Top 5 to-dos in Mexico’s Riviera Maya

The range of attractions makes planning a harmonious holiday easy.

The range of attractions makes planning a harmonious holiday easy.

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It is true that no relationship is perfect, and approximately once a year my partner and I demonstrate our imperfect bond by arguing about where to go on holiday. He happens to be an adventurer, whether it is at land, on the sea or in the air.

When I suggest a getaway exploring historical sites followed up by some R&R on an idyllic coconut palm beach, we find ourselves at loggerheads. However, I can now say that one destination managed to satisfy both of our cravings, and that is the Riviera Maya in Mexico.

The Riviera Maya runs parallel to the Caribbean coastline on the eastern portion of the Yucatan Peninsula. Situated in the Mexican province of Quintana, the area is also known as the Mayan Riviera and a tourist hotspot that has become famous in recent years for its large all-inclusive resorts and quirky boutique hotels. Since tourism has boomed, the area has also become home to countless fine dining eateries and a growing number of luxury villas. The enticing warm waters off the coast are also home to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system, the second largest reef in the world, which draws many divers to the area..

Scuba diving at Dos Ojos and Gran Cenote

The range of attractions and activities on offer in the region mades planning an itinerary for our holiday simple. Once we had recovered from a spot of jet lag, we booked onto an organised dive tour of the system of cenotes in Dos Ojos, just north of Tulum. A cenote is a natural sinkhole created when a cave ceiling collapses, and they were once considered sacred to the Mayans who derived their only fresh source of water from them. On our expedition, pristine waters allowed us visibility of up to 100 metres underwater, while we encountered cavernous halls and tunnels bedecked with stalactites, stalagmites, ancient paintings and fascinating archaeological remains. Gran Cenote is also a popular destination with snorkellers who enjoy swimming on the warmer surface waters with turtles and tropical fish.

Archaeological sites at Tulum and Chichen Itza

Next on our agenda was the laid back town of Tulum, home to the only known archaeological sites located right on the breathtaking shores of the Caribbean. It is believed that the Mayans referred to the city as “Zama”, which translates roughly to “City of Dawn”. Tulum was in fact one of the last settlements inhabited and built by the Mayans, and reached the height of its development from approximately 1400 to 1600 AD. However, Old World diseases introduced by Spanish settlers are suspected to be the root cause of the city’s downfall. We spent a couple of hours exploring the well-preserved structures, including the impressive Temple of the Frescoes, El Castillo and the Temple of the Descending God. As the day got steadily hotter, we cooled off by taking a refreshing dip off the small beach beside the main temple, and had the chance to gaze up at the impressive structure whilst soaking in the glassy waters.

Eco-parks at Xcaret and Xel-Ha

Following our cultured day exploring the archaeological ruins of the region, it was once again time to get active. The Riviera Maya boasts two extraordinary eco-parks at Xcaret and Xel-Ha, both of which are great fun to visit. Before indulging in a few hours of relaxation on the shore of a cool, turquoise lagoon within the park, we embarked upon a hike along a tropical jungle trail, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the exotic native birds in the wild forest. Situated within a natural depression that protects the area from hurricanes, the jungle is also home to over 100 species of plants, including ancient Mayan sacred trees.

A vast array of flora, fauna and marine life can also be found within the abundant forests and canals of the Xel-Ha eco-park. The park is a “natural aquarium” where the ocean’s salt water combines with the freshwater currents of underground springs to form a unique ecosystem. A range of activities is on offer for visitors to fully appreciate the fascinating environment, including diving, snorkelling, sea trekking, cycling and zip biking. After a morning exploring the nooks and crannies of the intriguing location, I opted to wind down with a massage at the park’s spa whilst my partner indulged his sense of adventure by swimming with stingrays!

Natural Encounters in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

Established in 1986, the Sian Ka’an is a biosphere reserve near Tulum where over 200 conservation projects have been conducted as the basis for environmental policy research on sustainable natural resources. As the revenue generated through tours, fishing and on-site activities goes towards conservation and education programmes within the reserve, I was more than happy to make my contribution.

The reserve is also home to 23 Mayan archaeological sites, which was an added bonus for a history buff like me. An afternoon spent exploring the pristine natural wonders of the reserve by boat was highly interesting, and an excellent chance to learn more about ecosystems, tropical birds and vegetation, and Mayan culture.

Playa Del Carmen

Playa Del Carmen’s journey from charming fishing village to vibrant tourist centre began with the passenger ferry service it ran to the small dive island of Cozumel, situated just across the channel. Playa is now a thriving centre for visitors like myself, who come to enjoy the luxurious accommodation and restaurants, not to mention the lively nightlife. Although not as wild as nearby Cancun, Playa’s quirky beachside bars have a special kind of charm, and my boyfriend found them to be an excellent choice to indulge in a few Micheladas – a Mexican cocktail comprising lemon, beer and Tabasco. Many of the town’s street vendors remain open until the small hours, so we were able to follow up the cocktails by gorging on a spicy burrito. The town is also home to several luxury retail brands, including Louis Vuitton, Hugo Boss and Christian Dior, so is the perfect location for indulging in a spot of retail therapy.

Tips for staying fuelled on a Mayan adventure

  • If you’re feeling adventurous enough to do some exploring in the Sian Ka’an Bioshpere Reserve or the Xcaret eco-park, make sure you go prepared. Hardy, worn-in walking shoes are a must. Not only do you want to remain comfortable, but it is also sensible to protect yourself from those creepy crawlies that are hidden in the undergrowth.
  • Keep drinking water. It may sound like an obvious tip, but in a hot climate like Mexico’s it’s easy for people to get dehydrated because they don’t realise how much water they need to replenish. I invested in a platypus which clipped onto my backpack, took up very little space and ensured I could keep sipping all day long.
  • If you are holidaying on a tighter budget, it doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the culinary treats the Riviera Maya has to offer. Head to one of the local markets for some street food like the locals do, or better still, buy your own fresh food for a romantic picnic on the beach.
  • Even if you came to Mexico to conquer its beaches and its Margaritas, do take a couple of days to check out the area’s fascinating natural wonders. It is home to a variety of unique ecosystems, and by visiting them you are playing your part in maintaining their beauty for future generations.
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