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The Riviera Maya: Where Jungle, History and Beach Converge in Mexico

by Suzanne Fluhr on March 23, 2015 · 16 comments

Mayan Ruins at Tulum Mexico

Large pyramid at Coba, Mexico

The large pyramid at  Coba is probably not for acrophobics. (Photo: Public Domain)

Our first family vacation with our sons that did not involve the New Jersey shore, was a holiday in Mexico at an all inclusive resort just south of Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. We were there in 1994, just as the Riviera Maya was being developed as a tourist destination. For better or for worse, depending on what you’re looking for, all inclusive resorts along the Caribbean coast of eastern Mexico now extend well south of Playa del Carmen.

What has not changed is that the Riviera Maya remains a pleasing combination of Mayan ruins, tropical rainforest and soft sand beaches, providing the ingredients for a perfect holiday cocktail of exploration, adventure and relaxation. When you’re tired of relaxing, you have other options to enhance your holiday. You can:

Visit Mayan Ruins at Tulum, Cobá and Chichen Itza

Constructed between 1200 and 1450 and located on high sea bluffs for protection, the Mayan ruins at Tulum have perhaps the most picturesque setting of all the Mayan ruins in the vicinity. It is worthwhile to tour these ruins with a knowledgeable tour guide who can explain the historical context of the site as well as the symbolism of the buildings and carvings. You can work up a sweat walking around the Tulum site in the tropical heat, so bring your bathing suit and take a dip in the turquoise Caribbean Sea just below the Mayan temples.

Cobá is a much older Mayan site, containing the highest pyramid on the Yucatan peninsula. Unlike the pyramids at Chichen Itza, the public is still permitted to climb this pyramid. Cobá is located 27 miles (44 kms.) northwest of Tulum.

The most famous of the Mayan sites in the Yucatan is Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is located 134 miles (214 kms) inland from Playa del Carmen. Many all day tour options are available or you can rent a car and drive yourself.

Mayan Ruins at Tulum Mexico

The Mayan ruins at Tulum are renowned for their beautiful setting overlooking the Caribbean Sea. (Photo: Public Domain)

Explore Underwater

Swimming in a cenote on the Riviera Maya

Swimmers enjoy the clear fresh water of a cenote. (Photo: Public Domain)

There are diverse options for underwater exploration from snorkeling off a beach to certified scuba diving, thanks to the Rivieria Maya’s coast along the Mesoamerican Reef, the largest in North America. With good reason, the Riviera Maya island of Cozumel, is quite popular for underwater tourism and is easily reached by about a 45 minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen on the mainland. The Maya Riviera also provides the opportunity for fresh water diving in cenotes—drowned limestone sinkholes. For those who are truly NOT claustrophobic, some cenotes connect to a system of underground caves one can enter underwater. (P.S.: You will have no chance of running into me there.)

Visit “Eco” Parks: Xel Ha, Xcaret and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere

There are three main eco parks in the Riviera Maya area. The first two are all inclusive aquatic theme parks run by the same company. Xel Ha is 34 miles (54 kms) from Playa del Carmen and earned EarthCheck Gold certification in part because of its staff training in environmental care and preservation. There are tubing and zip line opportunities and our then young sons and Mr. Excitement enjoyed snorkeling in the Xel Ha lagoon. Mom (i.e. moi) “supervised” from an inner tube, posterior hanging in the water – until all the boys surfaced with saucer sized eyes caused by a “giant fish” they had just seen — at which point, I hurriedly hauled all parts of my anatomy out of the water.

The other private option is Xcaret, much closer to Playa del Carmen at a distance of 4 miles (6 kms.) Xcaret was built in a jungle area of some Mayan ruins and in addition to its water activities, promotes an aspect of cultural tourism. It should be noted that both parks have a swimming with captive dolphins activity that is denounced by naturalists and animal rights groups.

Covering 780,000 square acres, Sian Ka’an Reserve Biosphere, in the Tulum area, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, incorporating both land and sea conservation projects. There are various options for guided tours. Unfortunately, some recent TripAdvisor reviews complain of trash on the beach.

Even though you may be staying in a resort during your holiday in Mexico on the Riviera Maya, you can still easily return home having had memorable experiences beyond a sun burn and a hangover.

(This article is posted in collaboration with First Choice).

Have you been to the Riviera Maya? If not, would you consider a holiday there?

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Randy March 23, 2015 at 6:22 pm

Never been to the Maya Riviera, but now I want to go! I’ll put it on my list.

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Maddy Resendes March 24, 2015 at 12:15 am

Riviera Maya really sounds like a great combo of natural beauty, history and commodious respite from one’s day to day life! A great place to make family memories that last a lifetime. “Wish I were there”, she types with a sigh, as she looks at another hour’s worth of work to do before relaxing and watching The Voice – a modest moment of respite compared to Riviera Maya! Thanks for sharing. It really looks gorgeous.

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Roz Warren March 24, 2015 at 3:38 pm

I’ve never been and probably never will. I do most of my “traveling” these days by reading your blog.

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Mary March 24, 2015 at 8:46 pm

Definitely on my list. The Mayans were amazing. They independently developed a place value system in base 20 and a very accurate calendar.

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Patti Morrow March 25, 2015 at 8:38 pm

You really nailed all the great things to do in the Riviera Maya. It’s one of the few destinations that I keep going back to, because it really has it all — history, culture, fantastic beaches, ruins, eco-parks, scuba diving, cenotes, delicious food and more. I think I’m going to go book a trip back now……

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr March 26, 2015 at 6:30 pm

Patti, I’m a little afraid to go back. I hope it still feels like “real” Mexico.

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nan @ lbddiaries March 27, 2015 at 12:30 pm

My son has, several times. Alpha Hubby and I haven’t. Just from what you’ve written, I believe this is a place – area – we’d enjoy. Your post has convinced me of this!!

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Juergen | dare2go March 27, 2015 at 1:23 pm

I first visited this coast in 1989 and again passed through briefly in 2007. I believe the Riviera Maya has a lot to offer compared with any other ‘resort style’ holiday. The beaches are beautiful and the surrounding sights, although crowded at times, make for a destination to energize all the senses. If you like to venture a bit further afield there are numerous other Mayan ruin sites to explore, Uxmal probably the best known of them.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr March 27, 2015 at 4:30 pm

Juergen, you’re right about Uxmal although I think it’s too far from the Quintana Roo coast and the Riviera Maya for a comfortable day trip. I first visited Uxmal as a college student in 1975 from the Yucatan capital of Merida—a charming colonial city that is a worthy destination in itself. My last visit was about 12 years ago on a cruise excursion from the Mexican port of Progreso. It was one of the best cruise excursions I’ve ever been on. Uxmal is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and there had already been much more excavation, preservation and restoration than when I had been there some 28 years before.

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Cathy Sweeney March 27, 2015 at 5:31 pm

I visited Chichen Itza in the mid-1980s. At the time, visitors could climb the pyramid (didn’t realize that they couldn’t anymore). I did it, but was terrified coming down. Made my way backwards just about on my knees! I’ll never forget the man calmly carrying his young daughter (and standing straight up) all the way down. Haven’t been to the other sites you wrote about, but would love to get to the Riviera Maya again.

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Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru March 27, 2015 at 7:42 pm

We’ve never been, but we’ve got rellies in the Midwest who won’t go anywhere else. 😉

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Sue March 27, 2015 at 8:51 pm

We have been to the Mayan Riviera twice and loved it. So much to see and do there. Gorgeous photos!

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Corinne March 28, 2015 at 6:00 am

Suzanne, I have yet to really do much in Mexico. Sure, I’ve been, but I haven’t really used my time that wisely. I have got to get to Chichen Itza! Love your write up!

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Shelley March 28, 2015 at 2:52 pm

Beyond the beautiful beaches, the interesting historical sites and natural environment of the Riviera Mayan make it quite appealing to me. I hope to visit one of these days.

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Leigh March 28, 2015 at 6:59 pm

I have yet to visit but would consider it if I could find boutique type hotels off the beaten path. Staying at a hotel however nice on a strip of beach wouldn’t do it for me. I do like the sound of all the ecoparks.

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Anita @ No Particular Place To Go March 30, 2015 at 6:35 pm

Beginning in the early 1990’s we vacationed several times in different places along the Mayan Riviera (Akumal, Cancun and Cozumel) and started our travels in 2012 by living in Playa del Carmen for 3 months. Your post was a lovely review of an area that we love: the Mayan ruins all over the Yucatan Peninsula, the cenotes and the gorgeous white sand beaches. In fact, I climbed the tallest pyramid at Coba with little difficulty but slid down the steps on my butt all the way down with my heart in my throat!

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