Winter Escape: Mexico’s Riviera Maya

From beachfront towns to archaeological sites and all-inclusive resorts, Mexico's Riviera Maya beckons to those wearied by winter.

The dinosaurs were basking in the prehistoric sun. For 135 million years, they had been living as kings of Earth. And perhaps they would have lived that way forever, were it not for a massive meteor which struck the shallow waters where today’s Yucatan Peninsula sits, creating a monstrous, 170-mile-wide crater and dislodging fiery rock and ash which devastated the climate and ended the reign of the dinosaurs forever. 

Move forward 65 million years to the 1300s. The dinosaurs had disappeared long before, and the Mayans were controlling a strong Caribbean and inland trade from the Yucatan. At the coastal city of Tulum, massive walls blocked would-be invaders, and a protected beach surrounded by cliffs gave the Tulum dwellers access to the Caribbean’s crystal-blue waters. The city was reasonably advanced with fresh water and plumbing systems. Massive temple monuments gazed out over the eastern sea, and for the Mayans, it was a time of luxury and wealth that allowed them to build pyramids elsewhere at Chichen Itza, Coba and dozens of other cities.

I suppose that if you asked a citizen near Tulum, the future must have seemed particularly bright—as it once did for the dinosaurs. And bright it was—at least for hundreds of years until the European explorers brought more and more of their ilk along with European diseases. By the later 1500s, the reign of the Mayans had disappeared into the jungle, along with their cities Tulum, Chichen Itza and Coba.

Move the clock forward once again, this time to the present. Even the massive Chicxulub crater from the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs is gone. Now the only holes in the ground on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula are the cenotes—natural wells formed from collapsed caves in the dominant limestone rock. “In the summer when it is so hot outside,” I’m told by a booking agent at one of the resorts, “the water of the cenotes is so perfectly fresh and cool.”

Today, the Yucatan is one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations, best known for Cancun and Cozumel, but increasingly known for the Riviera Maya region, a coastal strip located south of Cancun and which extends from roughly the town of Puerto Morelos to the former Mayan city of Tulum. In the last 40 years, the region has grown explosively as all-inclusive resorts and boutique beachfront hotels have catered to world travelers (many from the U.S. and Canada) looking for sun, sand and surf.  These travelers seem to have picked up the lesson that was taught brutally to the dinosaurs and to the Mayan people, which is to say, “Enjoy the moment, because you never know what could be coming next, pestilence from an unknown culture or even a massive burning rock from outer space big enough to kill the giant lizards.”

With such a mindset, today’s visitors gather gladly around swim-up bars, taste rare tequilas, order calorie-loaded plates from resort restaurants, gather for destination weddings, hike around Mayan ruins, swim in the cenotes, and snorkel and dive upon the corals of the Mesoamerican Reef. At night, they relax upon balconies as steady breezes blow temperate winds. Live in the moment, indeed.

The beach at Tulum

Going There:

Peak travel season to the Riviera Maya area (via Cancun's international airport) is generally considered to be from November through May along the Yucatan. This happens to be the driest time of the year, and it’s also when much of North America would prefer to abandon that snow shovel.

Stay:

The concept of the all-inclusive resort is alive and well in the Riviera Maya region, and the concept is not entirely different than what you know of Cancun, minus the spring-break-party image. Beachside resorts like Karisma’s Azul properties, Grand Velas and Secrets capitalize on vacationers’ desires to get away from it all, but in towns like Playa del Carmen, travelers will find boutique hotels, condo properties and even traditional hotel-style properties. Rooms at the big resorts tend to be well-sized, and numerous companies offer timeshare-condo ownership programs for those wanting to make a getaway into a regular adventure.

Eat:

The secluded, seaside locations of most resorts mean you often simply cannot bounce into town to grab dinner, and the “all-inclusive” price encourages vacationers to get value out of their daily fee. Fortunately, the food quality at many all-inclusive resorts has improved dramatically. The buffets are still there but the quality is good, and many resorts have added specialty restaurants.

Le Chique, the signature restaurant at the Azul Sensatori resort, is one of the additions to the resort dining scene. Chef Jonathan Gomez Luna stuns his diners with gastronomy feats you’d expect only in the most cutting-edge restaurant in Los Angeles, New York or Paris. He’s practicing what almost amounts to alchemy in his kitchen, rendering a margarita served inside a thin, edible ball made of cotton candy, and blasted with nitrogen to keep it frozen. But it’s not just about showmanship. Gomez Luna is equally at hand with local flavors like aguachile (a variation on ceviche typically served in Northern Mexico) and a Tikix Xic (dry rubbed) sea bass in achiote chili sauce—a traditional Mayan style of preparing fish.

Outside of the resorts, you’ll find many of the best restaurants scattered about. In Playa del Carmen, Maiz de Mar comes strongly recommended for its fresh foods and use of local ingredients, as does Calle Ocho at the boutique hotel The Palm at Playa. Near Tulum, Chef Brian Sernatinger operates Unico where he produces thoroughly delicious comfort food that echoes his former work at New York’s Gramercy Tavern. It’s wonderful for a post-exploration wind-down with friends.

Unico restaurant in Tulum, Mexico

Shop:

The beachfront town of Playa del Carmen is often a day excursion for Riviera Maya and Cozumel resort guests (and from the cruise ships pausing at Cozumel). The town is casual and imminently walk-able. The main drag, 5th Avenue, is the kind of place where Swarovski jewelry and Hugo Boss stores stand next door and across the street from tourist enclaves selling refrigerator magnets and T-shirts. For the tequila connoisseurs, La Cofradia on 5th Avenue at 26 Norté deals in the specialty bottles from a craft tequila distillery in Jalisco, Mexico. 

See & Do:

Really, what is there to do besides relaxing at your hotel pool or napping on the beach under a palm tree? Quite a lot, actually. Tulum is the obvious archaeological destination, but the Riviera Maya has also seen a steady increase in soft adventure. The local adventure parks, such as Xcaret, Xelha and Xenotes, cater to the younger visitor, offering packaged experiences like zip-lining, snorkeling, ATV tours and swimming in Mexico freshwater cave-like pools known as cenotes.

For a less pre-packaged cenote experience, locals will recommend arranging a small taxi to venture upon La Ruta de Los Cenotes. Literally translated as the road of the cenotes, the route extends inland from the small seaside town of Puero Morelos past numerous cenotes open to the public.

Chichen Itza, while not planted beside the Caribbean like Tulum, is the famed site of a pre-Columbian city where the centerpiece is an enormous Mayan pyramid. Its distance from the resort district along the coast makes for a lengthy day trip, although almost any traveler who arrives back from an extended bus trip will admit the experience was well worth the effort. For a similar experience, look to Coba. The ruined Mayan city was once home to 50,000 persons and is an easier day trip, although it’s less known than its former urban rival of Chichen Itza.

Snorkeling (or diving if you have the skills or wish to take a class) is a favorite pastime of vacationers. The Grand Mesoamerican Reef is the world’s second largest coral reef, extending along the Caribbean coastline of Central America. In the Riviera Maya region, it’s sometimes so close to shore that you can swim to it or take a short boat ride and be amid this underwater spectacle.

Taking the Family:

Each of the resorts caters to a different set of travelers. While some focus only on getaways for adult couples, other resorts cater to the entire family, offering daytime child-watch services where kids play games together and take fun classes. On a press visit to Azul Sensatori, the focus on the family was obvious, with a daytime kids club and evening performances geared for kids, plus a game room and even a rock-climbing wall. At the level that some resorts are stepping up to attract families, even the hotel’s manager admits that kids are pleasantly spoiled, but as the dinosaurs and Mayans might remind you: Live in the moment and appreciate it.

SLIDESHOW: Riviera May, Playa del Carmen and Tulum

(All photos ©G. Kohl unless otherwise noted)

Geoff Kohl
About the author

Geoff Kohl previously served as the chief travel editor for Where and Read Geoff's full bio