The Riviera Maya is the name that’s been given to the strip of Caribbean coastline on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula which starts just south of the mega-resort of Cancún and stretches for 120km south to the more homely town of Tulum. The beaches of fine, startlingly white sand, a warm sea of contrasting blue hues, not to mention the presence of the world’s second-largest coral reef a short distance offshore, provide the basic ingredients for a holiday paradise.
Jutting out like a seal’s head from the rest of Mexico, the peninsula can also claim its own very distinctive personality, thanks to its connections with the Mayan people. The flat landscape, covered in low-rise forest is dotted with the ruins, many sensitively restored, of their once powerful civilisation. But 500 years after its final collapse, the vestiges of the culture live on: in the subtle spices of Yucatecan dishes such as cochinita pibil, (a slow-roasted, pork dish), in place-names such as Akumal (“the Place of the Turtles”) and above all in the local Mayan people, who staff the resorts and keep the services running with calm courtesy.
Mayan languages are still widely spoken, so it’s worth adding a Dios botic (“thank you”) to your list of holiday phrases.
The Riviera’s gateway is Cancún airport, from where Highway 307, the principal artery, heads arrow-straight south to Tulum and then on towards the frontier with Belize. On the coastal side of the road a sequence of huge, eye-catching gates mark the entrance to luxury resort hotels while blue-and-white signs advertise the water-based theme parks that also punctuate this coast. Beyond Tulum, though, the forest takes over in the shape of the massive Biosphere Reserve of Sian Ka’an.
The Riviera’s focal point, midway between Cancún and Tulum, is the town of Playa del Carmen, known generally as Playa, and a metaphor for this region’s recent, explosive development. Local people recall the tiny village in whose three streets, made of sand, the residents were outnumbered by monkeys; 25 years later, the population is over 120,000. The growth has been fuelled by the creation, to the south of Playa, of the resort area of Playacar, with massive hotels, a golf course and luxurious, well-hedged houses owned mainly by US retirees.
Discover Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen, now the third-largest city in Quintana Roo, ranks up there with Tulum as one of the Riviera’s trendiest cities. Sitting coolly on the lee side of Cozumel, the town’s beaches are jammed with super-fit Europeans. The waters aren’t as clear as those of Cancún or Cozumel, and the beach sands aren’t quite as champagne-powder-perfect as they are further north, but still Playa (as it’s locally known) grows and grows.
The town is ideally located: close to Cancún’s international airport, but far enough south to allow easy access to Cozumel, Tulum, Cobá and other worthy destinations. The reefs here are excellent, and offer diving and snorkeling close by. Look for rays, moray eels, sea turtles and a huge variety of corals. The lavender sea fans make for very pictures represents the finest collection of luxury vacation homes, estates and condominiums throughout Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Riviera Maya.
Tulum’s spectacular coastline – with all its confectioner-sugar sands, jade-green water and balmy breezes – makes it one of the top beaches in Mexico. Where else can you get all that and a dramatically situated Maya ruin? There’s also excellent cave and cavern diving, fun cenotes and a variety of lodgings and restaurants to fit every budget.
Some may be put off by the fact that the town center, where the really cheap eats and sleeps are found, sits right on the highway, making the main drag feel more like a truck stop than a tropical paradise. But rest assured that if Tulum Pueblo isn’t to your liking, you can always head to the coast and find that tranquil beachside bungalow. Exploring Tulum’s surrounding areas pays big rewards: there’s the massive Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an, the secluded fishing village of Punta Allen and the ruins of Cobá.