How to spend two weeks in Quintana Roo on Mexico’s Caribbean coast
Steeped in Mayan history as well as rainforests, underground rivers and lagoons, Quintana Roo is a haven for culture seekers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. This Mexican state might be slow paced and relaxed, but high-octane adventures are never far away.
Mayans began cultivating communities along Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula over 4,000 years ago, building above natural cenotes in sites that can still be visited today. It’s this rich history, alongside lush, natural landscapes, that helps to make a road trip through the Mexican state of Quintana Roo as enriching and spicy as the region’s sumptuous cuisine. Here's how to do it.
Days one and two: Cancún
Set against a backdrop of powdery white-sand beaches, Cancún has long been a holiday hotspot due to its Zona Hotelera, a bustling 14-mile strip of bars, nightclubs and high-rise hotels. But stray beyond the tourist haunts and the city’s historic charms unfurl. Cancún Centro, the city’s vibrant downtown area, provides a taste of the local culture with delicious, authentic eateries, family-friendly parks — such as Parque de las Palapas — and various boutique shops and markets. Be sure to wander down Avenida Tulum, Cancún’s central boulevard, to reach Mercado 28, a huge, maze-like, flea market housing more than 600 vendors selling a variety of unique handicrafts, trinkets and textiles.
Make time for a visit to one of the city’s world-class museums, such as the MUSA Underwater Art Museum, which showcases more than 500 permanent life-size statues with the aim of diverting tourists away from nearby coral reefs; or the Museo Maya de Cancún, which displays some 400 artefacts relating to Mayan art and history. Adjoining the museum is an ancient archaeological site, San Miguelito, which was once a thriving Maya community and is now a collection of crumbling stone temples, dwellings and pyramids. The hungry should opt for a quick taco tour with regional food aficionados, Taqueria Coapeñitos, whose selection of picante sauces are sure to tantalise the taste buds.
Where to stay: JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa, where you'll discover numerous upscale amenities including spacious accommodations, on-site dining and premier access to alluring destinations.
Days three and four: Isla Mujeres
If mooching around on a moped is your kind of holiday activity, spend a languid couple of days in Isla Mujeres — a small, tropical island less than 10 miles and just a 20-minute ferry ride off the coast of Cancún.
Start your time here with a wander to the main street, Avenida Juarez, where Moto Rent Angel will equip you with a two-wheeled ride for the duration of your stay. One with an engine is advised if you want to explore the island’s plethora of pristine beaches, including the renowned Playa Norte and the lesser-known Playa Paraiso, but bicycles are also available. Stop at the local lookout near The Lighthouse at Punta Sur on your first evening for a foot-long frozen cocktail and a mesmerising Mexican vista, before sauntering back near the main street to sample the food at Tres Mentiras Boutique Rooms. Authentic Mexican tacos and beer on tap tends to draw a fair crowd, so try to arrive before the rush.
For an adrenaline-filled underwater experience in the Caribbean Sea, otherworldly snorkelling excursions with whale sharks run from mid-May to mid-September. Isla Mujeres has made a name for itself in recent years when it comes to sighting these giant fish, but tours depart from the island of Holbox, too. There are two main ferry companies offering crossings to Holbox every half an hour from the port in Chiquila, and you may enjoy a performance from the crew, who know a mariachi song or two.
Where to stay: Planet Hollywood Cancun, An Autograph Collection All-Inclusive Resort, where you can enjoy a number of imaginative and immersive themed experiences.
Days five to seven: Isla Holbox
After mooring up on this magical island, you’ll note the sleepy pace of life. But adventure seekers will still have plenty to sink their teeth into, with scuba diving, snorkelling, surfing, windsurfing, fishing charters, speed boats and more. Kitesurfing is one sport that has become particularly popular, due to the island’s flat, shallow waters and consistent, steady winds. Situated near the bamboo beach bar of Casa las Tortugas, Kukulkite is one of Holbox’s best kitesurfing schools, where professionals and novices are catered for equally.
For a late dinner, take off your shoes and enjoy a sand-between-toes stroll to the island’s dreamiest date spot, Luuma. Candlelit and with an earthy decor, the interiors are as appealing as the mouth-watering dishes. Round off your evening at Hotel Zomay Holbox, a beachside hotel and bar that’s thronged with thirsty travellers and upbeat tropical music.
If you’ve a hangover to work off the following morning, opt for something a little less challenging than kitesurfing, such as a guided kayaking tour. Exploring the island’s mangroves with a paddle is the perfect way to blow away the cobwebs and learn about Holbox’s abundance of exotic flora and fauna, while keeping an eye out for flamingos, cormorants and crocodiles.
Where to stay: Mystique Holbox by Royalton, a boutique beachfront resort inspired by the five most important concepts of the area: vegetation, sea movement, regional wood, Mexican architecture and organic elements.
Days nine and ten: Playa del Carmen
Once a sleepy fishing village, Playa del Carmen is now one of Quintana Roo’s largest and trendiest cities, known for its expansive hotel complexes, spellbinding snorkelling and palm-lined shores. It’s impossible to pass through this bustling coastal resort without indulging in your fair share of local hospitality, whether that’s a couple of tequila cocktails at one of the many beach bars, or a club-hop along Quinta Avenida until the early hours.
Playa del Carmen is also a great base for boat tours, day trips and exploring cenotes. These natural sinkholes and caves filled with fresh water are especially associated with Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, which is primarily made up of porous limestone. For five of the best and most varied examples in the area, check out Dos Ojos, Chikin-Ha, Azul, Jardín del Eden and Aktun Chen.
Where to stay: Residence Inn Playa del Carmen or The St. Regis Kanai Resort, Riviera Maya opening soon.
Days 11 to 13: Tulum
An hour’s drive south, the town of Tulum flaunts Mexican culture and flamenco flair against turquoise sea and ancient Mayan ruins. Inland, Chichén Itzá, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, is an awe-inspiring temple that was rediscovered in the jungle in the 1800s. The site is evidence of a vibrant, bustling city that once existed here, believed to have been erected above a nearby cenote in order for Mayan colonies to enjoy a fresh water source in a typically arid landscape. Tours of Chichén Itzá operate from Tulum and Playa del Carmen, and many enable you to visit the dazzling Ik Kil cenote to swim and splash around in en route.
Back in bustling Tulum, enjoy a night of live bands and the best burrito in town at Batey Mojito Bar. If you’re not challenged enough by the prospect of trying every flavour of cocktail on its famous menu, the food options are sure to leave you spoilt for choice.
Where to stay: Aloft Tulum, a hotel located near the city centre of Tulum and just a short drive from the idyllic, white-sand beaches.
Day 14: Home from Cancun
Marriott Bonvoy International offers a wealth of accommodation options in the Mexican Caribbean. For more information, visit marriottbonvoy.com
Follow National Geographic Traveller (UK) on social media