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Stretching from Puerto Morelos to Tulum, Riviera Maya is a 100-mile sweep of Mexico’s Caribbean coastline, holding more mystique than just its beaches. For Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Lane Nieset takes us on an exploration of the many diverse treasures the area has to offer travelers—from island excursions to cave diving to Mayan ruins and modern attractions.
Mexico’s Riviera Maya may be known for massive all-inclusive resorts, white sand beaches and a thriving nightlife scene, but the region—a major commercial and spiritual center for the ancient Mayas—also holds a mixture of lush jungle, archaeological ruins and natural wonders. In Tulum, you’ll find the remains of a walled Mayan city on the sea dating back to the 12th century, while inland lies Cobá’s temples tucked into the trees nestled between two lagoons. The Great Maya Reef runs along the coast, and over 7,000 cenotes–natural sinkholes filled with water–dot the region. And then, of course, there’s coastal hotspot Playa del Carmen’s downtown streets lined with boutiques and hip restaurants, proving that the area can swing with the times. From shopping to snorkeling with whale sharks, here are a few ways to make the most of what Riviera Maya has to offer.
Beach, Shop & Lunch in Playa del Carmen
Head to downtown Playa del Carmen for an afternoon of shopping and beaching–Playacar and Mamitas are locally loved beaches. La Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) is the main drag with stores and restaurants lining the pedestrian-friendly streets filled with Mexican souvenirs, as well as international chains. Stop in boutiques like La Troupe for local hand-made designs, Narcisa for international fashion, Silvia Suarez for designs by the Oaxaca designer, and Hamacamarte for colorful hammocks. Plus, there’s the Hacienda Tequila & Tequila Museum with an impressive array of tequila for sale.
For lunch just a few blocks from the beach, dine al fresco on organic Mexican delights at La Cueva del Chango or try the authentic La Coronela, Yaxche for burritos or El Rey del Taco truck for authentic tacos on the cheap. For a guide to the best in Playa del Carmen dining, click here.
Feast on Mayan Cuisine in Isla Mujeres
Catch a ferry from downtown Cancun and spend a half day on Isla Mujeres (Island of Women), once a fishing village, it still has a laidback Caribbean feel. Take a cab and explore the island, stopping at beaches like Playa Norte or stroll through the souvenir stalls downtown. The palm tree-laden Playa Lancheros (Boatman’s Beach) has a stand-out, open-air seafood restaurant with views of the dock and boats arriving to shore. It serves up traditional Mayan fare, like Yucatecan Tikin Xik, a marinated whole fish topped with spices, peppers and onions, baked in a banana leaf.
Sample Fresh Corn Tortillas in a Traditional Mayan Home
One of the best ways to get a sense of the culture in a destination is to see how the locals live, and in Riviera Maya, you can tour traditional Mayan homes made of wood with thatch roof near Cobá in Laguna Chabela on the lake. Learn from the Cahum family how they live in modern times using techniques passed down through the generations while sampling fresh, homemade tortillas baked over a comal, a cast-iron griddle.
Take a Dip in a Cenote
Riviera Maya boasts the Northern Hemisphere’s largest coral reef, and you can explore these rich limestone deposit pools inland with cenotes. In a sense, Mayans believed these were entrances to the underworld, so get the full spiritual experience by hiking through the jungle with a shaman who will bless you before you make your way into one. You can dive or snorkel in some cenotes, and repel down or float in a tube in others.
Tour Mayan Ruins Overlooking the Sea in Tulum
The only archaeological site on the sea, Tulum has 60 buildings and three old city walls providing a glimpse of what life was like for the Pre-Columbian Maya city–once a port town for Cobá. If you want to get deep into the area’s history, book a tour with a guide who will give an overview of the land and how its people lived. Bring a bathing suit if you want to take a dip at the beach just under the cliffs where the site is located.
Take a Yoga Class by the Sea in Tulum
Tulum has become known for a bohemian vibe and plentiful yoga retreats, thanks to it a pristine strip of beach and an untouched feel compared to the rest of Riviera Maya. If you aren’t in town for one of these retreats, there are still plenty of yoga classes at hotels and studios near the beach that yoga-lovers can take advantage of while they’re in the area, such as Ahau Tulum and Yoga Shala.
Swim with Whale Sharks
For those visiting between May and September, you’re in luck—it’s whale shark season. Set off by boat from Isla Mujeres and go swimming and snorkeling with the whale sharks over a coral reef while guides try and get you as close as possible to these giant fish.
Go For a Tequila Tasting
Learn how to drink tequila like the locals by taking a tequila tasting (similar to a wine tasting) where you’ll learn about the different notes, flavors, and food pairings. At the Tequila Herradura Sensorial Museum in Cancun, travelers can learn the process of making tequila and stay for a tasting, or have a rep come to your hotel (available at the JW Marriott Cancun) to guide you through tasting of añejo, reposado and plata tequila.
Party it up at Coco Bongo
Whether you’re staying in Cancun or Playa del Carmen, top nightlife spot Coco Bongo has locations in both places, and this is one nightclub that’s not to be missed when visiting the area. Go early and catch the full show for celebrity impersonators like Elvis or Michael Jackson, as well as choreographed dancers and acrobats on aerial silk, in a setting that seems a bit like Moulin Rouge for the 21st century. Stay after the show as DJs take over the club and dancing continues into the early morning. Advance tickets are highly recommended.
Where to Stay
Resort complexes line the beach in Cancun’s Hotel Zone and most boast similar amenities (big pools, multiple onsite restaurants, kids’ clubs for the little ones), but the 448-room, AAA-five-diamond JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa (Marriott Rewards Category 8 requiring 40,000 points per night or rates starting at $229) and 450-room CasaMagna Marriott (Marriott Rewards Category 7 requiring 35,000 points per night or rates starting at $149) offer twice the perks in one place, since the two hotels are connected.
Part of Hyatt’s new all-inclusive, adults-only brand, Hyatt Zilara Cancun opened last November in Cancun’s Hotel Zone sporting 307 suites—all with ocean views (rates for an ocean view junior suite start at around $500). You can even redeem Hyatt Gold Passports here starting at 25,000 points per night (additional 12,500 points per person).
Related Story: New Hyatt Ziva & Zilara Resorts For Winter Getaways
Papaya Playa Project (A Design Hotels Project) popped up on the beach in Tulum a few years back serving as the perfect retreat for design-savvy travelers who don’t need to be plugged in during vacation. While wash rooms have power outlets and free Wi-Fi is available in public areas, the 80 cabanas (rates are around $150 per night for garden cabanas) overlooking the rocky beach are bare bones with nothing but a mosquito net shielding you from the ocean breeze.
Another new hotel in Riviera Maya is the 103-room Grand Residences Riviera Cancun opened just last winter, and all rooms in this boutique-by-definition hotel are junior and master suites. Set between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, this high-end hotel (and member of The Leading Hotels of the World) has a few luxurious amenities we happen to love, like Bulgari bath products, private chefs who can cook en-suite in the comfort of your personal kitchen (in Master Suites), and for those lucky enough to stay in the two-bedroom penthouse, a private roof garden complete with pool, jacuzzi bar and grill. Junior suites average $443 per night and rates include a $100 resort credit per day.
Staying in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, you’ll be just a 15-minute drive from the Cancun International Airport, so it’s a great base to set out and explore the area. Playa del Carmen is about an hour from Cancun, and Tulum is about an hour and 40 minutes. Rent a car if you want to tackle the roads on your own or arrange a shuttle service with your hotel depending on the excursion. There are also local buses running throughout the region leaving from downtown Playa del Carmen, and taxis can be found in most places. Colectivos, a shuttle service used mainly by locals, is another option for travelers looking to save on transport. The white mini vans run all day long from Cancun to Tulum along Highway 307 and can be flagged down from the side of the road.
TPG Tip: Remember, when traveling abroad, it’s always smart to have a card with no foreign transaction fee, like Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or The Platinum Card from American Express.
What are some of your favorite spots to visit in Riviera Maya?
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