Visitors to Mexcaltitan are treated to lessons in Mexican history and culture. // © 2015 Riviera Nayarit Convention & Visitors Bureau
Feature image (above): The hidden beach of Islas Marietas is accessible only via a swim through a low tunnel. // © 2015 Riviera Nayarit Convention & Visitors Bureau
Ask some people to name the best islands for vacationing, and they will rattle off a list of places in Hawaii and the Caribbean. But, Mexico is home to a bunch of postcard-perfect islands as well. Some are large and well-known, while others are tiny and less-visited.
Whether it’s a multiday stay in a beachfront boutique hotel or a day trip to an unspoiled stretch of paradise, Mexico's islands have lots to offer.
Mexico’s largest island, Cozumel is square one for many travelers looking to make the most of Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Golf and dining are big on Cozumel too, but the big draw is the crystal-clear water that surrounds this well-placed piece of paradise.
Travelers can enjoy it in a variety of ways, including underwater excursions with Atlantis Submarines Cozumel and by boat with Fury Catamarans Cozumel. Scuba divers and snorkelers will be in heaven here; more than 250 species of tropical fish — as well as turtles, stingrays and other marine animals — make their home in the waters off Cozumel.
The all-inclusive Cozumel Palace works with local tour operator Aqua Safari to offer a variety of scuba diving experiences on the island’s reefs, and guests can dive right from the hotel’s pool deck into the Palancar Reef.
Islas Marietas and Mexcaltitan
Islas Marietas, a group of small islands that lie just off the coast, gained fame in part thanks to Jacques Cousteau’s conservation efforts. This federally protected nature reserve is only accessible by booking through local tour operators. A small boat called a panga leads visitors through waters inhabited by octopuses, sea turtles and colorful tropical fish en route to several scenic stops, including a secluded beach reachable by swimming through a natural tunnel.
For a healthy dose of culture and ancient history, head to Mexcaltitan (motorboats depart from a spot near the town of Santiago Ixcuintla on the mainland). Beautiful estuaries, islets and mangroves mark the route to the island, which has cultural history dating to pre-Hispanic Mexico. Visitors might feel like they have stepped back to those days; there are no cars, and high sidewalks allow pedestrians to walk even when the streets are flooded by high waters. Authentic local cuisine — including ceviche made with fresh shrimp — is another draw here.
Islands of Cancun
The destination of Cancun now officially includes both Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox, two islands that offer noteworthy accommodations and activities. Die-hard fans of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, however, have known about these popular getaways for years.
Isla Holbox is home to more than 50 boutique hotels, providing lots of options for travelers looking for a small-scale paradise with stylish accommodations. Outdoor activities here include kiteboarding, kayaking and fly-fishing.
Visitors can join excursions to even tinier islands nearby, including Isla de Pasion (Passion Island), which is about 15 minutes by boat from Isla Holbox, and Cabo Catoche, which is ideal for snorkeling and is home to what is considered by some to be the first Catholic church in Latin America. One of the newest hotels on Isla Holbox is Hotel Casa Las Tortugas, a 21-room property with a beach club, spa and yoga center.
Isla Mujeres, just 8 miles by boat from Cancun, is the best-known island in the region, and with good reason. It combines easy accessibility with a range of hotels and restaurants, as well as bountiful natural beauty. Both day trips and multiday visits are easy to arrange; a ferry departs from Cancun for the scenic ride.
Once there, visitors can savor Mexican cuisine at open-air restaurants and drive around the island on a rented golf cart to explore the beaches and scenery. Dolphin Discovery offers the opportunity to swim with dolphins, while Garrafon Reef Park offers snorkeling and other water-based activities. One of the newest hotels on Isla Mujeres is Zoetry Villa Rolandi Isla Mujeres Cancun, an all-inclusive, 35-room resort with lovely water views.