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Stretching from Puerto Morelos to the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, Riviera Maya is a tourism and resort district that dazzles visitors with 75 miles of sun-splashed Caribbean shoreline. Along with a growing string of all-inclusive resorts and small seaside towns, the district encompasses the island of Cozumel, 12 miles offshore, and the always-evolving city of Playa del Carmen. (Cancun to the north and Costa Maya to the south are not considered part of Riviera Maya). While it has excellent restaurants and decent shopping, Riviera Maya doesn't resemble Cancun or aspire to be anything like it.
This seaside land long inhabited by the Maya people is rich in culture and extraordinary natural elements. Archaeological ruins, underground rivers and pools, offshore reefs and more than 500 species of marine life make Riviera Maya one of Mexico's most alluring tourist destinations.
Playa del Carmen, where some small cruise ships dock and where the ferry from Cozumel comes in, offers an appealing, contemporary mix of sophisticated and funky restaurants and shops. For those who think an artfully made latte can't be found in Mexico, a visit to one of Ah, Cacao's cafe locations along 5th Avenue in Playa will be a pleasant surprise (the shops also offer Mexican coffee and cocoa to take home).
Speaking of 5th Avenue, it's the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Playa del Carmen, and strolling along it or tucking into one of its beachside eateries is a fine way to spend shore time. In recent years, the village of Tulúm, just south of the famous ruins, has morphed into a hip and happening eco-resort district drawing free spirits from around the world. The stylishly sustainable vibe, reinforced by environmental restrictions (no buildings taller than a palm tree) and limited electricity (hotels run on solar, wind or generator power), is utterly unlike anywhere else in Mexico.
Playa del Carmen has a shallow reef so nearly all ships dock at Cozumel and passengers ferry over to the mainland. See the ships that call on Cozumel.
Maya culture and legacy informs much of what there is to see and do in the Riviera Maya, especially the archaeological ruins. Tulum and the less visited Coba are the primary sites; however, there are additional ruins across the region, including more than 20 in Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve alone and several on Cozumel as well. There are also tours led by Maya guides that give visitors insight into the indigenous culture, ancient and present.
Snorkeling and diving are popular Riviera Maya activities with good reason. Among the most intriguing places to swim, snorkel and dive are cenotes, the underground and semi-underground pools that dot this landscape. Taking a tour to these somewhat mystical pools, especially when led by a Maya guide, is a memorable experience. Some cenotes are highly commercialized, while others are unmarked and on private land. In addition to the cenotes, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, aka the Great Maya Reef, stretches for more than 600 miles along the Yucantán Peninsula coastline, providing excellent snorkeling and diving. In certain places, off Akumál, Puerto Morelos and parts of Cozumél, for example, the reef is especially easy to access.
As you head south from Playa, crowds thin and beaches become even more stunning. "The immaculate strands at Xpu Ha and near Chemuyil boast white sand and clear, shallow water," travel journalist Christopher Hall writes in Via. "At Akumál, you can snorkel amid endangered sea turtles in a tranquil bay."
Riviera Maya has a collection of parks and preserves that could keep visitors engaged and exhilarated for days. Some are entirely natural, while others take advantage of gorgeous natural settings that have been creatively enhanced in a Disneyesque fashion. Whether you want to kayak natural lagoons, swing on zip-lines across the jungle, meander through recreated Mayan villages, swim with dolphins, watch today's Mayas playing the ancient ball game of their ancestors, snorkel in some of the most exquisite waters on the planet or make your way along mesmerizing underground rivers, there's a park for you to visit. Most notable:
Playa del Carmen has a mix of chic and funky shops, especially along pedestrian-only Fifth Avenue. Whether the goal is souvenirs, beachwear, crafts, jewelry or contemporary fashions, there's a shop. On Cozumel, the city of San Miguel, where cruise ships dock, has a large mall and a slew of shops, some where good finds on jewelry are possible or, if preferred, cheaper silver jewelry at affordable prices.
Most of the nightlife in Playa happens along Fifth Avenue or beachside. The options for both range from the raucous spring-break atmosphere of Carlos 'n Charlie's to the hip vibe of Deseo Lounge, next to the pool at Deseo Hotel + Lounge. One longtime favorite on the beach is Dragon Bar at the Blue Parrot Hotel. Another is Tequila Barrel, where tequila and other drinks are served along with TV sports and bar food.
Climb a pyramid. Not for the faint of heart, climbing up Cobá's centerpiece pyramid, Nohuch Mul, puts you 130 feet above the Riviera Maya jungle. From that lofty point, somehow it's possible to look out and imagine what Cobá must have been like between 400 and 1100 A.D. when some 50,000 people lived there. The trek up and down can be a little nervous-making, but there are ropes to keep you steady. Bring a rain poncho, as downpours can occur without warning.
Few things are more inherently romantic in the Riviera Maya than swimming, diving or snorkeling in a cenote. The Yucatan is filled with these sunken pools, and some are accessible from Playa del Carmen. One possibility is Gran Cenote, which, as its name suggests, is one of the area's larger cenotes. Located just outside of the town of Tulum on the road to Coba, Gran Cenote is a place of mystical beauty.
Playa and Cozumel have many restaurants to choose from. In Playa, grab a seat at Ah, Cacao, which has three locations a long Fifth Avenue, where artful espresso drinks and cocoa are the specialties, along with sweets. There are coffees and cocoas to take home as gifts, too. Maya cuisine is the specialty at Yaxche on Fifth Avenue at 22nd Street. Don't expect tacos. A typical dish is grilled fish filet marinated in axiote and lime and wrapped in a banana leaf. For upscale Mexican cuisine in a sublimely romantic garden setting, there's Aldea Corazon on Fifth Avenue.
On Cozumel, located a short taxi ride from the cruise dock in San Miguel, Kinta Mexican Bistro serves chef-driven contemporary Mexican cuisine in a bright and inviting interior. Typical of dishes: slow-roasted pork tenderloin with chile pasilia-mushroom demiglaze, toasted almonds, prune marmalade and mashed potatoes.
Mid-December to April is peak season for the region and the time of year when ocean waters are at their clearest. That said, summer is when many families travel to Riviera Maya and when South American visitors arrive. It's hot and humid, and the water can be murky after a rain, but you'll be spending all your time in the water anyway.
Playa does not have a deep-water port. Cruise ships dock at Calica, five miles from town, or at Cozumel, an offshore island 12 miles distant. Frequent ferries transport passengers from Cozumel to Playa, and some ships also employ their tenders (i.e., lifeboats) for the 20-minute passage. The ferry dock is conveniently located in the center of town, where passengers debark at the zócalo, or town square.
Passengers arriving in Playa del Carmen by ferry from Cozumel can walk to everything along Fifth Avenue or take taxis, readily available. In Cozumel, it's possible to walk into the main area of San Miguel or take a taxi into town or to Chankanaab. Tours typically leave from the Cozumel cruise dock.
Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a valid passport.
Language: Spanish, but English is commonly spoken and understood in tourist areas.
Tipping: Tipping is similar to what you'd find in the United States, especially in restaurants, where servers depend largely on tips. Be aware that some restaurants automatically add a tip. If a charge labeled “propina” appears on your bill, thats a gratuity the restaurant includes automatically and it's not necessary to tip an additional amount.
Currency: The Mexican peso. U.S. dollars are also widely accepted.
Safety: The U.S. Department of State issues travel warnings for areas of Mexico that have seen an increase in crime and violence related to drug cartels. Riviera Maya is not one of these, but you should exercise caution in public places. See our safety tips for cruisers.
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“Turtles, manta rays, dolphins, and numerous striped and spotted tropical fish patrol the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the world's second largest; Esencia can arrange snorkeling and scuba diving trips. Pack a picnic and take the fam swimming in a cenote, or sinkhole — the Yucatan Peninsula has as many as Emmentaler cheese.”
“Before ‘twerking’ was a word, there existed bars like La Playa Xpu-Ha. It’s the kind of place hidden between towns, with flour-white sand instead of a floor, a thatch roof flapping in a sweet breeze. The kind of place for drinking micheladas all day, staring out at a swath of ocean the color of a Bombay Sapphire bottle.”
“Tulum Nature Walk: The rocky headlands near the start of the hotel zone are full of family-friendly rock pools.”