If you are not familiar with Mexico’s Riviera Maya, you can be excused. Formerly known as the Cancun-Tulum Corridor, which seemingly lacked the necessary allure, the new moniker was introduced by the Mexican tourist board in 1999. They were keen to produce a European- sounding name that instantly conjures images of white sandy beaches, azure waters and a measure of local history and culture, and so Riviera Maya was born.
Unlike some parts of Mexico, Riviera Maya is clean, prosperous, relatively crime-free and has managed to dodge over-development. It has retained its natural beauty with a quintessential Caribbean coastline of rocky headlands and crescent-shaped coves washed up with dazzling powder- soft sand and tiny seashells. The name Riviera Maya may have been dreamt up by an eager tourist board, but the landscape is surely the work of the gods.
This linear Mexican holiday destination runs for about 150 km down the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo and penetrates inland into the Yucatan Peninsula for some 40 km. Running south from the glitzy manmade resort of Cancun, the Riviera Maya has everything that its better-known
sister lacks. Small fishing villages continue to maintain the traditional Mexican way of life and an amazing diversity of exotic birds and wildlife abound in lush tropical jungle. Add to that a millennium of Mayan history and mystery, which continues to be unearthed, and you have a truly unique travel destination.
Founded on a limestone karst floating above the Great Maya Aquifer, this area is riddled with underground rivers which have created over 400 miles of interconnected underwater chambers. Collapsed caves and fathomless limestone sink holes, known here as cenotes, provide an exciting opportunity for cenote swimming and stunt diving, often performed by daring locals for tourist tips.
One of these natural cenotes, Sac Actun, is considered the greatest Mayan treasure of all. Along with Dos Ojos, it is part of the largest system of flooded caves in the world. Sunlight penetrates the crystal clear water, creating a surreal aquarium of turquoise water and submerged limestone formations.
No wonder it was a site of religious worship for the Mayans, who believed it to be a sacred gateway to the afterlife. Archaeologists diving into this extraordinary natural feature found human remains, ceramic vessels and funerary objects as well as evidence of prehistoric elephants, tigers, ancient horses and giant sloths!
One of the main attractions of the Riviera Maya is its climate. Sitting at a latitude of 20°N of the Equator, it offers dry sunny days with highs of 23-27°C, even in January. Head into summer and the cooling Caribbean breeze keeps temperatures under control at a humid 28°C average. The warm azure sea rarely drops below 27°C, providing a natural playground for visitors all year round. Snorkelling and diving on the offshore reef (the longest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef), delivers an awesome display of biodiversity and marine life in a rainbow of vibrant colours. Waving anemones, textured corals, darting clown fish, giant clams and menacing conger eels all inhabit this silent underwater garden with its breathtaking natural beauty.
More sophisticated watersports can be found in this Caribbean mecca including BOB scooters using a Breathing Observation Bubble. Hop aboard your self-drive mini-sub, tuck your head into the bubble helmet and breathe oxygen naturally as you descend into the sea on your safari. BOB scooters are ideal for non-swimmers and provide a great way to get up close to turtles, parrot fish, stingrays, starfish, puffers and angel fish in their own pristine environment. You can also experiment with Snuba, whereby you breathe through a simple to use regulator while your air supply floats on a support raft at the surface.
If you prefer your thrills above water, the area has jetboats, wave-runners, paddleboards and the ultimate exhilarating ride in a shark-like Seabreacher. Your driver takes you from a deep dive to launching right out of the water at speeds of up to 80 km/h. It’s all wild and fun, but these are typical watersports activities you can find in many places. So, let’s check out what you can only find on the Riviera Maya.
Step back in time
If you’re a historian or a purist, you’ll want to visit one of the excavated Mayan sites on the Yucatan such as Chichen Itza, Coba or Tulum. The extensive UNESCO-listed ruins at Chichen Itza cover four square miles and include many fine stone monuments and carved statues dating back to 750-900AD, when the complex was inhabited. A guided tour is a must-do to appreciate the culture, history and beliefs surrounding the well-preserved Mayan temples, pyramids, ball court, observatory and sacrificial altars. The Mayan understanding of astronomy was uncanny, particularly the remarkable pyramid-shaped Temple of Kukulcan. A visit at the spring or autumn equinox will reward visitors with a trick of light creating the illusion of a massive serpent descending the steps of the pyramid.
Tulum is a more recent Mayan walled city, built on a stunning clifftop location between 1200 and 1450AD. El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes and the Temple of the Descending God are the three main buildings, decorated with murals and serpent motifs. If you have children and want a more Disney-esque Mayan experience, Xcarat was made for you. This eco-archaeological park is right on the beach and offers snorkelling, swimming with dolphins and well-trod jungle trails scattered with genuine Mayan ruins. There are water slides and butterfly gardens, wading pools and a labyrinth for young visitors to explore. It also puts on entertaining performances to illustrate Mayan history and culture. Take part in an ancestral ritual of temaxcal or join in a Mayan Ball Game (without the traditional Mayan slaying of the losing team!).
Like many other resorts, Riviera Maya has golf courses, markets, quad-biking adventures and inland tours, but its the cultural and historic experiences that make it really stand out. Consider a trip to the Mayan Village of X-Can which remains unaffected by 21st century progress. Make use of the park-and-ride service and head into town on a local tricitaxi – a tricycle rickshaw with a shady awning. Visit the oldest church in the region, built in 1557, and join an informative guided tour to learn about ancient Yucatan traditions, including cooking in pits. Bring your swimsuit and snorkel and you can swim in the aquamarine waters of the cenote and work up an appetite for an authentic Mayan lunch. Pibil is barbecued meat (usually game or suckling pig) seasoned with a spicy rub; ceviche is raw seafood “cooked” in acidic lime juice, and the Yucatan speciality, tamales, are moist and tasty meat-filled wraps.
At the other end of the spectrum from X-Can is the coastal enclave of Maroma. Designed by a Mexican architect with an emphasis on ecological preservation, Maroma is a blend of Moorish-meets-Mexican in a 400-acre private enclave of mangroves, beach and jungle. At the heart is the smallest and most luxurious hotel in Riviera Maya – the Belmond Maroma Resort and Spa. This bijoux mini-Eden is a delight for eco-travellers who don’t want to sacrifice their 5-star standards. From four- hand beach massages to chauffeur-driven vehicles, this is the way to experience Mexico! So, if you’re looking for more than just another beach in the sun, consider Riviera Maya. As you can see, it’s not a holiday – it’s an otherworldly adventure.
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