Mere decades ago, the Riviera Maya was a sparsely populated stretch of Mexico's Caribbean coastline dotted with fishing villages and little-visited Mayan ruins. These days it's Mexico's fastest-growing tourist destination. Stretching from Puerto Morelos, 22 mi south of Cancun, through the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve to Punta Allen, almost 100 mi to the south, the Riviera Maya is one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the western Caribbean. It's famous for white-sand beaches and crystal clear water.
The small city of Playa del Carmen on Mexico's Yucatan coast is the geographic and cultural center of the Riviera Maya. It is enjoyable for what it is, but perhaps more for what it's not. It's not Cancun, the major resort area that's about an hour's drive north. For those who find Cancun too large and glossy and lacking in local character, bustling Playa del Carmen is the cure: cozy, funky and quite international, though still with a Mexican flair. Despite the town's growing popularity, the pace remains delightfully slow much of the time. And the core of this pleasant town is young, vibrant, and joyous. During the day, the downtown beaches always have a lively crowd of locals and tourists enjoying the azure waters of the Caribbean, and the downtown shops and restaurants are alive with customers. In the evenings, Playa takes on a more festive air, with groups of friends, families and strolling musicians filling the street as the local restaurants, bars and discos compete for their attention.
Extensive white-sand beaches, limestone caverns, underground rivers and freshwater pools known as cenotes form the Riviera Maya's main geographical features. Parts of its coastline are covered in mangrove swamps, and other areas lie under low, scrubby forest. Offshore, a barrier reef that stretches all the way to southern Belize attracts scuba divers. From north to south, notable towns along the Riviera Maya include Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Puerto Aventuras, Akumal, Tulum, the Mayan ruins at Muyil, Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve.
The area now called the Riviera Maya formed part of an extensive Mayan trade route during the post-classic period, which lasted from about AD 1000 to 1550. The coastal Mayan cities were important commercial and religious centers visited by seagoing Maya traders. Europeans first set foot in the region in 1511, when a group of Spanish sailors was shipwrecked on the nearby Caribbean island of Cozumel. Most of them were killed by the area's inhabitants. The Spanish eventually succeeded in subjugating the Maya, forcefully converting them to Christianity and turning the Maya into virtual slaves. The Maya rebelled against their brutal oppressors in the War of the Castes, which lasted more than 50 years (1847-1901). For most of the 20th century, the Riviera Maya remained an isolated Mexican territory, with few inhabitants and poor roads. It was not until 1974, when Quintana Roo became a state and the Mexican government began to build the nearby resort of Cancun, that the Riviera Maya started to develop into a tourist destination. The 1990s saw most of the Riviera Maya's roads paved, and a rapid rise in population and in the number of resorts.
In Playa Del Carmen, police patrols are frequent, especially along the main tourist pedestrian walkway of Avenida 5. Robberies and assaults are infrequent but take the usual precautions. Don't leave valuables unattended, especially in open-air restaurants along Avenida 5. Purses, backpacks and laptops are especially vulnerable to theft, and the justice system is so slow in Mexico that they will likely never be recovered. Leave valuables, especially passports, in the hotel safe. It's costly to replace a passport and you will not be able to leave the country without one. Also, resist the temptation to seek out a totally secluded section of shoreline: You're safer in places where you can see others. Likewise, avoid walking on the beach at night unless there are other people present and the area is well-lit. It's best not to stray too deep into town past Calle 40 after nightfall. The Colosio neighborhood on the north edge of town is known to be a bit rough-and-tumble.
In case of a lost or stolen passport, the office of the U.S. Consulate in Playa del Carmen can be found at Calle 1 between avenidas 15 and 20. Phone 874-873-0303.
For the latest information on security, visit https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/International-Travel-Country-Information-Pages/Mexico.html
The water is usually safe in the major hotels and restaurants serving tourists but ask to make sure it is agua purificada (purified water). Bottled water is also widely available, though recycling of all that plastic is minimal. In any restaurant catering to tourists, the ice for drinks is made from purified water, but this is not always the case with street stalls or hole-in-the-wall local joints. If you have a sensitive stomach, stick to the tourist hotels and restaurants for food—do not eat anything from street vendors.
Take along a sufficient supply of any medications you require: No pharmacy will fill a prescription for a controlled substance, such as sleeping pills or antidepressants, unless it is written in Spanish by a physician licensed in Mexico.
Mosquitoes can be fierce come sundown in jungle areas or even at resorts with lots of thick vegetation. Staff will gladly spray you to keep them away, but if you have a favorite brand of insect repellent, take your own. Ask your doctor about hepatitis vaccinations before you leave home. In case of an emergency, most large hotels have access to an English-speaking doctor. There is a hospital near Playacar on Highway 307 and Tucan. There are also a few clinics. There are also several bigger, full-service hospitals in Cancun.
Do's and Don'ts
Do wear sunscreen. The tropical sun is especially harsh in the early afternoon, and serious burns can occur in less than an hour.
Do drink plenty of water. The body dehydrates quickly in the tropical climate, which can lead to headaches, nausea and fatigue.
Don't assume passing vehicles will stop at crosswalks. Traffic around the touristy areas can be heavy, so be careful when crossing the street.
Don't sunbathe nude or topless (women) in areas frequented by locals.
Do learn essential Spanish phrases such as por favor (please) and gracias (thank you). Other useful terms include sanitario (bathroom), cuanto cuesta (how much does it cost?) and cerveza (beer).
All U.S. citizens must have a passport. All visitors must fill out a tourist card, which must be retained until exiting the country. The Mexican government charges a tourism tax of about US$20 for all visitors except cruise-ship passengers and a departure tax of US$18, though both are usually included in the price of your airline ticket.
Languages: Spanish and Maya are the main languages, but English is also common.
Predominant Religions: Christian (Roman Catholic).
Time Zone: 6 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (-6 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 110 volts.
Telephone Codes: 52, country code for Mexico; 984, area code for Playa del Carmen;
Money - U.S. dollars are widely accepted and are probably the most common currency used by visitors. If you visit less-traveled areas away from Playa, you will find it more difficult to use U.S. currency. Some ATMs in Playa distribute U.S. dollars, and others have Mexican currency.
Taxes - Taxes are included in most stated prices at hotels, restaurants, shops and bars. It's always a good idea to ask, though. Hotel occupancy tax rate is 3%, plus a 16% value-added tax (VAT).
Tipping - A tip of 10%-15% is expected in restaurants. Tip porters about US$1 per bag, housekeepers US$1 per night and tour guides about US$5 (for a one- to two-hour tour). Taxi drivers don't usually expect tips but offer a few coins if they help unload your heavy bags. If you request a song by a musical group in a restaurant, bar or elsewhere, expect to pay US$5 per song.
Weather – Riviera Maya has a subtropical climate, which means that it is warm year-round, with highs in the upper 80s F, although the sea breeze keeps you cool. It is hot and often around 90% humidity in summer (June-August). Hurricane season officially runs August-November (in recent years it seems to be encroaching into July), and that's when rain is most likely.
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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
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