If you’re headed to the beach towns of Mexico, chances are there’s a short list from which you’re drawing. Mexico’s top tourist destinations have some of the most spectacular beaches and hotels in the world, and you should definitely go and enjoy them. But if you want to scratch beneath the surface of these highly commercialized destinations and walk in the shoes of a local, here are the top spots to know in some of Mexico’s most popular locales.
Tulum is the destination du jour in Mexico, and has been for quite some time. And why not? The beaches are sugary, the water is Caribbean clear and the hotels are all about boutique luxury. But when you’re not sipping a small batch mojito underneath a palapa in your straw fedora after catching a sunrise yoga session, take some time to see a side of Tulum that is decidedly local.
Most locals in Tulum are not hanging on the beach. They’re hanging in Tulum Pueblo, which is on the opposite side of Highway 307 from the beach. Here Tulum still swings backpacker, with cheap hotels, markets, street food and low key nightlife.
If you’re looking to party with the locals, check out one of Papaya Playa Project’s Full Moon parties, which are monthly beach parties held at this local hotel.
Dining options in Tulum abound, and contrary to what the high-gloss mags tell you, you don’t have to pay a pretty penny for some truly tasty eats. Visit El Camello Jr., a roadside pit stop known for its ceviche and its whole, fried fish. Tacos are served until 5pm, too. The best way to tackle El Camello is to show up hungry. No need for a menu. Just ask what’s fresh today. Pozoleria la Mexicanita is another popular eatery, known for its pozole, quesadillas and sopes. Or swing by Las Quekas, which is a small chain restaurant that started in Cancun. It will be a challenge to spend more than 25 pesos here. Keep in mind that the menu might not always be available because it cooks up whatever is on offer at the market that day, but you’ll never go wrong ordering the quesadillas or sopes. Late night munchies will be cured at Antojitos la Chiapeneca, where the al pastor tacos and panuchos soak up whatever damage you might have done at the bar.
The truly adventurous can test their pipes with the locals at Kahlua on Avenida Tulum. This beer-and-taco hangout by day becomes full-fledged karaoke hot spot at night, and is most frequented not by drunk tourists, but by locals. A more elegant, but still local, scene can also be found at Batey in downtown Tulum. A rotating art display and live music is always on the menu.
After Hurricane Odile hit Los Cabos back in 2014, Los Cabos rebuilt itself as a true luxury destination. Today the beaches of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo are strewn with one high-end hotel after the next. And for good reason—the destination is visually stunning with cobalt-colored water, red rock desert and epic sunsets. Still, there is a vibrant local scene in Los Cabos, so for those who want to venture outside the gilded gates of their A-list hotel, here is where to head.
The scenery in Los Cabos isn’t just enjoyed by tourists. The locals love to get in on the action, as well. But you won’t find locals lounging hotel side. You’ll find them at East Cape, which is made up of the entire eastern side of the Baja Peninsula, from Punta Pescadero to San Jose del Cabo. The beaches here are legendary, and known for diving, fishing, and watersports. Swimming is more encouraged here compared to Cabo San Lucas, where the waves tend to be rougher. For surfing, locals love Cerritos Beach, which isn’t technically in Los Cabos, but is still the spot where locals hang ten.
As with most coastal communities in Mexico, seafood is the way to go come mealtime. In Cabo San Lucas, pop by Mariscos Torito for the catch of the day, or visit Mariscos Las Tres Islas for casual, but supremely delicious dining. Gardenias is the best spot in town for fish tacos. For other Mexican specialties, consider Restaurant Campestre. Over in San Jose del Cabo, visit El Toro Guero or La Osteria, which is known for its live music.
Cozumel is, more often than not, a stop on any itinerary, rather than a standalone destination. Known as one of the biggest cruise ports in Mexico and the Caribbean, it has a reputation for stunning beaches and wild nightlife. But when the cruise passengers embark, the locals come out to play. And here’s where you’ll find them.
The east coast of Cozumel is one of the most strikingly beautiful, and also the popular playground of Cozumeleños. Playa de San Martin has waves that are popular with surfers, while Chen Rio is more popular among families and sunbathers.
Cozumel is an island shared by tourists and locals alike. (There are only so many places you can go in downtown Cozumel.) Still, among the tourist bars and knick knack shops are local hideouts such as El Coffee Cozumel, known to the residents of Cozumel as Coffee Bean. For lunch head over to La Choza, where a local menu of 75 pesos offers soup and a main course. Le Chef is a tiny restaurant slinging lobsters and fat sandwiches. For something a little more elegant, Casa Mission is a restaurant built into a historic hacienda, right in the heart of downtown. If you’re truly on a budget, locals love botaneros, which are cantinas that serve complimentary tapas-style food with beverages. La Yucatequita or Amigos are two that are popular. One of the specialties of this region of Mexico is cochinita pibil, a slow-roasted pork. Taste it in some truly delectable tacos and tortas at El Amigo Mario, a hole-in-the-wall taqueria serving only cochinita pibil.
To imbibe the local way, it’s all about beach bars and cantinas, which dot the entire coastline. Back on the east coast, where you’re surely hanging out with your new Cozumeleño friends, visit the Liquor Box, known for its mojitos and mango daiquiris and its small cluster of hammocks. At night is when locals and visitors truly mingle, as there are only a few bars and clubs on the island. Money Bar is one of the most known among locals and expats, where you might arrive as a stranger but come the end of the night, the owner, bartenders and house band will know everything about you short of your social security number. And, believe it or not, you’ll even find locals dancing up a storm at Señor Frog’s.
If you’ve been to Cancun then chances are you haven’t strayed far from the Hotel Zone, that glittering stretch of beautiful beach lined with hotel after hotel. But don’t feel bad if all you’ve done in Cancun is indulge in the all-inclusive lifestyle. Cancun was built in the 1970s specifically for tourism. That said, the destination is home to cosmopolitan Mexicans, European expats and descendants of the indigenous Mayan people. It has a local life of its own, and one that is worth exploring beyond the beaches and buckets of beer.
Shoppers won’t want to miss Mercado 28, a massive handicraft market that is widely popular with the locals. It’s a small village of vendor stalls adding up to about 1,000 tented shops where you’ll find everything from ceramics and glassware to hammocks and clothing. Be forewarned that a lot of what you see isn’t actually handmade, despite what the vendors tell you. But if you’ve got a little Spanish under your belt, they’re quick to change their tune. Haggling here is most definitely the way to go. No doubt one of the best features of Cancun is the beach, so you can be sure the locals are going to be soaking up some rays. While all beaches in Mexico are public, you often have to go through the hotels to access them, which makes it difficult for locals. Instead, they buy day passes to use the beaches at these hotels, or they take the ferry to Isla Mujeres.
Tacos are a staple in Cancun, and some of the best can be nabbed at Baracoa de la Tulum on Avenida Tulum. Another spot to tuck into tacos is Los de Chihuas near the Kukulkan roundabout. Other taco hotspots are Carnitas Michoacan and Tacos Los Perrones. If you prefer something with tables and chairs, consider Los Aguachiles for seafood, or Julia Mia for gourmet Mexican.
Come nightfall, the locals of Cancun are headed to Plaza Infinity, which is buzzing with bars and live music. First stop should be the Black Pub for its live music and draft beer. Mambo Cafe and Muleiros Lounge are some of the hot spots for dancing.
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