Recently a friend of ours sent us an email asking us if we could recommend a place that he and his wife could go for their February vacation. Someplace “warm, relatively cheap, preferably international.” Then just last week, my sister and her fiance asked us to recommend a place they could go for their honeymoon next summer. They wanted to lounge on the beach and liked the idea of all-inclusive resort. My first thought in both cases was the Riviera Maya, an area of Mexico that stretches from the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, at Cancun, south to the Belize border. I’ve gushed about it before.
The more I think about it, the more I think this might just be the most universally appealing destination I’ve ever been to. It interests a wide range of travelers: singles, couples, families, on all budgets from thrifty to luxury.
Here are a few of the things that make the Riviera Maya perfect for just about anyone:
The turquoise sea and the white silky sand are, hands down, the most wonderful thing about the Riviera Maya. Though the beaches are busy in Playa del Carmen and near the larger resorts, you can find less visited stretches in Tulum and Sian Ka’an.
Diverse, affordable accommodations:
You can get all-inclusive packages at very nice resorts for cheap (when I went a few years ago, we paid only $79/pp at the BlueBay Grand Esmerelda, booked via BookIt which has good discounts on resort packages). If you are not into the resort thing (we only stayed a few, very relaxing nights before moving on), there are a wide range of condo rentals, hotels and hostels in Playa del Carmen and Tulum, and bare bones huts on the beach. There are even places where you can just rent a hammock for the night!
Mayan ruins are scattered throughout the region, little reminders of communities that existed long ago. Though it is not the most impressive specimen of Mayan architecture in Mexico, the temple perched above the beach at Tulum is possibly the most scenic. Additionally, one of the largest Mayan cities, Chichen Itza is just a short bus ride away.
Cenotes are deep pits, caused by the collapse of limestone bedrock on the Yucatan Peninsula. These pits, often in caves and sunken formations, fill with groundwater and become a beautiful, otherworldly environment as the surfaces are filled in with the jungle flora. There are LOADS of cenotes all over the Yucatan and Riviera Maya, many of which allow swimming.
The Sian Ki’an Biosphere Reserve is the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean, covering 1.3 million acres. Large parts of this wildlife reserve are open only to scientific and conservation uses. Human activities are controlled across the entire region. You can visit the reserve for ecological tours (we did a sunset birdwatching trip), kayaking trips, and even spend the night inside the park in affordable and comfortable tent cabins on the beach. I really recommend this experience because you’ll be one of only a handful of people there at night. That’s a pretty magical feeling.
The largest coral reef in the northern hemisphere is just a short boat ride from Playa del Carmen, and it’s great for snorkeling, though recent storms and environmental degradation have apparently made the coral less impressive in recent years.
If you’re more of an urban adventurer, the bars, restaurants and shops of Playa del Carmen will keep you busy. The many spas in town offer lower-prices on massages and spa treatments than you’ll find at the resorts.
Local Food and Culture:
Unlike some resort areas where it’s easy to forget you are in a foreign country, regional food and culture are easy to find in the Riviera Maya. Wander just a few blocks from the coast in Play del Carmen and Tulum to find authentic markets, food stalls, restaurants and shops that serve the local community. Wandering the streets, you’ll see that people do actually live in homes with thatched roofs (palapas)!
I’ve read some other blog posts recently with useful info about the area (and gorgeous photos!):
- Eight Reasons to Visit Mexico’s Riviera Maya – Ordinary Traveler
- Snorkeling with whale sharks near Cancun, Mexico – The Vacation Gals
- 5 Best Cenotes in the Yucatan in Pictures – Jack and Jill Travel The World