Mexico Smackdown: Los Cabos vs. Cancún and Riviera Maya


(Photo: Getty Images)

Each week, Yahoo Travel pits rival destinations against each other to determine once and for all which place is the best. This week it’s Los Cabos vs. Cancún in a Mexican vacation duel.

Los Cabos


The sandy playground near Cabos San Lucas, Mexico (Photo: Getty Images)

The case: It’s hard to utter the words “Los Cabos” and not immediately picture “A-list resort town.” And the endless roster of uber-luxe resorts, pampering spas, and scene-y restaurants certainly helps make the case. But it’s the authentic, small-town feel of the two seaside pueblos — Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, which are collectively known as Los Cabos — that is the real attraction here. This is, after all, a place where the desert meets the inky ocean and the dusty scrubbed landscape becomes one with the restless Sea of Cortez. Recently the area weathered a hurricane, but the recovery has been brisk and the area is open for business, with the airport reopened in less than two weeks and most name-brand hotels back online in record time.

Population: 68,463

Famous faces: She’s shot by the paparazzi so often on these golden sands, it seems as though Jennifer Aniston has a permanent residence in Los Cabos. Similarly, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Seacrest, and Cameron Diaz are familiar faces, as are a slew of reality stars — Kardashians, we’re looking at you — recording artists, and TV personalities.


Jennifer Aniston is a Cabo regular. (Photo: Corbis)

Where to stay: There’s no shortage of beachfront hideaways on Cabos’ golden shores, from the ultrapampering glamour of One&Only Palmilla to the all-inclusive charms of Dreams Los Cabos Suites. The relatively new villas at Las Ventanas al Paraíso, a Rosewood Resort are the next level of luxury. Each of the rambling suites comes equipped with a pool and hot tub, endless indoor/outdoor living spaces, multiple bathrooms, a screening or fitness room, an enormous kitchen, and a dedicated butler. He’ll whip up chips and guac, A.M. coffee, romantic bubble baths, and whatever else your heart desires. Bonus (as if you needed one): All villa guests receive an in-suite massage. May we suggest it be enjoyed over your wading pool.


The beachfront patio junior suite at the One&Only, Palmilla. (Photo: One&Only Resorts)

Transportation of choice: Yachts, sailboats, and Jet Skis skip across the water, while chauffeured SUVs are the preferred method for moving overland. Most resorts have fleets, which are Wi-Fi-equipped.


This is how they “roll” in Cabo San Lucas. (Photo: Getty Images)

Cultural excursion: In San Jose del Cabo there’s a healthy collection of galleries, displaying works from local artists, as well as antiquities, folk items, and some internationally lauded pieces. The group of 16 outposts, called the Art District, hosts a weekly art walk from November through June accompanied by live music.


Frank Arnold Gallery, part of the weekly Art Walk in San Jose del Cabo. (Photo:San Jose del Cabo Art District/Facebook)

Action excursion: Although a beach destination, the tumultuous Sea of Cortez isn’t very hospitable toward swimmers. Surfers, on the other hand, score big. For a guided and instructional day on the best breaks, take a surf safari with Tropicsurf, a premiere luxury outfitter with a shop at One&Only Palmilla. You’ll get tips on form, wave selection, and board maneuvering. Beginners learn the team’s specialized pop-up technique.


Surfers run in for big waves in the Sea of Cortez. (Photo: Peter Giordano/Flickr)

Best pool: The infinity edged pool at Las Ventanas al Paraíso, a Rosewood Resort is as iconic a Cabo image as the natural El Arco — the out-to-sea rock formation. Service is a standout thanks to a veritable army of pool butlers who do everything from lounger setup and Popsicle distribution to sunglass cleaning.


The pool at Las Ventanas a Paraiso (Photo: Grant Lindsay/Flickr)

Best beach: Accessible only by water taxi (or a vertical trek), Lover’s Beach is one of the few swimmable spots in the area; the underwater life viewing here is tops, too. Due to its remoteness, there are no amenities.


Lover’s Beach rocks. (Photo: Remy Dugoua/Flickr)

What to buy: Known locally as chupa de cabra, Otomi textiles are perhaps the area’s most famous export. The hand-embroidered creations depict natural images in fantastical stories and can be found at nearly any hotel gift shop. For the best deal, try your hand at bargaining at the shops in town or at the Mercado de Artesañias. Most accept American dollars, but expect change in pesos, coupled with a not-so-hot exchange rate.


Chupa de Cabra under construction (Photo: Corbis)

Typical dish: Fish tacos are simple, delicious, and a Cabo calling card. The traditional Baja taco consists of beer-battered fish topped with cabbage, avocado, and white sauce. The roadside Taqueria Rossy is a perennial favorite among locals and visitors.


Fish tacos at Taqueria Rossi (Photo: Taqueria Rossy/Facebook)

Nightlife: Skip the booming bass of the clubs with a more highbrow evening of light bites and cocktails in the scenic beer garden at Flora Farms. Bring your phone for selfies with the celebs. Reservations needed.


The Farm Bar (Photo: Flora’s Farm)

Related: Mexico’s Undiscovered Beach Towns

Top chef outpost: Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Market at One&Only Palmilla artfully blends the chef’s marquee techniques and preparations with local ingredients and influences.


Market at One&Only Palmilla (Photo: One&Only Resorts)

Cancún/Riviera Maya


Mayan ruins overlooking the beach in Tulum (Photo: Boris G/Flickr)

The case: Erase any lingering memories of your Girls Gone Wild spring break days (although truth be told, if you are looking for it, you can certainly find it here). This east coast resort destination is a whole new world these days. The area stretches from just south of Cancún down the coast to the happening town of Playa del Carmen, to the hippie-chic enclave on Tulum, to the family-friendly Akumal, ending in nobody-really-goes-there Felipe Carillo Puerto. There are incomparable cultural attractions, awesome natural phenomena, endless food and lodging options, and just as many activities at every turn. Riviera Maya’s powder sand beaches on the brilliantly turquoise Caribbean Sea are among the world’s most picturesque.

Population: 70,000

Famous faces: Sofía Vergara has been known to hole up at the intimate Rosewood Mayakoba, as has Jessica Alba and family. Antonio Banderas can be spotted dancing late nights at the discos. And perennially at-the-beach Leonardo DiCaprio is a fan of the barefoot Ana y Jose in Tulum.


Jessica Alba vacations in Cancun with her family. (Photo: SplashNews)

Where to stay: Resorts line the Riviera Maya, so there’s something for everyone. At Banyan Tree Mayakoba, each room comes with a private plunge pool. Tulum has become a nexus for the fashion set, where the epicenter of chic is Coqui Coqui Tulum, owned by a former model. The Akumal Beach Resort is a hidden and affordable secret frequented by families. And don’t let the phrase “all inclusive” fool you at Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita: This intimate collection of 90 rooms has loads of charm, excellent service, and a distinctly zen vibe. Each of the suites is spacious, sea-facing, and individually appointed with treasures from around the world. Standard inclusions go beyond free-flowing food and drink, with sunset sails, welcome massages, and use of the spa’s thalasso pool that overlooks the beach and yacht launch.


(Photo: Banyan Tree Mayokoba)

Transportation of choice: Taxis are readily available at hotel carriage entrances and major attractions. However, fares should be haggled and agreed upon in advance. For a set price, hire a driver from one of the many ground transportation providers. AMStar has a seemingly endless roster of friendly English-speaking drivers.


(Photo: Getty Images)

Cultural excursion: One of the region’s major draws is the myriad pre-Colombia Mayan ruin sites. Every hotel has an excursion to the biggies — Chichen Itza and the oceanfront Tulum ruins. A day trip to the lesser-known Cobá is a real treat. Boasting a pyramid taller than Chichen Itza, a variety of religious buildings, games courts, and other ruins, this sprawling Mayan city rambles throughout lush jungle foliage. Rent bikes or hire a rickshaw to transverse the blissfully nontouristy site.


Chichen Itza (Photo: Stacey McNaught/Flickr)

Action excursion: Just off the coast is the world’s second-largest reef system, so obviously snorkeling is tops, but shark swimming is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. May through September, take a day trip to nearby Isla Holbox with Cancun Whale Shark Tours, and you’ll splash and paddle around with the giant animals. Now while they aren’t the Jaws variety, whale sharks are large, gentle plankton-feeders, distinguishable by their pretty spotted patterns.


Your chance to swim with the sharks (Photo:

Best beach: Quite frankly, all the Riviera Maya beaches are postcard-prefect with talc soft, brilliantly white sands set against crystalline waters. Tulum is a standout for its awesome body surfing conditions and the fact that it is positioned beneath the central structure of the Mayan ruins of the same name. Note: Beach access depends on the tides.

Best pool: With infinity, swim-up, and personal villa pools abound across the region, it’s difficult to pick a top spot. The rooftop outpost at the brand-new Hotel Cacao in Playa del Carmen gets props for its position (literally) high above the buzzy Fifth Avenue, with its hip vibe and unbeatable top-of-the-world ocean and town views.

WATCH: Worldwide Guide: Westin Resort and Spa, Cancun

What to buy: The lure of stocking up on cheapie souvenirs is strong. An authentic and not-so-expensive take-home is vanilla, in all its forms. True, liquid vanilla can be found for about $1 at big-box stores. If you are shopping at a mercado, look at the ingredient list (Water should not be listed first.), and know that haggling is expected.

Typical dish: Cuisine of the Yucatán combines European, Mexican, and Mayan tastes and techniques. The hallmark cochinita pibil is made of slow-roasted pork in a pumpkin sauce, wrapped in a banana leaf. Labná excels at the dish, along with other regional specialties, including chimole (turkey with mole sauce) and atole (a corn, allspice, sugar, and chocolate dessert).

Cochinita pibil (Photo: Jennifer Woodard Maderazo/Flickr)

Nightlife: There’s no shortage of watering holes and nightclubs throughout the Riviera Maya, but there is only one Coco Bongo. The enormous, pulsating discothèque with multiple dance floors has all the usual nightclub accoutrements of booming music, flashing lights, and free-flowing tequila, along with only-found-here, spectacular play-back shows. Performers lip-synch, dance, and even perform acrobatics above the dancers dressed as popular groups (e.g., Guns N’ Roses, ‘N Sync), pop stars (e.g., Michael Jackson, Madonna, Beyoncé), and movie characters. Aside: Technically, there are two clubs: one in Playa del Carmen and a larger spot in Cancún.


Wild times can be had at Coco Bongo. (Photo: Flickr/Cristian)

Top chef outpost: The famed Spanish chef, Basque cuisine master, and holder of a whopping seven Michelin stars in his home country, Martín Berasategui helms the modern Passion at the adults-only Paradisus Playa del Carmen la Perla.

Jenna Mahoney is a Brooklyn-based travel editor, lifestyle writer, and author of Small Apartment Hacks. Twitter: @srajennamahoney

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