While the popular party resort of Cancun is home to the infamous spring break, just south of the city the stunning Riviera Maya welcomes tourists from all over the world. If you’re looking for theme parks, huge malls or sprawling attractions then this won’t be the place for you; instead you will find a natural eco paradise full of things for all ages to enjoy.
The Riviera Maya is located along the Caribbean coast and boasts no fewer than 81 miles of pristine natural coastline. It is home to the world’s second largest reef with thousands of square miles of mangroves and tropical forest injected with some fascinating history and heritage deriving from Mayan roots.
From cave diving in subterranean rivers to zipping through the mangrove jungles, the Riviera Maya offers a good variety of attractions to keep you busy should lazing on the golden sands get too much!
Pronounced ‘shell-ha’, Xel-Ha is described as a natural eco park, and one of the largest in the world at that. It provides a wonderful opportunity to observe a mix of underwater life. Visitors young and old can wander the manicured grounds at their leisure and learn about local sea life while exploring the various pools, caves and fauna while trying their hand at activities such as Snuba, a combination of snorkel and scuba, sea trekking and zip lining.
By paying an all inclusive rate ($79 – tip: prebook online and save $8) you can eat and drink as much as you like at the buffet restaurants and bars throughout the day making it hassle free and very cost effective.
You don’t have to go far to seize the opportunity to get up close with these fascinating animals. At Dolphin Discovery the trainers replicate a natural environment (be prepared for some cool water) for guests to interact with the dolphins. Visitors can pet, kiss and dance with the dolphins during one of the many interactive programmes on offer.
The Riviera Maya is very famous for its cenotes. A cenote is a natural freshwater pool or well that is a gateway to the longest underwater river system in the world. Overground the land is flat and elevated just 50m above sea level, therefore all water sources run in this underground water network. Perfect for cooling off from the midday sun, the cenotes are open to the public with some set ups being more tourist-led with changing facilities and safety railings installed, such as Indiana Joes where you dive in and swim with the catfish in the cooling crystal clear waters before going on a thrilling zip line adventure and checking out the local wildlife of birds, deer and monkeys.
Bel Air Animal Park
One of the Riviera Maya’s newest attractions is this zoo which opened early 2013. Bel Air Animal Park‘s intimate setting invites visitors to get up close and personal with up to 86 different animal species and join in with its workshops, shows and tours.
For those interested in the Mayan history, there’s plenty to be had as the region has always had a strong link to the religion and during the postclassical period it was the commercial centre for activity. While Chichen-Itza is probably one of the most famous Mayan cities it is a gruelling eight hour round trip and with some fantastic alternatives within the heart of the Riviera Maya you can easily get your history fix without travelling too far.
The coastal archaeological site of Tulum is the most visited Mayan landmark of last year. It is a pre-Columbian Mayan city that boasts scenic views out to the Caribbean Sea, a unique aspect of any preserved archaeological ruins in the world. Impressively preserved structures and frescoes date back to between 1200 and 1500 A.D.
The forgotten city of Coba was once home to over 100,000 inhabitants. Today it is a striking archaeological site that easily gives Chichen-Itza a run for its money. It features tall temples, dramatic pyramids (some of which you can climb at your own risk), along with many classic constructions. Amazingly, only 2% of this city has been unearthed, which only adds to the wonder of the Mayan people and the history to be had here.
Azul Fives by Karisma is a great luxury all inclusive choice suitable for couples and families alike. The one bedroom suites are some of the largest in the world with generous living spaces, fully fitted kitchens and sprawling bathrooms featuring freestanding Jacuzzi bath tubs. For those with children, leave all the bulky extras at home and take advantage of the baby baths, sterilisers, bottle warmers and baby monitors which are completely free if you let the hotel know in advance. Foodies won’t be disappointed with a choice of first class a la carte and buffet restaurants featuring traditional Mexican foods and cuisine from across the globe all included with the all inclusive package. Rates start from 3,800 MXN (£180/€215/$300).
For something more rustic check out Al Cielo, a small boutique property located on the deserted beach of Xpu Ha where the soundtrack to your holiday will be the lapping waves of the turquoise waters just steps away from your private villa.
How To Get There
Most visitors fly to Cancun International Airport and then hire a car or take the bus to Playa del Carmen, which is about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Cancun.
Header image by Carlos Delgado
For more information on the Riviera Maya visit www.rivieramaya.com