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See + Do
Mayan Ruins in the Riviera Maya, Mexico
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.
See + Do
Beaches in the Riviera Maya, Mexico
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.