A Whistle Stop Tour of Mexico’s Riviera Maya

In the early 1970s, what we know as the Mexican Caribbean coastline today would be barely recognisable, with only small fishing towns and the odd hotel dotted here or there. But in 1974, Mexico’s government tourism development agency decided to put a name to this beautiful, and the Riviera Maya was born.

This was followed by a new highway parallel to the coast which helped lead to today’s booming infrastructure of roughly 150 hotels in Cancun with more than 24,000 rooms and 380 restaurants. This is without taking into account the 37,000 hotel rooms the Mayan Riviera has of its own, a number projected to double by 2025.

Thirteen million people pass through Cancun’s airport annually and it caters an average of 190 flights daily.

With the white pristine, pure sandy beaches that run virtually unbroken for 81 miles (130km) south of Cancun, the Riviera Maya delivers you luxury real estate, hotels, spa’s, restaurants, marinas, shops, bars and golf courses as well as romantic unspoilt hideaways.

The Mayan Riviera is not just Cancun as many people may perceive it to be, driving south from Cancun you will find luxurious, often more intimate retreats, with more space and fewer people than the bustle and bright lights of Cancun.

The Riviera Maya starts roughly 12 miles (19km) south of Cancun airport in one of the coast’s last fishing villages, Puerto Morelos.  The shoreline is not as impressive as that of the white glitzy beaches found deeper into the region with turtle grass underfoot and a less clear turquoise Ocean, but Puerto Morelos should not be overlooked.

It has some excellent restaurants, good handmade crafts and artisan products. Add to that the world’s second largest barrier reef, a dedicated marine reserve, which lies less than a mile offshore. Puerto Morelos is  a great stop for relaxing after the night life of Cancun.

18 miles (30km) south of Cancun airport you are into the Riviera Maya’s gold coast.  First discovered by the upscale Maroma hotel, Maroma beach has perfect talcum powder white sands and turquoise tranquil water with a jungle backdrop.

Keep heading south and you will come to 593 acre (240 hectare) development shared by three hotels, hugging a mile-long stretch of coast: Mayakoba.  With a 7,000 yard (6,400m) Greg Norman signature golf course and the strip of the mangrove lagoon just behind the beach dunes, the newly constructed 128 room Rosewood Mayakoba hotel has a beauty worth exploring.

Further south down Highway 307 is the lively vibrant beach front town of Playa Del Carmen.  With its dedicated pedestrian zone of Fifth Avenue one block from the beach you have your choice of cosmopolitan shops, markets, local artisans and crafts, multi cultural restaurants, jewellery stores, vibrant night life and magical bars.

‘Playa’ has well established white linen beach clubs, from Mamitas, with the DJ spinning funky tunes, a laid back vibe of fusion, a fantastic menu and fire dancers, to neighbouring Zenzi, offering live bands, movies on the beach and a Sunday barbeque. On top of that is the famous Blue Parrot night club and Coco Bongo.

Playa Del Carmen has something unique to offer, so much more than those looking for an all inclusive with a swim up bar, although it also boasts top hotel chains such as RIU, Iberostar and Occidental.

An 18 hole golf course always seems to be within walking distance, or a very short taxi ride away.

Next stop south is Xcaret an aquatic theme park with an amazing night show. Keep driving and you will see signs for Paamul, now a small RV and beach camp park run on generators, it also has a small hotel. Well worth a stop, you can cool off in the pool or take a dip in the ocean after a bite to eat.

Just south is the gated community and marina of Puerto Aventuras, with Dolphin Discovery at its heart, surrounded by restaurants and bars.

Offering catamaran sailing trips, speed boat tours, parasail and fishing this is a great place to stop for activities. Take in all the boats on the marina, some you can charter for fishing trips, some privately owned, a must-see place on the Riviera Maya.

Just a little further down the coast and you come across what some say are the best beaches in the south of the Riviera Maya at the bay of Xpu-Ha. White, plush, uncrowded expanses of sand with great beach clubs such as Al Cielo, with a fantastic Mediterranean and seafood menu, massage therapists and shaded beach beds. You may have found paradise.

Nearby on the coast you will come to Akumal, famed for its turtle sanctuaries.  In the summer months, you may be lucky enough to visit the Half Moon Bay area to see the turtles come up to the beach and lay eggs.

In August, you can take a boat trip or swim out from land and see these magnificent creatures inches away from you.

The snorkelling in Akumal is second to none. The reef is home to some beautiful parrot fish, turtles and puffer fish and the beach is small and busy, a great stop for aquatic culture as a day trip and with many bars and restaurants you will not be disappointed.

Our last main Riviera Maya stop is at Tulum, the only Mayan city built on the sea with the breathtaking ruins and home to some of the finest beaches.

Leading British newspaper paper, the Daily Mail, included Tulum in their top 10 beaches for 2009, calling it a “sight to behold; a temple perched on cliffs above the Caribbean Sea.”

The famous ruined Mayan citadel on the east shore of has lost none of its glory.

Travel + Leisure magazine also gave Tulum’s Wellness Retreat and Spa second place in their survey of the worlds best destination spas, in September 2009. Tulum is a fantastic place to stay with the history, culture, beach clubs and spas.

We come to the end of the Riviera Maya at the 1.5 million acre (0.6 million hecatre) Sian Ka’an Biosphere, a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, with jungle walks, mangrove lagoons and unexcavated ruins and the 22 mile (35km) Boca Palia peninsula.

A small entrance fee allows you to explore this unspoilt paradise.  It serves as a model for sustainable development in sensitive tropical ecosystems. The revenue generated through tours, fishing, beautiful accommodations, and various on-site activities is used to fund conservation and education programs within the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

The center operates using ecologically responsible technologies, including systems for wetland waste management, rainwater collection, solar and wind energy generation. It also operates educational outreach programs and biological research.

Here ends your whistle stop tour of the Riviera Maya, there is plenty to keep you busy, for a day, or for a lifetime.

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