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July 14, 2021, 4:58 p.m. EDT

The 12 best destinations to retire on Mexico’s Caribbean coast

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By International Living

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People of all nationalities meander along the small malecón taking photos. Restaurants are plentiful and the freshest seafood offerings are numerous. But there are usually a few food carts present, allowing you to sample some local street food. The old, leaning lighthouse provides the perfect backdrop for photos. And although it has clearly been discovered, Puerto Morelos remains the place you imagined it would be.

Dozens of small fishing boats bob at anchor, just offshore, as sea birds perch on the gunwales. The peaceful vibe almost demands that you awaken early to see the sunrise while walking barefoot on the beach, sipping champagne. The seafood is as good as it gets and the guacamole and margaritas are always perfect.

Isla Mujeres

Isla (as the locals call it) is tiny. About 4.5 miles long and half a mile wide, it’s much smaller than Cozumel. Some 13,000 residents now call this tiny Caribbean gem their home.

Lying about eight miles off Cancún, Isla provides the sense of independence cherished by island dwellers. But it’s also conveniently close to the mainland and big-city comforts. And although Isla has been discovered by international tourists, and Cancún locals regularly pack lunches and beach gear for day trips to this idyllic retreat, it still retains much of the charm and “get-away-from-it-all” vibe people come to islands to enjoy.

Even the tourist shops, restaurants, and bars lining both sides of the main street for a couple of blocks seem laidback and friendly. The smells of crispy fried fish, fresh-cut limes, hot tortillas, and French fries drift from doorways, pulling hungry patrons off the street as if for a taste. Scooters may be everywhere on Cozumel, but here golf carts are the vehicle of choice. From the streets, golf cart rentals beckon with cardboard signs proclaiming daily rental rates.

In terms of lifestyle, Isla has all the same tropical-island options as Cozumel. Diving, snorkeling, boating, and fishing are all possibilities, and paddleboarding is also popular. Chedraui, a major brand supermarket, has an outlet on the island. There’s also a Navy hospital and a couple of medical clinics. Major medical needs are mostly handled in Cancún.


The little town of Mahahual (also spelled “Majahual”) is the heart of the Costa Maya. Flattened by Hurricane Dean in 2007, Mahahual has taken the opportunity to rebuild itself better than it was before: with some city planning and an eye to hurricane-resistant construction. There is a cruise ship dock here, an improved beachfront area, and a malecón that runs pretty much the length of town.

Mahahual’s malecón is lined with restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops. (Many of the restaurants set up tables on the sand between the malecón and the beach, where patrons have an unobstructed view of the waves and water.)

Increasingly, you’ll also find condos and houses freshly constructed along the malecón, and signs of new construction abound. In fact, these days, along the entire length of Mahahual, the first two to three blocks back from the malecón are filled with new buildings and construction.

It sits upon a shoe-shaped peninsula bordered on the east by the Caribbean Sea and creating Chetumal Bay, just above the toe. Driving north and south on the peninsula, along the beach will acquaint you with five or six small villages, the southernmost being Xcalak on the water border with Belize.


Xcalak is a small fishing village on the southern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, in the State of Quintana Roo. The town is remote, and so far, south, it’s only six miles to the Belize/Mexico border. At a whopping six-hour drive from Cancun, not many tourists make it to Xcalak, and that’s too bad for them. But maybe it’s good for you.

In Xcalak, though, you won’t find any mega-resorts, high-end shopping, or fast food chains. It’s a quiet village of 400 residents with miles of undeveloped beaches backed by a thick jungle. Stretching along Xcalak’s coast is the second-largest barrier reef in the world, part of which is designated as the Xcalak Reef National Marine Park. The protected waters along the reef abound with underwater life, making Xcalak both a world-class fly-fishing destination and a snorkeler’s paradise.

Given Xcalak’s limited development, you’d be right to guess that the tourist hotels take sustainability seriously. Accommodations are off-grid, which gives any vacation in Xcalak a touch of adventure.


For peace and tranquility seemingly far from civilization, head to Isla Holbox (pronounced Oal-Bosh). This sliver of an island rests off the Yucatán Peninsula’s northeast coast, where the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea meet.

Holbox truly feels like the old-time Caribbean. No cars are permitted on the island; golf carts are the main form of transport. streets are made from packed sand and, until recently, there was no cell phone or internet service.

Holbox was a quiet fishing island until swimming with whale sharks took off. Tourists came to the island, bringing much-needed revenue with them. There are now a few hotels, bars, and restaurants, as well as amazing beaches strewn with shells.

Getting here involves a 30-minute ferry ride from the small terminal of Chiquilá, a 1.5-hour drive from Cancún.


If the crowds associated with a huge resort area are not your cup of tea, the small village of Bacalar, two-plus hours south of Tulum, may be the quiet, lakefront retreat you’ve been looking for.

Sitting on the shore of Laguna Bacalar (Lake Bacalar), the village exudes an authentic charm with its small, town square surrounded by family-owned businesses. Spend a little time there and you might find yourself imagining you’re in the Mexican version of Mayberry from the old television series.

Technically speaking, Lake Bacalar is not on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast. It lies about an hour inland. But it looks like the Caribbean, feels like the Caribbean…and has a few special advantages that are all its own. If you like the look of the Caribbean but could do without the saltwater, Lake Bacalar may be the perfect spot for you.

Laguna Bacalar is the crown jewel in a system of freshwater lakes and waterways in southern Quintana Roo that eventually lead to the Caribbean. The lake is about 35 miles long, running north and south parallel to the Caribbean Coast. It’s Mexico’s second-largest freshwater lake—after Lake Chapala—and it’s famous for the water’s range of colors. (In fact, it’s known as the Lake of Seven Colors.) Fed by cenotes (deep sinkholes in the limestone shelf that lead to underground rivers) the lake’s waters are cool, extremely clear and vary spectacularly in color, from a translucent turquoise to deep navy blue.


Chetumal may be the least-known city along Mexico’s Caribbean coast (to tourists and prospective expats) but is probably the most important. Chetumal, on the southeast tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, is the Capital of the Yucatan state of Quintana Roo.

Chetumal is clean and feels rather like a Southern California beach town. It offers a wide variety of conveniences, including medical facilities, a university, shopping malls, movie theaters, department stores, supermarkets, and hardware stores. Chetumal is close to the free-trade zone on the Belize border, where you can buy low-priced goods from around the world.

Across the bay from Mahahual, Chetumal is an unmistakably Mexican town, unlike some of the more touristy areas on the Riviera Maya. And while Chetumal has a steadily growing expat community, anyone who moves there should be prepared to speak Spanish.

This story originally ran in International Living.

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