The Riviera Maya is famous for white-sand beaches and crystal clear water. This area also offers ancient Mayan ruins and pristine ecological wonders to explore, as well as nature parks and resorts with all the amenities. Despite its increasing commercialism, the area has a vitality and multicultural ambience that many find irresistible.
Archaeology buffs shouldn't miss the Mayan ruins at Tulum, Muyil and Coba. The first two sites can be easily visited on the same day. Allow two or three hours to see Coba, which is about 30 mile inland from Tulum.
With its pristine beaches, low-lying jungles and abundant wildlife, the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve is truly the undiscovered gem of the Riviera Maya. Sian Ka'an is a UNESCO-designated World Biosphere Reserve that protects the myriad species of plant, bird (more than 350 species), fish and other animal life that have made up the rain forests of the Yucatan for millennia. The reserve supports research on preserving these species and stabilizing the ecology of the region, which has been threatened by development and destructive farming practices. Much of the reserve is open to the public, but it is difficult to explore Sian Ka'an independently. The reserve is best explored through a reputable tourism company, as the area is rather desolate and terrain is rugged.
Eco parks such as Xcaret, Xel-ha and Croco Cun offer a variety of watersports activities and more opportunities to explore the flora and fauna of the coast.
The Riviera Maya's offshore reefs, crystal clear waters and freshwater cenotes make it a paradise for divers and snorkelers. The Mesoamerican coral reef is the second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
The ancient Mayan temples overlooking the Caribbean at Tulum.
A day trip to Chichen Itza. Visitors interested in Mayan ruins can visit the World Heritage site of Chichen Itza, which is found inland from the Riviera Maya in the Mexican state of Yucatan. Modern highways from both Playa del Carmen and Cancun allow for an easy, two-hour drive.
Xcaret, an ecologically oriented theme park built around a lagoon, has enough activities (and people) to exhaust even the most energetic traveler. Pronounced ISH-car-ett, those who like nature packaged into an easy-to-enjoy program with lots of activities will love it; those who don't like crowds will not (though the number of visitors goes down in the afternoon). There's plenty to see and do. You can float through underwater tunnels that are connected to a lagoon, swim with dolphins (for an extra fee) and tour Mayan ruins. Other features include a recreated Mayan village with actors in traditional costume, a museum housing scale models of historic Mayan sites, a botanical garden with an orchid farm, and caves where you can view mammals and bats. When you need a break, there are two restaurants and a bar, as well as thatched palapas for respite from the sun. Don't miss the Mexican Cemetery with 365 colorful tombs or the Xcaret at Night show with its re-enacted Mayan ball game, plus Mexican folkloric dancing and music. Attractions include a Mexican wine-tasting room and store, plus Henequen (Sisal) Hacienda, with a Yucatecan restaurant, museum and rope-making demonstration using techniques from the 19th century. Be aware that you cannot use traditional sunscreens if you go swimming in the park, because they pollute the water and may harm the sea life. You will be provided with free, nonharmful sunscreen when you enter.
Farther down the road is Xel-Ha. The centerpiece of this private park (pronounced SHELL-ha) is a clear, blue lagoon that was sacred to the Maya and is still visited by huge parrot fish. Like Xcaret, it has a brilliant lagoon for snorkeling and offers dolphin swims and other diversions. It's a beautiful place for sunbathing, reading and taking a dip. Swimming with the dolphins costs extra. If you go, don't miss
the floating bridge and nature walks. Note that the traditional sunscreen you take from home is
not permitted, but a tube of ecofriendly sunscreen is given to you at the entrance. Masks and
fins can be rented at the park.
Xplor - An adventure park in the Riviera Maya, Xplor offers more than 6 mi of adventure (much
of it underground, making it ideal for overcast or rainy days). Options include an outstanding
network of ziplines, Stalactite River swimming, amphibious-vehicle rides through the jungle, and
underground cavern explorations on individual rafts paddled by hand. The Night Fire tour
includes all the above by torchlight, ending with a campfire and hot chocolate under the stars.
Beautiful beaches are everywhere and swimming is especially enjoyable because the water is generally quite calm.
The drop-off near Playa del Carmen is a good place for fishing. Catch includes swordfish, blue or white marlin, wahoo and barracuda, depending on the time of year.
El Camaleon Mayakoba Golf Club - Home to an annual PGA Golf Classic, this Greg Norman-designed 18-hole course is situated between Cancun and Playa del Carmen in the upscale Mayakoba development, next to the Fairmont Hotel. The unique course has distinct landscapes of jungle, mangroves and oceanfront vistas. There is a cenote cavern in the middle of the opening fairway.
Scuba & Snorkeling
Snorkelers and divers have plenty of options to choose from, depending on how far they want to venture. Divers will want to explore the waters off the island of Cozumel. Its reefs—Palancar, Colombia and Santa Rosa—are considered among the best dive sites in the Caribbean. There are more than 50 dive shops in Cozumel, many of which will pick you up at the ferry pier when you arrive on the island.
Geographical features common to this area of the Yucatan are the cenotes, or ancient sinkholes, which are filled with clean, cold, fresh water. Many of these water tunnels lead to underwater caverns. Properly trained divers can explore the caves. Several tour companies organize diving and snorkeling trips to various cenotes. You must be a certified diver and present your certification card to go diving, although some shops offer a supervised introductory course for beginners.
Spas and Health Clubs
It has become more common for a resort to have a dedicated spa than not. Upscale resorts, and many all-inclusives, offer a wide range of traditional and creative spa services. However, the term "spa" can be applied loosely in marketing materials. Though it suggests a full service, fully staffed destination spa, at times it can simply mean that a local massage therapist is available on call. If you are uncertain about the quality and scope of a specific hotel spa, check its website. Upscale hotels with high-quality, full-service spas are quite proud of them and provide extensive details about their services and photos of their facilities. In the absence of this information, you risk finding a hotel's "exclusive spa" to be underwhelming.
Serious shoppers used to head for Cancun or Cozumel to find their boutique shopping treasures. That's not true anymore: Playa Del Carmen now tops both of its neighbors for variety and quality (and high-end prices). A lot of Playa's boutiques are run by expats from around the world, you'll find not only English spoken, but also a smattering of German, French and Italian. There are Cuban-cigar shops, dozens of silver shops (most selling similar merchandise) and stores selling tequila, high priced jewelry, Mexican crafts, decorative home products, exotic miniatures and other items. Some of the high-end jewelry and cosmetics boutiques from Cancun have opened branches in Playa Del Carmen. Most shops are located along or near Avenida 5, which runs for more than 20 blocks and makes it easy to get around. And for some, this is the best entertainment around with people-watching street artists, clowns and roving musicians. Bargaining is common in the markets and at smaller stores but expect to pay the marked price in the larger, more upscale establishments and chain stores. Most businesses in Playa Del Carmen take U.S. dollars and prices are often marked in U.S. currency, though pesos are also accepted. (If a price is listed in pesos, it's usually marked M$.) The vendors may or may not accept credit cards, but even if they do, you often get a better price with cash.