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Inside: Why Mexico’s Riviera Maya is the perfect beach escape. PLUS – everything you need to know to plan your trip.
It took me 3 tries to get Mexico right.
Recollections of my first two trips to Cancun (the second nearly 10 years ago) were ambivalent at best. Two distinct memories prevailed:
1. Beautiful beaches.
2. Constant harassment from timeshare hawkers & club promoters.
But when my friend Shannon and I were searching for somewhere “beachy” to spend the 4th of July holiday (the summer before Covid-19 rocked the travel world), a $94/night rate at the Westin Cancun was just too tempting to pass up.
So I put my unpleasant memories aside from visits more than a decade ago. Instead, I focused on the memories of beautiful beaches and the turquoise Caribbean Sea, determined to give the area another try.
After all, there must be more to the popular Mexican state of Quintana Roo than mega-resorts, drunken spring-breakers, and high-pressure sales tactics. This time I would get out of Cancun and explore.
Enter, Mexico’s stunning Riviera Maya.
But first, do I need a negative Covid-19 test to travel to Mexico?
No. Thankfully, the pandemic seems be firmly behind us and Mexico no longer requires that travelers test prior to arrival.
But you will need to complete a Mexico Tourist Card. Most airlines no longer provide this card on the plane so it’s highly recommended to complete it online and print it out to show when you land in Cancun. This will significantly speed up the arrival process.
But enough about all that, let’s get back to the white sand beaches of the Riviera Maya!
What is the Riviera Maya?
Originally called the Cancun-Tulum corridor, the tourist district along the coast of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo was re-Christened as the “Riviera Maya” in 1999.
The Riviera Maya region begins south of the bustling resort town of Cancun and includes (among others) the popular resort towns of Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and the island of Cozumel. All boasting magnificent views of the sparkling Caribbean Sea.
Dominated by a combination of extravagant all-inclusive resorts and exclusive boutique hotels, the Riviera Maya is rich in both unique activities and fascinating culture.
And if you’re looking to truly unwind on your vacation, there’s no better place.
Just book an all inclusive resort, pull up a lounge chair at the infinity pool with an icy margarita, and embrace doing nothing at all in paradise! The region is also known for 5-star holistic spas offering decadent spa treatments.
What’s the Best Time to Visit the Riviera Maya?
The Mayan Riviera is truly a year-round travel destination.
The winter months of December to March are the peak season in the Yucatan Peninsula. And this dry season time of year truly is paradise anywhere along the Mexican Caribbean. But resort rates are also at their peak, especially over the holidays!
So a winter escape to this sunny coastline will cost a bit more than other times of the year.
The rainy season in the Riviera Maya region is May to November. While you’ll often find hot temps and sunny skies this time of year, you may also have to contend with afternoon showers and (possibly) hurricane season.
On the plus side, you’ll discover terrific hotel special offers this time of year (like we did!). And the Caribbean Sea is warm and perfect for swimming and water sports.
Best Things to Do in the Riviera Maya
The Riviera Maya is fringed by the Belize Barrier Reef (the world’s second-largest), so water-based sports like diving and snorkeling are the primary attractions.
But the area is also home to significant archaeological sites like the coastal ruins of Tulum. Not to mention a trifecta of gigantic eco-parks known as Xcaret, Xel-Ha, and Xplor.
For our visit, we will call Cancun home base. But we’re excited to get out and explore what the rest of the Riviera Maya has to offer with visits to Xcaret, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen.
Where to Stay in Cancun (if you must)
After a quick and easy flight from Atlanta, we arrive at the beautiful Westin Resort & Spa in Cancun and get our first look at the magnificent ocean-front view from our balcony.
Suddenly, this last-minute summer break is starting to seem like a brilliant idea.
I had forgotten just how magnificent Cancun’s beaches really are.
We spend the whole first day lounging on the Westin’s nearly-empty beach sipping margaritas and enjoying the solitude of the far end of the hotel zone. (Perhaps this is the key to avoiding the persistent and industrious salespeople working both the streets and the beach?)
Riviera Maya Day 2 – Did I agree to swim with sharks? Apparently.
After a restful night’s sleep enhanced by the sounds of crashing waves from the beach below, we have a big day planned for our first full day in the Riviera Maya.
While at a travel blogger’s conference in Colorado last month, I met Josh Berman, the writer for the Riviera Maya Moon Guide. Since I was in the process of planning this trip, I picked his brain for travel tips.
He highly recommended Xcaret Park and introduced me to their PR folks who invited me to visit and try out their “Swimming with Sharks” experience.
I mean, when someone asks you to come on down and swim with their sharks, can you really say no?
Well, yes. Obviously, YES.
And I probably should have.
But I’d had a drink or two when the invitation was extended and for some reason, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea.
So, Shannon and I follow the simple instructions from my Xcaret contact, Leo, on how to reach the park using the local bus system (from the Uxmal Avenue bus station it’s a 1-hour ride), And we arrive at 9:30am ready for a full day of adventure.
And sharks. Did I mention the sharks?
A Day at Xcaret Park Riviera Maya
Located along the Riviera Maya, Xcaret Park is the centerpiece of a trio of eco-archaeological parks (the others are Xel-Ha and Xplor) that showcase the natural beauty and culture of Mexico.
Between them, the parks offer more than 200 acres of activities including snorkeling in underground rivers, swimming with dolphins, rays, and sharks, a butterfly pavilion, a coral reef aquarium, white sand beaches, sea turtles, and a Mayan village with local craftsmen. Not to mention countless restaurants and shows.
And Leo has a full day in store for us.
We begin with a visit to the Chapel of Guadalupe and a tour of a typical Mexican home. Next up, we head over to visit with a few of Xcaret’s mascots, the red macaws.
Sustainability and conservation are top priorities at Xcaret. In fact, their Reproduction Program of Endangered Species was awarded the Guinness World Record for the most macaws born at a single location in the same year.
From there, we stop at a mushroom farm, an orchid house and then tour some of the park’s sustainability efforts. Next, we cool off with a drink and float down the refreshing waters of the underground rivers.
Swimming with sharks
After a delicious buffet lunch overlooking a lagoon of sea turtles, it’s time for the highlight (depending on your level of anxiety) of the day. Swimming with sharks!
It’s not every day you get a chance to swim with sharks and I freely admit I am nervous. But we are both determined to enjoy the experience. (And by “we” I mean me and Shannon. I’m pretty sure the sharks don’t care one way or the other.)
It begins with a detailed presentation involving the finer points of shark safety. Utilizing a stuffed shark, our guide demonstrates where it’s OK to touch the shark and how not to become food.
Then we get down to business and dip our toes into the water with five nurse sharks.
First, we sit on a bench in the water while a trainer holds the shark and allows us to touch it – one at a time – on the back and then the stomach. We touch the gills and even experience the frightening power of the shark’s jaws while feeding it a piece of fish dropped from above…yikes!
Then it’s time for the all-important “just me hanging out with my shark” photos. Obvious Instagram gold.
After thirty minutes or so of familiarization with the sharks and getting comfortable in the water, we don snorkel gear and actually swim with them for 15 minutes.
Amazingly enough, by this time I discover I am completely at ease. I have always been terrified of sharks but I grab my waterproof camera and hop right in. I swim around taking photos and videos while they circle just below me.
Hopefully, this experience has helped me overcome my fear of sharks enough to try diving in Honduras on my upcoming 30-day trip around Central America.
Side Note: Little do we know, we’ll soon be swimming with sharks again. In the Galapagos this time. And not on purpose.
Read More: How to See the Galapagos Islands on a Budget
More Xcaret fun
After conquering our shark fears, we spend the rest of the afternoon soaking in the culture. First, with a visit to the Mayan village and then exploring the butterfly pavilion and archaeological ruins. Then we head into the large amphitheater for the “Mexico Spectacular” show that ends each day at Xcaret.
The show is a musical journey through Mexican history featuring more than 300 performers in colorful costumes. It also features a thrilling performance by Mexico’s Papantla Flying Men, one of the country’s most unique cultural traditions.
It’s a terrific way to end a full day of nature-filled activities in paradise.
But our day isn’t done just yet…
Surprise…it’s nesting sea turtles!
By the time we make it back to the Westin, it’s just after midnight.
We’re exhausted from our action-packed day but decide to sit out on the balcony and have a cocktail before calling it a night.
As we look down at the beach, we spot something amazing. A giant sea turtle is making her way out of the water and up onto the beach to lay eggs!
Now, before I continue, I should say that I grew up in Florida and I’ve spent countless days on beaches all over the world. I have never, ever been lucky enough to witness this incredible event before.
We watch the turtle in awe from the balcony as she selects a good spot and then tirelessly begins to dig a very deep hole to deposit her eggs. As we watch, we notice other turtle shadows circling in the sea just offshore and before long another turtle is approaching the beach!
Is this really happening? First swimming with sharks and now nesting sea turtles? It’s a nature extravaganza!
A closer look…
When the second turtle emerges we can’t take it anymore and head down to the beach to watch from a closer but respectful distance so as not to disturb her.
Westin security has already admonished a couple who happened to be walking down the beach when turtle #1 came out of the sea. (They got a little too close while taking pictures!) We are happy to see that someone is looking after the turtles and we know to keep our distance.
We end up watching the turtles on the beach until almost 2am. By then both are still digging and clearly have more stamina at this hour than we do.
It is such an amazing thing to watch that I really just can’t pull myself away. Nature…sometimes it really just takes your breath away, doesn’t it?
The next morning when I look out from the balcony, I can see that momma turtle #1 eventually finished her task because in addition to her original tracks leading to the nest there is now another clear set of tracks leading back to the sea.
Hotel staff carefully examine the nests and mark each one with flags to keep beach-goers away. I’m fascinated by the Westin’s obvious commitment to the turtles and stop by the concierge desk later to ask a few questions.
Sea turtle season on the Riviera Maya
It turns out we have arrived just in time for turtle season on the Riviera Maya!
Sea turtle nesting season along the Riviera Maya region lasts from June to August. The most common sea turtle species in the area are Green Turtles and Loggerhead Turtles.
The helpful concierge, Rafael, explains that the turtles have just begun to arrive in the past week or two. The hotel actually removes the eggs from the nest to protect them from harm while they gestate. Several weeks later when the turtles are ready to hatch, they release them in a ceremony on the beach.
Guests are even notified in advance so they can come down to watch the release. How awesome is that? I can only imagine what an incredible sight it would be to see the babies scurry into the sea. (If you were trying to come up with a good reason to visit Cancun or the Riviera Maya in August or September…you’re welcome.)
Kudos to the Westin Resort and all of the other Cancun and Riviera Maya hotels that protect these gorgeous creatures in their natural habitat despite the massive amount of visitors to the area.
Another lazy day at the beach
After such a late night on turtle-watch, we decide to spend today diligently securing lounge chairs to beach sand with the invaluable aid of strategically chosen adult beverages.
Mexico 101, if you will.
It’s also a good opportunity to develop a plan for tomorrow, our last full day in the area.
A Day Trip along the Riviera Maya
By day 3 we have mastered the local transportation system and decide to forgo the expensive group excursion options and make our way down to Tulum and Playa del Carmen on our own.
How to get from Cancun to Playa del Carmen
Though it takes a bit longer than the direct route by pre-arranged transport, it’s a piece of cake to catch the local R-1 bus from the hotel along the hotel zone to the downtown Cancun bus station (Uxmal Avenue).
From there, the clean, comfortable, and (most importantly) air-conditioned ADO buses run regularly to Playa del Carmen. The drive takes a little under an hour, tickets cost 210 pesos (about 10 USD) and buses leave approximately every 30 minutes.
First stop, Playa del Carmen
We stop first in Playa del Carmen to explore and grab some lunch. We emerge from the bus in the heart of the shopping district on Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue).
When ferry service to Cozumel began here in the 1990’s, the fishing village of Playa del Carmen began to emerge as a Riviera Maya resort destination in its own right.
Today, Playa’s beautiful beachfront offers everything from luxurious all-inclusive family resorts like Hotel Xcaret Mexico (which includes access to all Xcaret parks) to 5-star adults-only resorts like El Dorado Maroma.
We souvenir shop for a bit then settle into a beachfront restaurant for lunch. After lunch it’s back on the bus to continue on to Tulum.
Playa del Carmen to Tulum
From Playa, we catch a connecting ADO bus to Tulum (another hour) and are exploring the ruins of the world’s only seaside Mayan temple by lunchtime.
The history of Tulum
One of the last cities to be inhabited and built by the Mayans, Tulum may have served as a port city for the Maya site of Coba. Protected on one side by steep sea cliffs and on the other by a wall that averaged about 16ft in height, Tulum is the Yucatan Mayan word for fence or wall.
With access to both land and sea trade routes, it is those walls and natural barriers that defended the city from invasion.
Today this stunning archaeological site is the most popular tourist attraction along the Riviera Maya.
The Beaches of Tulum
Tulum is known for the best white sand beaches on the Yucatan coast and just below the ancient Mayan ruins lies one of its best, Playa Ruinas.
Also well worth a visit, Playa Paraiso (considered the area’s best) and the palapa-lined Akumal – a popular place to swim and snorkel with the many sea turtles of the Riviera Maya (just don’t get too close!).
Cenotes are natural deep-water sinkholes fed by rain and the current of underground rivers and they’re a wonderfully unique place to cool off on a hot summer day. There are more than 6,000 cenotes across the Yucatan Peninsula and some of the best are found right here.
The most popular are Cenote Do Ojos, Gran Cenote, and Casa Cenote. They are most easily accessed by rental car or via one of many day trips available.
Since we’re short on time and relying on public transportation today, we’ll have to save them for another time. Instead, we wander the temples in the high heat for as long as we can bear it. Then, we hit the beach to cool off with a couple of frozen cocktails before catching the bus back to the hotel.
All in all, the perfect way to spend a day in the Riviera Maya.
A night out in Cancun
Since this is our last night in Cancun, we decide to get out of the hotel to experience a little of the resort town’s infamous nightlife.
I’m hesitant since the nightlife was my primary source of annoyance from previous trips but I figure maybe things have changed since the last time I was in town.
They have not.
The streets in the bar district are thick with the same aggressive club promoters and cloying street vendors that made it impossible to walk down the street un-accosted 10 years ago. Perhaps even worse than before.
This experience was annoying at 20-something and I find it even more annoying at, well, let’s just say…older.
I’m not sure what age you’d have to be to find this fun, maybe 18?
We tolerate it long enough to have some dinner but decide to forgo the nightclub options and head back to the hotel around 11:00pm to resume “Turtle Watch.”
Mexico’s Turtle TV
Luckily the turtles are unfazed by the nightlife commotion just down the road and once again several return to the Westin’s quiet white sands to lay eggs.
In Tahiti, they call that little glass panel on the floor of your overwater bungalow “Tahitian Televsion.” In the Riviera Maya, I’d call this “Turtle Television.” And it beats the pants off anything you’ll find on an actual television these days.
Last day in paradise
The next day we spend the morning lounging by the infinity pool with cocktails before departing for the airport to fly back home to Atlanta.
I’m so glad I decided to make this return visit to Mexico and explore the Riviera Maya. It’s given me a whole new appreciation for the region.
Yes, many people come to Cancun for the 5-star luxury hotels and exuberant nightlife. But this trip has taught me that there’s so much more to experience along the Riviera Maya. Especially if you get out of the resort zone.
Next time, I’ll head straight for the Riviera Maya
On my next visit, I look forward to breaking out of Cancun entirely and staying at one of the lovely all-inclusive hotels in Playa del Carmen. Or maybe I’ll even try out one of Tulum’s many fabulous beachfront luxury boutique hotels like Casa Malca or Mezzanine.
It just goes to show that sometimes it’s possible to see an old destination with entirely new eyes. If you haven’t visited the Riviera Maya lately…I’d say it’s time to give it another try.
Say hi to the sea turtles for me.
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Disclosure: Park admission and shark experience were provided courtesy of Xcaret Park.