There's no doubt that the lush jungles of the Mayan Riviera on the Yucatán Peninsula hide many treasures, but while some people covert the ancient Mayan temples hidden in the depth of the jungle, some visitors dream of the perfect Caribbean coast beaches that the jungles fringe.
This Holiday Idea allows you to explore both, and try out a few other things besides – ever tried cenote diving? No? Then read on...
The Mayan Riviera is at the very tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, where the jungles meet the bright white sands of the Caribbean, between the party resort of Cancún and the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum. The dive centre of Cozumel is also considered part of the riviera. But it's not just the coastline that make this destination, one of Mexico's most famous Mayan sites, Chichén Itzá, lies deep in the jungle behind the riviera.
That list seems like it would keep most people entertained for a week or two, but the interior of the Mayan Riviera also hides Spanish colonial silver mining towns, and tiny indigenous communities. Then there's the shopping, which is largely for visitors on cruise ship shore leave, and the other accoutrements of the leisured classes – the fine restaurants and other nighlife....
When it comes to planning your trip to the Mayan Riviera the first thing to do is decide where you want to be based. Highway 307 runs all the way along the riviera so it's relatively easy to access all the main attractions from any of the resort towns.
This resort, built over the fishing village of Majahual, is said to be made in the style of the ancients? But we must assume that those ancients travelled with Cunard - this new resort was built especially for cruise ship passengers. The fact that it's new provides some benefits – mostly that the area is largely undeveloped, so the diving and snorkelling is on unspoiled reefs and the Mayan sites in the jungles behind it are some of the least visited and quietest along the peninsular - Kohunlich and Dzibanché for example. There's also sea kayaking and dune buggying? The down side is that it's very much for shore leave. Lots of shops and fast food outlets, but there are more food stuffs available in Majahual.
The island of Cozumel is just off the coast of Playa del Carmen. Between them are the spectacular coral gardens of the Palancar Reef and the Great Mayan Reef, so these destinations are popular with divers, as well as the cruise ship crowds, who tend to stop off in San Miguel for some duty-free shore leave shopping – the price hikes this causes are centred round the docks. It's not just the coral gardens that are beautiful, the beaches are too.
Playa del Carmen boasts of having one of the nicest beaches in Mexico. It also boasts about being less than an hour away from Cozumel's renowned dive sites and having many of its own, including inland cenote diving, in those great chasms that open up in the jungle floor. Playa del Carmen also includes an 18 hole golf course on its list of boasts. Beyond that Playa del Carmen is just your run-of-the-mill gorgeous Yucatan Peninsular resort, complete with swanky hotels, watersports, shopping, restaurants and nightlife.
Playa del Carmen is probably not a good option if you're not a fan of the odd nude sunbather – it's got more topless and nude beaches than most Yucatan resorts.
Many of Mexico's visitors come for Cancún's holiday resorts on the strip of white, Caribbean style sand. If you like to party Cancún is one of the world’s most famous places to do so. This resort isn’t ashamed of that moniker – no, this city says bring us your college kids on spring break, bring us your stag weekends and party people wanting to keep dancing long after the cows have come home, come to us bikini clad wet-t-shirt competition competitors and people with a taste for drinks in a radioactive array of colours, we will show you a good time. And it will all be beside bright blue waters.
It's not all air conditioned shopping malls and fine dining and parties though, in the downtown area where all the locals live there are busy markets, street food and the remains of the small village this used to be, and all along the coast are a myriad of watersports to try.
Then it's on to the more important decisions of how you're going to fill each day. Here are some of the Mayan Riviera's best offerings:
You can't visit the Mayan Riviera without visiting the Mayan ruins. These are some of the largest and most impressive, but there are enough smaller sites so that if you wanted to you could spend a month just admiring the ruins...
One of the most impressive things about these ruins, one of Mexico's most famous complexes, is the way they lines up so perfectly astronomically, and with other complexes in the region. Chichén Itzá was a spiritual, cultural and commercial centre for the Mayans, and you can see the changing influences of various cultural groups in the different architecture. The Temple of Kukulkan is both the largest and most important of Chichén Itzá's structures, you can't miss it, and this is a good place to begin to understand the Maya and Toltec vision of the world and the universe.
If you can arrange it the very best time to visit is around the Spring Equinox. The the knowledge of the Mayan astronomers and architects is fully displayed when they way the building is aligned and built causes a great snake of shadow to run down the side of the temple.
Tucked away about 90kms east of Chichén Itzá lie the ruins of another great Pre-Columbian city. At its largest the city was home to about 50,000 people. Most of the construction happened between about the 6th and 10th centuries, but the archaeologists who studied it think it was inhabited until the 14th Century, which means it may have been populated up to the arrival of the Spanish. What's nice about this site is that it's not all been wretched from the jungle's grip so you can see in the overgrown sections what these site would have looked like when explorers first discovered them.
Though architecturally somewhat crude compared to other classic Maya sites such as Uxmal and Chichen Itza, Tulum has one of the most beautiful settings of any city constructed by the Maya. Perched on a cliff overlooking pristine beaches and an aquamarine sea, the Temple of Kukulkan dominates the ruins. This structure, called El Castillo (meaning 'the castle') by the conquering Spaniards was never a castle but rather a shrine and ceremonial center.
Just as many people visit the Mayan Riviera for the diving and snorkelling as for the Mayan ruins. The Great Mayan Reef and the Palancar Reef have some of the top spots. The coral atolls, fringing reefs, barrier reefs and large coral gardens are a magnet for marine life, such as dolphins, sharks, shellfish, sea horses, and sea turtles. There are over one hundred different coral species that make up the reef, making for an attractive backdrop to watch more than 500 different species of fish. There are also pirate shipwrecks and limestone tunnels for more experienced divers to explore.
The Isla Mujeres on the Cancun end of the reef has huge protected lagoon which has been made into a marine park which is great for new divers and snorkellers and just north of the island is the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks, a local favourite and a good place to see sharks at their most passive due to low salt levels in the water.
But you don't even have to leave the land to go diving: the underside of the Mayan Riviera is mostly limestone which has been hollowed out by the ocean into a whole system of tunnels, caves and caverns called cenotes, which are perfect for divers and snorkellers. Like other underground water systems these caves are still chambers of pale green waters, what's different is that the system is quite large and has many open air entrances and exits and wide tunnels so snorkellers as well as divers can go exploring down here. The water temp is consistent and visibility is really good – the view is surprisingly un-repetitive.
Just out of Playa del Carmen is a Xcalacoco, a nice spot for a spot of kitesurfing. The beach is long and sandy and the water is calm. And if you prefer to be on the water rather than in it, sea kayaking is another way to appreciate the beauty of this coastline.
There's any number of near perfect beaches along this coastline, and the water comes in all shades of blue. The resorts all have markets, so you've got your shopping wrapped up. But if you're interested in other ways to spend a relaxing afternoon you could visit Punta Laguna and Ma'ax Yetel Kooh Nature Reserve. The Ma'ax Yetel Kooh Nature Reserve was set up to protect the regions more exotic fauna: spider monkeys, howler monkeys, pumas and jaguars, but it also protects some Mayan ruins within its boundaries, and the small town of Punta Laguna. Here life is lived at a different pace, pigs and chickens seem to have right of way, and people have time to make their own tortillas instead of rushing to the shops to buy them...
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Visit the Yucatán Peninsula for the ancient Mayan ruins, the Caribbean style beaches, the diving, adventures in the jungle, or for the culture - there are almost too many reasons.
From orange deserts to lush jungles fringing white beaches, Mexico is very varied – and that's just the terrain. There's more variety in the cultures that have lent their influence, and built their monuments here and the pace of life you can holiday at.