One of the world’s leading destinations, the Riviera Maya offers visitors pearly white beaches, sheltered bays for snorkeling, nature parks, archaeological sites and lively waterfront communities headed by Playa del Carmen, the area capital.
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.
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, galleries, a bookshop selling new and used books and several open-air 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.
The Crococun crocodile farm and nature park lies 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. Home to a variety of birds, spider monkeys and coatimundi, this forest reserve has a garden of Mayan medicinal herbs, an exhibition on chicle harvesting and two observation towers for panoramic views of the forest and the wetlands stretching to the Caribbean.
The Puerto Morelos area also offers several jungle adventures such as zip lining at Selvatica, bird watching and 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.
Between Puerto Morelos & Playa del Carmen
The area between Puerto Morelos and Playa del Carmen is dotted with small ranches and large resorts. You can spend the morning horseback riding, relax on the beach or embark on a catamaran cruise at Punta Maroma, visit the Amarte Art Gallery in Maroma to see the work of local painters, and swim and snorkel in the natural waterways in the mangroves at Tres Rios.
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.
Plan a family outing to Xcaret, a nature park that’s full of attractions for all ages. You can spend the day on the beach, snorkel in the caleta (inlet), swim in an underground river or sail along a jungle waterway called Paradise River.
You’ll learn about regional flora and fauna when you visit the botanical garden, aquarium, butterfly farm, aviary, turtle and manatee areas and the wildlife enclosures for species such as monkeys, jaguars, pumas and deer. The park runs sea turtle conservation and bird breeding programs.
If you are interested in history, explore the park’s Mayan ruins, 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. Other attractions are the Hacienda, the Mayan Cemetery, Church and the Museum of Mexican Popular Art.
Dolphin swims, snorkeling, diving and fishing trips and horseback riding are available for an additional charge. You must stay on for the Xcaret de Noche evening show, a rousing celebration of Mexican history, music and dance.
Located just to the north of Xcaret is Xplor Park, where the emphasis is most definitely on adventure. You’ll spend the day zip-lining through the jungle canopy, swimming through stalactite-filled caves, rafting down an underground river and driving an all-terrain vehicle along 5 kilometers of forest trails, tunnels and streams.
The thrilling zip lining circuit features 11 towers and 13 zip lines at varying heights in the forest and through caves and cenotes. The views of the Caribbean from the highest tower are spectacular.
Xplor is part of the Xcaret Group and has similar operating policies. Organized tours are available or you can make your own way there are pay the admission fee at the entrance. The park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is closed on Sundays.
A forest trail leads you to Rio Secreto, a chain of caves, cenotes and an underground stream discovered several years ago. The galleries have been illuminated so that visitors can appreciate the silent pools, mysterious depths, stalactites and stalagmites in all their glory.
The park is located several miles to the south of Playa del Carmen and the caves can only be visited as part of an organized, guided tour.
The Puerto Aventuras area
Next stop after Río Secreto is the peaceful and shallow bay at Paamul, a popular snorkeling spot. Heading south from Paamul is the resort community of Puerto Aventuras, which has beautiful beaches and offshore reefs. Visitors can go sport fishing, play golf, swim with the dolphins or manatees at Dolphin Discovery or call in at the tiny Nautical Museum. There are a number of restaurants, bars and stores by the marina.
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. Local travel agencies also offer guided snorkeling trips to Hidden Worlds, Dos Ojos and Nohoch Na Chich, all of which are located further south.
Xpu-Ha 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. Visitors can grab their snorkel masks and flippers and head north from Akumal 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 even 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 network of caves in a jungle reserve, 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 is a feeding zone for fish from the offshore reefs. You can don a mask and flippers and take to the water in search of blue tangs, parrot fish and other colorful creatures.
The park also has a dolphin program, turtle tanks, regional wildlife, an apiary, 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.
The inscription on a stela or standing stone found at the site reveals that Tulum was inhabited as far back as A.D. 564 although it 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; other important groupings are the Temple of the Descending God, Temple of the Frescos and the House of the Columns. The wall that surrounds the city on three sides defended the port from land attacks and distanced the elite from the masses.
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. Archaeologists believe that it may have had links with Tikal in Guatemala.
The principal buildings or groups at Coba are Nohoch Mul, at 42 meters, the tallest pyramid in the northern Yucatán, the Cobá group, La Iglesia (another pyramid), Las Pinturas, the Ball Court, Xaibe and the Macanxoc group which has nine circular altars and eight stelae.
Cobá is also famous for the sacbes or Mayan roads that radiate from the heart of the city. The longest sacbe in the Maya World links the city with the site of Yaxuná, near Chichén Itzá and is 101 km long.
One of the entrances to this huge biosphere reserve 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.
Meet the Maya of today, see how they live and learn about their timeless traditions by visiting their villages. One option is an evening trip to Dos Palmas, a Mayan community in the Riviera Maya.
Part of a sustainable development project for the village, this evening trip includes a purification ritual in a temazcal or pre-Hispanic sweat lodge, a visit to a jungle cenote and dinner with local families.
Heading north from Coba along the highway to Nuevo Xcan, the Mayan communities of Punta Laguna, Campamento Hidalgo and Nuevo Durango are offering ecotourism. The inhabitants of Punta Laguna have their own forest reserve on the shores of a lagoon and act as guides, taking visitors to see a colony of spider monkeys foraging in the jungle canopy. There is a nature trail at Campamento Hidalgo and Nuevo Durango has cenotes, caves, a community beetle museum and thatched jungle cabins. All three villages are part of Puerta Verde, a network of communities committed to ecotourism and conservation.
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 Coba, zip lining, rappel, kayaking in a jungle lagoon or along the Caribbean coast, snorkeling in cenotes, bird watching and hiking in the forest.