Congratulations! You’re ready to plan your Mexico beach vacation, but… where to go? You’ve heard of Cancun, but did you know there’s another fabulous destination (make that “multiple destinations”) right next door? Collectively known as the Riviera Maya, this area south of the Cancun International Airport will thrill you with possibilities.
Herewith, the top 10 things you need to know about the Riviera Maya:
1. It’s not Cancun. Really. Yes, you fly into the Cancun Airport, but the next step is to hop into your air-conditioned car or van and head south. While Cancun is the darling of many a travel agent, the Riviera Maya offers a collection of smaller towns that have their very own charm including Tulum (see #9), Akumal, Puerto Aventuras, and Playa del Carmen.
2. You really should park yourself. This is where those staying in Cancun come to play, namely at the amazing theme parks with exotic names like Xcaret Eco-Park (sh-karett) and Xel-Ha (shel-ha). These are just some of the famous parks you see in the Xcaret brochures—they have a ton!—, but they’re also lush retreats by the water with some pretty spectacular shows on land as well. Then, of course, there’s the Hacienda Tres Ríos (a resort with cenotes, those amazing freshwater sinkholes), Río Secreto, the canopy zip lines at Selvática, to mention but a few.
3. You may have realized eco-tourism and adventure are huge. These parks are just the tip of the iceberg. The Riviera Maya is home to the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, the 1.3-million-acre Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, and the world’s two longest underwater cave systems. Plus plus. You get the idea.
4. Thinking of tying the knot? You’ve come to the right place. From formal affairs under crystal chandeliers to saying “I do” with your toes in the sand—the Riviera Maya has it all, along with all kinds of top-notch wedding planners to take care of every detail. You can even choose to be married by a Mayan priest with all the exotic trimmings.
5. Sprawling all-inclusives? Check. The all-inclusive properties are famous for their kids’ clubs (though there are a few that cater to adults only), their buffets (many with American-style food), and their giant pools with activity directors. There’s never a moment where parents hear the dreaded “I’m bored,” and thanks to on-site babysitters, even grown-ups will be able to snag some “couple time” of their own. Future brides might want to consider an all-inclusive property for their wedding—some even have free ceremonies and receptions if you book your entire party’s accommodations on-site.
6. Villas and boutique hotels? Check (again). This may sound more “couples only,” but if you think about it, renting a villa could turn out to be a good proposition for a family of four (maybe even two!) Think of it literally like a home away from home with all the conveniences—service, kitchen, laundry–and it might start making a lot of sense. Of course, the adults-only option can be quite enticing, as well…
7. Fifth Avenue is not just in NYC. Yep, there’s a Fifth Avenue here, only it’s called Quinta Avenida and you really don’t need a chauffeured car to take you around. Throw on some shorts and flip flops during the day to tour the shops (high end and not so high) and eat your fill of fresh seafood prepared any way you like it (guaranteed you’ll discover something totally new); at night, throw on something a little more chic and head to the jazzy, laid-back open-air bars and restaurants. Prefer a hole-in-the-wall? There are a few of those, too!
8. If you prefer your greens off your plate, you’re in for a treat. The Riviera Maya welcomes golfers year-round. Both beginners and champions and everyone in between will find a course to their liking—all of them carved out of the jungle, surrounded by mangroves, cenotes, lagoons, and views of the Caribbean. Think Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, P.B. Dye, Robert Trent Jones II, Nick Price, and Robert Von Hagge. Two more are in the pipeline in the Kanai Riviera Maya area, both 18-hole championship greens.
9. Tulum boasts the only Mayan ruins by the sea. The archeological site of Tulum was built on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea and is one of the most impressive of the Mayan World. There are over 60 well-preserved structures in this group, including the iconic El Castillo. It served as a major port for the city of Cobá, locate inland and another must-see ruin (they are connected by a modern road). It’s located around two lagoons and was once estimated to have had some 50,000 inhabitants!
10. You’ll need sunscreen and mosquito repellant. You’d be surprised at how many people forget theirs. You are in the tropics. There will be bugs bugging you, especially if you’ll be trekking through the jungle to the cenotes and other hidden wonders. The best time of the year is from November through February (the former is actually amazing as there are better rates and fewer tourists.) Also: do not forget your sunscreen. There has been many a bright-red tourist checking in with the local pharmacist for aloe vera gel—you don’t want a bad sunburn to ruin your vacation!