Beyond Cancun’s party scene

Colorado-based travel writer Greg Benchwick has covered Cancun and the Yucatan Peninsula for Lonely Planet, the BBC and National Geographic Traveler. Here’s his insider’s take on the Mexican paradise

Cancun is a resort destination that offers something for nearly everyone. I find it intoxicating, over-the-top, big, brawling and beautiful, all in one swooping crescent of bleached-blonde beachfront. The area boasts a rip-roaring party scene, resort hotels of leviathan proportions, and close proximity to some of the Western Hemisphere’s best snorkelling and diving.

Then again, sometimes the great thing about Cancun can be leaving it for one or more nights. If you have a few days, head north to Isla Holbox, where the water isn’t quite as clear as on the Caribbean coast, but you’ll have the beaches to yourself, low-fi-low-rise beachfront hotels and good Italian food. The biggest draw there, from May to September, is swimming with whale sharks; or if that sounds a little too intense, bird-watching and beachcombing. Stay at Casa Sandra.

You can make it down to the beachfront village of Tulum, and its Mayan ruins, on a long daytrip. Italians developed Tulum for tourism, and there are plenty of excellent Italian beachside eating places; my favourites are the Posada Margherita and La Vita é Bella.

It’ll be no surprise to hear that Cancun is home to tequila-charged bacchanals, floor shows, super-star DJs and all-you-can-drink specials — but beyond that you’ll find surprising sophistication. John Gray began with a simple restaurant in the coastal village of Puerto Morelos south of Cancun, and has expanded his US-meets-Mexico-meets-the-world brand with modern restaurants in Playa del Carmen and downtown Cancun; they have some of the area’s best wine lists. If I can’t get out of Cancun to the chicer clubs of Playa, I’ll head downtown to Roots for mojitos, jazz and Latino Fusion with Cancun’s (somewhat exclusive) art-loving crowd. In Playa del Carmen, try Fusion.

The Quintana Roo coastline runs forever and on any trip to the Riviera Maya, I’ll make it into the water at least once a day. South of Playa del Carmen you’ll find cenotes, including El Jardin del Eden, Cenote Azul and Cristalino Cenote; the best for swimming is Cristalino, which has a cool cave overhang and a cliff dive.

For snorkelling, I head to the Playa Media Luna on Isla Mujeres or Cozumel’s Parque Chankanaab, though you’ll find great beach snorkelling in most resorts. For scuba-diving, you won’t want to miss Cozumel. It’s hard to find the beach reserve of Xcacel-Xcacelito, 3km north of Xel-Ha, but it’s worth an afternoon trip; it’s a nesting site for loggerhead and white turtles – they come ashore to lay their eggs between May and October.

Photo by Getty Images

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