A seasoned traveler shares her recommendations on places to visit, stay, eat and do on Mexico’s Caribbean coast – from Cancun to Isla Mujeres to Puerto Morelos to Playa del Carmen to Tulum and Akumal. It’s me. I’m the seasoned traveler. I’ve visited Mexico 27 times over the past 30 years. While I’ve traveled to several areas on the Pacific side of Mexico, it’s Cancun and the Mayan Riviera that’s won my heart.
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Where to stay, eat and play in Cancun, Mexico and the Riviera Maya
Where you stay, eat or play in Cancun or on the Riviera Maya depends on your personality, your budget, your traveling party and your travel goals. So this post is more reflective of where I am in life right now (and not my party days with the girls 30, 20 or even 10 years ago). So will focus this post on my favorite experiences in Mexico and top places to visit and things to do along Mexico’s Mayan Riviera – from Cancun to Tulum/Akumal area.
Top places to stay in Mexico – Cancun and Mayan Riviera
I can honestly tell you in the 27 times I’ve traveled to Mexico, I only had one ok stay at a resort (meaning it wasn’t horrible, but I probably wouldn’t stay there again). So I could recommend a couple of dozen, but will narrow it down to a few of my favorite places to stay along the Caribbean coast of Mexico.
All-inclusive resorts in Mexico are awesome – great food and lots of fun beachy drinks – and with all-inclusive, everything is already budgeted and paid for in advance. Just remember to bring lots of pesos for tips and bring your own pre-insulated bottle (bartenders will fill it up for you so you and they don’t have to make extra trips to the bar).
However, I do like to get out and try new restaurants so I’ve stayed at some of the best boutique hotels and Airbnbs in Mexico. Here are my top places to stay in Mexico on the Caribbean side (Cancun and Riviera Maya).
Best boutique hotel in Mexico: Hotel Secreto, Isla Mujeres, Mexico
My husband and I stayed on Isla Mujeres, Mexico for the first time a couple of years ago. We were looking for something more lowkey, quiet and smaller than an all-inclusive resort. Fortunately, my friend recommended Hotel Secreto.
Hotel Secreto is perfect for couples looking for a romantic getaway. With only 12 rooms, we felt like we had our own private guest house on the Caribbean. I especially love the semi-private beach, beautiful infinity pool, the attentive staff and the walkability factor. We could walk everywhere from Hotel Secreto – and it’s located near the livelier North Beach if you’re looking for a little more action.
Special note: I am a bed and pillow snob. And Hotel Secreto has the most comfortable beds and pillows. That’s high on my criteria filter.
See my blog series about beautiful Isla Mujeres, Mexico – one of the most romantic places to stay in Mexico.
- A secret too good to keep: Hotel Secreto, Mexico – the best boutique hotel
- How to get to Isla Mujeres, Mexico
- Isla Mujeres: A sculpture garden you don’t want to miss
- Best street art in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Best all-inclusive resort hotels in Cancun, Mexico and Mayan Riviera
We’ve stayed at several all-inclusive resort hotels in Mexico and my all-time favorite is Ocean Coral and Turquesa Resort in Puerto Morelos. Now if you’re looking to spend a lot of time in Cancun or Playa del Carmen, this resort is about the mid-way point. If you take taxis, it can get a little pricey, but there’s so much to do at Ocean Coral and Turquesa, you really don’t need to leave.
I recommend booking one of the Privilege suites as you’ll receive, well, special privileges such as a butler, a private beach, special dining opportunities and more. And the rooms are spacious. Ocean Coral and Turquesa features several pools, bars, restaurants, spa treatments, fun activities (on and off the resort). I’ve stayed here with a group of friends (11 of us!) with my sister and a friend, and solo.
Here are a few other all-inclusive resort hotels we’ve stayed at and loved in Cancun and along the Mayan Riviera.
Best vacation rental in Mexico: Caribbean Reef Villas, Puerto Morelos, Mexico
I’m a big fan of Airbnb and VRBO and have reserved condos and homes with them several times.
My friend and I were looking for a quick and inexpensive getaway to Mexico and I found this Airbnb Caribbean Reef Villas condo in Puerto Morelos, Mexico. Now our only agenda was beach, book, beer and that’s pretty much all we did. Although we did go into town for happy hour and dinner (we were within walking distance). So if you’re looking for nightlife, you’ll want to pass on Caribbean Reef Villas. But if you’re looking for quiet and relaxing, then this condo in Puerto Morelos is your perfect destination in Mexico.
One of my favorite features of this Caribbean Reef Villas condo is that it is oceanfront – like only 100 feet away. So loved falling asleep to the crashing waves. The only downside of this particular vacation rental is that unlike all-inclusive resorts with a large staff, the beaches are not well-groomed and you will find some seaweed. But that was not a deal breaker as I’m content to sit poolside.
Best places to eat in Cancun, Mexico
My list of the top places to eat in Cancun or along the Mayan Riviera is long. Unfortunately, several of my favorite restaurants have closed temporarily or permanently so I’m hesitant to recommend too many at this time. I’m so disappointed to learn Blue Gecko Cantina closed. They had the most amazing shrimp tacos (however, I read on their Facebook page that they are planning to open up in the Austin area – I’ll need to confirm it’s Austin, Texas).
Since the hospitality industry may still be navigating the effects of the pandemic, I’ll recommend a couple of restaurants that appear to be open at this time.
Make a reservation at Navios Cancun Seafood Restaurant on the water and time it so you catch the sunset over Nichupte Lagoon in Cancun.
We ordered Navios’ seafood feast special for two. And it was an amazing seafood feast – expensive, but so worth it! Especially since our trip to Mexico in January 2020 was the last trip we took before the pandemic. Can’t wait to return – and we will order a celebratory seafood feast special for two again for sure!
Best restaurants in Cancun: Captain’s Cove
We first discovered Captain’s Cove during our first visit to Mexico 30 years ago. So this seafood and steak restaurant in Cancun holds a special place in our hearts. And the food and waterfront ambiance at Captain’s Cove is pretty special also. I especially love their coconut shrimp, breaded and served with a sweet-spicy orange sauce and tropical guacamole.
I also recommend making a reservation at Captain’s Cove to sit near the water with a view of the marina at sunset.
Best restaurants in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
My husband and I ate at several of the street and sidewalk cafes when we stayed in Isla Mujeres, Mexico – all of them are amazing – and some come with a dinner show . Here are two that stood out for us as the best restaurants in Isla Mujeres.
Best Caribbean Restaurant in Isla Mujeres, Mexico: Javi’s Cantina Restaurant and Bar
I recommend making a reservation at Javi’s Cantina Restaurant and Bar in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. We were a walk-in, but they were able to seat us in the front of the restaurant. Still great ambiance and we also had live music – a guitar soloist. Pictured above is the courtyard area of Javi’s Cantina.
Our pre-dinner cocktails (where we ordered seconds and maybe thirds) at Javi’s Cantina Restaurant and Bar were pretty amazing. My husband ordered a grilled pineapple margarita and I enjoyed a refreshing strawberry daiquiri by candlelight.
For dinner, I devoured the fabulous jumbo shrimp special and took a bite or two of my husband’s fresh catch of the day, snapper, in a mushroom cream sauce. They were both amazing. We will definitely eat at Javi’s Cantina Restaurant and Bar in Isla Mujeres again – one of the best restaurants on the island.
Best Restaurants in Isla Mujeres, Mexico: North Garden Café Restaurant and Bar
North Garden Café Restaurant and Bar is one of the best restaurants in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. It was within walking distance of our hotel (Hotel Secreto) and near North Beach. We enjoyed happy hour, breakfast and dinner.
I especially loved North Garden Cafe’s tableside flamed salmon entrée: citrus-flavored salmon cooked over coals and marinated with Grand Marnier on a bed of grilled grapefruit and vegetables. Grilled grapefruit is pretty amazing!
And my husband enjoyed North Garden Café’s homemade pasta with seafood (fruiti de mar) with pesto cream sauce, roasted jumbo shrimp, fish of the day and octopus sauteed with white wine.
Top things to do in Cancun, Mexico and the Mayan Riviera
Now, I’ve been to Mexico so many times I’m usually visiting for the sole purpose to rest, relax and recharge – or what I call my beach, book, beverage vacation. Meaning I don’t make any plans other than to watch the ocean do its thing and work on my current reading challenge.
And if I wake up and feel like doing something, then I just do it.
However, if you are visiting Mexico for the first time or looking for some fun activities to do solo, as a couple or with your family, here are our family’s favorite top things to do in Mexico.
Note: Always check with the attraction’s website, your hotel concierge or tour operator for the latest updates.
Top things to do in Mexico: Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins
While it’s a long road trip that will take all day and into the night, the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza are worth investing the time to experience history. It’s been more than 10 years since we’ve visited (I’ve toured twice). I’ve heard from other travelers that Chichen Itza has become pretty commercialized, which is unfortunate. Since I haven’t experienced that myself, I would still recommend taking a tour of Chichen Itza if you get the opportunity – exploring the Mayan ruins is one of the best things to do in Mexico.
Top places to visit in Mexico: Tulum Mayan Ruins
The Tulum Mayan ruins are considerably smaller than what you’ll find at Chichen Itza; however, they hold a special place in our hearts. My husband and I visited the Mayan ruins in Tulum during our first visit to Mexico in 1990. Nothing compares to seeing all that history with the blue-green waters of the Caribbean as the backdrop. The setting of the Tulum Mayan ruins is simply stunning! These images are 30 years old and don’t do the place justice. Guess where I’ll be revisiting the next time I travel to Mexico.
Best places to visit in Mexico: Xcaret eco-archeological park in Playa del Carmen, Mexico
With more than 50 natural and cultural attractions, you’ll find something for everyone at Xcaret in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. We especially loved the underground rivers and caves you can float in and through, Mayan ruins, cenotes, aquarium, butterfly garden, lots of colorful and exotic birds, beautiful flora and fauna gardens, a Mayan dinner show and much more.
Best things to do in Mexico: Swimming and snorkeling with turtles
One of our family’s favorite experiences was swimming and snorkeling with the turtles in Akumal, Mexico. And fair warning, even though we had life jackets and are in fairly good physical condition, we were exhausted afterwards.
Best things to do in Mexico: Swimming and snorkeling in cenotes
What’s a cenote? Cenotes are gorgeous; that’s what they are! Essentially, cenotes are underground swimming holes in limestone rock with water so clear you can see fish and other marine life swimming around you.
And you don’t have to limit snorkeling to cenotes. The Great Mayan Reef near Cancun (Punta Nizuc) offers some of the best snorkeling (and scuba diving) experiences in the world. Cozumel (an island across from Playa del Carmen, Mexico) offers numerous snorkeling and diving sites along the Mesoamerican Reef – also considered one of the best diving spots in the world.
Best things to do near Cancun and Mayan Riviera: Explore Cozumel and/or Isla Mujeres
If you’re not staying on one of the nearby islands of Cozumel or Isla Mujeres, then I highly recommend taking a day trip. You can book day cruises, snorkeling trips, or take a public ferry (you can also find private boat operators). See my related post: How to get to Isla Mujeres from Cancun, Mexico. You catch the ferry to Cozumel from Playa del Carmen.
You can spend the day on the Mexican islands snorkeling, shopping at local merchants and flea markets or renting a motorized vehicle to take your own island tour. Golf carts are popular modes of transportation on Isla Mujeres and plenty of places where you can rent them. When we visited Cozumel, we rented mopeds and Jeeps. Lots of fun and a great way to see the island!
On my next visit to Mexico, I want to check out another island – Isla Holbox. This car-free island is about 60 km northwest of Cancun and only accessible by ferry.
Mérida, Mexico is also on my list. Check out this insider’s guide on what to do in Mérida, Mexico. This beautiful destination is located 4.5 hours from Cancun.
Best free things to do in Mexico
Some of the best things to do in Mexico are free! And some of my favorite ways to spend my day on the Caribbean include:
- Get up early for a beach walk and take in the sunrise.
- Make a dinner reservation on the lagoon in Cancun and watch the sunset.
- Take in some of the beautiful and colorful street art. See my related post: Best street art in Isla Mujeres
- Do as I do and simply sit and watch the ocean do its thing.
Of course, this is a very limited list of places to stay, visit and things to do in Mexico – but a good start to make your trip to Mexico memorable. Your resort will also offer fun activities on and off the hotel grounds such as salsa dancing lessons, margarita classes, cooking lessons, tequila tastings, swim with the dolphins, jet ski rentals, parasailing, jungle tours, glass-bottom cruises, sunset dinner cruises, bar crawls and more.
Is it safe to travel to Mexico?
When people asked me this question a year ago, they were referring to their physical safety. And I could answer without a doubt, yes, it is safe to travel to Mexico. Check out my full video post on why I believe Mexico is safe as well as all my safety tips (which are really safety tips for anywhere you travel in the world.).
Today, many people are wondering if it is safe to travel to Mexico due to Covid (as well as some recent cartel violence). I can’t answer that for you. However, I would recommend that you consult the CDC travel advisories for Mexico as well as the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Mexico and the U.S. State Department. CDC focuses on public health advisories and the U.S. State Department also considers other risk indicators such as crime and kidnapping.
Safety travel tip to Mexico or any foreign country
Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). It’s a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Helps you and your family stay informed, connected and safe in the event of an emergency.
Other frequently asked questions and tips about traveling to Cancun, Mexico and the Mayan Riviera
If you have any other questions or looking for tips or recommendations not addressed in this post, simple leave me a note in the comments or contact me directly. I hope you enjoy and grow to love Mexico as much as we do.