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Direct link to see Zona Hotelera on a map
In short, most of the hotels are located along a long stretch of beach that’s called Zona Hotelera. The stretch of the beach is characterized by the direct access to the sea on the East side and a swampy lagoon on the back, West, side. The hotels are located along the inverted “L”-shaped stretch of land: hotels are located along the north stretch of the beach and along the East stretch.
Beaches along the North shore are horrible. There are docking areas for boats, rocky and cliff dropoff beachfronts, no surf resulting in a stagnant saltwater with seaweed, so we don’t recommend booking a hotel there. Also, definitely do not book anything in downtown Cancun – you will be suck in a port without any access to a waterfront.
Along the main “vertical” stretch of the Zona Hotelera, the main set of hotels is located. East side is split into two sections: regular California beach style waterfronts in the northern half of the ocean-facing stretch, and the more aggressive southern stretch. Northern half has concrete submerged blocks, dump truck tires on the sea bottom, etc.
We prefer the southern stretch of Zona Hotelera. The waves are high, you can bodysurf without any special gear, and there are no surfers there, so the beach is ideal for sunbathing, swimming or having fun in the shallow water. This stretch of the beach is also the cleanest in Cancun.
Alternative Hotel Locations in the area
An entirely different option is to stay in Isla Mujeres (but that might limit you in the amount of stuff you will see in the area if you will be “locked” on an island and tied to the ferry boat schedule).
You can also try Playa del Carmen (it’s on the mainland) or Cozumel (another – major – island). Playa del Carmen and Cozumel are interesting on their own because of the top-notch diving and snorkeling experiences. Did you know that Playa del Carmel sits where the second biggest reef in the world (after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) is starting? There is definitely plenty to see underwater.
Our personal favorite from the past – the area deteriorated recently due to the huge influx of tourists – is Akumal. There are only a handful of hotels there, and the town is tiny, with no infrastructure, but the beach is beautiful, and the area is very secluded and quiet. If you prefer a quiet Mexican get-away into the wilderness, this is the place to visit. Akumal is the natural breeding ground for huge sea turtles, so you definitely won’t be disappointed. Caution: by going to Akumal, you will gain the beautiful nature retreat at the expense of the quality of hotel rooms. Hotels are old, rusty and are poorly taken care of, though tourists still come because of an amazing relaxing experience the area offers.