading to a deep pool. Stroll down Playa del Carmen's Quinta Avenida for the best shopping, from Brazilian bikinis to traditional embroidered dresses. A trip to Xcaret park invites you to commune with native flora and fauna and experience Mexico's folkloric music and dance.
Eating & Drinking
Simple beachfront restaurants combine wiggling your toes in the sand with enjoying freshly caught fish and conch. Playa del Carmen has a thriving restaurant scene off the beach. At Yaxché, dive in to Maya specialties such as cochinita pibil, pork marinated in achiote and sour orange, wrapped in a plantain leaf and baked. Panuchos, a Yucatecan snack, are fried tortillas filled with black beans, topped with meat and pickled red onions -- perfect with an icy beer. Finish your meal with a Café Maya, made from a local liqueur, Xtabentun.
Scores of contented visitors hardly leave their happy perch on the powdery sand. But the shoreline is merely the first act; the main event is the Caribbean's gorgeous aquamarine water. Superb scuba diving and snorkeling sites are easy to find, especially along the reefs just off the shores of Puerto Morelos and at Akumal's Laguna Yal-Ku. The region's cenotes (water-filled sinkholes) connect to form the world's largest underground river system, with crystal-clear water for snorkelers and swimmers to enjoy.