August 18, 2020
Fear not. I promise, this isn’t going to be a geography lesson. Geography is my worst category on Jeopardy. But on May 1st, we traveled from Cancun, Mexico, to Barra de Navidad, Mexico, which afforded us the privilege of being on the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean (Caribbean) and then the seashore of the Pacific, within 24 hours! This may not be a big deal for a lot of folks, but for us, it was.
And, it got me to thinking. How many countries (not continents) actually have seashores on the Pacific as well as the Atlantic? All I could think of was Canada, United States, and, well, Mexico. Then I Googled it. Chile, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Columbia, Panama, and Russia also border both oceans. I had forgotten Central America. Okay, okay, I know it’s a nerdy thing to even consider, but I think it’s interesting.
Surely having ports on both of the “biggies” (Atlantic and Pacific) benefits a country’s import and export capabilities. I think that’s why they built the Panama Canal, right? But, as ordinary house sitting road warriors, we have now thoroughly experienced living on both oceans.
This is not going to be like a Pepsi Challenge, or anything like that. One side is not any better or worse than the other. Both sides offer beautiful scenery, world-class lodgings, and unique, fun things to do. But, east and west Mexico are not created equally. So, we figured that if you are torn as to where to take your next Mexican beach vacation, maybe our observations will help you decide.
As the old adage says, “getting there is half of the battle,” but that depends on where you are coming from. It can be either easy, or not worth the hassle. But whether you are traveling by boat, plane or car, both sides can accommodate.
East Coast: There are five international airports on the Mexican east coast. The most popular and most trafficked is in Cancun. Flights are generally inexpensive and normally don’t take more than 6 hours from anywhere in the US or Canada. The other major airports are in Merida, Tampico, Tabasco and Veracruz. It’s not quite so easy by car, but there are many cruise services that stop all along the Caribbean coastline.
West Coast: Unlike the east side, driving to the west coast is easy. It’s a 30-minute drive from San Diego to Tijuana. If you prefer to fly, there are international airports in Tijuana, Los Cabos/San Jose del Cabo, Puerto Vallarta and La Paz. There are also smaller airports all along the west coast. The closest airport to Barra de Navidad is in Manzanillo, which is about a 45-minute drive away. If cruising is your thing, many cruises port at Acapulco, Cabo San Lucas, Huatulco, La Paz, Ensenada (Baja), Manzanillo, Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan.
After what we endured in Puerto Rico with hurricanes Irma and Maria, this is always a consideration for us. Hurricane season is May 15 – November 30. It’s a given that every year a tropical storm is going to hit one of the Mexico’s coasts. Normally, it’s safe, but, if traveling during “the season” you may not want to hedge bets with the possibility of bad weather. But for the brave, “what’s the worst that could happen” folks (like us on our first house sit in Puerto Rico), it’s good to know that plane tickets are generally cheaper during this time!
I never, ever had any interest in storms that hit oceans. Yes, I saw Castaway, but other than Wilson’s part in the movie, it didn’t really phase or scare me. However, since we have spent most of the past three years close to an ocean, that has changed. I now have a new respect for weather and the people who broadcast warnings. Knowing when to be concerned, when to be alarmed, when to panic, and when to run for the hills, is paramount. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Tropical Depression (0-38 mph sustained wind): When the weather gurus announce a tropical depression close by, we are concerned. We keep an eye on it.
Tropical Storm (39-73 mph sustained wind): We are alarmed and take some sort of precaution. We’ve endured quite a few tropical storms the past few years. John makes sure that there is nothing loose outside that can blow away or cause damage. The electricity almost always goes out. And most municipalities cut the power when tropical storms make landfall.
Hurricane (>73 mph sustaining wind): When you know you are in the path of a hurricane it’s time to panic, or at least take some sort of action to keep your stuff and yourself safe. And there’s more.
(FYI: During Hurricane Maria on Vieques, our house was on top of a hill. During the peak of the storm we were told that the sustaining winds measured 215 mph with gusts up to 265 mph!)
East Coast: Hurricanes in the Caribbean are no joke, folks! August through October are typically the stormiest months. We have two apps that permanently live on our phones: Windy and The Weather Authority’s Hurricane Tracker. Make sure you have these downloaded and you actually CHECK THEM, if you are among the fearless souls traveling the area during the season.
West Coast: Mexico’s west coast generally does not see as many hurricanes, but is one of the most active tropical storm basins in the world. But for planning purposes, just remember that hurricane season runs from May 15 to November 30.
Enough about the weather, let’s take a look at what attracts most visitors to the Mexican shorelines: the beaches.
East Coast: The turquoise water and white sand of Mexico’s Caribbean coast are the stuff vacation dreams are made of. The water is warm, generally calm, and there are ample opportunities for snorkeling and all types of water sports. Although it varies from year to year, be prepared to see some seaweed (sargassum mats) along the beaches. If you are seaweed-phobic or have an aversion to having sargassum clumps marring your pristine white beach, this could be a downer. Unfortunately, predicting seaweed movement is not as easy as predicting hurricanes.
West Coast: The west coast of Mexico is somewhat rougher with golden sand beaches. The water is not quite as brilliant as the Caribbean, but the water is warm and the rugged landscape is gorgeous. The currents are stronger than the eastern side, so it’s a good idea to swim only in designated areas.
And the sunsets…my oh my…it goes without saying that the sunsets on the beach are just naturally more breathtaking on the west coast. Duh!
Face it, you’ve got to eat, and for many, food is a major factor in travel planning. We’ve always felt that you learn a lot about an area’s culture through its food. It’s easy to find beans, tortillas, fresh produce and fish on both coasts, and each is mouth-watering delicious, but each has its own distinctive flavor.
East Coast: The east coast cuisine has many Mayan influences. We drool all over ourselves as we remember the best pulled pork (carnitas) that we’ve ever eaten. The chorizo we found in Mahahual was excellent. In Cancun, we discovered Real de Potosi‘, caramel from goat’s milk. John adds it to his coffee. Thank goodness we’ve found it here in Barra too. In fact, I may do a stand-alone story about this stuff. It’s so awesomely good it will make you want to move to Mexico permanently!
West Coast: Barra de Navidad is a fishing village, so of course, our main diet here consists of fresh fish. And we don’t even have to go to the store to get it. Several local fishermen know what we like and bring it fresh to us at least twice a week. The tuna and dorado are awesome. If you are into mole and really good cheese, Oaxaca rules. And then there’s tequila…Mexican tequila is the best worldwide. It doesn’t matter which coast you are on!
There has been a lot of hype recently about safety for tourists that travel in Mexico. As long as you are not into drugs and stay alert, especially at night, you should be fine. We have felt perfectly safe everywhere we’ve traveled in Mexico, and I run/walk alone most mornings.
East Coast & West Coast: We heard about drug cartel-related shootings in Cancun, but we never saw any kind of violence or felt threatened. Like everywhere, pickpockets work crowded areas, so John wears cargo shorts with lots of Velcro pockets and I wear a fanny pack. Most of the warnings are centered in the U.S.-Mexican border towns. But whenever you travel to a new place, anywhere, it’s a good idea to do your homework about the safety of the area.
Mexico, by and large, has a strong police presence. If you are not used to seeing policia and guards with machine guns, you might be shocked. We are used to it and welcome the presence as a crime deterrent. With the arrival of coronavirus, Mexico has taken a proactive stance in heavily populated areas and policia will enforce the rules (with fines and/or jail time) in regards to wearing masks, social distancing and sanitation. We think this is a very good thing.
While we are certainly not experts on the country, and have not done comprehensive trips down each coastline, we really have no preference. We have had great experiences on both sides of the country. And, we’ve made it our mission to change people’s perceptions about Mexico. It’s not a dangerous place. It’s beautiful and has a cultural history that is fascinating. You’ll find art, music, sports activities no matter which coast you visit. There are welcoming, amazing people here, and their laid-back approach to life is contagious. And please understand that time schedules are as laid-back as the people.
So, what about you? East or west coast? Would you choose what’s behind Door #1 or Door #2?
From sea to shining sea, and everything in between, if a trip to Mexico is not your “bucket list,” it should be. You will love your time here. We sure do.