One of our favorite places for a beach vacation with teens is the Mexican state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatán Peninsula–also known as the Riviera Maya. The Riviera Maya offers gorgeous beaches, winter sunshine, fascinating historical sites, and warm and welcoming people. And the food is amazing! We were lucky enough to spend a year in various places around Quintana Roo and we look forward to returning.
The most popular (and closest to the airport), Cancún is an excellent choice if you are looking for a classic resort experience. The beaches are wide with gentle waves for body surfing. Most of the resorts offer umbrella-covered chairs on the beach, with food and beverage service right to your chair. The resorts rake the beaches so they are mostly seaweed free, so if you love to relax on a clean white sand beach then Cancún is an excellent choice. It is our teens’ pick for best body surfing.
Playa del Carmen
Isla Mujeres is a small charming island 8 miles off the coast north of Cancún. It offers excellent diving, including snorkeling a Mayan temple and a sanctuary for sea turtles. Swimming with whale sharks is a popular attraction, during the season from mid-May to September when they are active in the area. Check with local tour providers for specific tours and book in advance, as they tend to fill up weeks in advance.
Renting a car
Renting a car in the Riviera Maya is a great way to see a lot of the area without being tied down to bus routes or the inability to get a cab. We really enjoyed driving there, despite the occasional stray dog or crazy motorcyclist. The roads are mostly well maintained in the cities and highways, and the smaller roads are in pretty good shape with the occasional pothole. There’s a large highway from Cancún to Tulum and Bacalar, and a toll road from Cancún to Mérida that is in exceptionally good shape.
When you rent the car, be sure to get the full insurance, even though it might cost as much as the daily rate you’re paying for the rental. You really want to be insured, as accidents in Mexico for uninsured motorists can end up with people sitting in the police lockup until they sort out who is at fault.
Getting gas is different than in the United States or Canada. Every station is full service, and you must tell your attendant if you want a specific peso amount or if you want your tank filled up you say, “lleno, por favor.” Watch the attendant go to the pump and make sure that it says “0.00” before they start. We sometimes would ask “en cero?” or “at zero?” and the attendants would laugh and wink, and say “si, si, of course señor!”. It’s a classic scam at Mexican gas stations to start the counter higher than 0 so you get less gas than you paid for.
You can find the major international rental companies in the Riviera, but we recommend our good friends at Isis Car Rental. They’re a family-run company with 20 years serving the greater Playa and Cozumel area. The owner would often run a car over to us at our condominium so we didn’t have to take a taxi to him, and we would do the paperwork and run my credit card right there. His cars are reliable and his rates fair, and the insurance includes his personal cell number in case you get into an accident, so he can come out and talk with the police directly, to avoid any problems for you. We wrote a complete review if you’re interested.
You can hail a taxi on the street or at a stand. Most don’t have meters so you will need to ask the driver to give you a price right away. Ask your hotel or search online for rate charts to give you an idea of how much you should pay. Always ask the taxi driver how much before you get in the cab and make sure you understand if it’s in pesos or dollars (the best price is always in pesos). If you don’t like the answer you can always walk away (they will typically call you back with a lower price). Not all drivers speak English so it’s best to start in Spanish by saying cuanto por un viaje a (name of the place you are going). I find it helps if I write down where I want to go so I can show them when discussing the rate. Tipping is not necessary but it is common to add 10-20 pesos for extra service like helping with bags. You must pay in cash.
If you like the driver ask them for their card and you can call them next time you need a cab.
For the more adventurous or frugal traveler, collectivos are small buses that make regular runs on a defined route, usually stopping at a major store or intersection. Typically they carry up to 25 people and their purchases, so it can get crowded and there’s no A/C. You pay the driver a small amount upon boarding, and we recommend telling them where you’re going to make sure you’re on the right bus. Expect to speak Spanish only and pay close attention to where you are, so you can get off at the right spot. It can be fun, as you can meet locals, and on some of the longer trips, it can be 1/5th the cost of a taxi.
Restaurants in the Riviera Maya serve purified water and use purified water when making ice. This is true at both tourist restaurants and restaurants frequented by locals. Most tourists choose to brush their teeth with bottled water but it is not necessary. Tap water quality varies so ask your hotel or management company about the quality of their water.
There is a common perception that if you eat and drink in Mexico you will get sick. Montezuma’s Revenge or Traveler’s diarrhea is an intestinal infection that occurs as a result of unsanitary handling of food. Symptoms include weakness, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. If you think you have Traveler’s diarrhea you should visit the doctor. The Riviera Maya has good urgent care with doctors that speak English. Many resorts have doctors that will come to your hotel or try Hospiten General hospital in Playa del Carmen.
While people can contract diarrhea in the Riviera Maya, a much more common cause of illness is overindulgence. A typical day on vacation may include all you can eat buffets, platters of guacamole and chips, bottomless margaritas and 2 for 1 bottles of cerveza. Add in heat exhaustion and you get very similar symptoms to Montezuma’s Revenge. So our best advice to avoid getting sick in Mexico is to watch your food intake, pace yourself on alcohol and remember to take breaks from the sun. Most importantly: stay hydrated.
Now that you’re all prepared for planning a good time on the Riviera Maya, get out there and have un bien viaje!