Stretching 80 miles from Cancún to Tulum on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico’s Riviera Maya coastline features some of the best beaches on the globe, the world’s second-largest coral reef, legendary dive spots, access to an array of World Heritage Sites, and notoriously glittering nightlife. Safe to say, it has it all…
Mexico – it has beaches and burritos, temples and tacos, mariachi musicians and, of course, the dazzling Yucatán Peninsula. This drool-worthy stretch along the Caribbean coast is where you’ll find everything from the glitzy resort of Cancún to the growing town of Tulum.
So, what will that 11-hour flight reveal to sun-seeking Brits? Well, off those amazing white beaches are coral reefs that appear to be lit from within. Inland, the green jungle and its colourful wildlife also dazzle – as do the Mayan archaeological treasures, which seem to hail from an Indiana Jones film, particularly the incredible Chichén Itzá complex. To the south of the resort strip, you’ll find the Biosphere Reserve of Sian Ka’an. Here, tropical savannah and extraordinary wildlife including jaguars, howler monkeys and tapirs remind you that you’re no longer in Europe.
There’s great diving off the coast and fresh-water swimming in cenotes (limestone sinkholes), dripping with vegetation and stalactites. The winter sun knows just the one temperature – hot. Oh, and along the coastline there’s a host of hotels that offer all manner of pampering and gastronomy, where days start with fruit and yoga and end in a hammock with a piña colada to hand. Here’s a short romp through the highlights.
At one time, Tulum was a sleepy backpacker secret at the southernmost point of the Riviera Maya. But that Caribbean sand worked its magic and now the town has a roster of gorgeous hotels, mostly at the ‘boutique’ end of the spectrum. You can spend days on your verandah staring out iguanas, but do try to see the archaeological sites, in particular the Mayan clifftop citadel. What else? Dolphin spotting, zip-wire riding, cycling – even sleeping in cool cabanas on the sand to experience Tulum’s ‘little place I know’ atmosphere while it lasts.
The ancient Mayan culture was huge in the Yucatán Peninsula, which, with its dreamy Caribbean coastline, can easily pass muster as the playground of the gods. The coastal strip between Cancún and Tulum has been dubbed the Riviera Maya to celebrate that heritage (and yes, you’ll meet some modern Mayans here). The beaches here are white, the sea blue and bath-like, and there’s the world’s second-largest coral reef offshore. If you must do more than laze, then head inland to experience the past among those Mayan ruins, or to a nearby waterpark such as Xel-Há. At this natural lagoon – home to more than 90 marine species – you can snorkel, then jump off a ‘cliff of courage’ like Elvis Presley in Fun in Acapulco. Remember to try the Yucatán food – recommended dishes include slow-cooked chicken or pork pibil, sopa de lima (lime soup), and lime-marinated chicken topped with tortilla strips… it’s all delicious.
Playa del Carmen
Some just call it Playa, or the beach. Whichever you prefer, the town of Playa del Carmen sits in the middle of the Riviera Maya, almost exactly halfway between Cancún and Tulum, and is an emblem of Mexico’s runaway tourism success. For Playa has gone from 0 to 60 from a standing start: 25 years ago it had just three streets, now it has a population of 150,000 and locals are proud to tell you that it was in the Guinness World Records for being the fastest-growing town. There’s fun to be had in the resort area of Playacar, with its hotels, golf course and houses owned by ‘snowbirds’ (retirees from Canada and the US who move here for the winter); people-watching at Mamita’s Beach Club; window-shopping at the Quinta Avenida shopping strip; or diving at the island of Cozumel, a boat ride from Playa. The whole family will enjoy a visit to eco-archaeological park Xcaret, where you can try everything from driving amphibious vehicles to rafting.
This is the hedonists’ playground, and with good reason. The temperatures hover around 27ºC, the beaches and sea are great, and – notwithstanding the whooping spring breakers from US universities – there are good times to be had by all. The Cancún holidays phenomenon kicked off in 1967 when the Mexican government picked the site for tourism development. Now, there’s something for everyone, from the 15-mile Zona Hotelera strip to deluxe hotels with spas, kids’ clubs and cooking classes. The atmosphere is hot, in every sense. This is Cancún, and if you want to wear embarrassing Hawaiian shirts and drink tequila shots, no one cares – with the possible exception of your kids. Buy them off with a jaunt to watch whale sharks, then cool yourself down with a trip to tranquil, colonial Valladolid. That way you’ll have really earned your sundowner margarita.