WHY WE LOVE IT
- So near and yet so far. Close to Cancún, this 81-mile-long stretch of powdery white beaches on Mexico's Caribbean coast still feels enchantingly remote.
- Low-key pleasures. Yoga, walks along the beach and candlelit cabanas—the perfect stress antidotes.
- Terrific diving and snorkeling. Ogle Mexico's Great Maya Reef and dip into rare cenotes (freshwater sinkholes).
- Mayan culture, past and present. Explore a contemporary village, visit an eco-park or find love among the ruins of ancient cities like Tulum and Cobá.
- Party possibilities. You're an hour from clubbing central, Cancún, and Playa del Carmen doesn't close down after dark.
- Unique shopping. Local markets and crafts provide a break from brand-name boredom.
- A Caribbean bargain. The favorable dollar-to-peso exchange rate means luxury for way less than at many other Caribbean getaways.Abundant bed styles: everything from beachside cabanas and boutique hotels to all-exclusives and megaresorts.
WHEN TO GO
Comfortable 80-degree temperatures make the Riviera Maya coastline welcoming year-round. For shoulder-season bargains, plan a trip during the months of April or November (but keep in mind that hurricane season runs from June through November). Book well in advance if you're planning to visit the region from December to March, the high-season months. Other things to take into account: Many Mexican nationals vacation here in summer, particularly in August, and in March and April the U.S. spring-break crowd sometimes spills down to the Riviera Maya from Cancún.
WHAT TO PACK
Shorts, sarongs, cotton slacks, short-sleeve shirts, sundresses, sandals, bathing suits—think not only warm but also casual. If you're staying at an expensive boutique hotel or resort, bring along your designer versions of the above (and for him, a pair of real shoes). You can pack even lighter if you're staying at one of the clothing-optional resorts. Snorkels are sold everywhere, and you can rent diving equipment, so you don't have to bring your own gear unless you're attached to it.
A good resource for advance information is the Riviera Maya Tourism Promotion Board (firstname.lastname@example.org; rivieramaya.com). In Mexico, check with your resort or hotel's concierge. Beware the so-called "Tourist Information" booths with brochures and maps that you'll find in towns all along the coast. The people in them are trying to sell you time-shares.
GETTING MARRIED ON THE RIVIERA MAYA
Many couples choose to exchange vows on a beach on the Riviera Maya not only for the setting but also because they want to tap into the spiritual traditions of the region by having a Mayan ceremony. But civil, conventional religious and Mayan ceremonies all take some doing to arrange. For example, the requirements for a civil ceremony include the presentation, at least three working days before the wedding, of birth certificates (originals or certified copies, with Spanish translations by certified translators), valid passports and copies of medical certificates issued within 15 days. And that's just for starters.
Check the details on planning different types of ceremonies at the Web site of Weddings in Playa (weddingsinplaya.com). That should be enough to convince you that you need local help. Weddings are big business in this region, and most hotels have on-site planners who can help you cut through the red tape. The tourism board can recommend others.
AH CACAO CHOCOLATE CAFÉ
5th Avenue at Constituyentes (18th Street)
Playa del Carmen
The Ah Cacao Chocolate Café—really, just a couple of sidewalk tables fronting a glass display case and barista station—is the place to come to indulge your every cacao craving. The products are made from criollo beans grown in Chiapas and Tabasco, and the owner has taken care to develop fair-trade practices with the growers there. You can claim you've come to the cafe for research purposes: The Mayan civilization was among the earliest to discover chocolate's benefits. Don't miss the sweet and slightly spicy chocolate Maya, a rich drink recommended for lovers. (Warning: The Mayans believed that chocolate enhances fertility). The coffee is delicious too. Get a brownie to accompany it.
ALUX RESTAURANT & LOUNGE
Avenue Juárez between 65th and 70th Avenues, just west of Highway 307
Playa del Carmen
The setting is the chief attraction at Alux, a restaurant and cocktail lounge nestled inside a cavern, which you access via a long rock staircase, lit by tiki torches, that descends sharply from the street. When candlelit, the subterranean space—complete with stalactites and stalagmites—becomes one of the region's most romantic dining spots. Depending on the evening, the quality of Alux's regional cuisine falls between good and fair. Live entertainment—sometimes troubadours but also belly dancers and other performers—is provided on most nights.
Carretera Tulum–Boca Paila, Kilometer 7.7
In keeping with its fitness-minded Bikini Boot Camp, this resort serves up a selection of low-fat, fiber-rich, all-natural Mexican dishes. Take it from us—deprivation never tasted so fabulous. Standouts include the tortilla soup and calamari salad; a surprisingly virtuous banana flan will change the way you think about desserts.
EL RESTAURANTE AT MAROMA RESORT AND SPA
Highway 307, Kilometer 51
Tel: 866-454-9351, 52-998-872-8200
The resort's breakfasts alone are worth the price of admission: Think fresh pastries topped with cranberry-cactus jam and Mexican hot chocolate. Dinner is an equally impressive affair thanks to inspired dishes like the Yucatán lime soup with shredded chicken and crisp tortilla strips, and the lobster in champagne sabayon—all of them served on the beach under the stars. The restaurant enforces a resort-casual dress code, so be sure to pack dress slacks and proper shoes.
Carratera Federal Cancún, Kilometer 298
Very yin and yang: At the Fairmont Mayakoba's fine-dining room, cool metal and stone accents balance the wood-and-rattan furnishings and soaring roof, while the all-white cutlery complements the informality of the seaside setting. The menu, innovative without being frou-frou, is beautifully balanced too. Much of it is surf-oriented—tuna carpaccio, say, and butter-poached Caribbean lobster—but turf, from foie gras to rack of lamb, is also well represented. Seafood and the sea you're gazing at don't always bear any relation to one another, though the lobster served here is sustainably harvested by a Riviera Maya fishing cooperative.
__LA CUEVA DEL CHANGO
__38th Street between 5th Avenue and the sea
Playa del Carmen
Tel: 52-984-876-2537, 52-984-116-3179
There are two reasons to stray off the beaten Playa del Carmen path to seek out "the Monkey's Cave": the cuisine and the setting. The use of fresh local ingredients in creative combinations—pistachio soup, perhaps, or breaded shrimp with cinnamon and chiles—plus a selection of wines from Mexico's Baja region and an array of fruity margaritas make this the type of dining experience you'd generally find in far larger international cities. But the atmosphere, from the dramatic thatched roof to the lush tropical garden, is pure Riviera Maya.
Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila, Kilometer 4.5
This beachfront restaurant serves seafood and handmade pasta dishes. Pricier than many of area's other restaurants but still modest by American standards—a dinner for two with wine will set you back about $80—Posada Margherita's consistently superb food and welcoming atmosphere are worth the heftier tab. Reservations are recommended.
Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila, Kilometer 5
Tel: 415-387-9806 (in the U.S.), 52-984-877-8523
Tapped by Vanity Fair magazine as "the place to eat in Tulum," the Que Fresco restaurant at the hotel Zamas nourishes diners with its inventive take on local Mexican fare. Noteworthy dishes include the lobster salad and the grilled vegetable enchiladas. Thanks to its authentic Neapolitan brick oven, Que Fresco also plates up the best pizzas on the Riviera.
Calle 8 between 5th and 10th Avenues
Playa del Carmen
Sure, this popular restaurant in the hub of Playa del Carmen is a bit touristy, what with its penchant for setting its desserts and coffee drinks on fire. But it highlights the authentic cuisine of the region, serving dishes you don't generally come across. Along with versions of such Yucatán standards as conchinita pibil (shredded pork steamed in a banana leaf), you'll find xtoloc (crepes made with leafy green chaya and topped with manchego cheese) and pibxcatic (a local xcatic chile stuffed with conchinita pibil). This place was decorated and, in part, designed by local Mayan artists. Grab a table in the back garden with its Tulum temple replica and channel the spirit of the ancients.
ANA Y JOSÉ CHARMING HOTEL & SPA
Carretera Cancún–Tulum Bocapaila, Kilometer 7
Tel: 52-998-880-5629, 52-998-880-6022
The quintessential Riviera Maya retreat before megaresorts began cropping up along the coast, Ana y José is ideal for low-maintenance couples seeking a low-key getaway. This cozy (and, as the name says, charming) complex of beachfront, garden and poolside bungalows isn't fancy, but it's well-maintained and provides everything you need—fresh-cooked food, tropical drinks and a spa with some rather exotic treatments (chocolate Yumka, anyone?). And, of course, the beach and sea at your feet. Unless you make the 15-minute drive into Tulum, stargazing is the main source of nightlife.
5 Carretera Tulum Ruinas
Tel: 888-898-9922, 54-11-5918-6400
In place of a sprawling complex, the clothing-optional Azulik has 15 eco-chic villas—12 on a cliff overlooking the ocean and three right on the beach—that have been outfitted with hardwood floors, king-size canopy beds and bathtubs carved out of tree trunks. The romantic effect is only amplified when darkness falls and the thatched-roofed lodgings are offset by a penumbra of candlelight. (Note: Except for the reception area, there is no electricity here.) With white-sand beaches, verdant green jungles and cerulean-blue waters as a backdrop, the romantic hideaway exudes homespun charm. We recommend the aptly titled Honeymoon and Romance villas, just steps from the beach but isolated from the other accommodations. The nearby Maya Spa has a full menu of massages and treatments.
DREAMS TULUM RESORT & SPA
Carretera Chetumal, Puerto Juárez Highway, Kilometer 236-7
Tel: 866-337-7829, 866-237-3267
Looking for a beach retreat but not quite ready to forgo A/C or TV? The sprawling 238-room Tulum outpost of the Dreams hotel chain supplies all the perks and modern amenities one expects from a five-star all-inclusive resort: four restaurants, five bars, a day spa and a business center where you can check your e-mail, plus movie screenings on the beach. An on-site marriage chapel is the easy tip-off that Dreams Tulum caters to marriage-minded couples, and indeed the resort offers several wedding and honeymoon packages and has an on-site wedding planner. Honeymooners looking to steer clear of vacationing families should skip holidays and spring-break season.
Predio Rustico Xpu-Ha Fraccion 15 y 16 Lote 18–19
Tel: 713-528-3490 (in the U.S.), 877-528-3490, 52-984-873-4835
Its diminutive size (29 rooms), not-so-diminutive rates and origin as a retreat for an Italian duchess make this one of the Riviera Maya's most exclusive getaways. The duchess still reserves her former bedroom occasionally, but she's not the only one who receives royal treatment: Butler service is available upon request, and the staff will arrange everything from dinner for two on the beach to laying in a supply of vanilla Häagen-Dazs (the latter the request of a celebrity guest the hotel discreetly declined to name). Splurge on the minimalist-chic Ocean View suite and you'll be able to open the shades remotely to ogle the ocean without leaving your bed. Don't miss the "rituals" at the Mayan-theme spa, drawing on ancient techniques and using herbs grown in the organic garden.
Carretera Federal Cancún–Playa del Carmen, Kilometer 298
Tel: 800-257-7544, 52-984-206-3000
A lagoon runs through it. The first to open of four luxury resorts being carved out of a mangrove swamp a 15-minute drive north of Playa, the sprawling Fairmont has definite Venice-like aspects. Boats transport guests from the main building to the beach and to an array of excellent facilities, including the luxe spa for which the Fairmont brand has become known. Bicycles, which you can pick up and drop off throughout the resort, are available for that purpose too. For closer proximity to the ocean, as well as upgraded amenities, book one of the seaside suites. This resort hosted Mexico's first-ever PGA tournament, held at the Mayakobá complex's Greg Norman–designed golf course.
MAROMA RESORT AND SPA
Highway 307, Kilometer 51
Tel: 866-454-9351, 52-998-872-8200
More mild than wild, this resort embraces traditional paradigms of luxury on one of the prettiest stretches of sand on the Yucatán Coast. And thanks to its recent $16 million face-lift, Maroma continues to outshine many of its arriviste competitors with spacious guest rooms that incorporate the best of traditional Mexican decor without compromising comfort or elegance. Couples looking to splurge should nab one of the Sian Nah suites, which have unobstructed ocean views, private patios and plunge pools. Other draws include the full-service Kinan spa, signature El Restaurante and world-class scuba diving.
PARAÍSO DE LA BONITA
Carretera Chetumal-Cancún, Kilometer 328, SM 31
Bahia Petempich, Puerto Morelos
Tel: 866-751-9175, 52-998-872-8300
Less buzzed about than some of the coast's other boutique hotels, this intimate all-suites retreat is by no means less buzz-worthy. Its enchilada-red and sunny-yellow buildings, poised against a stretch of powdery white sand, are a feast for the eyes, and the guest rooms' rich fabrics, marble showers and exotic antiques—handpicked by the owners—are tactile as well as visual treats. Other sensual delights include a romantic lounge with an impressive selection of tequilas and the 22,700-square-foot spa certified for thalassotherapy, a European-created regime of seawater-based treatments. Prefer your seawater underfoot? A 50-foot-long catamaran is available for private cruises.
Carretera Federal Cancún–Playa del Carmen, Kilometer 298
888-767-3966, 52-984-875-8000, 52-998-287-4202
The second resort to open in the 1,700-acre Mayakobá complex, the lagoon-laced Rosewood aims for exclusivity with a comparatively small number of guest quarters (128) and 40 butlers to cater to their occupants. The oversize rooms, spare and eco-chic, utilizing local materials such as limestone, aren't suites by most definitions of that term, though perhaps they qualify if you count the separate plunge pools and private patios (with garden showers). The much-touted tequila "library" is actually a gorgeous bar, but there are so many varieties—along with detailed explanations of them—that those dedicated to higher education can learn a great deal. More unusual is the spa, with a cenote (limestone sinkhole) as its centerpiece.
__THE TIDES RIVIERA MAYA
__Playa Xcalacoco Franc 7
Tel: 866-332-1672, 52-984-877-3000
Having mastered the art of compromise, it's not surprising that this resort strikes a chord with couples and newlyweds. Just north of Playa del Carmen, the Tides provides easy access to the town's bustling nightlife scene but is far enough removed from the commercial strip to afford its guests tranquility and privacy. The 30 thatched-roofed villas house luxurious amenities, including private dipping pools, playful bathrooms (with his-and-hers sinks) and mosquito-netted beds outfitted in Egyptian-cotton sheets. The resort offers several honeymoon packages and employs an on-site events planner who arranges weddings.
EXPERIENCE PYRAMID POWER
About an hour inland and harder to reach, Cobá was a much larger, more important city than Tulum; some 50,000 people are estimated to have lived here. Though it's now largely overtaken by jungle, Cobá is worth visiting for its main pyramid, Nohuch Mul, the highest in the region and providing wonderful views. Because the site is so large, bicycles are available for rent. They're pretty rickety, though, and the pathways between the structures are rutted, so you're better off walking. Wear sturdy shoes.
There are plenty of ways to get your adrenalin pumping north of Tulum at Hidden Worlds Cenotes Park (Highway 307; 52-984-877-8535; hiddenworlds.com), but the most unusual one is the SkyCycle Canopy Adventure. Strapped into a tricycle-like contraption, you pedal along cables strung on jungle treetops before descending, donning a snorkel, dipping into a sinkhole and then reboarding your device. One of the unadvertised adventures is bumping through the jungle along an unpaved road to get to the launching area. Not for those with a fear of heights (or unpaved roads) but a wonderful combination of sensations. Other options include rappelling, zip-line grabbing and otherwise defying gravity. See also Alltournative Off Track Adventures in the Go Off-Track section, below.
The Great Maya Reef, a coral extravaganza second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, lies off the coast, and a unique underground river system flows beneath the land, creating a honeycomb of underwater caverns and cenotes, limestone sinkholes created by erosion. The cenotes were sacred to the Mayans—not only were they a source of fresh water, but when shafts of sunlight from the surface illuminate the huge stalactites and stalagmites, they also look magical. These days they help make the Riviera Maya a magnet for water-sports enthusiasts, especially divers. You must be specifically certified for cenote diving—for those already PADI certified, a one-day course, offered by many local outfitters, will usually qualify you—but snorkeling in these cool pools is equally rewarding.
Don't miss the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve (Highway 307, Riviera Maya mainland, south of Tulum Village, Tulum Avenue between Beta and Osiris Streets, Tulum Town), which was designated Mexico's first UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. Hike through the forests, kayak on the lagoons and explore the reserve's small Mayan ruins. Its tropical forest, grasslands, wetlands and offshore waters are home to a vast array of wildlife—more than 330 types of birds, as well as such endangered species as jaguar, puma, tapir, manatee and marsh crocodile, so bring along binoculars. A group like Centro Ecologico Sian Ka'an (52-984-871-0522; cesiak.org) can arrange all necessary transportation and equipment.
Alltournative Off Track Adventures (800-507-1092, 52-984-803-9999; alltournative.com) follows up a guided tour of Cobá with a visit to a contemporary Mayan village. This involves walking through a jungle to learn about local flora and fauna, grabbing a zip line and hurtling over a cenote or rappelling into one. Depending on your trip, you'll dine on traditional Mayan cuisine before or after your adventure.
Get a head start on married life at Los Dos Cooking School (52-999-928-116; email@example.com; los-dos.com), which offers culinary classes and conducts excursions designed to teach you how to prepare your favorite Yucatán dishes at home. The classes are held in the colonial city of Mérida, an excellent base for visiting major Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza, but it takes four or five hours to drive there from most Riviera Maya locations. Plan on an overnight stay, minimum, if you're interested in this tasty course.
RELIVE THE MAYAN ERA (PAST AND PRESENT)
Whether you're interested in history, aquatics, archeology, botanics or shopping, you'll find something to like at Xcaret (Puerto Juárez Highway, Kilometer 282, Chetumal; 52-984-871-5200; xcaret.com), part theme park, part natural attraction, all very well done. The many activities that take place include snorkeling in an underground river, swimming with dolphins (reservations required), scuba diving, strolling expansive gardens and visiting (real) Mayan ruins and a (fake) Mayan village with a colorful crafts market. The evening cultural show is one of the best of its kind, with lots of dancing, acrobatics and chanting. Especially impressive are the Papantla Flyers, who whirl around a very tall pole, and the scantily clad men who play an ancient ball game called pok-ta-pok.
STRIKE A POSE
Say om: When in Tulum, stretch your muscles and quiet your mind. There is no shortage of yoga studios in the area, but we recommend the classes at Maya Tulum (888-515-4580; mayatulum.com), as they are often led by some of the best practitioners in the field. Yoga is offered twice a day for $12 per class.
Several resorts on the Riviera Maya feature temezcals*,* sweat huts used in pre-Columbian ceremonies. The ritual involves sitting in total darkness with one or more people, including a spirit guide or shaman, and then dipping into the sea after you've sweated—and bonded—sufficiently. Cherie Blair, the wife of the former British prime minister, took a lot of heat for venturing into a temezcal on the Riviera Maya a few years ago—it was considered a bit too woo-woo. But if you're not in public life, group perspiration can be cool. Spa Itzá in Playa del Carmen (5th Avenue and 12th Street; 52-984-803-2588; spaitza.com) supplies its own version of the temezcal called a vapor lodge—perfect for detoxing after a night of over-imbibing.
VISIT THE RUINS OF TULUM
Tulum is Mexico's most-visited ruin, both because of its beauty—it's perched high on a limestone cliff, its brooding gray walls poised dramatically against the azure Caribbean—and because of its proximity to Cancún, some two hours away by car (Playa del Carmen is less than an hour's drive away). Highlights include the two-story Temple of the Frescoes, depicting the world of the Mayans in a series of faded wall paintings. Just beyond it, at the edge of a 40-foot cliff, the Castillo is the tallest, most impressive building on the site; it may have functioned as a watchtower. To avoid the tourist crush and the high-noon sun, plan an early-morning or late-afternoon visit.
Playa del Carmen is the retail heart of the Riviera Maya, and its main artery is lengthy 5th Avenue. It's where, unless we say otherwise, all the shops listed here are located. Bargaining is permitted and even expected in market stalls; start at half the price the vendor cites and then go up from there. In stores with doors, you're expected to pay the price on the tags, but don't panic: The $ signs represent pesos, not U.S. dollars.
Ancient Mayan motifs are creatively interpreted at the Sac Be Gallery (corner of 4th Street), named for the wide roads that led to the great Mayan cities. A variety of materials, from papier mâché to ceramics, come into play at Plataformaas (2nd Street between 5th Avenue and the sea), owned by a family from the arty town of San Miguel de Allende. Galeria Fierro (14th Street between 5th and 10th Avenues) represents the work of Chilean artist Maritza Fierro, whose earth-toned acrylics alluded to Mayan themes even before the artist moved to Playa in 2007.
Of Playa's many peachy beach shops, Zingara (between 8th and 10th Streets; zingaraswimwear.com) stands out for its bold patterns and frequent appearances in Latin American fashion spreads. Also fun are the teeny bikinis and beachwear at Masquerade (between 10th and 12th Streets). Forget your shades? The two outlets of Stanza (between Juárez Avenue and 2nd Street; between 6th and 8th Streets) carry designer sunglass brands at duty-free prices.
Literally homegrown in Mexico—they rely on local herbs and plants—the products of Botanicus (Calle Corazon; botanicus.com.mx) are inspired by ancient healing traditions. You'll find everything from soothing standards like aloe vera and natural mosquito repellents (both useful in this region) to nopal cactus exfoliants (no, the spines aren't used to remove the layers of skin). The products are all high-quality, and about a third of them are handcrafted.
Playa's largest concentration of crafts shops is at Plaza Toluca (Juárez Avenue and South 1st Street), a flea market with about 300 stalls. Many vendors sell their wares along the route to the Tulum ruins. At the Mayan Village in Xcaret (see Relive the Mayan Era, in the Play section) the crafts are hot off the loom (or kiln): You can watch artisans create most of the items sold here. Before you buy anywhere, think twice about schlepping—or shipping—beautiful but fragile ceramics home. Easier to transport are the Yucatán's hammocks, made of nylon or cotton, in brilliant colors and in natural creamy white. For the best selection, head for the tiny—and no-name—shop in Playa on Juárez Avenue between 10th and 15th Avenues.
The tropical cotton shirts called guayaberas are cool in both senses of the term: Matt Dillon, Ben Affleck and Johnny Depp are among the celebs who have been spotted wearing them. Kin Mayeb has two stores (at the Paseo del Carmen shopping arcade and on 5th Avenue between 10th and 12th Streets) that carry many styles and sizes. For women, the manta (Mexican cotton) dresses and blouses created in Playa and sold at De Beatriz Boutique (4th Street between 5th Avenue and the beach) let you play Frida Kahlo to his Diego Rivera. For traditional clothing from all over Mexico, much of it intricately embroidered, check out La Casita (between 10th and 12th Streets). Find contemporary boots, bags and belts, made from the finest Mexican leather, at Veari (between 16th and 18th Streets; veari.com).
Stunning silver pieces, embedded with semiprecious stones and crystals from the region and other areas of Mexico, are sold at InArt Plata Mexico (Paseo del Carmen and Plaza Playacar; inartmexico.com), which also has a permanent display of silver jewelry art. Amber from Chiapas is the star at sister stores Ambar Mexicano (between 4th and 6th Streets) and the smaller Ambar y Opalo (between 10th and 12th Streets). Because the pieces are made locally, you can create your own designs and have them executed during your stay. Nouveau-hippie couples appreciate the leather jewelry at Joe Natural (Calle Corazon), incorporating beads, feathers and other playful materials.
Although tequila is not indigenous to this region—it can only be created in certain designated Mexican states, primarily Jalisco—you can get the top brands for much less than what you'd pay in the United States. At Playa's two locations of Casa Tequila (between 4th and 6th Streets and between 14th and 16th Streets), several varieties of the nominal spirit—though not all of the 450 sold—can be sampled. Xtabentun, a liqueur made with honey from a flower grown in the Yucatán, is an acquired taste (it's a bit sweet), but like most ancient spirits it's considered an aphrodisiac. We think it works best as a mixer in margaritas. You can find it in nearly every local liquor store.