Tulum beach.
Jose Granados

Best Beaches of the Riviera Maya

Mexico's Best Yucatán Beaches
By Joy Hepp

The Yucatán shoreline stretches nearly 1,600km (1,000 miles), and its eastern, Caribbean-side beaches are among the world's finest, famed for their dazzling turquoise waters and bright-white sands. Composed of shell fragments broken and tumbled smooth by heavy wave action, the picture-perfect shore of the Riviera Maya remains cool underfoot in even the hottest temperatures.

Some stretches are full of sunbathers, palapas, and hotels. Others -- hard as it is to believe -- are lined with nothing but palm trees. So visit now, before developers gobble up these last deserted stretches.

Photo Caption: Tulum beach
Playa Norte Beach in Isla Mujeres.
Martha Roque
Isla Mujeres
Laid-back beach time is just a ferry ride away from Cancún, on Isla Mujeres. The windward side of this tiny island is great for beachcombers and shell collectors, though most locations are too rough for swimming; the North Beach is shallow, warm, and ideal for young children and families (despite an occasional, discreet topless sunbather). The leeward side, facing Cancún, has the best swimming and snorkeling in the bay's protected waters.

Most notable of these beaches are Garrafón Park, near the southern tip; Playa Lancheros and Sac Bajo, about halfway down the island; and the big beach near the ferries and working lighthouse downtown.

Photo Caption: Playa Norte Beach in Isla Mujeres
The northern end of the Hotel Zone in Cancun.
Eric Blanc
Its gorgeous, bright-white beaches and stunning aquamarine water put Cancún on the map. The Hotel Zone, a 27km (17-mile) sliver of land in the shape of a figure 7, affords two types of beach getaway. The long side, with spectacularly good-looking beaches, widened after Hurricane Wilma, faces the Caribbean and can have strong waves when it's windy. The top of the 7 is on the Bay of Mujeres, where the water is not nearly so blue but is rarely as rough. Playa Delfines, a public beach off Kukulcán, Km 18.5, is often considered the most dramatic.

All beaches are public in Mexico, but generally guests use ones associated with their hotels. The Hotel Zone's public beaches are usually crowded on Sundays when local families come to play.

Photo Caption: The northern end of the Hotel Zone in Cancun
Puerto Morelos's waterfront.
Martha Roque
Puerto Morelos
This quiet fishing and residential village is a favorite of North American snowbirds, who often stay long-term in winter months. Its snow-white beaches are inside an offshore reef, so they don't get big waves, but they do get big raves for crowd-free snorkeling and swimming. Catch a 1½-hour-long snorkel trip from the pier for $25. Ask to see the ojo de agua (eye of water), where fresh water enters the sea from an underground river.

The town of Puerto Morelos has just a few modest hotels; most of its accommodations take the form of guesthouses, small condominium complexes, or small hotels. A local dining favorite is Pelícano's, a seafood restaurant on the corner of the square and the beach. Puerto Morelos is about halfway between Cancún and Playa del Carmen.

Photo Caption: The waterfront in Puerto Morelos
Punta Bete, Mexico.
nate hughes
Punta Bete/Xcalacoco
Just north of Playa del Carmen is Punta Bete, a superb, isolated, pure-white beach with swaying palm trees and rustic, beachfront accommodations. Get here before it's sullied; these 5km (3 miles) of gorgeous beach are bound to be developed.

Stay in comfortable, charming, rustic cabins at Coco's Cabañas (tel. 998/874-7056; $50-$75). Surrounded by tropical gardens, these intimate cabañas are just steps from the beach. Eat fresh seafood next door at Los Piños, a rustic palapa beach bungalow where the hut specialty is Tikin-Xic, grilled filet of fish flavored with achiote.

Photo Caption: Punta Bete, Mexico
Yal-Ku snorkeling lagoon, near Akumal.
Jennifer Polland
Akumal's offshore reefs and wonderful half-moon-shaped bay have attracted divers and inveterate beach lovers since 1958, long before other coastal resort areas developed. These days, condominiums, private villas, and boutique hotels line the beach, which remains uncrowded.

Akumal is suitable for North Americans who appreciate familiarity, given that gringos own most of the homes here. And you can't ask for a better beach.

Inland, super snorkeling and swimming opportunities abound at the Yal-ku Lagoon, a similar but smaller version of nearby Xel-Ha. At the northern end of the town road, Yal-ku (admission $7) also affords a safe snorkeling experience among its clear water and rocky inlets.

Look out over Akumal Bay from a suite at Hacienda de la Tortuga (tel. 984/875-9068; www.haciendatortuga.com), a pleasant, small hotel on the beach. Tortuga is Spanish for turtle, which is what Akumal means in Maya.

Dine al fresco at the appealing, Lol-Ha Restaurant and Bar, in Hotel Akumal.

Photo Caption: Yal-Ku snorkeling lagoon, near Akumal
Blue Sky Hotel, Tankah, Mexico.
The beaches of Tankah feature exclusive guesthouses and small boutique hotels in a setting that is, as yet, unspoiled. Heavenly pure white sand and blue waters are the staples. Eat American-style Tex-Mex at the Casa Cenote Restaurant on a rocky beach. Opposite this restaurant, along the beach road, is Tankah Cenote. This natural underground river is one of the deepest and clearest around.

Photo Caption: Blue Sky Hotel, Tankah, Mexico
Tulum beach from above.
Jose Granados
Tulum's plethora of facilities and its reputation as a remote escape from the demands of civilization make it the hippest place to stay on the Riviera Maya. It was inevitable that the demand for lodgings on the gorgeous beach along the Boca Paila Road would mean more small hotels on the coastline between the ruins at Tulum and the protected nature preserve, Sian Ka'an Biosphere. The beaches are beyond beautiful; even the sandy shore below the cliffside ruins attracts beach bums with cultural pretensions.

Oceanfront accommodations in Tulum run from rustic sand-floor cabañas to upscale luxury suites -- and everything in between.

Photo Caption: Tulum beach from above