A beginner’s guide to the Riviera Maya

Mexico’s Riviera Maya is the name given to the stretch of Quintana Roo coastline that extends from Cancun in the north (or a few kilometres south of it, definitions vary) to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to the south. Together with the neighbouring state of Yucatan, it is a deservedly popular package and independent tourism destination. This guide is aimed at the first-time visitor and should help you to make the most of your holiday. Prices are shown in Mexican pesos, which at the time of writing had an exchange rate of about twenty to the pound. The information given was correct at the time of writing, but check locally as things change.

One of the four voladores

One of the four voladores

How to get there

Most visitors arrive at Cancun’s international airport just to the south of town, well served by direct scheduled flights from the UK, for example, with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. It is possible to fly to Mexico City and catch a connecting flight but this takes longer. A wide range of packages are available with operators such as Thomson, Thomas Cook and First Choice. From the airport, the best way of getting to your hotel depends on your location. ADO buses serve the centres of Cancun and Playa del Carmen on a half-hourly basis, with fares of 148 pesos per person to Playa and 62 pesos to Cancun. Airport shuttles are available to the main resort areas for around four times as much and private hotel transfers considerably more. If you’re on a package, transfers will usually be included but check your booking documents.

Parrot in Xcaret Eco-park

Parrot in Xcaret Eco-park

How to get around

Taxis are cheap but better still are the minibuses called colectivos that ply the main road at regular intervals. To catch one, simply flag it down and tell the conductor your intended destination. Fares are cheap so take loose change and small notes. In Playa, colectivos can be found in town at Calle 2 Norte between 15th and 20th, whereas in Cancun you’ll need to come out of the Zona Hotelera into downtown, where they congregate outside La Comercial Mexicana supermarket on Avenida Tulum.  In Tulum, look for them opposite the ADO bus station in the town. Several bus companies serve a large network across Quintana Roo (the state containing the coastal strip) and neighbouring Yucatan (where you’ll find Chichen Itza). The best quality buses, with fewer stops and therefore slightly dearer fares, are run by ADO, whose website http://www.ado.com.mx is easy to navigate. Local routes are also served by the cheaper Oriente and Mayab buses, which tend to be a little less comfortable and stop more frequently.

Where to stay

Cancun is the largest of the Mayan Riviera resorts. Created from scratch four decades ago, it basically consists of two areas: downtown, where the locals live, and the Zona Hotelera, a narrow strip of land flanked by a lagoon on one side and white sand in the other. Its lively nightlife and many bars attract a young crowd, especially from the USA and Canada. However, Cancun’s too noisy and brash for many, who Instead head an hour down the coast to Playa del Carmen. Playa has grown immensely in the last decade, but its pedestrian street, Quinta, with a good selection of shops, bars and restaurants still attracts many people. Try Sur, which serves Argentine steaks in a swanky setting, or Blue Lobster for seafood and glow in the dark blue margaritas. The central beach, though eroded in places, is busy and lined with popular beach clubs playing music while its water is safe for swimming.

Blue margarita

Blue margarita

Alternatives to Cancun and Playa

Another hour by bus further south, Tulum is rapidly developing with accommodation strung out along the beach. Once home to a few hippy hangouts, it now also hosts beach clubs and luxury hotels alongside the hammocks. Puerto Morelos, midway between Cancun and Playa, is a small town that contains a few hotels, such as Casa Caribe to which the excellent Little Mexican Cooking School is attached. Akumal, a quarter of an hour south of Playa, serves those who like their resort to be local and relatively unspoilt. The easiest way to get to both Puerto Morelos and Akumal is by flagging down a colectivo on the side of the main road, known as the 307. Connecting Cancun to Tulum and beyond is a string of all-inclusive luxury resorts, gated from the main road and fiercely protective of their private patch of beach. These are well suited to families as the all-inclusive option makes budgeting easier and there are plenty of water-based activities for all ages. Whether you’re a backpacker on a budget or a family seeking a fortnight of water sports and lazy days by the pool, there’s something on the Mayan Riviera that will cater for you. If you don’t mind being away from the beach, the town of Valladolid, two hours inland from Cancun, offers an alternative to independent travellers seeking a less touristy experience. ADO buses run frequently, costing 176 pesos each way from both Cancun and Playa del Carmen.

Art gallery in Valladolid selling all things Catrina, the symbol of the Day of the Dead festivities

Art gallery in Valladolid selling all things Catrina, the symbol of the Day of the Dead festivities

Set around a charming plaza, there are a handful of hotels and restaurants, the best being El Meson de Marques right on the main square. From Valladolid, it’s easy to get to the ruins of Chichen Itza and Ek Balam as well as to the pretty town of Merida to the north of the peninsula, itself a good base for visiting the ruins of Uxmal and Sayil. The town is busy and it can feel less comfortable in the heat without a cooling sea breeze, but Valladolid’s a useful stopping off point between the coast and Merida if you wish to tour the peninsula.

Theme parks

As you’d expect from a well-established destination, there’s a number of water and eco-parks to tempt holidaymakers out of their resorts. If you go to only one, make it Xcaret. Pronounced “ish-ca-rett”, the site was once a Mayan port. Its archaeological remains can be visited without having to pay the entrance fee to the main park, and cost 43 pesos, but the park itself is a fun way to spend the day. You can swim in a lazy river and visit the park’s wildlife including turtles and dolphins. The park features a reconstructed Mayan ball court as well as a typical hacienda and folk art museum. At night, stay for the spectacle that condenses a thousand years of history into a couple of hours. It features everything from Mayan sport played with balls of fire to dance and folklore set pieces representing Mexico’s diverse regions. This and other performances such as an equestrian show and the exciting display put on by the Voladores de Papantla are included in the ticket price. It’s simple to find booths selling tickets in Cancun and Playa del Carmen or you can book online. Tickets start from US$89 with some activities such as swimming with dolphins carrying a supplement. For more information visit http://www.xcaret.com or pick up a leaflet when you arrive.

The show at Xcaret

The show at Xcaret

Xplor is the go-to park for thrill seekers. Tickets cover four attractions: a ride in an amphibious vehicle, a lazy river swim, underground rafting and the highest zip lines in Latin America. Full instruction is given and a helmet mounted camera ensures that you have a selection of photos as a memento of your day. Tickets cost from US$119 and can be purchased in much the same way as Xcaret. Xplor’s website http://www.xplor.travel has all the information. As well as Xcaret and Xplor, there are a range of other attractions run by the same company, including Xel-Ha and Rio Secreto. Perhaps even more fun is to do what the locals do to make the best of the landscape. Beneath the peninsula, the limestone rock has slowly been weathered away to create a fascinating underground world of sinkholes and caverns into which water has gradually filtered. These lagoons, known as cenotes, form natural swimming pools popular with families at weekends but often quiet in the week. There are many close to the coast, but one of the best is Cenote Xkeken at Dzitnup. Located a little way out of Valladolid, it is a glistening turquoise lake lit through a hole in the roof of a huge cavern dangling with stalactites. Entrance costs 80 pesos.

Cenotes can be found throughout the peninsula

Cenotes can be found throughout the peninsula

Mayan ruins

The large number of historical sites in Quintana Roo and the Yucatan can leave the visitor ruined out. It’s best to choose a few and enjoy them, rather than attempt to tick them all off in one trip. The jewel in the crown is without a doubt Chichen Itza. A sprawling site surrounded by jungle, it centres around the restored Kukulkan pyramid and an interesting collection of other structures including an observatory and ball court. Every tour operator offers day trips, but the site is easy to visit independently. ADO buses connect Chichen Itza directly to Cancun and Playa del Carmen via good roads. Guides can be hired at the entrance if you wish. A ticket to get in costs 533 pesos for foreign tourists. (Mexicans enjoy a discounted rate, locals even more so).

The Kukulkan pyramid at Chichen Itza

The Kukulkan pyramid at Chichen Itza

The must-see on the coast is Tulum, not for its scale but for its location. Tulum’s temples sit right on top of the cliff above a small patch of sand and a turquoise sea and unsurprisingly as a result receives the highest number of visitors of any of the peninsula’s archaeological sites. Like Chichen Itza, the volume of tourists necessitates obvious management and many structures are roped off, but the grey of the stone against the blue sky makes this a very atmospheric place despite the crowds. It’s still just possible to find a quiet spot with just a lizard or two for company, especially first thing in the morning. Tickets are priced at 80 pesos.

Tulum's dramatic setting

Tulum’s dramatic setting

Coba, just a few years ago off the beaten track but now increasingly in the tour operators’ sights, is situated an hour or so from Tulum. Once a thriving Mayan city, the ruins are scattered through an area of jungle crisis-crossed with Mayan roads known as sacbe. The pyramid here is less well preserved than that at Chichen Itza and for now at least can be climbed by anyone untroubled by vertigo – with just a single rope to cling on to, this is not a climb for those with a fear of heights. Entrance costs 80 pesos but due to the size of the site, many people opt to rent bicycles or take a ride to the ruins in a cycle rickshaw at extra cost.

Note that at present Coba is closed to visitors.

Coba's pyramid

Coba’s pyramid

Less well-known and yet only twenty minutes by colectivo from Valladolid are the extensive ruins at Ek Balam. Relatively recently rediscovered, like Coba the site has a pyramid to climb, the Acropolis, its 106 worn steps rising steeply from the ground to offer extraordinary views of the surrounding jungle from the top. Ek Balam means dark jaguar in Mayan and as a result, the observant will spot jaguar motifs carved into the stone throughout the site. The entrance fee is 456 pesos for foreign tourists. Colectivo taxis from Valladolid cost upwards of 150 pesos each way; either pay for a seat and wait for others to join you or pay for the whole car. As they’re taxis rather than minibuses, you’ll find them on Calle 44 between 37 and 35, tucked inside the courtyard of a building rather than on the road outside.

The little-visited Ek' Balam

The little-visited Ek’ Balam

Further afield, the attractive colonial town of Merida makes a convenient base if you wish to visit the Yucatecan sites of Sayil, Labna and Uxmal. It’s also close to Izamal whose ruins boast the largest surviving Mayan structure in the area. Getting to Merida takes around five hours by bus from the coastal resorts of Quintana Roo.

Natural wonders

A coral reef extends from the Riviera Maya down past Belize and on to Honduras. The second longest in the world, after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, it provides excellent opportunities for both snorkelling and diving. The largest protected reserve in the area is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, south of the main tourist strip. Tours showcase its flora and fauna, in particular birds, dolphins and turtles, plus occasionally manatees for those lucky enough to spot them. Akumal’s public beach is a good place for green turtle watching. There’s no need to book a tour, as snorkelling equipment can be rented from the dive shop on the beach, from where it’s a short swim out to the reef. Even in busy spots such as the main beach at Playa del Carmen, you’ll see flamingos diving for fish and bobbing about amidst the breakers.

Playa del Carmen beach

Playa del Carmen beach

Off the coast

Cozumel, an established cruise ship and diving destination, is easily reached by ferry from the terminal at the southern end of Playa del Carmen. It offers the facilities you’d usually expect from a place where the majority of visitors are only in town for a short while. Island tours are expensive as are taxis. Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox, reached by ferry from Cancun, are better bolt holes if you want a more laid back island stay.

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