Tulum and Cancun are about to get even busier: 9 spots to escape the crowds

Tulum and Cancun are about to get even busier: 9 spots to escape the crowds

In the past half-century, Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula has changed its fortunes, turning its attention from cattle ranching and logging to tourism. During that time, the Caribbean-lapped state of Quintana Roo has been transformed by sprawling beach resorts – nowhere more so than the city of Cancún. Prior to the first hotels opening 50 years ago, there was just a handful of residents on the deserted island. Last year, Cancún welcomed a record 21 million visitors.

Two further landmarks are stirring equal amounts of excitement and apprehension. More than a decade in the making, the ribbon was cut at Felipe Carrillo Puerto International Airport near Tulum on 1 December, with three domestic airlines in operation.

The intention was to significantly reduce the two-hour transfer from Cancún International – Mexico’s second-busiest airport – to the highly subscribed boho beach town of Tulum. This March, four US carriers will join the fold, paving the way for a surge in visitors to the Mayan Riviera.

Barely a fortnight after the airport’s opening came the ambitious Tren Maya – an intercity railway that will eventually connect Cancún International Airport with mega-resorts, fantasy beaches, ancient Mayan sites and remote towns throughout the south of Mexico.

It made its first journey, from Campeche to Cancún across the Yucatán Peninsula, on 16 December. But the train line has been controversial since its conception – construction has already led to significant deforestation and experts warn that the worst effects may still be to come, as it threatens a vast and vital aquifer system that supports the peninsula’s fragile ecosystems and provides drinking water to millions.

Opening up

Both mega-projects highlight the transformation of this sun-soaked corner of Mexico, not least palm-fringed Tulum. The town has become the go-to destination for social media, with more than nine million Instagram posts of its white sands, yoga retreats, rustic-chic bars and techno jungle festivals. And sometimes of its pre-Columbian Mayan clifftop ruins.

However, outside these busy hot spots are many lesser-known, yet equally captivating, destinations still unmarred by the heavy footfall of mass tourism.

View of Tulum beach, Mexico.
The white sands of Tulum beach, Mexico. (Photo: M Swiet/Getty/Moment RF)

With an 1,100km coastline, the Yucatán Peninsula encompasses three countries (Mexico, Guatemala and a significant portion of Belize) and three Mexican states: Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. The last of these draws the lion’s share of sun-seekers, seduced by promises of debauchery and languorous afternoons by the poolside in Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

Halfway between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, the small coastal town of Akumal, which means “Place of the turtles” in Mayan, is a low-key pearl – and should be firmly on the radar of anyone dreaming of swimming with gargantuan sea turtles steps from the shoreline. I recall fondly the many sundowners I have enjoyed at buzzy beachfront restaurant Lol-Ha after wading alongside hawksbills, loggerheads and green sea turtles. Scattered between high-end resorts are thatched-roof cabañas that cost from £100 a night.

Northern utopia

Pretty-in-pink flamingos, roseate spoonbills, scrawled cowfish, stingrays and whale sharks are some of the inhabitants that can be spotted during languid days in and around the water of Isla Holbox.

This gorgeous, powder-soft sand island is located off the north coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, around two-and-a-half hours from Playa del Carmen.

Scenic view of ships near the island in Bacalar Lagoon in Mexico
Ships near the island in Bacalar Lagoon (Photo: Oleh_Slobodeniuk/Getty/E+)

Nights here are best spent on the twinkling bioluminescent beaches before early nightcaps at reggae-pumping restaurants. And don’t leave the island without sampling its celebrated lobster pizza, whizzing around by golf cart (cars are banned), investigating the wildlife-rich Yum-Balam Nature Reserve or walking on a dreamy sandbar or two. Cabañas here can cost as little as £30 per night.

Two days is the duration that many travellers think they will stay in Bacalar. That is until they lay eyes on this milky green lake, close to the border with Belize. There are gentle rivers and mangroves for kayaking, hammocks for lolling in the shade, and water whose colour shifts through a spectrum of turquoise to deep cobalt.

Bacalar has a low-key beach town feeling, despite having no beach, and is a place that mass tourism has so far forgotten. Some are touting it as the new Tulum.

Across Chetumal Bay are some of the most remote beaches you will find in this part of Mexico, which stretch out over towards Belize’s dazzling Ambergris Caye and the Belize Barrier Reef.

Cenote Samula (Dtzinup), Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico (MR)
Cenote Samula in Valladolid (Photo Matteo Colombo/Getty Images/Moment RF)

Off-grid Xcalak is favoured by fishing enthusiasts, while snorkellers can walk off the beach of Mahahual to swim among tropical fish on the coral reef – visit in the afternoon when cruise-ship passengers have departed. Roughly mid-way between the two are sprinklings of low-key villas and cabañas with rates from as little as £40 a night.

The region is popular not just for its Caribbean shoreline. The interior is embroidered with thousands of cenotes – sinkholes filled with crystal-clear water that are popular for swimming. Valladolid in Yucatán state is a good base for exploring some of the best. The charming, cobblestoned city is encircled by a vast selection of these sunken pools, such as Suytun, Chukum and Ik Kil, and many tour operators that will take you there.

Colourful cities

A two-hour drive from Valladolid, Mérida is the capital of Yucatán state where traditional slow-roasted pork (pibil) fills the air rather than the burgers and Tex-Mex fare found in Cancún. Prancing around the pastel-hued historic buildings in a horse-drawn carriage is a touristy, but fun way to see the city. The Mayan World Museum offers an engaging introduction to the region’s ancient history, and simply sitting in the shade of laurel trees on Plaza Grande is a lovely way to relax in the heat of an afternoon, particularly when food vendors are in situ.

view of pink flamingos in Celestun Mexico
Flamingos in Celestun
(Photo: snoofek/Getty/iStockphoto)

Smaller but nonetheless fascinating is the “Yellow City” of Izamal, an hour’s drive east. It is a visual sonnet penned in shades of gold, where convents and pyramids share the skyline.

And finally, the fishing village of Celestún on the Gulf of Mexico might leave you as awe-struck as I was upon witnessing the hundreds of pink flamingos that decorate the sky of the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve.