Beaches Lure Travelers to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula

Palm trees sway on the beach in Akumal, Mexico.

Palm trees sway on the beach in Akumal, Mexico.

Story by Kassondra Cloos; photos by Michael Ciaglo

Kassondra is a freelance travel writer based in London. Michael is a freelance photographer based in Denver.

A rental car takes you to less-crowded stretches of sand.

Some beaches encourage relaxation, inviting you to prop up an umbrella and open a good book. Others offer opportunities for diving on reefs brimming with countless colorful fish. Some provide seasonal wildlife watching, and some are lined with restaurants and eclectic shops. With a rental car and a sense of adventure, you can find all of the above along Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

On a sun-drenched road trip, three friends and I explored a handful of far-flung beaches just off Highway 307, which stretches 230 miles from Cancun south to Chetumal. For part of the trip, the resort town of Playa del Carmen, an hour south of Cancun, served as our home base. When exploring beaches farther south, we stayed in the sleepy lakeside town of Bacalar, about 40 minutes northwest of Chetumal. Every day we ventured out in search of uncrowded spots to soak up some vitamin D and enjoy being together.

As luck would have it, the 700-mile-long Mesoamerican Reef — the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere — lies in the Caribbean Sea right off Playa del Carmen. Some 500 species of fish live on the reef, and sea turtles or dolphins are often sighted. Numerous dive centers in both towns offer SCUBA and snorkeling tours.    

At Playa Akumal, 35 minutes south of Playa del Carmen, we donned snorkels to go in search of the turtles that swim in the warm, shallow water. The beach opens at 9 a.m., and the earlier you arrive, the better your chances of spotting the turtles, as they tend to move farther out when surrounded by a lot of swimmers. Touching or harassing the turtles is illegal, as they are protected by the Mexican government.

At Xcacel Área Natural Protegida, a nature preserve about 15 minutes south of Playa Akumal, green and loggerhead sea turtles nest from May to November. During that time, recreational activities are restricted to one side of the beach, and staff members explain how to keep the turtles safe. You won’t find much in the way of amenities or facilities here, but you likely will find an empty patch of sand to spread a towel.

Chilling Under the Sun

Our favorite beaches for lazy afternoons were Puerto Morelos and Playa Mahahual. Puerto Morelos, about 30 minutes north of Playa del Carmen, feels like a delightfully classic beach town, with a walkable town center dotted with restaurants, shops and outdoor craft vendors. You don’t have to be a hotel guest to rent beach chairs and tables, so we pooled our cash — about $10 to $15 US — for a generously sized umbrella and chairs. Our afternoon was so pleasant, we returned the following day.

Playa Mahahual, located about an hour and 15 minutes northeast of Bacalar, boasts restaurants that offer shady seating areas all along the beachfront, where you can gaze at the sparkling waters as you savor seafood dinners. Originally a fishing village, the town now is a port of call for cruise ships, so you may want to visit late in the afternoon after the crowds have departed.

Funny, but I never used to think of myself as a beach person, finding the experience to be a bit lazy compared to other outdoor adventures such as hiking or climbing. I’ve learned that sometimes, venturing out into the bright white sun, out beyond the edge of the continent and into clear, warm water, is exactly the adventure I need.


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