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The Beach Snob's Guide To Cancun
So you're not the Cancun type. That's no reason to pass up a cheap flight to its airport, a gateway to lots of anti-Cancun destinations. The area has more than 80 miles of white-sand Caribbean beaches, and only a few of those are confined to the cheesy place you've been avoiding.
I'm a certified beach snob, and Cancun-area sands are some of the best for the money and the time it takes to fly there from most parts of the United States. The scenery and beach quality rival Turks & Caicos, the most postcard Caribbean beach I've ever seen.
The trick is to look beyond Cancun's strip to the broader area called the Mayan Riviera, and your options expand to include laid-back islands, secluded luxury resorts and yoga retreats that feel like they're located at the end of the earth. Some destinations are 30 minutes from the airport, some two hours. You can be on the beach with a thatched-roof balcony and your own hammock for around $100 per night – and no Senor Frog's for miles and miles.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with the Cancun type. The spas in the hotel zone are underrated, for one. But I like quieter places away from the crowds, and more placid waters than Cancun's. If you do, too, it's time to reconsider Cancun airfares. Snap up a deal and trust that you'll find a place your speed; shoulder season in late April and May (and again in September, October and November) is a great time to go because you avoid high-season hotel rates and the scorching summer weather. Here are a few destinations you might not have heard of:
The Island Vibe: Isla Mujeres
A slice of real Mexico, this small island is the closest Cancun alternative to the airport. Located six miles off the coast of Cancun and reached by ferry (pictured at top), it's anchored by a lively town that sits right on Playa Norte, a postcard soft-sand beach. The extended shallow water appeals to families with young kids. The most popular mode of transportation is a golf cart, and for such a compact place, there's an remarkable number of restaurants and places to stay. I like Ixchel Beach Resort for a new condo (via VRBO.com), Playa la Media Luna for a tropical beachfront bargain and Casa el Pio for a cute, cheap, in-town option.
The Luxe Life: Playa Mujeres
Quietly, this upscale area has cropped up just north of Cancun, in the opposite direction of the Mayan Riviera development and therefore totally under the radar. It's a secluded, almost untouched stretch of coastline (pictured below) with nothing else around, the kind of place where you won't leave the hotel unless it's on a boat to go fishing or snorkeling. The resorts are extremely posh and expensive - think marble showers the size of a car wash and in-room Jacuzzis with indoor and outdoor access, like those at Excellence Playa Mujeres.
The Soulful Escape: Tulum
This is the only place where I've ever picked up hitchhikers. Bumping along a dirt road lined with small, economical beach hotels south of the well-known Tulum ruins, we passed dozens of budget travelers walking to and from the highway, where they catch a bus to Cancun. We gave a lift to an older German couple with wheeled suitcases. Every year, they said, they fly to the area without hotel reservations and call around once they land.
Tulum is located at the far southern reaches of the Mayan Riviera, a good 90 minutes from Cancun and not far from the Belize border. The beaches here are some of the most pristine on the Yucatan. Traditionally an off-the-grid backpacker's haven, it's now attracting vacationers who like the good life but aren't high maintenance. The New York Times called it the fashion in-crowd's new Miami last year. There are dozens of small hotels in this area alone, including yoga retreats and chic eco-friendly casitas. Casa de los Olas gets high marks.