Not including Cancun!
Chances are you’ve seen a photo of Cancun with its turquoise-blue waters, white-sand beaches, and towering resorts rimming the shoreline. News flash: this is not the only waterfront town in Mexico that offers nightlife, hotels, dining, beaches, and culture. In fact, it’s among the most well-trodden, which is not necessarily a good thing. If you’re looking to venture off the beaten path, there are plenty of charming coastal towns along the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Some are big—like Mazatlán or Acapulco—while others are very small, such as Todos Santos or Akumal, with only a few thousand residents. But no matter their size, they are excellent spots to add to your Mexico itinerary.
Want to chill in a sleepy village where time stands still? This is your utopia. The town of just over 2,000 residents hugs the Caribbean Sea 17 miles north of Tulum. Restaurant selections may be few but of good quality, like Taverna Akumal’s octopus tacos or Turtle Bay Café & Bakery’s sticky buns or breakfast sandwiches (spiced scrambled eggs and Creole mustard are two twists). Most overnight visitors rent casitas steps from the water—you’re not going to find cookie-cutter, all-inclusive resorts here. Akumal Dive Shop rents out snorkeling equipment for the day and even hosts regional excursions.
San Jose del Cabo
Only 21 miles north of Los Cabos’ marina and bars is a more relaxed vibe that doesn’t shut down after dark. Each Thursday evening’s art walk spotlights galleries and artisans, although you can drop in any day of the week. Cozy lounges and eclectic restaurants line the cobblestone streets in this community of 136,285 people, such as La Lupita for tacos and mezcal served in an intimate indoor/outdoor space. Enjoy a 360-degree view of the Baja Peninsula at the Rooftop at the Cape Thompson Hotel, a fantastic place to book a room.
Whether you’re strolling El Malecón along the Pacific Ocean shoreline—where contemporary art sculptures are right in the sand, proof this is an artsy enclave—or popping into colorful buildings in nearby Zona Romantica (Old Town) that now house boutiques, cafes, and restaurants, this is a lively coastal town just shy of 400,000 residents. For dinner, be sure to order a local specialty: either red snapper or mahi-mahi. Puerto Vallarta hosts an Art Walk on Wednesday evenings between October and May. Playa Los Arcos Hotel Beach Resort & Spa provides the best of both worlds: an all-inclusive concept in the Zona Romantica, right on the beach. Or, check into a luxe nine-suite hotel: Casa Kimberly, where Elizabeth Taylor once lived with Richard Burton.
This popular resort town of nearly half a million residents in Sinaloa along the Pacific Ocean hasn’t lost its charm. What draws people here isn’t the nightlife but big-game fishing. (Not a fisher? Any restaurant menu will feature catches of the day. This is also the “shrimp capital of the world.”) At El Presidio, meals (like ceviche) are served in the leafy courtyard around a historic building. Build in time to stroll the Historic District, including Machado Square, which dates back to 1837. Hotel Casa Lulu is a nine-room, adults-only contemporary-design hotel, while the all-inclusive Pueblo Bonito Emerald Bay Resort & Spa overlooking the Pacific Ocean is popular with families.
Although only an hour’s-drive north of bustling Los Cabos this tiny town of 6,500 people—many artists—hugging the Pacific Coast couldn’t be any more different. It was founded as a Mission in 1724 and features well-trodden spots like Hotel California (you can eat and stay the night, like the Eagles’ song goes) and boutiques such as Nomad Chic(think straw bags crafted by Mexican artists and gorgeous kaftans). The 2021 opening of Paradero Todos Santosintroduced a luxury-resort option, while a perennial favorite is Bunkhouse’s Hotel San Cristobal.
On the Eastern edge of Baja California, this town of 250,000 residents is the state’s capital city—and a popular gray-whale-watching spot each November through April. You can easily book an excursion with a group like Choya Tours. La Paz’s charm and stunning coastline enticed John Steinbeck to feature the town in his 1951 book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Classic seafood dishes rule, like callo garro de leon (folding in scallops), but so does damiana, an aphrodisiac brewed like tea. For a splurge dinner, check out Nemi from Mexico City chef Alejandro Villagomez. Baja Club Hotel’s recent debut in the historical center, on the malecon, appeals to design fans.
Actress Elizabeth Taylor helped make this town of 688,000 people along the Pacific Ocean famous during the 1950s and although that retro charm still resides here, so does a sense of cool. Clubbing rocks the streets until dawn, but you can also chill at the 45-villa Banyan Tree Cabo Marques where each villa is cut into a rocky cliff and the stunning spa features therapists trained in Thai techniques. Looking for a shot of adrenaline? Cliff diving in Acapulco is a huge deal, as demonstrated by La Quebrada Cliff Divers, who perform shows daily at the cliffs of La Quebrada.
If you want to leave modern life behind, this island of 23,000 residents in the Caribbean Sea has very few motor vehicles. Instead, you must hop onto a rental moped or golf cart to explore the island, which is only 4.3 miles long and 2,000 feet wide. Hotel La Joya overlooks the water and also boasts an outdoor pool. From Cancun, take a 15-minute Ultramar ferry ride from Puerto Juarez. Many people come here for snorkeling or diving the coral reefs, and MUSA—housing a collection of 500 sculptures, all underwater—is just off Isla Mujeres. Mexico Divers can take you there from Isla Mujeres on a snorkeling excursion.
This beachfront community along the Pacific Ocean in the state of Oaxaca is at the foot of the Sierra Madre Mountains. With only about 1,000 people living here, it’s a destination often described as tranquil and chill and focused on wellness, such as yoga retreats at Solstice Yoga Center or daily morning meditation at Hridaya Yoga. Lodging options are intimate, rustic, and eco-chic, like at the eight-suite Zoa Hotel, and most restaurant meals are served under a palapa.
Art and seafood lovers flock here, a town of 126,000 people 145 miles north of Acapulco and in the state of Guerrero, and so do sports fishermen and those looking for a traditional (not modern) Mexican vibe. La Ropa (Clothes Beach) is the most popular beach, so named for when a merchant ship carrying silks and other fabrics from India washed up here during colonial times. In recent years more and more cruise lines have opted to stop here. Mercado de Artesanias boasts 250 shops selling locally made crafts, along with Taxco silver and bark-paper paintings from Oaxaca. Built into its waterfront surroundings, staying at La Casa Que Canta means waking up next to the ocean daily.
Nestled at Nayarit’s Southern end, hugging the Pacific Ocean an hour’s drive from Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita’s 2,300 residents have access to amazing surf conditions—also an attraction for tourists since the 1960s. Playa Sayulita is perfect for beginner surfers and those who want to lounge in the sun or swim. Want to perfect the art of surfing? Sayulita Surf School can show you how. Eclectic street food is another draw to this colorful, boho-chic town with its cobblestone streets. Boutique hotels are the norm, not sprawling resorts, such as Hotel Ysuri Sayulita.
This town of 50,000 people along Oaxaca’s coastline is different from many other Mexican shore towns because its coffee plantations (like Finca La Gloria) offer tours. Learn about coffee production and see a butterfly sanctuary on the property. Lodging options in Huatulco range from Barcelo, Secrets, and Dreams resorts with all the amenities to boutique properties such as Las Brisas Huatulco.
A port town of 159,853 in the state of Colima known as “the sailfish capital of the world”—and also Mexico’s busiest port—travelers come here to fish or scuba dive. If it’s swimming you’re after, calm waves can be found at Miramar Beach. Local seafood specialties include ceviche and shrimp cocktail. Breakfast at Chantilly—in business since 1950—is a great spot to start the day. For the most part, intimate boutique-style hotels are the norm, but you can also stay at an all-inclusive (Barcelo Karmina).
So many beautiful and fun towns! Casa Kimberly is in Puerto Vallarta, not Acapulco.
Liz, Dickie, and John Huston put Puerto Vallarta on the map, not Acapulco.
The Burton's former home, Casa Kimberly is now a Puerto Vallarta restaurant.