There's a decent chance if you went to college, you ventured to Mexico for Spring Break and made enough bad decisions to fill up a carry-on bag. That's what a place like Cozumel is for, after all. It's like an oasis of irresponsibility.
But believe it or not, there's more to Mexico than Señor Frogs and wet T-shirt contests. There's also guacamole. Oh, and quite a few under-the-radar islands. So if you take your chips and guac with a side of laid-back island living, here are six of Mexico’s best islands that aren't Cozumel.
If the islands near Cancun were siblings, Cozumel would be Owen Wilson, but Isla Mujeres would totally be Luke. Sure, Wedding Crashers and Cars are huge hits. But don't sleep on the lasting quality of Old School. Also, Cozumel would have a weird nose.
This island escape off the coast of Cancun’s party beaches is a quick ferry ride out into the Caribbean Sea. Highlights include fresh seafood, laid-back beach bars, Garrafon Natural Reef Park, and the gorgeous Caribbean sun and sand, minus the thumping bass and strobe lights. You can make Isla Mujeres a day trip, of course, but consider making it the main event and staying in one of the many chill beach resorts (Casa de los Sueños FTW). As if these aren't reasons enough, the island’s name literally translates to Island of Women, because apparently "Hot Babe Island" was already taken. Just GO.
If sugary sand and ocean that’s all kinds of blue bring you great joy, this is the island for you. But you'd better reeeeeeally enjoy that stuff, because there’s not a whole lot else going on in Isla Holbox. (Translation: Bring someone who looks cute in a bathing suit to be the Little Spoon.) This tiny island, also off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in the Caribbean Sea, is far less touristy than Isla Mujeres and mostly car-free. Locals get around by bike or on golf carts. Boutique hotels also reign here, and you’ll want to check out Hotel Mawimbi. Whale sharks are the main draw for tourists here, and from June to September, if you’re tired of all the spooning in a hammock by the sea, you can spoon these gentle giants. You know, in the water.
If Isla Holbox seems low-key, well, Isla Contoy is like a night in with a bottle of red wine. The entire island is just 1.2sqmi, and has been declared a national park. It’s so small it actually has a maximum capacity -- only 200 tourists are allowed on the island per day. If you like bars with velvet ropes, you’ll love a beachy paradise with a guest list.
A day trip from Cancun or Isla Mujeres, Contoy is about a two-hour boat ride, and along the way, visitors can snorkel in the Ixlache Reef. When you get there, you have your pick of empty beaches and top spots for snorkeling. Meat-lovers’ bonus: there's even a grill set up for groups to barbecue on the beach. BYOM (bring your own meat).
Let’s say, hypothetically, that while vacationing in Puerto Vallarta, you get tired of sitting on the beach, cruising the Malecón, or eating tacos that are so freaking good and cheap you find yourself crying into your Pacifico. Hypothetically speaking. Lucky for you, you can take a short boat trip to Islas Marietas, a group of small, uninhabited islands teeming with marine life. Strap on a snorkel mask and dive directly off the side of your boat. But seriously, strap on a snorkel and make sure the boat is in the sea first. Sea turtles, manta rays, octopi, wild dolphins, and humpback whales all call the waters surrounding the volcanic islands home. And when the tide is right, you can snorkel to a hidden beach inside a hollowed-out cave with a massive natural skylight. That beats cramming down more tacos and beers -- but just barely.
Looking to charge some totally tubular waves (or more likely practice the perfect wipeout...)? Isla Todos Santos, a pair of islands off the coast of Baja, is one of the biggest surf spots in the world, and the cranking waves off the smallest island are really going off! (Read: They are the largest in North America. Googling surfer terminology is fun and easy). Surfers crashing in Ensenada can access the islands by boat and spend the day with marine lions, seals, pelicans, cormorants, and of course, other surfers. Divers can explore underwater gardens and caves. Good to know: cowabunga in Spanish is "cowabunga."
Isla Espíritu Santo
Go here for the weird lunar landscape, and stay for the... weird lunar landscape. This island off the coast of La Paz in the Baja Peninsula is a 23,800-acre preserved desert. Your pics of the barren, sandy landscape juxtaposed against intense blue water will have your Insta feed blowing up with all the likes. Because that's why people go on vacation, after all. The protected biosphere that is Espíritu Santo claims manta rays, dolphins, gray whales, and gray sharks as inhabitants, too. Make it a day trip from La Paz, or come for a night of camping. Kayaking, scuba diving, and hiking are just a few of the activities teed up here.
Meagan Drillinger is a freelance writer for Thrillist. She is currently taking Big Spoon applications for Isla Holbox. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @drillinjourneys.