Tuesday, April 12th 2022

The Difference between Mexican Coasts

Written by

Rafael Bracho

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The Difference between Mexican Coasts

The Pacific versus the Atlantic


The Difference between Mexican Coasts

If you’re thinking of spending some time in Mexico as a digital nomad—or maybe even moving there as an expat—your first thought is likely to be: beaches.

Who doesn’t want to live on a Mexican beach? Drinking a fruity cocktail under a palapa while eating $1 tacos that actually taste like Mexican food. If so, you’re not alone. But it raises the question, “Which coast should I choose?”

This article aims to give you some food for thought when you’re picking a spot to visit or live in, but it’s not going to be a comprehensive guide. It’s a metaphor. There are great differences between Los Cabos and Huatulco. There are also vast differences between Tampico and Chetumal. So keep in mind that the mark of a metaphor is that when it’s taken literally, it’s reduced to absurdity.

I will be writing this from personal experience having lived on both coasts.


The Pacific Coast of Mexico

The Difference between Mexican Coasts

Let’s start with the easiest first: The Pacific coast. This Mexican coast shows more uniformity than the Eastern coast of Mexico. There are traits that are common from Tijuana to Chiapas.

– The Sand on the Pacific Coast of Mexico –

The first thing to recognize about the Pacific coast is the sand. The sand is yellow, which means it gets hot during the day. It burns your feet.

Many beach establishments create a corridor by spraying the sand with a hose to cool it down. This also compacts the sand making it easy to walk down. However, you’re going to have to toughen the soles of your feet or wear sandals. And you have to bring a towel.

Another thing to note about the Pacific coast is that it often shoots down in uneven terrain when underwater. This makes swimming difficult. Naturally, you can find coves that tend to have a gradual slope which makes wading better for toddlers, but to find a gradually sloping beach on the Pacific coast, you really have to go to a man-made beach like Venice Beach, California.

– The Water on the Pacific Coast –

This naturally leads us to the water quality. The water in the Pacific is cold. Of course there’s a vast difference between Tijuana and the beaches in Chiapas, but overall, the water is colder than in the Atlantic. In short, in the winter, you will likely need a wetsuit.

The water is also choppy. The Pacific coast is notorious for having big waves with a lot of force. This makes it excellent for surfers, but not the best for your casual swimmer. So, maybe you like water sports. Just know that if you have toddlers, you’re going to have to hunt for a place where it’s safe to swim—or get a place with a pool right by the ocean (which is surprisingly common in the Pacific coast precisely for this reason).

Also, the water is opaque. You can’t often see the bottom. The good news is that the water is a stunning shade of navy blue. And when the sun shimmers over the ocean, it looks like liquid lapis lazuli. There are exceptions, for example the Sea of Cortez has gradually sloping water that is crystal clear and stunningly beautiful. I was just giving you a rule of thumb.

One cool thing to note is the bioluminescence toward the South. In a couple spots in Guerrero, and certain beaches throughout Oaxaca and Chiapas—only during the winter months—you can go into the water and each movement you make disturbs algae in the water that lights up with each motion.

– Sunsets on the Pacific Coast of Mexico –

That leads us to another good point. The Pacific coast gets the sun setting over the ocean, whereas the Atlantic coast gets the sun rising over the ocean. Don’t get me wrong, the Caribbean, for example, gets some of the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen in my life—the clouds lit in rosy hues that remind you of a renaissance masterpiece—but you won't see the sun falling over the horizon day after day.

If you’re an early riser, maybe you will like the Gulf of Mexico better, but beware that you’ll be watching those sunrises alone on a towel. It’s rare to find a coffee shop on the beach open before sunrise. You’ll likely have the beach to yourself. On the Pacific coast though, you’ll have people that can attend to your needs—get a bite to eat or have a drink—but you might also be fighting for a spot of that primo sunset view.

– The Food on the Pacific Coast of Mexico –

I know I’m going to make some enemies with this next section, but the Pacific coast has better food. Okay, hold your horses folks! At least let me make my case. . .

The Pacific coast has a far greater variety of seafood. Many of the classics that you come to associate with Mexican beach classics like tuna tacos and Baja style shrimp tacos are from the Pacific coast. When you have tuna tacos or mariscos (“shellfish” in Spanish) on the Atlantic coast, these are generally frozen from the Pacific coast and trucked over a thousand miles to the Gulf or the Caribbean.

Also, the Pacific coast has easier access to Northern Mexico, so the beef is better quality than in places like the Riviera Maya. This leads to exceptional food in places like the Baja Peninsula, where Northern Mexican cuisine meets the Pacific ocean—with a dash of hipster California to bring it all into the 21st Century.

*For more information, click here to check out our article on the Regional Cuisines of Mexico.


The Atlantic Coast of Mexico

The Difference between Mexican Coasts

Now the hard one: the Mexican Atlantic coast. The reason it’s hard is because there really isn’t an Atlantic coast of Mexico. There’s the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea—each with vastly different cultures. I’ll try and differentiate between the two as much as possible, and hopefully you’ll get a feel for both coasts.

– The Sand and Water on the Atlantic Coast of Mexico –

The Sand and Water in the Gulf of Mexico

The sand in the Gulf of Mexico has a reputation for being the worst in Mexico. It’s often rocky. And though you can find a few really cool beaches, a lot of them are poorly manicured.

There isn’t much wind unless it’s being hit by a hurricane, so it’s not the best for surfing, but water sports like kitesurfing have a huge following in the Gulf of Mexico.

Also, the water quality is also not that great in the Gulf of Mexico. Oh, there are some amazing spots with turquoise water that are as good as any in the world—especially on the Gulf side of the Yucatan Peninsula if you catch it at just the right time of year. But as it starts to venture up into Tamaulipas, it becomes rockier and more like the beaches in Texas.

The Sand and Water in the Caribbean Sea

This is the best in all of Mexico. The sand is white, which reflects the sun well. This means that you can lay on it without the need of a towel for much of the year, except for the heat of the day—especially in summer.

The sand is also finer, so you can also take long walks along the beach on your bare feet. Just know that if sand gets everywhere, it really ends up everywhere in the Caribbean.

The water is incredible. I have been in the Caribbean Sea where the water looked like a swimming pool as far as the eye could see. You can look down and see schools of fish swimming at your feet. You feel like you’re on the cover of a travel magazine.

There are issues. For example, sargassum is an algae that grows at certain times of the year. Some years are worse than others. It’s red and it gives the water a color of rusty blood. As climate change gets worse, so has the sargassum. It’s gotten so bad that mountains of rotten algae can be found along some of the most popular beaches.

There are ways to beat the sargassum. I find the best way is to join Facebook groups that help you get a feel for how the Riviera Maya is doing, but know that there will be periods of heavy sargassum if you decide to move there.

*To join Sargassum Monitoring on Facebook, click here. *To join Sargasso Seaweed Updated Riviera Maya, click here.

– The Culture and History on the Atlantic Coast –

The Pacific coast section above had an entire part on sunsets, well I want to give the Atlantic coast its due attention to culture and history. This is a difficult subject to address, but I’m going to approach it with honesty and candor, and I’ll hope for the best.

  • The Culture and History of the Gulf of Mexico

This is why you go to the Gulf of Mexico. The place exudes culture from every pore. Every several hundred years, there comes a place where cultures truly mingle. They enter into a dialogue that births a new culture—and this is called a “melting pot”.

The most famous example is Alexandria, where ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Minoan, Etruscan, Christian influences all blended together to give the world the greatest ancient city. (Don’t get me started on the burning of the Library, because it’s still #TooSoon.)

However, it’s not the only place. Andalucía in Spain, where Jewish, Moorish, and Spanish cultures (all ahl al-kitab or “The People of the Book” in Islam) intermingled to give us the most quintessential Spanish traits, like bullfighting*, tapas, and flamenco. Or Louisiana, where Creole, French, African, Spanish, and American influences gave us the birth of jazz, blues, and rock n’ roll!

*The author of this peace lived in Andalucía for many years, and still finds the sport deplorable.

Well, many cities along the Gulf of Mexico feature this depth of culture. The Centro in Tampico features the same French architecture that you can find in Bourbon Street. The City of Veracruz boasts some of the deepest historical roots, from sugarcane slavery, to pirates, to conquistadors, to French imperialists, to native roots. . . the list goes on.

Nowhere is this scene more than in its music. The lively, up-tempo beat of jarocho is the closest traditional Mexican music has to heavy metal. This is the music that gave us La Bamba and huapango here in Mexico. It’s a culture as deep as the ocean.

  • The Culture in the Riviera Maya

By no means does that mean that it’s the oldest culture on the Atlantic coast of Mexico. The Riviera Maya boasts a culture a thousand-years-older than the melting pot of Veracruz.

If you move to the Riviera Maya, then you will get that Mayan experience—no matter how gentrified the area where you live is. And it’s not just that everything is in Mayan, but the Mayan language is spoken along the entire peninsula. It’s a living, breathing language.

When I lived in Playa del Carmen, I would often walk along PDC’s ruins. You probably didn’t know that Playa has its own ruins when heading from Phase II to Phase I. I’m not surprised. It’s nothing exceptional like those in Tulum, my point is that Mayan ruins are everywhere.

The downside is that the Mayan people hold resentment for the persecution of their people. They have every right to feel that way. They are literally a culture over 500 years older than the Aztecs, yet they live in a country basically named Mexica.

They are not Aztec and they will exercise their right to bureaucracy whenever it benefits reminding the conquerors of that right. Don’t forget that the Mayan still believe in a messianic figure that will liberate them from Mexican/European rule. Didn’t know that? Look into them more. . .

– The Food in the Eastern Coast of Mexico –

There’s also a vast difference between the Gulf of Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula. Some people love the cuisine. And either cuisine deserves its own spotlight.

  • The Food in the Gulf of Mexico

The food along the Eastern coast of Mexico is still Mexican food. It’s better than anything potential expats have ever encountered at their fast food joints (and probably local Mexican restaurants). As I mentioned before, it’s not the best in Mexico, but it’s still one of the best cuisines on the planet. As a community, I would put the food found in the dredges of Hidalgo over the finest food in France—and you know what? I’d win.

Let’s just stop the discussion right here and say that the cuisine in Tamaulipas is almost indistinguishable from that of Monterrey. It’s excellent Northern cuisine. And the cuisine in the rest of the Gulf of Mexico reflects that rich history I was talking about. *Pescado a la Veracruzana is one of the most recognizable dishes in the country. *

So if I said that Pacific coast cuisine is better, Eastern coast cuisine is still better than anything you’re gonna find anywhere else. Trust me.

Let’s address the elephant in the room. In the Riviera Maya, you will get a lot of dishes that are spiced with habanero (no gringos, it has no “ñ”). When you’re living there, you either avoid all spicy dishes, or you reach a superhuman level of spice tolerance where the only chile that affects you is habanero or some weird Carolina Reaper cross.



The Difference between Mexican Coasts

Whether you’re into the Pacific coast of Mexico, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Caribbean Sea, you’re going to love your life. Mexico has one of the highest expat happiness rates in the world—and for a good reason. The people, the culture, the food, the music, and life lights up your world every day.

Wherever you decide to live in Mexico, move there. You won’t regret it.

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