Bordering the Caribbean Sea, Mexico’s Quintana Roo offers over 15,000 square miles of lush jungle, white sand beaches, ancient ruins and spectacular underwater sea life. One of the best things about this Mexican state is the wonderful cities & towns sprawled across it. They are all located in such close proximity to one another, each of them offering something totally unique from the rest.
Best Towns In Quintana Roo
You would absolutely be selling your visit short if you didn’t visit at least two (or three… or four…) of these places during your time in the state!
Before reading on, let’s orient ourselves a bit. The pink box is the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.
And here’s a map showing the six places in the region that I reference in this post.
To give you an idea of distance, the drive from Cancún to Playa del Carmen is about 45 minutes and from Playa del Carmen to Tulum is another 45-ish minutes.
Our journey will begin at the most Northern point in Quintana Roo.
There’s an idea in the travel community that if you go where the locals vacation, you will end up in the most idyllic, transformative places. Isla Holbox is where Mexicans go on vacation and it’s easy to see why.
Holbox is incredibly off the grid – as in no traffic lights, no cars, limited electricity. If you think a beach with 50 other people surrounding you is the perfect escape, you are wrong. True relaxation is a day on Isla Holbox sleeping on a hammock in the middle of the turquoise Caribbean Sea. You will never know serenity, solitude, and introspection as well as you will know it on Isla Holbox.
This car-free island is part of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve. The goal here for travelers is simple — unplug and immerse yourself in the beautiful surroundings. As such, the best way to explore Isla Holbox is by bike or golf cart. But if you’re ready to adventure beyond land, snorkel in the crystal blue waters, or kayak through the mangroves of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve. A fair warning — you may encounter a crocodile or two hiding between the mangroves.
Speaking of wild and marine life, the island is also one of the best places in Mexico for swimming with whale sharks, a once in a lifetime experience that you need to do while in Quintana Roo. And while you’re there, head to Punta Mosquito to catch a glimpse of the vibrantly pink wild flamingos. However, unlike in Aruba, these flamingos are wild and it’s not advisable to get up close and personal with them.
To get to Isla Holbox, you need to take a taxi or Ado bus to Chiquila on the most Northern point of Quintana Roo. From there, catch a 30-minute ferry to Isla Holbox.
By the way, it’s “Hole-bosh,” not “Hole-box.” 🙂
Next is Cancún, the antithesis of Isla Holbox and the Mexican equivalent of Las Vegas.
Not much else needs to be said about Cancún besides that it’s the perfect place to go in Mexico for a slightly trashy & super messy weekend. There are endless clubs, bars, and beach clubs here, a never-ending flow of alcohol and people who love to party.
My favorite places to go out in Cancún are Mandala, Palazzo, Dady’O and The City. For all of my attitude about Cancun and for all the hesitation I have about ever going back, the night I spent at The City was my absolute favorite clubbing night of all time. Even more than my nights clubbing in Mykonos.
If you’re not much of a party animal but would still like to experience Cancún, take a short trip to the port town of Puerto Morelos. Approximately a 30-minute drive away, Puerto Morelos is a sleepy-ish fishing town that offers great food, beaches, and plenty of water sports at the fraction of the cost of visiting Cancún. You’ll also find some of Mexico’s most beautiful cenotes in Puerto Morelos. Check out Cenote Siete Bocas and Cenote La Noria.
Cancún is also a great place for scuba diving. Get your PADI certification here and head toward the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef — the second largest reef in the world. For another great underwater adventure, visit the Underwater Museum, also known as MUSA. Visitors at MUSA will snorkel through underwater sculptures that encourage coral reef development. Swim amongst statues, VW Beetles, and other exhibits surrounded by ocean life.
And of course, Chichen Itza, one of the 7 wonders of the world, is 2.5 hours away from Cancún. So don’t leave Cancún without checking it off your list!
PLAYA DEL CARMEN
Playa del Carmen is most well-known for its downtown area. Namely Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), a long stretch of pedestrian walkway packed with shops, restaurants, and bars. It’s a great place to buy trinkets and enjoy authentic Mexican food. It’s also second to Cancún in being one of the better places to enjoy a late-night out.
Playa certainly feels more like a tourist destination than other places like Isla Holbox and Tulum, but it’s still worth exploring. There are also a lot of wonderful tours that begin and end here, like this one!
Like most beach towns, Playa is packed with water sports and activities for travelers who enjoy being in the ocean. But that’s not to say that Playa doesn’t offer more unique attractions for travelers. Pay a visit to the Frida Kahlo museum, located on La Quinta. The museum is open daily from 9 am to 11 pm, and general admissions cost $15 USD.
For a truly unique experience, head a few minutes outside of Playa to Rio Secreto. Rio Secreto is a system of caves filled with underground rivers and springs. Here, travelers will be able to swim within the cool, dark, cave waters. It’s a change of pace from the typical ocean swim that most travelers travel to Playa for, but a slightly eerie experience that you have to try at least once.
Speaking of caves… Playa can get slightly overwhelming for those hoping for something a little more low key. So if you find yourself in the thick of the hustle and bustle of Playa’s nightlife, make reservations for dinner at Alux. This unique restaurant allows travelers to leave the chaos of Playa behind. Descend into a cave that’s thousands of years old for a one-of-a-kind dining experience. Alux will deliver a memorable dining experience for anyone, no matter what your travel preferences are.
Cozumel is a small island right off the coast of the Riviera Maya, directly East of Playa del Carmen. The island has become an increasingly popular tourist destination in the last five years. However, it’s still a beloved vacation spot for native Mexicans that want to escape the noise of Playa del Carmen.
On Cozumel, you aren’t obligated to do much else aside from exploring the small town, see Mayan sites on the island, and relax on its white-sand beaches.
And as with all places on the Riviera Maya, the opportunity to swim in the Caribbean Sea is not to be passed up. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef that stretches from Cozumel to Central America is one of the best places to snorkel and dive in Mexico.
Visit Money Bar Beach Club, also formerly known as one of the best beaches for snorkelers. If you’re traveling with children, Paradise Beach is the perfect spot for both kids and adults. And for some of the most transparent waters you’ll ever see, visit Playa El Cielo, where the water is so clear, you can get up close with the starfishes that call it home.
To get to Cozumel, you have to take a 45-minute ferry from Playa del Carmen.
While in the Riviera Maya, a day in Akumal is a necessity because it offers another amazing opportunity to swim with more wildlife. This time, huge sea turtles! The name “Akumal” means “place of the turtle” in the Mayan language. So naturally, the only thing you can’t leave Akumal without is going snorkeling or diving.
I recommend checking out Akumal Dive Shop for awesome tour options.
Located about an hour south of Playa del Carmen is a magical place called Tulum. After seeing most of Quintana Roo, I can now say with confidence that Tulum is my absolute favorite place. I highly recommend you make time in your itinerary to spend a couple of days here.
Honestly, the only way I can describe Tulum to someone who hasn’t been there is by saying a series of random words and phrases and hoping they understand.
Green juice, beach yoga, boho-chic. Gypsy lifestyle, luscious jungle, turquoise ocean, GOOD vibes…
Even your accommodation in Tulum is likely to be an attraction all on its own. Tulum’s hotel zone comprises of several boutique, luxury hotels, each with its own unique charm. Not to mention, there are many artistic, aesthetically-on-point locations that just make Tulum a photographer’s playground.
Aside from the eye-catching scenery and accommodations, Tulum is home to some of the best and most innovative restaurants in the culinary world.
Of course, the beaches are amazing and so are the cenotes. But Tulum is a paradise for those looking for a healthy, holistic getaway without sacrificing a little indulgence in nightlife.
Where Will You Go?
Now that we’ve covered 6 of the best beach towns to visit in Quintana Roo, one thing is for sure — each of these destinations promises beautiful, turquoise blue ocean views. Your decision really comes down to a few factors: do you prefer upbeat or laid back? Are you looking for nature or nightlife? Do you flock to where the crowds are or would you rather stay off-the-beaten-path?
No matter what you decide, you’ll find just what you need and more in one of these beautiful beach towns in Quintana Roo.
Now go, go, go! Mexico awaits 🙂
Have you ever been to Quintana Roo? What was your favorite place?
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