At the edge of a mangrove-tangled jungle pushing up to the shore, Puerto Morelos is one of the few coastal towns on this stretch of the Riviera Maya that's maintained a measure of authenticity. Although it's become a favorite of Canadian and American expat artists, painters, and poets, it's still essentially a salty Mexican seaside village. Nothing here has been prettied up for the gringos, and tourist traps are few and far between. With a wide selection of restaurants, a variety of nearby hotels, and a good road connecting the town with the highway, it makes a great base.
Environmental laws and building restrictions have so far kept growth under tight control. This has prevented Puerto Morelos from becoming the next Cancún or Playa del Carmen—which many locals consider a blessing. The waters here are calm and safe; however, if a spectacular beach is a key part of your vacation plans, consider staying at a resort north or south of town.
Where Puerto Morelos shines is out at sea: the superb Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, only 1,800 feet offshore, is an excellent place to explore with a snorkel or scuba tank. The reef is healthy, meaning you'll see plenty of marine life; but it and the surrounding mangrove forests are a protected national park, so you'll need to visit with a licensed guide and purchase a mandatory MX$300 conservation bracelet. Home to many species of birds, the park is also a draw for bird-watchers. (The mangroves are a haven for mosquitoes, too—bring repellent, especially after dusk.) Architecture fans shouldn't miss the bizarre cartoon castle at the corner of Niños Heroes and Morelos, a carved, curvy, leaning tree-house fantasy that has to be seen to be believed.