Tulum, the world’s only coastal Mayan ruins (photo: Sam Camp/iStock)

The Best Beach Towns in Mexico

By Jennifer Allford, Kellie Davenport & Robin Schroffel

Heading to one of the many relaxing resorts south of the U.S. border? Plan a day trip to one of these nearby villages—among the best beach towns in Mexico—for a true taste of local culture.

If you’re in Riviera Maya: VISIT TULUM
If you’re at a resort in Cancun or the Mayan Riviera, Mexico’s third most-visited archaeological site is a stone’s throw away. While people lived in Tulum as far back as 500 AD, the port city was really hopping between the 13th and 15th centuries. It was the only Mayan city built on a coast and trade centred on valuable turquoise and jade, which may help explain the seven-metre-thick walls around the city. (But like most things when it comes to the Mayans, no one can say for certain.)

As you wander through the ruins—marvelling at the castillo (castle) perched on the cliff and the well-preserved Temple of the Frescoes—you can’t help but wonder about the people who once lived here. Hire a guide to get the goods or go it alone. Either way, you’ll want to bring a swimsuit and climb down the steep stairs to swim or snorkel the beach beneath this ancient city. A word to the wise: Ignore the many operators hawking offshore snorkel trips—colourful fish abound near the beach.

There are many lingering questions about the Mayans, but one thing we do know is their passion for ornate jewellery, including jade earrings, bracelets and beads. For a glimpse at modern-day Mexican artistry, pop by the Tulum Art Club. More than a gallery, the club also provides studio space for local and international artists to create and collaborate in music, visual arts, film and more. You’ll also find wicked Mexican coffee and interesting conversations with eclectic artists from down the block or around the globe.

After Spanish ships rolled in about 700 years ago, it’s said the Franciscan monks were quite taken with the lush flora they found growing in the area. They concocted gorgeous perfumes with armfuls of herbs, flowers and other plants. The scents were big hits in the Spanish Empire and helped the conquistadors smell great—or at least better—for 300 years. More recently, perfumer Nicolas Malleville was so inspired by the story of the monks and the plants they used that he opened Coqui Coqui Perfumeria. Sniff the high-end scents, then luxuriate at the on-site spa. Get a massage or pampering body wrap along with an ocean view—listen to the tide through the open window as waves of relaxation wash over you.

Mayan shamans were often known to blend mind and body, ritual and religion—maybe that’s why so many yogis flock to Tulum today. Before you head back to your resort (and the dinner buffet), visit one of the many yoga studios in town. You’ll find plenty of options to get your downward dog on: Try sunset yoga by candlelight at Yoga Dicha (founded by Canadian yogi Richelle Morgan) or Sanará studio’s ethereal moonlight yoga, held monthly on full-moon evenings.

To test your sea legs, try some crescent lunges on a standup paddleboard with SUP Yoga Tulum. It’s billed as the area’s first and only floating yoga studio, where you’ll be able to stretch and meditate in a private lagoon or idyllic cenote (underground swimming hole).

As you head back to your hotel after a day exploring this ancient city, you’ll surely feel enriched and enlightened. When you reclaim your lounge chair by the pool, relax with the sun on your face, a drink in your hand and maybe a little Mayan history on your mind.  —Jennifer Allford

Best Beach Towns Mexico Sayulita
The “swell” life on Sayulita’s famed stretch of beach (photo: Gigi Griffis/Flickr)

If you’re in Puerto Vallarta: VISIT SAYULITA
Not that long ago, Sayulita drifted along as a sleepy fishing village—a hidden gem known only to locals. But the epic Pacific swells eventually gave away the town’s best-kept secret, as surfers began descending on the area in the 1970s. Since then it’s become a haven for hippies, hipsters and beach bums, as well as adventurous foodies and families.

Sayulita is located about 40 kilometres northwest of Puerto Vallarta (along Federal Highway 200). Your best bet to get here is by taxi, which will set you back about $60 USD from most resorts near P.V. First things first when you arrive in town: Head to the beach for the main attraction, the legendary surf breaks of Banderas Bay.

The breaks are often described by in-the-know surfers as consistent yet challenging. For decades, these righteous waves were known only to locals in the off-the-beaten-path village. But the completion of the highway in the late 1960s literally paved the way for wave chasers from around the globe.

For a truly authentic Sayulita experience, try to conquer the cresting swells. Surf schools dot the beach—just look for the racks of long boards. Most accept walk-ups or you can pre-arrange a lesson. For less-than-gnarly newbies, Lunazul instructors seem to have the magic touch—and they welcome kids, teens and seniors. There’s a designated beginner’s area of the beach for added security while trying that first hang-ten.

If you suffer from galeophobia (fear of sharks), rest assured—shark sightings here are extremely few and far between. Stingrays, however, love this particular stretch of water. Surf instructors suggest doing the “Sayulita shuffle” when entering the ocean: Drag your feet close to the ground to avoid stepping on or startling a ray.

Surfers and aspiring boarders may come for the waves, but most stay for the laid-back vibe, sand-in-your-toes beach bars and rustic Mexican street food. When sun-kissed surfers need a break from the saltwater, they head to Don Pedro’s beach restaurant. Try to get a table on the sandy back patio to kick off your flip-flops and soak up the postcard-perfect sea view. If you’re feeling a little parched, a michelada is the remedy. Think of it as a Mexican Caesar: a combination of cerveza (beer), Clamato juice, lime and salt. For food, you can’t go wrong with the fresh mahi mahi ceviche.

Belly full, stroll along Calle Marlin—one of Sayulita’s main drags. The cobblestone street is a bonanza of boutiques brimming with all kinds of Mexicana, from Day of the Dead tchotchkes and lucha libre masks to intricately painted ceramic tiles that would be at home in the pages of Architectural Digest.

When you tire of shop-hopping, Sayulita Fish Taco makes for a most delicious pit stop. Yes, they serve some of the best and freshest fish tacos in town, but don’t let the name fool you—this bar is all about the tequila, stocking more than 300 varieties. (This traveller’s personal favourite: 1800 Coconut, for a truly tropical sipper.) Instead of throwing back a shot, savour your spirit the Mexican way: Straight up—no salt, no lime—and sipped, not gulped.

Sayulita attracts its fair share of surfers and tequila enthusiasts, but local and expat artists also flock to the area. Explore the cultural side of the village at Galeria Tanana, a gallery and shop showcasing the handiwork of the Huichol people. The tribe, indigenous to Sayulita and the surrounding area, specializes in colourful beadwork. At this museum-like space, visitors can admire Huichol artistry and pick up some one-of-a-kind baubles, from chandelier earrings to ornate belt buckles. All proceeds support the Huichol Center for Cultural Survival, a group dedicated to preserving the community.

After a day of surfing, sipping and shopping, retreat to the beach for a last glimpse of the legendary waves. Look for one of many stands selling cocos frios, literally translated “cold coconuts.” For a few pesos, you’ll get a whole chilled shell with a straw—the cool coconut water is the perfect way to toast a day well spent in this scenic surf town.  —Kellie Davenport

Best Beach Towns Mexico Todos Santos Hotel California
The Hotel California in Todos Santos (photo: Hotel California Todos Santos)

If you’re in Cabo San Lucas: VISIT TODOS SANTOS
Cabo San Lucas is many things, but slow isn’t one of them. Synonymous with yacht clubs, anything-goes nightlife and air-conditioned luxury malls, Baja California’s hub city is a one-stop vacation shop. But when Cabo’s fast pace has you needing a vacation from your vacation, it’s time to head north to Todos Santos.

Situated on the seaside about 75 kilometres north of Cabo, quiet and congenial Todos Santos (“All Saints” in English) is a true oasis. It thrived as Baja’s sugarcane capital in the 1800s, but a 30-year drought beginning in the 1950s parched the industry into extinction—and nearly took the town with it. When the water finally returned in the ’80s, Todos Santos began anew as both a centre of agriculture—papayas, mangoes, avocados—and a haven for artists from near and far.

Designated a Pueblo Mágico (literally translated “magical town”) by Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism, Todos Santos makes no secret of its special qualities: They seem infused in the warm air and the ubiquitous dust. See its magic during a stroll through the historic centre, perched high above the palms of the lower town. Blocks are lined with 19th-century red brick buildings in various stages of decay, restoration and gentrification.

The sleepy streets—some cobbled and strewn with colourful banners left over from Day of the Dead celebrations—are lined with luxe yet subdued boutique hotels, artist-run galleries and award-winning restaurants that stay true to the town’s rustic character.

Chief among these is the 11-room Hotel California, with its burnt sienna facade and rows of arches shading the sidewalk. While there is no dark desert highway or cool wind in your hair (the Eagles have repeatedly claimed their famous song isn’t even about a hotel), this Hotel California doesn’t shy away from the association. And it’s clearly working for them: Inside, you’ll find two popular foodie hotspots—La Coronada Restaurant and Bar, and Santo Vino Bistro—as well as the meticulously curated Emporio Gallery and Store, which is filled with take-home treasures.

Around the corner, the pale yellow Misión Nuestra Señora del Pilar presides over the sunny plaza, offering welcome shade. Simple yet imposing, the Catholic mission was first founded in 1723 and parts of this structure date back to 1747. Inside stands a giant bronze sculpture of the Holy Family by local artist Benito Ortega Vargas.

Wander a little farther and more art is everywhere. The spirit of the town is palpable as you peek in shop windows and through courtyards. Galleries display one-of-a-kind jewellery, hand-woven wool blankets and blown glass produced by local artisans. The quality is consistently high, and there’s less of that hard-selling vibe often encountered in bigger cities.

Outside the art-filled city centre, ecology prevails by the sea. From November through March, visitors can participate in sea turtle hatchling releases, and the government-funded botanical garden remains a spectacular setting for bird watching.

Todos Santos isn’t only a visual arts hub; it also attracts musicians—Iggy Pop reportedly maintains a residence here—and the town buzzes each January with the Todos Santos Music Festival. Staged by R.E.M. bassist Peter Buck, the intimate festival draws talent and music lovers from all sides of the globe. The town also hosts an annual film festival in March.

Whether you plan to attend one of these eclectic festivals, or you simply head up the highway for a break from high-energy Cabo, the slow and pure spirit of Todos Santos will surely capture your heart.  —Robin Schroffel

Before you go: Passports should be valid for six months after your retuun-home date. Get passport applications and photos at AMA centres (photos are free for Plus and higher members).

Money: Mexican pesos (MXN): $1 CAD = 15.5 pesos
Pick up Mexican pesos at AMA centres.

Where to stay: Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit boast more than 60 hotels in all budgets and styles. Or stay at the Hotel California in Todos Santos from $258/night, plus tax. Search and book at AMATravel.ca or call an AMA Travel Counsellor at 1-844-771-1522.

Enjoy peace of mind while visiting Mexico by obtaining travel medical insurance before you leave.

Necessary reading: Read your policy very carefully, especially the fine print. Pay close attention to total coverage amount, the number of days you’re away (including departure/return dates) and other terms.

Fill out the forms: Accurately answer questions about your medical history, pre-existing conditions and medications (ask your doctor if you’re not sure).

Travel more? Spend less: Consider a bundle. Families and frequent travellers (under 54) can get discounted rates if you take two trips or more per year.

Get in touch: In an emergency, call the toll-free number to get the best healthcare in the area. Call prior to receiving medical attention or as soon as you are able to do so.