Exploring Mexico's Pacific and Caribbean coasts

When people think Mexico, many see  golden sand, blue water and green palms. Hundreds of beaches fit this bill: some near-empty with a few palm-thatched eateries and cabañas; others busy urban beaches. Most of the best are on the Pacific or the Caribbean coasts.

Right, got your bathers and a towel?

Playa del Carmen

The hippest town on the Yucatán Peninsula. Playa’s sands aren’t quite as powder-perfect as at some other Mexican Caribbean spots, and the waters aren’t quite so azure, but the beaches are jammed with the bronzed, blond and beautiful (and often – unusually for Mexico – topless). If crowds aren't your thing, go north of Calle 38, where a few scrawny palms serve as shade. If it's underwater thrills you're seeking, there are some spectacular dive sites around Playa too.

Puerto Escondido

The Mexican Pipeline’s surf, a string of gentler beaches, coastal wildlife and Puerto’s traditional incarnations as fishing port and market town add up to a place that suits just about everyone. Playa Zicatella is a magnet for experienced surfers keen for a challenge, while the tranquil beaches of Bahía Principal and Bahía Puerto Angelito are tailor-made for sun worshippers and families. The accommodations and food here are getting even better, too.

Los Cerritos

This beach at Todos Santos has some of Baja California’s nicest surfing swells – powerful but great for beginners too. Or you can just hang out at sunset and watch the sun dip into the Pacific. Sea turtles lay here as well, and eagle rays glide through the water beneath the surfers; it's an exquisitely  mellow vibe. Go soon before development changes things too much.

Playa de los Muertos

One of several Mexican beaches with the same name (Beach of the Dead, but don't let that deter you), this Puerto Vallarta beach is a quintessential people-watching spot. Mariachis stroll about looking for business, kids catch a free ride on the river as it enters the sea and drummer circles coalesce in the sweaty heat of the afternoon; this is one buzzing stretch of sand. Settle down with a coca fría and scan the horizon for whales.

Zipolite

A 2km strip of pale sand crashing Pacific breakers, Zipo is a legendary travelers’ hideout with a cosmic vibe, very little organized activity, and a great selection of places to stay and eat. Caution: the riptides and undertow are deadly. Head to nearby (and equally laidback) San Agustinillo for body-boarding and safer swimming conditions.

Isla Mujeres

Get away from it all on Isla Mujeres, where the beaches range from the blissful (Playa Norte) to the lively (Playa Lancheros), and offshore snorkeling and diving opportunities abound. Dive sites with evocative names like Barracuda, La Bandera, Manchones and El Jigueo will thrill you with their coral and marine critters.

This article was published in February 2010 and refreshed in December 2012.