Pristine beaches of pale gold, crystaline sand; clear peridot-green sea with warm, gently-beckoning waves; brilliant, sunny, turquoise skies with billowing white clouds; swaying palms waving above verdant jungle thickets dotted with red and yellow flowers…this is the welcome visitors find in Mexico’s Riviera Maya on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Friendly staff greeted us warmly at every place we visited, speaking fluently in English and Spanish. This is one of the most welcoming and beautiful places you will ever travel, and the holiday opportunities and adventures abound.
With careful planning to maintain the natural exquisite environment, the tourist industry of Riviera Maya has anticipated the traveler’s every need and desire and yet is protecting one of the most beautiful places in the world. The central town is Playa del Carmen, about a half hour south of the Cancun International Airport. Once a fishing village, Playa was discovered in the 1960’s by hippies and nature worshippers, who enjoyed sleeping on the beaches in tents or thatch roofed palapas. From these rudimentary beginnings of tourism, the industry has developed carefully and carefully to fulfill the desires and needs of every kind of visitor. You can still choose to stay in tents or modest palapas with good bathroom facilities nearby. There are clean guest houses and motels for bargain budgets.
And there are fabulous resorts that not only anticipate and meet the requests of the most discriminating and wealthy guest but also are built according to the high standards for sustainable, eco-tourism to maintain the environment green. The newest of these resorts is Hacienda Tresrios, whose first phase was completed in 2008 and will add three more phases over the next decade. Built on a cenota (a natural, fresh-water, underground river), which was uncovered and will carry floating guests throughout the property, every room has water-front on the river or sea. With careful planning to protect the environment while building this resort within the jungle, the builders removed and potted the natural plants and nurtured them to re-plant as the landscape vegetation and ornamentation of the hotel’s decor. Several different types of restaurants will be built within the property, and El Alebrije was the first to open. The cuisine features culinary art of Mexico with an exquisite flare. The chef’s presentation is unique in that guests are served beautiful plates of small portions of many delectable favorites, so you get to sample it all without being uncomfortable! The food is as delicious as it is beautifully presented.
In addition to traditional market stalls with locals selling arts and crafts and typical handmade items, you will also find the new Fifth Avenue Shopping Center in Playa del Carmen. This open mall has stores with high quality international merchandise of all kinds from art to clothing and jewelry for every price range. To shop for Mexican silver jewelry be sure to visit Imart. There are numerous excellent restaurants and much to see and do from about 10 A.M. to 10 P.M. daily. This mall area is on the beach where you can get the Ferry to Cozomel.
Since we were there during the traditional celebration of El Dia de los Muertes, the week of November 1, we decided to eat at Yaxche ( which means “Mayan Paradise”) on Paseo del Carmen. This renowned restaurant is unique in the world for its Mayan cuisine, and on this week of festivities they feature Hanal Pixan, the typical meal of Mayans celebrating this annual festival. We began with spicey margaritas enhanced with a unique local red spice called axiete. This was followed by a delicious cream of pumpkin soup and then the Tamal Mukbikax, or “pip,” which is chicken tamale smoked in banana leaves and buried within a pit in the earth…Delicious! The recipe is over a thousand years old. For dessert we enjoyed was candied papaya and the rich hot chocolate, which originated in the Yucatan. While we ate our meal we chatted with the personable owner/manager, Ramon Lizaola, a native of the Yucatan who hopes to open other Mayan cuisine restaurants in New York and Paris.
The evening’s entertainment at Yaxche featured the amazing Xilbaba Dancers, who performed the authentic Mayan Fuego Nuevo Dance. This dance to the fire god originated as a ritual performed every fifty-two years (of the Mayan Calendar) in pre-Spanish times. Since Mayans believed that a span of life was 52 years, this dance was to ask the gods for another life span of fifty-two more years. First the Shaman did a cleansing ceremony to the four cardinal points and four elements to invite spirits in. The drum beat was fast and furious, and the dancers, dressed in fearsome costumes, masks, and body paint, danced in such a frenzy for so long we wondered how they didn’t collapse. Surely, the beat and the fragrance of the smokey burning copal resin as incense combined with the incredible dance created an altered state of mind and heart for the worshippers. It was fascinating to observe this window into history and authentic, pre-historic Mayan beliefs.
For more history, Riviera Maya has many archeological sites with well-preserved pyramids and ancient cities. We first drove to Muyil and Chunyaxche, where there are ruins of ancient stone buildings of the Mayan civilization thought to date to 300 BC. The site has two large lakes just a few kiliometers from the Caribbean and there are still canals, which the ancient Mayans constructed as a route to the sea. It is assumed that these were important trade places. Some mounds are intact with jungle growth covering them. Some have been carefully excavated, revealing the shaman’s building with its ceremonial characteristics, about which an on-site Mayan guide will inform you.
In Riviera Maya there are many authentic villages where authentic Mayan people live simply within the pristine jungles, still keeping many of the traditions alive. These guides have learned from oral tradition about their culture and are taught the Mayan language and history in their schools. A large pyramid, El Castillo, has been carefully restored to its original majesty. This site pre-dates Tulum and Chichiniza by several centuries. It is part of the vast UNESCO Sian Ka’an Biosphere Preserve and is the largest of the twenty-two Mayan sites within the UNESCO 1.3 million acre preservation. We enjoyed the ride in motor boats across the vast, clear, fresh-water lagoon. Then, in swimsuits and life jackets we had a refreshing float down the fresh-water canals to the sea. I was a little intimidated by the overhanging jungle vegetation at the edges, but the cool water is clear as glass with a white sandy bottom, so I soon relaxed and enjoyed the little fish I could see below me. It was an unforgettably wonderful experience. If you are lucky, you might see monkeys in the trees.
Next we investigated the site at Xel-Ha, the first campsite of the Spanish in 1527 where they found the Mayan seaport village. Here we had a delightful walk along a path in the jungle where important kinds of trees are labeled. We saw the tree whose sap became the first chewing gum, called chicklets. We noted two other kinds of trees which always grow side-by-side: one whose sap burns like fire and the brother tree whose bark heals the burn. From boardwalks and little footbridges we could observe the openings in the swamp floor where water filters into the cenotas, or underground rivers withing the system of limestone caves which are beneath Riviera Maya, creating a network of channels unique in all the world. The UNESCO area also includes salt marshes, mangrove swamps, natural wells, and the Mayan Barrier Reef, second only to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.
We wanted to see the famed Tulum Archeological Site by both day and the illumination by night. It is not to be missed. The vast ancient city is located on a cliff overlooking a small harbor of the Caribbean Sea. Walls protected the site on the other three sides. It was a trade center and a place of worship, particularly to the deity Venus and to Ek Chuah, the god of trade. Wealthy citizens lived within its walls while peasants lived outside the walls. The amazing stone buildings are well preserved/restored, as are the roads and walkways. The fascinating tour by day is worth several hours, and some facades reveal faded murals over a thousand years old. This was certainly an important place in ancient times. The view of the sea is majestic from the top of the precipice, one of the most beautiful seascapes I had ever seen. We made our way carefully down to swim in the Caribbean and walk on the sandy shores, imagining the trade canoes that came and went along the shallow coastline all the way to Honduras. We were glad we decided to go to the little town of Tulum for some good food and then return to Tulum for the night walk.
In 2008 the Tulum By Night tours started and are really fascinating. We rented headphones for a nominal fee and could select the language in which we wished to hear tthe guided tour lasting about an hour. The soft lighting made a beautiful sight, inspiring us to imagine life here in ancient times when the city thrived. We learned so much and really enjoyed our time here.
Coba is another of the impressive archeoogical sites you can visit in the Yucatan state of Quintana Roo in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. It is a huge site deep within the jungle and has a maze of roads which served ancient civilizations. Near the site archeologists found a large stone cylinder which they speculate helped to form the road network, called sacbeob. There are two tall pyramids which you can see poking their heads up through the top of the jungle before you arrive, and you can climb to the top of these for excellent views. But the climb is tough in the humid heat, and the descent a bit frightening. Be sure you are up to it before you attempt it. Nohoc Mul, the Great Pyramid, is over 130 feet high. We found it fun and relaxing to rent bicycles and ride along these ancient roadways to see more of the area than we could have on foot. One of the roads is 45 miles long leading to another ancient town Yaxuna. We recommend booking your tour of Coba with AllTourNative guides because you can spend a half-day at Coba followed by fun activities and a delicious meal at an authentic Mayan village of Pac Chen in the jungle.