- Soak up Mexico's Riviera Maya for less than $100 per person a night
- The Riu Mexico has a party atmosphere with "liquor drips" in the rooms
- Iberostar Paraiso Beach has plenty of kid-friendly attractions
Soaring down highway 307 from the Cancun airport to the Riviera Maya is like peeling away stress palm tree by palm tree. Because I couldn't decide between paying homage to the Wind God at Tulum's circa-1200 AD Maya ruins or sinking into a Jacuzzi with a view of the Caribbean, I decided to have it all: I toured -- and ranked the pros and cons of -- eight of the region's all-inclusive resorts, each offering its own unique south-of-the-border vacation.
The minimalist resort: Bel Air Collection
Spanning 14 very green acres, this resort is a buffet-free, a la carte-only zone in the low season. Only nine villas were built on the property, adding to the secluded, boutique-resort feel. Snorkeling, kayaking and biking are free here, as is doing absolutely nothing: a white hammock hangs from each room's terrace. With five cenotes onsite, you can have a romantic dinner right in the middle of a green cenote for a fee of $75 and up.
Pro: Each room has a double Jacuzzi, and rustic shell patterns crafted from pebbles pop up every few feet on the stone floors.
Con: The beach is small and rocky, but the resort provides a shuttle that brings you to a beach five minutes away, where drinks and light bites like ceviche await. (belairxpuha.com, from $75 per person per night)
The party resort: Riu Mexico
You know you're in for a raucous time when there are "liquor drips" (free tequila!) affixed to your hotel room's wall. The razzle-dazzle quotient is high here, from the opulent lobby to the cocktails at Bar Cubano. Reserve a table at Krystal fusion restaurant for the excellent tuna tataki.
Pro: Beach access at this resort is vast and beautiful.
Con: The evening entertainment is extremely loud if your room is toward the front of the resort. Even with the sliding doors closed, you could be subjected to an ear-splitting Mamma Mia! revue. (riu.com, from $99 per person per night)
The romantic resort: Ocean Maya Royale
Sherbet-orange and raspberry-hued villas dot this lush adults-only property, a popular destination for weddings and honeymoons. The brand-new Fresco Bar, housed in a palapa, mixes up tropical juices with fruits and veggies like mango, papaya, kiwi and cactus. On weekends, guests can attend candle-lit pool parties.
Pro: The "Romance Suite" includes a bottle of wine, a terrace or balcony, Jacuzzi and concierge service at the resort's spa and restaurants.
Con: You have to pay extra for top-shelf liquor and access to a private beach area. (hoteloceanmaya.net/en, from $79 per person per night)
The megaresort: Iberostar Paraiso Beach
Bring the kids here, one of Iberostar's five sprawling resorts with multiple pools. Swans and flamingos roam the property and small children will go especially nuts for riding the resort's working old-fashioned carousel, faux boulders, a lazy river and elaborate outdoor kids' play areas. By night, grownups can sip adult beverages and dance in the downright bizarre Star Wars-themed Galaxy Nightclub.
Pro: A chain resort of this magnitude probably won't throw you any curveballs. If a quintessential tourist vacation appeals to you, this is your spot.
Con: Some upscale restaurants and several pool areas aren't accessible to guests staying in the less expensive Iberostar hotels, including this one. It can be difficult to discern which areas are off-limits. (iberostar.com, from $95 per person per night)
The modern resort: Oasis Tulum
An infinity pool and a swim-up sushi bar add to the sleek feel of this resort's recently renovated exterior. Even the buffet offers gorgeous sea views through full-length plate glass windows. Two resorts exist here: the Oasis Tulum and the slightly more expensive Grand Oasis Tulum. The higher-end restaurants and bars (including a new wine bar), some of the pools, and a VIP roof bar with panoramic ocean views and private outdoor Jacuzzi tubs are reserved for Grand Oasis guests. An upgrade will run you about $5 more per person per day.
Pro: Each room has either a terrace or a balcony. If you'd like to tool around town on your own, you can rent a SmartCar, insurance included, for $45 per day.
Con: The buffet food isn't anything special, nor are the rooms, which have chintzy red bedspreads and dated bathrooms. (oasistulumresort.com, from $71 per person per night)
The spa resort: Grand Sirenis Riviera Maya
To say the Spa Grand Sirenis is tech-forward is an understatement. Innovative services such as chromo-therapy, saltwater flotariums that mimic the density of the Dead Sea, aromatherapy showers and cocoa-and-caffeine wraps can be purchased individually -- or buy a Spa Pass ($25) to use the blue-tiled hot and cold hydro-therapy pools. Then sip complimentary orange, pineapple, grapefruit and green juices.
Pro: Three vast beaches rim the property, and three adults-only pools ensure a slice of tranquility. Ask about perks like the free yoga classes and an hour of free snorkeling and kayaking each day.
Con: There are roped-off areas for VIP "premium travelers." (sirenishotels.com, from $84 per person per night)
The family-friendly resort: Sandos Playacar
Quirky American perks like a cupcake shop, a creperie, a bagel shop right on the beach that offers 20-plus varieties and a teens club with a ping-pong table, pool table and foosball make the large Sandos Playacar resort a good option for both kids and adults who want a large-resort feel with the comforts of home. The adults-only Select Club section, on one side of the resort, is separate from the families on the other.
Pro: Like other Sandos resorts, this one is eco conscious: The trash is sorted and the organic matter composted.
Con: Aside from the expansive beach, the resort can feel like it's in the States rather than Mexico. (sandos.com, from $94 per person per night)
The eco resort: Sandos Caracol
Swim in a cenote -- or just do yoga next to it -- at a resort that prides itself on environment-focused features like a windmill; animal habitats for deer, donkeys and monkeys; gluten-free menu options; and trails you can bike for free. Tours point out flora and fauna including rubber trees, mangroves, peacocks and macaques -- and you'll take a dramatic walk across the resort's suspension bridge! Kid-friendly activities include an indoor jungle gym and a kids' nightclub. (Adults-only facilities are ideal for couples.) Order excellent fajitas and chilaquiles a la carte from La Jungla restaurant.
Pro: The 80-minute massage incorporates props like giant mollusk seashells, cinnamon cream and long feathers.
Con: Rooms are spare, but each has its own whirlpool tub and modern bathroom. (sandos.com, from $75 per person per night)