Tulum, the beachside town on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula you’ll no doubt be familiar with from your Instagram feed, is a beautiful place. But as tourist numbers rise every year – and the prices along with them – it’s time to skip the well-trodden path and discover some other incredible spots nearby on Mexico’s Caribbean coast.
A two-hour drive south-east of Tulum is Laguna Bacalar, a 60-kilometre inlet of the Caribbean Sea. Don’t be put off by the fact it’s not technically a beach – it has the same warm, crystal-clear water as Tulum, there’s just a lot less people to share it with. The main things to do are swim, paddle board, read a book in a hammock ... did I already say swim? There’s not a whole lot to do but that’s the point. To eat, have a long lunch at La Playita right on the water (get the ceviche) or sample any of the street food carts around the town square. Check in to boutique hotel Rancho Encantado or book one of many lagoon side Airbnbs available.
Isla Holbox (pronounced ee-la hol-bosh) is a couple of hours by road from Cancun followed by a short ferry ride. There are no cars on the 30-kilometre long, two-kilometre wide island (you get around on golf carts or bicycles) and it’s not overly developed, so if you’re looking for that "getting away from it all" feeling, this is it. From April to October, tens of thousands of flamingos migrate to a tiny island 30 minutes by boat from Isla Holbox, so you can see them in all their fairy floss-pink glory, and from June to September you can swim with whale sharks. Accommodation options are fairly limited. Stay at Casa Las Tortugas, or if you want something a little more luxe go with Casa Sandro. The best tacos are at food truck TacoQueto, or visit the rooftop at seafood restaurant Los Peleones, the most upscale venue on the island, although chances are no one will be wearing shoes. This isn’t Tulum, after all.
Twenty minutes by ferry from a dock not far from Cancun International Airport, Isla Mujeres easily gets as busy as Tulum during the high season. But it’s a nice change from the see-and-be-seen hipster culture of Tulum – backpackers mingle with families, and there are restaurants, hotels and activities for every budget. The beach on the island’s northern tip is probably the most stunning, but hire a golf cart and go exploring to find your own deserted slice of sand. Casa Sirena is a long-time favourite boutique hotel a short walk from the town centre, with a delicious traditional Mexican breakfast in the morning and margaritas served on the rooftop in the evenings to watch the sunset Isla Mujeres has become famous for.
The 500-year-old capital of the Yucatan, Merida, is about 45 minutes inland from the beach, but it’s still a worthy stop on your itinerary. With its well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture, thriving arts scene and culinary clout, it’s no wonder it’s been voted Latin America’s Cultural Capital for 2017. Merida also makes the perfect base for a day trip to Mayan ruins Chichen Itza and Uxmal, which are both a little over an hour’s drive away. Stroll the palm-lined Paseo de Montejo boulevard, and don’t miss the tacos at La Chaya Maya on Calle [street] 55 (between calles 60 and 62).
Valladolid is somehow sophisticated and yet unpretentious at the same time – maybe its location two hours’ drive inland from the coast is keeping the hipsters away? If wandering this Spanish colonial town’s outrageously picturesque streets lined with colourful buildings and old Volkswagen Beetles gets you in the mood for a swim, a refreshing dip is never far away thanks to the cenotes (natural swimming holes) that dot the surrounding region. A stay at truly boutique hotel Coqui Coqui (there’s only one room!) should be your starting point. Even if you can’t get a reservation, the in-the-know staff in the Perfumeria & Spa downstairs will be able to direct you to the best restaurants, bars and boutiques Valladolid has to offer.