The only time I ‘did’ spring break in college, my best friend and I went to the United Kingdom. Yep, we visited London and Edinburgh at the end of February. Obviously, there was no girls-gone-wild action. While others were partying at the beach, we were snug in sweaters and scarves as we traipsed around old literary stomping grounds and medieval castles. And, to be honest, I think getting serenaded by a traditional Scottish band in an empty pub and hanging out with stand-up comedians you can’t really understand are exceptional Cancun alternatives.
But when I went to Mexico for three weeks in February this year, I knew I wanted to indulge my late-developing beach bum tendencies. I just didn’t want to join college co-eds at Cancun. I can barely survive in hostels anymore and couldn’t imagine myself enjoying a spring break style beach party. Visiting Isla Holbox was part of the reason I was going to Mexico in the first place, and after asking friends for advice I added Isla Mujeres and Tulum to my Yucatán Peninsula itinerary, spending time in Cancun only to sleep.
Best decision ever. The Yucatán Peninsula is a fascinating place, and my three chosen alternatives to Cancun each presented a totally different aspect of the region.
So if you want to skip smelly hostels and an Australian guy singing “Bitch better have my money” every three minutes, here are three fabulous Mexican beach destinations you can enjoy without having to suffer spring break in Cancun.
Who it’s for: People who don’t have a lot of time but want to avoid Cancun. People who want more of a luxury experience and are happy to pay a little extra for it.
A stunning little island right off the coast of Cancun that hosts a bustling tourist town, Isla Mujeres is by no means a hidden gem. But what’s wrong with that? Here you can get all the amenities of kicked-back beach life. Beach chairs, hammocks, bars where you can enjoy cheap cervezas while staring at the 14 shades of blue in front of you (though its open container policy makes it feel a little like a beachy New Orleans). There’s a pedestrian street with all the souvenir shops you could want without it being too much, and restaurants are scattered liberally throughout the town.
“Something for your boyfriend?” I heard more than once.
If you want to go farther afield you can rent a golf cart and cruise the rest of the island. There are local families and couples, but mostly you’re going to find an international crowd. The tourist shops have so taken to American visitors that I saw NFL kitsch everywhere (granted, it was the day of the Super Bowl, but Dia de Muertos skulls with team logo? A bit of a stretch for me). Bars advertised football games with “English voices.”
While the initial stretch of Norte Playa can get pretty packed, keeping heading past the curve of the beach to find more secluded stretches of paradise. There are chairs and beds for rent, but all you need is your towel. Beaches in Mexico are public by law, so don’t worry about plopping yourself wherever you want.
Why I’d suggest visiting Isla Mujeres as a Cancun alternative: If you have limited time, Isla Mujeres might be the best bet of the Cancun alternatives. Also, if you like to be pampered on your vacation, the beach-front hotels have got you covered. There aren’t too many budget options here, so you might end up spending more on accommodation and food. You can easily jump over to Isla Mujeres for a day trip as well, which is what I did. Just don’t sit in the back of the ferry unless you’re willing to get a little wet!
Who it’s for: People who are into low-key, low-fi vacations. People with enough time to travel and dig out the more obscure destinations.
Isla Holbox drew me with promises of a laid-back vibe and Instagram pictures of an over-water hammock. And it lived up to my every hope – Isla Holbox is less “party hard” and more “chill out in your hostel’s hammock.” As I wandered down the sandy dirt roads one morning, trying to find an open laundry, there was a permeating peace. Despite there being carnival parties the night before, the streets were clean and quiet.
The water in January is more of a pale sea foam green than the shocking blues of Cancun, but that doesn’t make it any less calming and inviting. When you’re on an island like this, there’s a feeling that nothing else matters. Your peace is untouchable.
Isla Holbox is definitely a tourist destination, drawing people from all over the world and of all ages – but it feels like it’s been made from the vision of locals. The buildings are low and painted with bright colors, murals decorating almost every spare inch of space. There are plenty of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, and tour companies, but they’re not overwhelming. You can get everything from empanadas to juice smoothies to ceviche tacos, all fresh and authentic.
I was content to spend time working in cafes and going for long walks along the beach, but more active travelers can go kayaking, fishing, kiteboarding, snorkeling, and more. As for that Instagram-famous hammock? Must have been the season I chose, but the beach was totally covered in seaweed, making it impossible to indulge my social media inspired fantasies of swaying over the Caribbean in a gentle breeze.
Why I’d suggest visiting Isla Holbox as a Cancun alternative: Isla Holbox is quickly rising in popularity, though its distance from Cancun will protect it from tourist hordes for a while. Get there before it becomes just another Mexican party beach.
Who it’s for: Everyone. Beach bums, history nerds, nature geeks, all are welcome in Tulum.
It’s not surprising that so many people come to Tulum and end up staying indefinitely. I feel like Tulum was built for chill, with restaurants, cafes, and hostels that throw subtle hipster shade. If I hadn’t had a flight to catch, the crystal waters of Tulum might have kept me there indefinitely.
The pre-Mayan ruins at Tulum are simply majestic, the crumbling stone palace set on cliffs over sapphire blue seas. And if I thought the waters of Isla Mujeres were unbelievable, Tulum’s beaches boggled my mind.
Tulum is also a popular destination for divers, who spend their days exploring the underwater nooks and crannies of Mexico’s cenotes.
Tulum is also well situated to serve as a hub for exploring more of the region. I would have loved to explore the ruins of Chichen Itza and Coba or experienced the natural beauty of Sian Ka’an.
Why I’d suggest visiting Tulum as a Cancun alternative: From beaches to rainforests, Tulum definitely offers access to the most variety of these three destinations. I could have easily spent a month with Tulum as my base, exploring that part of the Yucatán Peninsula. It’s attracts all kinds of travelers, from backpackers to families, with enough young people that you’ll be able to easily find a good party if you are in need.
Have you visited any of these gorgeous Mexican destinations? Have any tips to add? What destinations get your vote for best Cancun alternatives?