Riviera Maya See And Do
Hotels and theme parks now claim many of the Riviera Maya's finest beaches, but there are still a few spots where sandy roads lead to crystal-clear caletas (coves), and where the fish outnumber humans. Yalkú, just north of the town of Akumal, has a barefoot beach restaurant, a gorgeous cove where snorkelers swim among darting angelfish, and a small nearby campground. There's also a small hotel and RV campground along the half-moon cove at Paamul; walk a few yards down the beach for blissful privacy (Carretera 307, Km 85; 52-984-875-1051; www.paamulcabanas.com). In Playa del Carmen, hip beach clubs where DJs spin beach and Latin house music for sun-worshippers are clustered along the sand north of town. Mamita's started the trend and is still going strong (Calle 28 Norte; 52-984-803-2867).
Tulum has the best beaches of all just south of the Mayan ruins. Spread your towel near Mezzanine and watch the kiteboarders sail above the afternoon waves, or slip into calm coves beside Zamas (location of ¡Que Fresco! restaurant) and the Ana y José hotel. Sea turtles nest in summer and fall in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, where they're safely protected from bright lights and human hordes.
The Yucatán Peninsula is one of the flattest places on Earth—just a limestone shelf with clusters of low, scrubby jungle and a lot of imported greenery. As a result, the region's endless inches of rain collect in a series of sinkholes called cenotes, which feed vast subterranean lakes and rivers. The cenotes make for unusual adventure opportunities (swimming, snorkeling, and cave-diving). Hidden Worlds operates dive and snorkeling trips through deep, dark waters into underground caves filled with eerie formations, along with a zip-line roller coaster, cenote-rappelling, and a SkyCycle (Carretera 307, Km 243; 52-984-877-8535).
Signs for other caves and cenotes pop up all along Highway 307. Most are on ejido land (owned by a local collective) and provide some income for residents. For less than $8 you can enter El Jardín del Edén, between Playa and Tulum, and leap like Tarzan into a huge cenote—or climb down a few slippery steps to dive into cool green water, swim to one of several flat rocks, and snooze in the shade of gnarled trees. Don't be alarmed when all you see by the road is a small stick shack—the attendant inside will gladly collect your money and direct you to a large parking lot with bathrooms, showers, and changing rooms. At Manatí in Tankhah, just north of Tulum, a large, open lagoon is part of a long underwater cave system that ends at the sea. Shy manatees were once present here, but have headed to more secluded areas. Gran Cenote, west of Tulum on the road to Cobá, is a favorite spot for serious divers exploring bottomless, endless caverns with amazing rock formations.—Maribeth Mellin
Coral reefs protect the Riviera Maya's beaches from storm surges and are littered with shipwrecks dating back to the 18th century. Nonprofit organizations have been attempting to preserve these reefs and secure government protection for them (for more information, visit the Centro Ecológico Akumal ). Diving and snorkeling are best around Akumal, where Ramon Bravo (the Jacques Cousteau of Mexico) established the headquarters for undersea explorations. The Akumal Dive Center offers dives to the reefs and advanced cave-diving classes along with the standard resort and open-water classes (52-984-875-9025). If Monet had been able to scuba dive, he probably would have loved to paint the Gorgonian Gardens at Tankah, a small settlement a few miles north of Tulum. The artist's watery touch would have perfectly portrayed the array of soft purple sea fans, alabaster brain corals, yellow pillar corals that look like giant hands, and the millions of neon-colored fish swimming above white sand. You can snorkel from shore and see it all, or dive with the aptly named Lucky Fish Dive Center (located at the Tankah Inn; 52-984-129-6774). The reefs offshore from Puerto Morelos, a town about 11 miles south of the Cancún airport, are also popular with divers for their vast schools of tropical fish.
Mayan villages, pristine jungles, and lagoons still exist in the Riviera Maya, despite the rampant development along the coast. One of the first companies to offer nature tours in the region, Alltournative has created mini eco-parks near Mayan communities and archeological sites and offers a combination of adventures including rappelling, zip-lining, and canoeing with lunch and time among the Maya (Carretera Federal Chetumal-Puerto Juarez, Km 287, Playa del Carmen; 52-984-803-9999, 877-437-4990). Combining culture and nature, local guides lead visitors through a series of caverns and cenotes at Río Secreto (Carretera 307, five minutes south of Playa del Carmen; 52-984-877-2377, 877-357-4242). Discovered just a few years ago, this cave system includes rock formations dating back 2.5 million years. It's now part of a community-based nature reserve emphasizing the Mayan beliefs in the underworld during underground tours. At Aktunchen (Carretera 307, Km 107; 52-984-806-4962), a local community has developed a nature park around an enormous cave system. Guides lead tours through underground passages into a cave where sunlight spotlights stalactites and stalagmites framing a deep green cenote. There's also a tree-canopy zip line and cenote-diving, and a troop of hungry monkeys quite adept at spotting snacks.—Maribeth Mellin
For early Mayans who guided their ships through this coast's treacherous offshore reefs, the city of Tulum was a lighthouse: Firelight shining through window slits in the temples guided their way home. Today, the ruined city—the only settlement that the Maya ever built overlooking the sea—is still a must-see. As well as El Castillo, a tall ruined temple, Tulum has several small structures spread about a walled compound on cliffs above the water. Arrive early (it opens at 7 am) to beat the crowds, then climb down the hillside just south of El Castillo to the small beach with crystal-clear water. (There are no bathrooms, showers, or changing rooms here—so wear your suit and carry at least a liter of water.)
Cobá, about 30 miles northwest of Tulum, is surrounded by dense, often sweltering jungle—but its structures are much larger and many are beautifully preserved. You can climb Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatán region; its peak gives views over the treetops. You can also walk, bike, or hire a triciclo peddled by a modern-day descendent of the Maya to explore the paths that wind through the jungle and in between the site's ruined temples. You'll hear wild parrots swoop and squawk, and if you're lucky, you might even spot spider monkeys.
The residents of Puerto Morelos, a small town just 11 miles south of the Cancún airport adamantly resist any outside attempts to "modernize" or overdevelop their seaside community. The main plaza is still a simple affair with a few benches near a wooden pier where small fishing and dive boats dock. Casual cafés, money exchanges, and a used bookstore stuffed with popular mysteries and obscure travelogues face the plaza, and a few souvenir shops and small hotels abut family homes on the nearby streets. Local artisans sell embroidered blouses, woven hammocks, and assorted seashell trinkets at a market near the plaza. The hotels near town are a mix of budget holdovers (Posada Amor) and yoga retreats (Villas Shanti), while pricey boutique hotels (Ceiba del Mar) and luxurious resorts (Secrets Excellence) claim the coastline north and south of town. Diehard scuba divers love the area around Puerto Morelos for its proximity to shallow coral reefs harboring huge schools of tropical fish. Small lanchas depart from the town pier throughout the day, carrying divers and snorklers to the reefs in less than 10 minutes. Arrange your trip in advance with Wet Set Diving Adventures (Hotel Ojo de Agua, Avenida Javier Rojo Gomez s/n, Puerto Morelos; 52-998-871-0198). But before you leave, fuel up on fresh fish grilled with garlic at Pelicanos, on the beach on the south side of Puerto Morelos's main plaza (52-998-871-0014).
Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila
Tel: 52 998 884 3667
Sian Ka'an means "where the sky was born" in Mayan. It's an apt name for the 2,500-square-mile peninsula about 75 miles south of Cancún, where ocelots, monkeys, pumas, and more than 300 bird species patrol the jungles and skies. It's also home to clear-water lagoons and coves teeming with manatees, rays, crocodiles, and sea turtles swimming toward their nesting grounds. The biosphere reserve is a World Heritage Site, with fewer than 1,000 residents and just a few campgrounds and fishing lodges. Set up a tour of the canals dotted with small Mayan ruins through the Sian Ka'an Visitor Center, run by the excellent EcoColors adventure tour company (52-998-884-3667), or check with Tulum hotels for local tours.
Carretera 307, 6 miles south of Playa del Carmen
Tel: 52 984 873 2643
If you've never traveled to Mexico before, a visit to Xcaret will give you a decent overview of the country's cultureat Disneyland prices. You can snorkel in subterranean rivers, swim with dolphins (for an extra fee, with reservations), duck at the sound of macaws screeching overhead, wander through a Day of the Dead display, and swing in a hammock beside a turquoise cove. Somehow the 200-acre eco-theme park avoids being hokey and trite—the biologists and naturalists here take their work seriously. Choreographers hired some of the country's finest costume designers and dancers for the nightly folkloric dance show, which is so extraordinary it's been known to give goose bumps to homesick Mexicans vacationing in gringolandia.