The Mayan Riviera has so much more to offer than hotels
The resort area of Cancun draws millions of visitors from all over the world, and in some respects the area is ‘just another resort’ similar to countless tourist-oriented and over-developed parcels of real estate blessed with alluring natural beauty and a temperate climate. However Cancun, as well as the island of Cozumel and a number of smaller communities along the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, comprise only one aspect of Riviera Maya or the Mayan Riviera.
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This particular stretch of the Caribbean coastline, about 120 klms along Highway 306 from Cancun in the north to Tulum in the south, is home to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, the second longest coral barrier reef (after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) on the planet, and some of the most unusual and compelling Eco-parks you will ever see.
A large majority of tourists visiting Riviera Maya stay at one of many luxurious all-inclusive resorts in Cancun and along the coast, and it’s not at all uncommon for guests to spend an entire holiday within the grounds of their chosen resort. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but it does mean you’ll probably miss out on some truly unique and unforgettable attractions. Most are in easy reach by bus or rental car from any resort in the area.
One could spend a week in the relatively small (200 acre) boundaries of this entrancing park, in which some of its best features are the underground rivers interlaced throughout the park and its environs, and the clear, freshwater cenotes (lakes made by collapsed cave ceilings) that were formed long ago. These underground rivers still provide all the fresh water for the state of Quintana Roo (where the Riviera lies).
Xcaret Eco Park Resort – Cancun
Located across from Cozumel Island, Xcaret (meaning ‘small cove’ in Maya) features an emphasis on the ancient Mayan civilization, with a restored archaeological site, recreation of a Mayan village and performance shows. At the cove, you can snorkel the reef, swim with dolphins, visit the huge coral aquarium, the bat cave, the butterfly pavilion and jaguar island, amongst many other enticements. The hand of man is clearly evident, but nature’s creations are the real attractions.
In spite of the name, this is a do-not-miss if you’re anywhere on the Mayan Riviera. The park is very family-friendly, especially if your family is active and adventurous. Only about 6 klms south of Playa del Carmen (site of major resorts), this is an all-day kind of spot, with the price of admission including a buffet lunch, and transportation to and from nearby Riviera resorts on booked tours.
Cenote – Mexico
Two different zip-line courses send you soaring over the treetops, plunging into caverns, and one of them ends with a splash into a cenote. You can swim among stalactites in parts of the underground river and/or paddle a raft to explore a mystical subterranean wilderness of grottos and canals. Above ground there are amphibious vehicles you can drive on your own jungle explorations. Note: not recommended for anyone who’s not fairly fit and adventurous, or for very small children.
Another attraction that owes almost all of its allure to natural (as opposed to human) creativity. The Yucatan’s underground rivers and caverns, the lakes (cenotes) that result from eons of erosion by running water, and the relative accessibility by humans make these rivers unique in Mexico and in the world. Rio Secreto was ‘discovered’ only recently, and it has the distinction of being the longest known underground river in the world, and certainly one of the most beautiful.
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Now visitors have a chance to follow the paths some intrepid explorers have opened to the public, and the trip is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced (unless you’ve already been introduced to the world of subterranean rivers at one of the other parks.) For about 600 metres visitors can walk and swim along corridors formed over millennium, where some formations are so fragile a careless step or touch could destroy a natural work of art that took millions of years to create.
Playa del Carmen
All of the above-mentioned parks and several others are within easy driving distance of Playa del Carmen, which is basically in the center of the Mayan Riviera and a very popular destination. Whether you plan to spend your holiday in one spot or choose to explore the rest of this alluring and unusual coastline, Playa del Carmen has plenty to offer.
Playa Del Carmen Beach
As a hub for transport south to Tulum or north to Cancun, it’s the ideal location; because of that fact and because of its recent rapid gain in popularity, the amenities on offer are all that any discriminating traveler could want. Playa del Carmen has quickly taken on a cosmopolitan flavor, with visitors from all over the world, and the quality of dining and entertainment reflects the general commitment to making tourists happy.
Most of the hotels are new (built within the past decade or less), and there are numerous options available to please just about every taste and budget. As well as some well known international hotel chains there are quite a lot of new and enticing boutique hotels, plus condominiums designed specifically for the tourist trade. If you prefer the simpler pleasures there are also a number of smaller establishments that offer friendly and personal but very efficient service.
The Mayan Riviera can be the most memorable adventure of a lifetime if you choose to explore its natural wonders. Cozumel is a short ferry ride away from Playa del Carmen; two companies run ferries several times a day between Playa and the island, so plan a day trip if there’s time in your schedule.