Having already visited Cancun several years ago, we were looking to book a vacation in Mexico that encompassed all of what we love about this warmhearted and welcoming country minus the crowds, the familiar chain restaurants, and large-scale malls that have become synonymous with the Cancun experience. We found our answer in Riviera Maya.
Translated into English – the Mayan Riviera is located within the state of Quintana Roo on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. This 120-kilometer long stretch of fine, sandy beaches along the Caribbean Sea roughly encompasses the area between Cancun and the border with Belize. With easy access from Cancun Airport, this area, in the past decade, has become famous for its luxury hotels, all-inclusive resorts, spas, boutique properties, and water-based activities including snorkeling, diving, and fishing.
We stayed at the Rosewood Mayakoba, an eco-sensitive resort nestled in a 1,600- acre gated enclave shared by two other equally lovely hotels, the Fairmont (a luxury, family friendly resort) and the Banyan Tree, (a gorgeous and understated, Asian-designed property) — it’s just north of the city of Playa del Carmen. The three resorts are linked via the beach, tram, or water shuttle. The Rosewood is a unique luxury property, comprised of low-rise villas clustered around meandering lagoons, making the accommodations accessible by both land and water via private wooden docks. The resort, divided into two main sections, straddles a mangrove forest — this eco-friendly layout effectively preserves a species of plant integral to preventing erosion along Mexico’s coast.
Throughout the week, we explored the property on foot, or hailed one of the hotel’s golf cart shuttles (nicknamed “sit-trucks” by my sons) or enjoyed a ride on the water taxis, which provided a view of some of the 200 animal species that live there. Bike rentals created a fun and educational way to tour the grounds — it was not uncommon to suddenly brake for the various native creatures like badger-like white-nose coati that appeared on the paths. My boys made good use of the resort paddleboards, kayaks, and Hobie Cats to fish in the cerulean waters off the resort’s crescent–shaped beaches. To their delight, their catch of the day became the main ingredient in fish tacos and pan-fried fish, expertly prepared by the chef.
Since archeological sites are a big draw in this part of Mexico, we hired a guide to take us on a one-day tour to experience a bit of Mayan heritage. The city of Tulum, about an hour’s drive from the hotel, features well-preserved 13th-century ruins set amongst gently rolling hills that lead up to a dramatic castle overlooking a gorgeous beach. As we walked amongst the lime- stone buildings, our guide painted a picture of life in a walled city during Pre-Columbian times.
Our next stop was the eco-park Xel-Ha for snorkeling in this outdoor natural aquarium. Just offshore of Riviera Maya is the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the world’s second longest reef, which has made the area a famous snorkeling destination. On our way back to Mayakoba, we stopped at Puerto Aventuras for lunch and a chance to explore its marina.
On many evenings, we took a quick taxi-ride down the coast into tourist-friendly Playa del Carmen to stroll down 5th Avenue, a pedestrian district featuring a kaleidoscope of shops selling touristy items and indigenous crafts, and restaurants serving authentic Mayan cuisine and icy bottles of cerveza, of course.
What to do in Riviera Maya:
Yaxche – Located in Playa del Carmen — our favorite for Mayan cuisine. Excellent ceviche and duck tacos.
Casa Mediterranea – In Playa del Carmen, off of 5th Avenue, tucked in a small courtyard surrounded by galleries and shops. For a change of pace, this Italian restaurant fits the bill. Enjoy delicious homemade pasta on their open-air patio.
Punta Bonita – Located in the Rosewood Mayakoba, its beach location offers spectacular views. Sit inside or out and enjoy a menu that features a range of Mayan specialties.
Saffron – Located at the Banyan Tree Mayakoba, it serves contemporary Thai cuisine in a dramatic setting perched high above this exotic hotel’s lagoon and mangroves.
El Puerto — This restaurant in the Fairmont Mayakoba has a Latin-Asian concept and features famed Chef Sandoval who is regarded as the “father of modern Mexican cuisine.” Menu items are filled with regional ingredients and are designed to share.
Xel-Ha – A natural aquatic theme park centered around an inlet and a lagoon inhabited by hundreds of species of tropical fish. Makes for excellent snorkeling in and around the underwater caves and grottos.
Xcaret – An Eco park with snorkeling, dolphin swims, butterfly pavilion, and an exciting underwater river.
Tulum Ruins – The pre-Columbian Mayan walled city, located about 130km south of Cancun. Go early in the day to avoid the crowds.
Four Worlds Expeditions – A top-notch operator of private, semiprivate and group tours with excellent, knowledgeable guides. Can customize a trip to your liking.
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