Mexico's Best Beach Vacations
By David Baird and Shane Christensen
There are few better places in the world to head for sand and sun than Mexico. But some of its beaches are best for surfers and others for families. Some feature ancient Mayan ruins and others are dotted with adorable, palapa-shaded margarita bars. Here's a quick run down of the best of the best, so you can decide where you want to go to cultivate your tan.
These side-by-side resort towns afford beachgoers the best of both worlds: serene simplicity (Zihuatanejo) and resort comforts (Ixtapa). For travelers seeking to get back to basics, the best and most beautiful beach is Playa La Ropa, close to Zihuatanejo. The wide beach at Playa Las Gatas, with its snorkeling sites and restaurants, is also a fun place to play. The high-rise hotels in Ixtapa, on the next bay over from Zihuatanejo, are set on Playa Palmar, a fine, wide swath of sands.
Crashing waves and dramatic rock formations join forces with stretches of soft, wide sand and rolling surf breaks. Start at Playa Palmilla and head down to the Tourist Corridor to the famed Lover’s Beach at Land’s End. Some beaches are more appropriate for contemplation than they are for swimming.
Puerto Escondido is the best overall beach value in the country; it's principally known for its world-class surfing beach, Playa Zicatela. The surrounding beaches and towns all have their own appeal—be they lined with colorful fishing pangas, delish seafood restaurants, or shady palms. The town boasts unique accommodations at excellent prices, with exceptional budget nightlife and dining.
About 40 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita is a longboarder’s Mecca with a chilled-out beach scene. Although tourists descend in droves on the town during vacation periods, the rest of the year Sayulita clings to a bygone era of total beach simplicity and Mexican tranquillity.
This man-made, government-planned resort offers some of the most spectacular beaches anywhere. The powdery white sand is complemented by warm Caribbean waters the color of a Technicolor dream; it’s so clear that you can see through to the coral reefs below. You can come here just to kick back, but this is also one of the world’s most popular entertainment destinations on the planet. Cancún offers Mexico’s widest selection of beachfront resorts, with more nightlife, restaurants and activities than any other resort destination in the country.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
If uninterrupted relaxation is your goal, Isla Mujeres offers a quintessential laid-back holiday. Most accommodations are small, affordable inns, with a few luxury boutique hotels thrown in for good measure. Bicycle—or take a golf cart—around the island to explore sandy beaches and rocky coves, or focus your tanning efforts on the wide strands of Playa Norte. Here you’ll find calm waters perfect for snorkeling and swimming, and beachfront palapa restaurants beckoning you for a fresh fish lunch.
Playa del Carmen
Hip and stylish, Playa del Carmen has a lovely beach and a social scene that focuses on the sands by day and the pedestrian-only Quinta Avenida by night, with its assortment of restaurants, clubs, shops and sidewalk cafes offering all the entertainment you could want. You’re also close to the coast’s major attractions, including cenotes (sinkholes or natural wells), nature parks and historic ruins. Playa is Mexico’s fastest-growing city and is, alas, becoming homogenized (think Dairy Queen and Starbucks). Enjoy it while it’s still a manageable size.
Fronting some of the finest beaches on the entire coast, Tulum’s tiny palapa hotels offer guests a little slice of heaven far from the crowds and megaresorts. The bustling town lies inland; at the coast, things are serene, as all these small hotels must generate their own electricity. If you can pull yourself away from the beach, there are ruins to marvel at (just above the strands) and a vast nature preserve to explore.
Puerto Vallarta exemplifies the beauty of Mexico—a Pacific bay framed by lush mountains, with a vibrant colonial town, open-minded culture (with an artistic bent), perfect weather, and friendly locals. Spectacularly roomy Banderas Bay is graced by 42km (26 miles) of sandy beach. The beaches of Punta Mita, the exclusive development north of Vallarta, offer white-sand, crystalline waters, coral reefs just offshore and such hotels as the Ritz Carlton and the Four Seasons. Other popular areas in the area known as the Riviera Nayarit are nestled around the bay nestle in coves, accessible only by boat.
This state capital borders a lovely beach, dotted with lively open-air restaurants and colorful playgrounds. Take a cue from the locals, though, and pass on swimming here in favor of the exquisite beaches just minutes from downtown. La Paz’s beaches and the islets just offshore have transformed this tranquil town into a center for sea kayaking, diving and other adventure pursuits.