Mexico’s Riviera Maya a magic carpet of sand
By DAVID SWANSON, SPECIAL TO SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
In the early 1980s, the pristine, beach-girdled Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula was marked by little more than a few fishing villages. There was a hotel here and a hammock there, but not much of an effort to identify their position, nor much infrastructure to support them.
But just as it did for Cancun, which sprang up only about 1974, Mexico’s government tourism development agency decided to put a name to this beautiful face, and the Riviera Maya was born. And soon enough a highway paralleling the coast was built, linking this sun-drenched piece of real estate to the busy Cancun airport.
Sure, the name rings of romanticized marketing conceit, but Riviera Maya is indeed an ideal description of the magic carpet of sand that unrolls virtually unbroken for 81 miles south of Cancun.
Better still is the sheer breadth of vacation options on offer: From elegant hideaway resorts to wallet-conscious all-inclusives, from lively beach bars to candlelit gourmet repasts – Riviera Maya delivers. But because the region’s developed areas have sprung up as recently as, well, last month, you are excused for not knowing the difference between Xpu-Ha and Xel-Ha, Maroma and Mayakoba.
In fact, many travelers assume the Riviera Maya is merely an extension of Cancun (probably in part because they share an airport). It’s not: With more than 37,000 hotel rooms of its own – a number projected to double by 2025 – and almost 3 million visitors annually, Riviera Maya is a fierce competitor to its more famous neighbor. But whereas Cancun is a busy resort city, down south the visitors are spread out over a much larger area and resorts tend to be more stand-alone, often more intimate.
So, pack up your rental car at the airport and head south on Highway 307. Let’s get the lay of the land.
The Riviera Maya starts in Puerto Morelos, one of the coast’s last genuine fishing villages, 12 miles south of the airport. The beach here is not as impressive as those deeper into the region – the salt-and-pepper shoreline doesn’t glisten quite as brightly, and less-than-translucent seas have a blanket of turtle grass underfoot.
But there are advantages to being based in Puerto Morelos. Your airport transfer is barely 20 minutes, and the proximity to Cancun makes an evening out on the town a realistic option. Nightlife in laid-back Puerto Morelos may be a tad scruffy, but it’s fun for an evening or two. Better still, the barrier reef – the world’s second longest – lies less than a mile offshore, and it’s a designated marine reserve along this section of Riviera Maya. And the beaches of Puerto Morelos? Quiet and uncrowded.
Eighteen miles south of the airport begins Riviera Maya’s gold coast. Ask locals where their favorite beach sits, and watch their eyes go dreamy as they slowly mouth, “Maroma.”
Virtually untouched by builders until recently, Maroma is where talcum-soft sand and tranquil waters meet to comprise what is arguably the region’s finest beach, first inhabited by the classy Maroma hotel, a Mayan-Moorish honeymoon oasis. There’s no town here: The jungle behind the beach is thick and daunting while the sand is a cream of alabaster – your footprint may be the first of the day.
Just south is Mayakoba, a 593-acre development shared by three hotels hugging a mile-long stretch of coast. The bulk of the rooms and facilities are situated a half-mile inland, a foresight that accommodates the strip of mangrove lagoon that sits just behind the beach dune. By leaving most of the mangrove undeveloped, Mayakoba has the feel of encroaching jungle, with cormorants and egrets fishing and preening in the morning sun. A 7,000-yard Greg Norman golf course snakes around the property.
The de facto hub of the Riviera Maya and Mexico’s fastest-growing city, Playa del Carmen is not exactly a place for seclusion and quiet, but it’s also not some high-rise jungle. Often known simply as Playa, the beach fronting the town is surprisingly broad and relatively clean – especially north of main drag Constituyentes – and resort and dining prices are the region’s most competitive. Years ago, city officials had the prescience to designate Fifth Avenue – one block in from the beach – as a pedestrian-only street, with restaurants and shops that percolate cheerfully each evening.
Despite 180,000-plus residents, Playa is an ideal location for car-free visitors who don’t want their vacation to be defined by the swim-up pool bar. The town beach is lively, especially around Mamita’s, a hip beach club with a pageant of white beds, loungers and umbrellas for rent, a DJ spinning electronica and hip-hop, spa services and good food.
Within walking distance just south of town is the Playacar complex, with hundreds of condos, a golf course and a collection of low- and midprice all-inclusive resorts. Intensive building close to the shoreline has taken its toll on the slender beach here; some hotels have planted immense sandbags in the water to hold the sand in – they appear much like beached whales. While good hotel deals can be found in Playacar, if you’re staying elsewhere, it’s not a beach to make a detour for.
Southbound traffic thins out after you pass Playa, and 4 miles beyond the aquatic theme park Xcaret lies Paamul, a throwback to the Riviera Maya of a couple of decades ago, an era of ramshackle fishing hamlets that ran on generator power. There’s no real village in Paamul – blink, and you’ll miss the turnoff – just a bare-bones hotel and trailer park, plus a modest restaurant overlooking the innocent crescent cove. It’s worth a margarita stop.
Just south is Puerto Aventuras, but unlike most of the coast’s tourism developments, this one is short on sand, and most of its beaches are artificial.
By contrast, 2 miles farther is Xpu-Ha. The Riviera Maya’s beaches don’t get any dreamier than this – the sand is bright white, plush and uncrowded. A couple of all-inclusive resorts anchor each end of the beach. But to access the choicest, broadest slice of silica, watch for the sign for Al Cielo restaurant, where the Mediterranean menu is strong on delicious seafood.
Located 53 miles south of the airport, the beach fronting the town of Akumal is not grand, yet it’s beloved for snorkeling, often accompanied by sea turtles that frequent the reefs close to shore. In fact, Akumal translates to “place of the turtles,” and nighttime nestings and hatchings on the beach are a regular event from June through September.
The north end of Akumal is Half Moon Bay, the main turtle nesting area, lined with rental condos (many of them owned by American ex-pats). Akumal Bay fronts the central business area; this small beach can be busy, but there are restaurants, bars and water recreation options, which make it a good base for day-trippers. South of Akumal, the shore morphs into Jade Beach, with some rockier points of entry into the water, and then the sand improves at South Akumal – both areas are lined with rental condos.
Ruin with a view
Seventy miles south of Cancun airport is one of Mexico’s most important archaeological sites, Tulum, the only Mayan city built right on the sea. It’s also home to some of Riviera Maya’s finest beaches along with a dizzying array of small inns. Tulum also is coping with a decade’s worth of poorly regulated development; in fact, as many as a dozen hotels built close to the ruins may be torn down (for encroaching on national parkland) – stay tuned. Still, Tulum boasts off-the-grid chic that lures a young and international crowd for simpler cabana comforts that mingle with Buddha Bar aesthetics.
The ruin itself is perched on a rocky bluff – one of the few places along the Yucatan coast with any topographical character. A couple fine small coves are tucked into the rocks immediately below El Castillo – arrive early, before the crowds, or come late and you may have these little pockets of sand to yourself. A mile-long stretch of excellent beach extends south to another series of rocky bluffs directly in line with the town, which sits a mile inland. This stretch draws locals and the ambiance can be festive. Follow the coastal road just beyond the well-liked restaurant Zamas Que Fresco, and then the sand continues – unbroken, unnamed – for miles. Most beach access is from the paved road and in many areas requires walking through one of the many small, casual hotels.
Development ends at 1.5 million-acre Sian Ka’an Biosphere, a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. While the park is focused on jungle walks, mangrove lagoons and unexcavated ruins, the 22-mile Boca Paila Peninsula is fronted by a ribbon of fine white sand that will indulge your most escapist Robinson Crusoe fantasies. Beware the road heading south, the worst of which is best left to four-wheel-drive vehicles.
A rental car is the best way to visit hideaway beaches, rented at the Cancun airport or from your hotel front desk; the main highway is easy to navigate and well maintained. Shared-van service runs regularly from the airport to points south: Budget $28 per person to Playa del Carmen and Playacar (or $112 for a private taxi for up to four), $47 for Akumal and Tulum (or $175 for private); www.cancunsharedshuttle.com.
Mexico’s beaches belong to the government and are theoretically open to all. But many all-inclusive resorts limit access to the sand from the highway; beach-strollers will find guards preventing nonguests from using their palapas and loungers (wristbands identify which all-inclusive resort you belong to). Watch for dirt roads leading off the north-bound side of the highway – usually unmarked, they sometimes lead to unheralded patches of sand. Aqua shoes are helpful for access along rocky areas.
For more information
The best tourist maps of the area are those sold by Can-Do Travel Guides, which contain plentiful dining recommendations as well. www.cancunmap.com.