Stretching from Cancún to Tulúm, Mexico’s Riviera Maya is one of the world’s premier beach destinations thanks to its white sands, blue Caribbean waters, and warm weather year-round. Plus, thanks to the region’s prosperity and high level of investment from the government and the private sector, the feel is First-World and modern when it comes to infrastructure, services, and amenities. And traditional Mexican culture, from music to food to cultural events, is still very much alive here. Mexico is the most popular expat spot for Americans, with an estimated one million in the country. And the Riviera Maya has quickly become a favored area. There is something for everybody when it comes to a place to live on this coast, whether you want a seaside village, resort-style living, or a sophisticated city atmosphere.The Mexican government decided in the 1970s to make this region on the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula a focal point of tourism. They subsidized the building of hotels on the island of Cancún, and that kicked off development up and down the coast, quickly turning it into a popular vacation spot for visitors from around the world. Soon after, retirees and other expats discovered the charms of living year-round on the Riviera Maya.
Cancún, at the northernmost point of the Riviera, is home to a city of 400,000 on the mainland—the center of government and business in the region, as well as a “hotel zone” chock-full of all-inclusive resorts and shopping malls on a barrier island just offshore. Some expats live here, both in the hotel zone and in the mainland city. About 20 minutes south is Puerto Morelos, a working fishing village that has become a favorite among expats for its peace and quiet…as well as its beach lifestyle.
Playa del Carmen is a rapidly-growing seaside town well-known for its vibrant nightlife, restaurant scene (everything from traditional Mexican to sushi to Italian gourmet favorites), and world-class shopping centered on the pedestrian-only La Avenida Quinta entertainment district. The cosmopolitan group of expats gives it a real international flavor.
Laidback Tulúm is at the far south of the Riviera Maya. Once a stop on the backpacker’s trail through Central America, the town has “grown up” and become a haven for retirees and other expats seeking all the advantages of the Riviera Maya without the crowds and development of the communities to the north. The feel is still bohemian.
Scuba diving and snorkeling, boating, fishing, swimming in freshwater cenotes, exploring the Maya ruins that dot this region…there’s no shortage of things for the active expat to do on the Riviera Maya. And, of course, there are established expat communities you can join very easily and enjoy an active social life of dinner parties, happy hours by the beach, dinners out, and more. Plus, if you’re into volunteering and working in the community there’s plenty of opportunity for that, too.
Climate on the Riviera Maya
The Riviera Maya, located on the eastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, enjoys warm weather year-round thanks to its tropical climate. Temperatures range from highs up to 82 F to lows in the high 60s F in December to February, to highs in the mid and high 90s F in June and July. The cooler temperatures from November to April—thanks to steady ocean breezes—make that the tourist high season.
There is a rainy season that brings afternoon showers from May to October, with September and October being the rainiest months. The area is more humid this time of year.
Ocean temperatures are pleasant, making for great swimming all year, ranging from the high 70s F to mid 80s F.
Tropical storms and hurricanes can be a concern in this region, as they can be for many coastal areas in the Caribbean; the season runs from June to October. Direct hits from hurricanes occur about every 10 to 12 years, although tropical storms happen more frequently. And even hurricanes that pass by can cause severe conditions. As a result, building codes account for severe weather, and there are emergency plans in place if need be.
Cost of Living on the Riviera Maya
Though not the cheapest area of the country thanks to extensive tourism development, the Riviera Maya still offers an affordable cost of living where you can live well on much less than you’d spend in the U.S.
Also, keep in mind that cost of living is very dependent on lifestyle. If you shop in local markets and don’t make a habit of eating at high-end restaurants, which are plentiful in this region, you can save big time. And be aware that living right on the beach can be pricey to rent and buy…but head inland a few blocks (still only a few minutes’ walk from the water) and you’ll pay much less.
A sample monthly budget for two people:
|Housing (rental of two-bedroom condo, on the beach)||$1,200|
|Housing (rental of two-bedroom home or condo)||$900|
|Utilities (electric, gas, water, phone, cable TV, high-speed internet)||$300|
|Entertainment, including dining out||$300|
|Maid (twice a week)||$120|
|Gardener (once a week)||$100|
Lifestyle on the Riviera Maya
The Riviera Maya, encompassing the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula from the resort area of Cancún south to the laidback beach town of Tulúm, has a lot to offer expats. World class restaurants…quiet beach bars…live music…fishing…boating…white-sand beaches…and snorkeling and scuba diving in one of the largest and best reef systems in the world.
Because it is one of Mexico’s top tourist destinations, the Riviera Maya has received a lot of investment from the government and private investors. And that means plenty of First World services and amenities up and down the coast.
Even in such a small area, you have a lot of variety in lifestyle. Cancún is full of resorts but also has condos and other full-time housing—it’s a perfect place for those seeking an “always on vacation” lifestyle. Playa del Carmen a half-hour south is more cosmopolitan and urban and features a lively entertainment district. La Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue, which is a pedestrian only boulevard that runs parallel to the beach and is lined with restaurants, bars, boutiques, shops, and more. Tulúm is more bohemian and low-key—a perfect haven for those looking for a quiet beach escape. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from Cancún to Tulúm. Meanwhile, you have Puerto Morelos, a small fishing village just south of Cancún turned expat haven that is perhaps the closest you get to traditional Mexico in this region.
The great weather year-round—it never gets cold—means a lot of time is spent outdoors. It’s always a good time to go to the beach. Watersports, or just relaxing in a comfortable chair on the sand, are popular activities among expats.
The region is home to large numbers of retirees and other expats, and it’s an active community. It’s easy to make friends, and there are many opportunities to socialize. That means a lot of parties, dinners out, community groups, happy hours, clubs, sports, church organizations, and more. Expats say there’s never a dull moment on the Riviera Maya. Also, they feel warmly welcomed by their Mexican neighbors.
While North Americans make up the bulk of the expat community, including many “snowbirds” who come down during the winter months to escape cold weather back home, there is also significant population of foreign residents from Argentina and other spots in Latin America, as well as Germany, France, Italy, and other European countries. It’s quite an international cast of characters.
Akumal, a Beautiful Beach on the Riviera Maya
Just north of Tulúm on Mexico’s Riviera Maya is the small beach community of Akumal. The beach curves gently around a small cove, which is home to endangered sea turtles who munch on the abundant sea grass.
You can snorkel and watch the turtles, as well as other sea creatures like manta rays and dozens of tropical fish—including parrotfish, pork fish, blue tangs, and barracuda. On shore you can enjoy the soft white sand, sitting in the shade of palm trees, and lunch at one of the open-air beach restaurants that face the water.
There are a few hundred expats in Akumal. But most beachgoers are day-trippers coming from the larger resort areas of the Riviera Maya or guests at the small number of hotels in Akumal itself.