The Yucatán Peninsula
Spanning an area about the size of Utah, the Yucatán Peninsula is Mexico’s tourism breadbasket, with 6.8 million visitors flowing into the region in 2017. With the beach playground of Cancún as its hub, the Yucatán offers a splendid variety of attractions, natural wonders and landmarks, from cenote diving in Cozumel to the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá. Getting there is easy. Choosing where to go is the hard part.
The Hotel Zone
Located a mere mile and a half from Cancún International Airport, and studded with hotels, restaurants and all-inclusive resorts, this well-trod tourism district is the only reasonable option for visitors who wish to crank up their IV drip of holiday escapism as soon as humanly possible. It technically sits on Isla Cancún, a mantis leg of sand and trees that hangs into the Gulf of Mexico from the mainland, providing a convenient, natural buffer from violence-ravaged downtown Cancún. Funny to think it was a sugar plantation with only three full-time residents as recently as 1970.
1. Score five-day all-inclusive deals (hotel, food and airfare) starting around $1,200/person, at resorts like The Pyramid at Grand Oasis, which boasts 20 bars. pyramidgrandoasiscancun.com
2. Take a day trip to lovely Isla Mujeras, the Hotel Zone’s ritzier, more serene counterpart, via a one-hour ferry ($14). ultramarferry.com
3. Dive the Underwater Museum (pictured, left): 500 life-size sculptures situated on the floor of the ocean to promote coral life, one of the most unique and surreal diving experiences in the world. musamexico.org
Playa Del Carmen
If the Yucatán Peninsula’s Caribbean coastline was put to the Goldilocks and the Three Bears test, Cancún would be too loud, and Tulum would be too sleepy. Playa del Carmen, which sits roughly midway between the spring break destination and the archaeological oasis on the Riviera Maya, would be just right. “Playa,” as locals abbreviate it, balances the enlivening nightlife of its Quinta Avenida district with the magnificent somnolence of its seaside resorts for a virtuoso vacation.
You want to choose accommodations carefully (see below), since your hotel will be not only your home base but also your prime activity hub. Mahekal Beach Resort is a Mayan-inspired hostelry – the name, Mahekal, is a Mayanization of the word “magical” – with private palapa suites and many native Mayan staffers who can teach you a phrase or two of the endangered language during your stay. (Here’s a taste: mulix, pronounced moo-LEESH, means a curly haired person.) An ideal Mahekal day:
1. Breakfast at Las Olas, where chilaquiles and calabacitas (sautéed squash) hold court on the Mexican/Continental buffet.
2. Pool time at the beachside, infinity-edge Las Olas pool, then a swim in the ocean.
3. Tacos and margaritas at Itzi Pool Bar.
4. Explore the Riviera Maya’s beautiful reefs with a dive tour from instructors at the resort’s Dive Center.
5. Angel Veil with Crystal Quartz treatment at Revive Spa, which combines a relaxing massage with reiki (energy) therapy.
6. Dinner at the Mayan culinary casita, where chefs prepare authentic indigenous dishes in large clay pots and servers proffer xtabentún, a local honey-anise liqueur. (See Photo Op.)
7. Evening walk to Quinta Avenida, Playa’s nightlife/arts district that locals compare to the Las Vegas Strip. That’s certainly an exaggeration, but the pedestrian-only street is still tons of fun.
8. Nightcap at Boli’s Bar, which offers nightly drink specials and boasts billiards and pingpong tables and a “take one, leave one” library with plenty of English titles.
If You Go
Mahekal Beach Resort
You get a lot of bang for your buck at Mahekal, which finds a sweet spot between the all-inclusive and à la carte models with a flexible meal plan (two on-site meals a day; one free for town exploration) and laidback luxury that never feels pretentious.
High-season rate: $275-$900+/night from late November to April (rates vary greatly by room type)
Low-season rate: As low as $275/night from September to early November. mahekalbeachresort.com
How to Get There
Your best bet is to book a direct flight to Cancún (about four hours) and then take a resort shuttle or taxi to Playa del Carmen (about one hour). At press time, American Airlines was the sole carrier offering direct service from Phoenix to Cancún.
More Overnight Options
Grand Velas Riviera Maya
“Tropical opulence” is the name of the game at Grand Velas, which has three distinct experiences/parts of the property: The Ambassador Experience (family-friendly), The Grand Class Experience (couples only) and The Zen Grand Experience (relaxation/spa). rivieramaya.grandvelas.com
Perhaps the most luxurious resort in the area, the Fairmont Mayakoba is a private, gated property that sits on 240 acres of tropical forest. Like our local Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, it has killer golf and tennis opportunities and a show-stopping spa. fairmont.com/mayakoba-riviera-maya
Romantic Beach Dinner
Partiers go to Cancún; lovers go to Playa. It’s a trending destination for weddings and honeymoons, but you can indulge in over-the-top romance whether you’ve been with your sweetheart for three months or three decades with Mahekal’s sensual beach dining experience ($135-$185 per couple). Follow a candlelit trail to a secluded spot on the sand, sip sparkling wine and enjoy a multicourse feast tended by a private server. You’ll be feeling amoroso as you slink back to your palapa.
Obsessed with Mexican pottery? Paint your own at Mahekal’s Artisan Palapa with pottery maestra Juliana, who stencils traditional Mexican and Mayan designs on plates, bowls, candleholders and more for novices to color in (she also sells her own finished pieces), pictured below. Bonus: The palapa neighbors Boli’s Bar, so you can drink a tamarind margarita while you paint.
Al Fresco Mayan Feast
Yucatán sunsets are beautiful, and Quinta Avenida puts on an eye-popping show, but the photo you’ll look back on and find yourself instantly transported back to your Caribbean vacation is of the delicious and educational al fresco meal next to Mahekal’s traditional Mayan dwelling. Chefs and servers explain – in Mayan and your native tongue – indigenous dishes like lime and chicken soup as they prepare them in clay pots and pit ovens. You keep the menu and recipes as souvenirs.
3 Must-Visit Restaurants
Axiote radiates casual elegance with its elevation of local ingredients and dishes. Where else can you get sweetbread al pastor tacos, octopus with chiles and sweet potatoes, and bone marrow with beans and guajillo sauce? axiote.rest
2. Fuego Restaurante y Cantina
Beachside fine dining is a thing to behold, and Fuego does it deliciously: grilled panela, black paella for two, succulent surf-and-turf options and a stunning Mexican wine list with pitch-perfect servers who know how to use it. mahekalbeachresort.com/dining
It’s a bit of a tourist trap – you’ll have to fend off street crooners angling for pesos if you sit on the patio – but the Yucatán’s signature cochinita pibil is addictive and cheap here, and the jewel-toned décor screams “Fiesta!” facebook.com/micaelasgrill
You can make out this archaeologically rich island – a sacred place of pilgrimage for the ancient Maya, with plentiful temple ruins – from almost any perch along the coast south of Cancún. It’s a 45-minute boat ride from the ferry terminal in downtown Playa del Carmen, and the new luxury ferry Ultramar promises passage in 20 minutes.
1. Explore the ruins of San Gervasio (pictured below), a pre-Columbian nexus for worship of the moon goddess Ix Chel, who presided over fertility, childbirth, medicine and weaving.
2. Snorkel the reef system of Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park.
3. Stay at Casa del Mar Cozumel Hotel & Dive Resort ($57/night); for a chichi overnighter, try Royal Level at Occidental Cozumel ($235/night).
4. Or just feast on local seafood and margaritas at Kondesa (kondesacozumel.com).
Oft overshadowed by the striking step pyramid of Chichén Itzá, Tulum’s ruins are nevertheless quite impressive. The cliffside compound was the only walled city of the Mayan empire and served as a lookout against the Spanish Armada. It’s a 45-minute drive south of Playa del Carmen and about two hours away from Cancún. Explore nearby cenotes (freshwater pools) and other natural treasures with the help of Playa del Carmen Tours by Johann & Sandra (playadelcarmentours.com), starting at $49 per adult, or make this increasingly popular, low-key alternative to Cancún your homebase.
2. Swank it up in a private beachside bungalow at the Maya Tulum Retreat and Resort ($250, mayatulum.com).
3. Beach pick: Playa Paraíso, a palm-dotted white sand beach just north of the town center