Explore the Riviera Maya away from the tourist-infested Cancun
THE true beauty of Mexico’s Riviera Maya is outside its usual entry point. So if you’re flying into Cancun for your Mexican holiday, give the tourist trap full of obnoxious Americans a wide berth.
Stay in Playa del Carmen or Tulum and visit the attractions from there.
Tulum is a quaint seaside town with coastal vistas that will make your friends turquoise with envy when you post photos on social media. But perched upon 12-metre tall cliffs it is the ruins of a former Mayan walled city that acted as a major port for the area that captures the most attention. You can wander around imagining what life must have been like there between the 13th and 15th centuries. Hire a bike to ride to the site and hire a tour guide so you get the back story on the well-preserved buildings. Take bathers for the beach at the bottom of the cliff.
Playa del Carmen
There’s a food market on the corner of Avenida Benito Juarez and 15 Avenida Nte that has incredible Mexican food – authentic, super cheap and oh so delicious. There are photos to point to if you don’t have a lick of Spanish. But, of course, there are myriad spots along the main tourist strip too. If you fancy a drink, there’s a bar called Pez Vela with swings as seats and there’s a margarita bar called Fat Tuesday. Or hire a lounge chair and order drinks or snacks to be brought to you between swims in the picture-perfect Caribbean. It’s also the perfect launch pad for other Riviera Maya adventures.
This architectural marvel is worth the day trip. One of the seven wonders of the world, each section of El Castillo, or the Pyramid of Kukulcan in Mayan, represents a part of the Mayan calendar. At the equinox in spring and autumn, the sun aligns perfectly with one of the staircases to create triangles with light and shadows that give the illusion of a serpent slithering down the side. Tour companies head to Chichen Itza from all over the Yucatan peninsula but to avoid the crowds, you can catch an early bus yourself. ADO buses leave Merida at 6.30am and arrive just after the site opens at 8am so you can have the place almost to yourself. They also leave Cancun and Playa del Carmen but not until 8.45am and 8am, respectively.
The Riviera Maya has a huge collection of sinkholes, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposed groundwater beneath, known as cenotes. The Mayans once used them as water sources and sometimes for sacrificial offerings. There are plenty to choose from but Dos Ojos (meaning two eyes) comes highly recommended for new diving and snorkelling adventures. The fish and coral near Isla Mujeres, near Cancun, love their very own underwater museum. From cars to people and dogs to weave through, the 400 statues have unsurprisingly become a hot diving spot.
If you’ve ever had the burning desire to swim among turtles, Akumal Bay is your sure-fire chance. Unlike most snorkelling trips in the big blue where you might chance seeing the graceful ocean dwellers, the protected water at this bay is a perfect habitat for them to feed.
It’s actually a short 70-minute flight from Cancun over to Cuba so why not also explore the land of the cigar before trade with America changes the landscape? People aren’t wrong when they say Cuba is stuck back in the 1950s, it’s like a time warp. Classic cars, dilapidated buildings and the absence of global branding are among the most obvious signs.
The Portal Maya sculpture on Playa Del Carmen’s main Caribbean beach and, top right, Chichen Itza is an architectural marvel – modelled on the Mayan calendar – in Mexico; and below right, the Mayan ruins at Tulum are perched on a cliff above the Caribbean.