One of the world’s most popular tropical travel getaways, the Riviera Maya is a stretch of coastline to the south of Cancun that offers visitors pearly white beaches, sheltered bays for snorkeling, nature parks, archaeological sites and lively waterfront communities. The world’s second longest coral reef is just offshore and the island of Cozumel is a short boat ride away.
There’s more, the limestone landscape is a labyrinth of underground rivers, caves and the cenotes or sinkholes of cool, crystal-clear water that form when cave roofs weaken and collapse over millions of years. Boasting the longest, second and third longest underground rivers in the world discovered to date, the Sac Actun, Ox Bel Ha and Dos Ojos systems, the area is a mecca for cave divers, biologists and archaeologists, all of whom are making fascinating discoveries. Some cenotes are open to the public and snorkeling and swimming is permitted in designated areas of these natural wells.
Apart from lazing on the beach and exploring the reefs, discovering ancient Mayan cities or taking the family to the Riviera Maya’s famous nature parks, visitors can also go horseback riding, swim with dolphins, set sail on a catamaran, have a jungle adventure or visit a Mayan community.
The Royal Haciendas Resort is right at the heart of Riviera action. You can book your tours online or sign up for them at the resort tour desk. An alternative is to rent a car and explore on your own. Here are some highlights to whet your appetite for fun.
Although still part of the Cancun-Benito Juarez municipal district, the fishing village of Puerto Morelos is the first stop on the Riviera Maya tour for many visitors. Only 20 minutes to the south of Cancun International Airport, Puerto Morelos’ appeal lies in its peaceful ambiance, its beaches and reefs, and the seafood served up in local restaurants. The main square is the meeting place for locals and visitors alike after dark and there are craft shops, a bookshop selling new and used books (closed from May to October) and several bars and cafes for people watching.
Snorkeling and diving trips are available to the offshore reef, which was declared a National Park several years ago.
There is a crocodile farm and nature park to the north of Puerto Morelos and immediately to the south of the village is the Yaaxche-Alfredo Barrera Marin Botanical Garden, over 60 hectares of jungle and marshland rich in wildlife. There are also jungle jaunts featuring zip lining and bird watching and you can also explore the Ruta de Cenotes, a road through the jungle to the old chicle camp at Central Vallarta and Leona Vicario. Cenotes worth visiting along the way include Las Mojarras, Siete Bocas, Boca de Puma and Verde Lucero.
The area between Puerto Morelos and Playa del Carmen is dotted with small ranches and large resorts. You can relax on the beach at Punta Maroma, embark on a catamaran cruise or visit the art gallery at Maroma to see the work of local painters.
Next stop is The Royal Haciendas Resort, five minutes to the north of Playa del Carmen.
Capital of the Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen (42 miles/68 km from Cancun) is a beachfront town with a vibrant atmosphere that blends Mexican color, Caribbean rhythm and European style. Long a favorite with backpackers, Playa has grown in popularity in the last few years and is now among the world’s top vacation spots. Its main street, Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue) is an eclectic mix of open-air restaurants, chic bars, craft shops, boutiques and small hotels.
In the days of the ancient Maya, Playa or Xaman-Ha was the departure point for pilgrims making the journey to the sacred island of Cozumel to visit the shrine of Ixchel, goddess of fertility and childbirth. You can still see the vestiges of small Mayan temples in different parts of town; the largest is called Xaman-Há and is in the resort and residential area of Playacar. Nowadays, passenger ferries follow the route once taken by ancient canoes and make the 30-minute crossing to Cozumel from the town dock.
Beach fun, shopping and dining aside, visitors to Playa can also go diving, fishing, sky diving and kite boarding, play golf or visit the Xaman-Ha aviary in Playacar. The park is home to over 60 species of bird native to southeast Mexico, including parrots and macaws, toucans and flamingos.
Xplor Park is a must for visitors who like adventure sports. Located just to the south of Playa del Carmen and next to sister park Xcaret, Xplor offers zip lining, swimming and rafting in an underground river and an exciting jungle drive in an all-terrain vehicle.
The thrilling zip lining circuit features 11 towers and 13 zip lines at varying heights in the forest and will take you through caves and the refreshingly cool waters of a cenote.
Xcaret, the Riviera Maya’s most famous nature park is full of attractions and activities for all ages. You can spend a relaxing day on the beach or in a hammock, go snorkeling in the caleta (inlet), swim in a cenote or drift down a jungle waterway called Paradise River.
You’ll learn about the area’s extraordinary flora and fauna when you visit the botanical garden and orchid nursery, the impressive aquarium, butterfly farm, aviary and the wildlife enclosures for species such as monkeys, jaguars, pumas and deer. Manatees and dolphins swim in the lagoon; the park has a sea turtle conservation program, is breeding coral and fish and also raises several species of rare birds. It was recently included in the Guinness Book of Records for its success in breeding scarlet and green macaws.
If you are interested in history, explore the park’s Mayan temples, the legacy of the days when it was a port called Pole, visit the impressive replica of a ball court and the Mayan Village, where you can watch local craftsmen at work. The Hacienda has an exhibition on the henequen (sisal) boom in the Yucatan in the late 19th and early 20th century, and also houses the Museum of Popular Art.
You can see traditional folk dances, rituals and displays of horsemanship during the day at Xcaret and be sure to stay on for the Xcaret de Noche evening show, a rousing celebration of Mexican history, music and dance.
Just to the south of Xcaret, to the west of the highway, a forest trail leads you to Rio Secreto, a chain of caves, cenotes and an underground stream discovered several years ago. They can only be visited as part of an organized, guided tour.
Next stop after Xcaret is the peaceful and shallow bay at Paamul, a popular snorkeling spot. Head south from Paamul and the next port of call is the resort community of Puerto Aventuras. Renowned for its beautiful beaches and offshore reefs, “Puerto” also offers visitors activities such as sport fishing, sailing, golf, tennis, dolphin swims and there’s even a tiny Nautical Museum.
In the Puerto Aventuras area you’ll pass a series of wooden signs to cenotes in the jungle with exotic names such as Kan Tun Chi, Zazil Ha and Uchil Ha.
Further south, Xpu-Há and Kantenah are two more picture-perfect bays with several large resorts and a few beachfront residences.
The first visitors to fall under the spell of Akumal were divers who came here in the 1950s to explore the magnificent offshore reefs, yet its charms go beyond diving and sport fishing. The wide palm-lined beach is magnificent and the calm, shallow waters of the bay make it ideal for children.
Small hotels, condos and vacation homes, restaurants, and even a tropical beach bar with swings and lookout towers, cluster around the bay and the neighboring Half Moon Bay further north. Visitors can grab their snorkel masks and flippers and head north along the coast road for a spot of snorkeling in the sheltered Yalku inlet.
Akumal means “place of the sea turtle” in Maya and these rare and beautiful creatures are often spotted near the reefs and grazing on beds of sea grass in the bays. During the summer, female turtles lay their eggs on local beaches and at other sites in the Riviera Maya. Sites of interest south of Akumal include Aktun Chen, a chain of caves and cenotes in a jungle reserve, several cenote adventure parks and the beach at Xcacel, now a sea turtle sanctuary.
Hailed by locals as the largest natural aquarium in the world, this chain of turquoise inlets, lagoons, cenotes, caves and freshwater springs attracts fish such as jacks, parrot fish, porkfish and damselfish from the offshore reefs.
The park also has a dolphin program, turtle tanks, regional wildlife, restaurants, stores and other facilities.
There are several small Mayan shrines in the park and a larger archaeological site across the road from the entrance. Traveling south from Xel-Ha, call in at Punta Soliman and Tankah, two sheltered bays en route to Tulum.
The Riviera Maya coast is dotted with the vestiges of ancient ports, temples and tiny buildings that experts think may have been storehouses and lighthouses, all are silent testimony to the days when Mayan traders sailed the Caribbean. With its spectacular cliff top location, Tulum (“Zama” or “dawn” in Maya) is the area’s most important site.
Tulum was inhabited as far back as A.D. 564 and reached its peak during the Post-Classic period (1250 – 1521) as a port on the sea and land trade routes. The principal building at Tulum is a temple known as El Castillo and a massive wall surrounds the city on three sides, the fourth being the ocean.
From Tulum, visitors can head inland to the ancient city of Coba (25 miles/41 km from the coast), one of the Maya World’s largest archaeological sites.
Coba means “waters ruffled by the wind” in Maya and the pyramids and temples at this jungle site are clustered around four shallow lakes. The city reached its peak during the Mayan Classic period, A.D. 250-900, when it was an important trade center. The most famous temple at the site is Nohoch Mul, with a height of 42 meters, it is the tallest pyramid in the northern Yucatán. Coba is also renowned for the sacbes or Mayan roads that radiate from the heart of the city. The longest sacbe in the Maya World links it with the site of Yaxuná, near Chichén Itzá and is 101 km long.
One of the entrances to this huge biosphere reserve – the second largest in Mexico – and UNESCO World Heritage Site lies to the south of Tulum, on the coast road leading to Boca Paila and the fishing village of Punta Allen.
Christened Siyan Caan, “the place where the sky is born” by its ancient Mayan inhabitants for its endless vistas of water and sky, the reserve protects jungle, wetland, coastal and coral reef ecosystems and is home to over 350 species of birds, 103 mammals, reptiles and diverse marine life. The jaguar, ocelot, manatee, crocodile and jabiru stork are some of the endangered species that inhabit the reserve.
To date, 23 archaeological sites have also been found in the reserve, the largest of which is Muyil, located on the shores of a lagoon with the same name, about 20 minutes south of Tulum on Highway 307.
In ancient times, Muyil was an inland port with trade links to cities all over the Yucatan. Its traders moved goods to and from the Caribbean via a canal that they dredged through the mangroves linking two lagoons with the coast. Small group trips are available to Sian Ka’an. During your visit, you’ll learn about area wildlife, explore Mayan ruins and take a boat ride through the lagoons and mangroves to the coast.
How about an action-packed adventure in the jungle? Several tours are available with different itineraries. Activities for the day may include a visit to the ancient city of Cobá, zip lining, rappel, kayaking in a jungle lagoon or along the Caribbean coast, snorkeling in cenotes, bird watching and hiking in the forest.