From a cliffside castillo to a trio of eco-adventure parks, the 85-mile stretch along Mexico's Caribbean coast offers a wide range of fun in the sun for adventurous travelers, and luxurious splendor for those looking to get away from it all.
From atop the cliffside Castillo (castle), Tulum’s most important building, the crashing waves and the calls of the sea birds conjure visions of this once-vital Maya seaport. Tulum is one of the treasures of the Riviera Maya, a swath of about 85 miles along Mexico’s Caribbean coast that stretches from south of Puerto Morelos (some maps include Puerto Morelos) to Punta Allen, the gateway to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Other reasons to visit the Riviera Maya and Cozumel areas: snorkeling and diving the world’s second-largest barrier reef, swimming in underground rivers called cenotes, sunning on sandy beaches, and, especially if you have kids, visiting nearby eco-adventure parks. Our favorite place to stay: the top-rated Grand Velas Riviera Maya resort.
Grand Velas Riviera Maya, Mexico
Grand Velas Riviera Maya is a rarity: an all-inclusive property that’s earned AAA’s highest rating of Five Diamonds. Forget about small rooms, limited spas and recycled buffet food. The accommodations are called suites because they range between 1,184 and 1,378 square feet. That makes each one bigger than a typical one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan.
Perfect because we need something special to celebrate a milestone birthday. Because we invited extended family as our guests, we want luxury, good food, a soothing spa, plus the safety-net of a fixed price. Grand Velas Riviera Maya delivers all that and more.
Upon entering the resort’s grounds, we drive through acres of dense thickets, part of the property’s conservation of the natural landscape, until we reach the beachfront Ambassador section, one of the resort’s 3 “ambiances,” or room locations. We select the family-friendly, horseshoe-shaped Ambassador area because of its sweeping ocean view. The adults-only Grand Class, also beachfront, offers a quieter outdoor area and the largest rooms. The less expensive Zen Jungle Section, set amid tropical trees and mangrove thickets, is close to the Convention Center and far enough away from the water to require a shuttle ride.
The author, wading through mangroves at Sian Ka'an.
Along with the location, we enjoy the resort’s feeling of expansiveness. It’s not just the 80-acre setting that affords breathing space. The outsized rooms, the 100-foot-high palapa (thatched roof) that tops the Ambassador’s open lobby, and its panoramic view of infinity pools that stretch to the sea add to sense of space and calm.
We shake off jet lag by going to the 76,000-square-foot spa to soak in the Riviera Maya Water Journey. The 7-element hydrotherapy circuit comes complimentary to all guests with spa appointments. We soak under waterfall sprays and loosen tight muscles with all manner of water jets. We inhale calming scents in the herbal steam room, slather medicinal clay on our skin in the mud room, rinse off in the multi-headed shower, and cool down in the ice room, where yes, we rub cold cubes on our skin. After that, thoroughly mellow, we could have gone back to our room, but the best was yet to be: a wrap and a massage by a well-trained therapist.
On another day after another pampering treatment, (did we say “special birthday?”) we simply order dinner delivered to our room. After all, room service is included in the price and none of Grand Velas’ several specialty restaurants costs extra.
The resort’s signature dining experience, Cocina de Autor, is the first restaurant at a luxury all-inclusive to be awarded Five Diamonds by AAA. Serving Spanish fare, the chefs’ inspiration for flavors and sauces comes from the items’ chemical composition. The molecular cuisine creates more than a few surprises during the meal. Items melt in our mouths, the tuna has a mint flavor, and mostly the mixtures taste good. Only one of us would have preferred what he called “a straight-forward meal.”
Frida, the Mexican restaurant, and Sen Lin, the Asian restaurant, prove to be our favorites. While not flawless, the food at Grand Velas is very good. We still remember the veal ossobuco at Frida, the Mexican restaurant. At Sen Lin, we especially like the crab tempura and order extra helpings of udon noodles with seafood, but we find the Chilean sea bass just okay. At all the restaurants, the arrival of the wine cart is the only reminder that we are at an all-inclusive. The waiters pour a limited selection of reasonably good house wines for free, but premium wines cost extra.
A supervised children’s program operates for ages 4 to 12 and, seasonally, the hotel offers a teen activities. Staff engage teens in snorkeling, kayaking, pedal boats, waterpolo, and other activities.
Grand Velas isn’t perfect. While the beach stretches for 1,000-feet, a few times the resort ran out of shade umbrellas. The swimming area, created by a breakwater, is relatively small. Everything else is so nice, including the beach staff who keep restocking us with cool drinks, strawberry ices, and nacho snacks, that we, a family of swimmers, could overlook the limited locale for swimming.
One day while lunching at Azul at an outdoor table, we happily watch the surf and enjoy the fresh lobster tacos. As our relative comments “life is really good.”
Grand Velas delivers many such moments.
Adventures in Mexico’s Riviera Maya
Tulum is a compelling site. On a walk through the 60-acre excavation of this once powerful Maya seaport, we learn much the ancient site and Maya culture. One of the last major city-states, Tulum, in its heyday from the 12th century to the early 16th, served as an important center for maritime trade. Canoes carrying feathers, jade, furs, herbs, salt, and honey navigated a network of inland canals dug by the Maya.
Only noble families, our guide explains, lived within the walls; the commoners farmed the fields outside. He points out the upside down carvings of the site’s protector god, the Descending God, located above some doorways; shows us the stone arch formation that became known as the Maya arch (korbel arch)and demonstrates how to use the “sundials,” small openings in the limestone. The Maya aligned their major buildings so that on the summer solstice, June 21, and on the winter solstice, Dec. 21, these small holes captured the sun, creating a straight line to the city’s entrance.
From the Castillo, (castle), which rises above limestone cliffs overlooking the Caribbean, we listen to the crashing waves and the calls of the sea birds, sensing the rhythms of this once-vital sea port. From Playa del Carmen, Tulum is one-and-a-half hours away. www.travelyucatan.com/tulum .
Best Day, www.bestday.com, combines a Tulum tour with a visit to Xel-Ha, a waterpark 8 miles away.
Alltournative Tours offers a Tulum visit plus a cenote (or sinkhole) exploration and snorkeling in a cavern. www.alltournative.com
Explore a World Heritage Site: Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. In Maya the name means “where the sky is born.” A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the reserve covers 1.5 million acres of jungles, marshlands, mangroves, and beaches, including 22 Maya sites as well as more than 62 miles of the Great Maya Reef. Members of the Maya community lead these off-the-beaten-path tours, something we appreciate. We also like that as a biosphere, access to the public is limited. Encountering only some 15 other visitors all day, makes it easy for us to time travel back to site’s Mayan heyday.
On the Muyil Forest & Float tour, we walk through the dense forest (bring bug spray), view little-visited Maya ruins, see spider monkey jumping in the tree branches, then board a boat to cross the Chunyaxche lagoon where we spot egrets. The wide stretch of water meets the blue sky and we understand why the area earned its name. Once in the canals dug by the Mayas, our guide encourages us to jump into the water and float on our backs, eye-level to the thick mangrove roots lining the channel. Reserve tours in advance. www.siankaatours.org
Go underground in a cenote: Rio Secreto. Thousands of cenotes dot the Riviera Maya. These formed when the region’s porous limestone gave way, revealing miles of underground rivers. The ancient Maya used the cenotes as sources for freshwater and sometimes as sites for sacred ceremonies.
Entering most cenotes requires wriggling down a rope, then jumping into the sinkhole’s cold river. For us, Rio Secreto is more welcoming. All we need to do is walk into the mouth of the cave. As we go deeper into the underground passages led by our guide, we encounter more water. At first we step over rivulets, then further in we wade through ankle-deep streams. At one point, we must swim through the cavern, squeezing under a low cave ceiling. The route takes us past hundreds of formations, including stalactites and stalagmites. Some meet forming columns, some cluster together like popcorn, and others form pleats like draperies. Along the way the guide points out the colorless fish in the ponds. In parts of the cave, all that we hear is the slow drip of water. Exploring Rio Secreto is an interesting and exhilarating outing.
The tour fee includes wet suits, water shoes, life vest, hardhat with lamp, towels and a locker. www.riosecreto.com
Visit eco-adventure parks: Xplor, Xcaret. and Xel-Ha
Xplor, Xcaret, and Xel-Ha add man-made thrills to the Yucatan’s natural beauty.
At Xplor Park Canucn, (actually in Playa del Carmen adjacent to Xcaret), combine gliding along ziplines with swimming and rafting in a cenote and driving a Jeep-like, amphibious vehicle across suspended bridges and into a cavern. The trail of 14 ziplines, some as high as 145-feet, affords thrills as well as panoramic views of sea and sand. We especially like paddling a raft with our hands and swimming the 600-yard circuit in Xplor’s cenote as the water remains a comfortable 72 degrees Fahrenheit. We could have skipped the driving tour. Bouncing along the hot, dusty rutted roads was not our idea of fun, although we could hear others whoop and holler with joy.
Xcaret Eco-Archeological Park is near Xplor while Xel-Ha is closer to Playa del Carmen. Both parks offer more thrills than true eco-adventures and both parks draw crowds, especially when cruise ships anchor in Cozumel. Nonetheless, either park is fun, especially for kids. We like Xcaret best because it has more animals than the other 2 parks and Xcaret’s evening folkloric show, Xcaret Mexico Espectacular, features lively dancers in colorful regalia.
At Xcaret, see scarlet macaws, Yucatan parrots, pink flamingoes, and other exotic birds at the aviary. Watch hundreds of delicate butterflies flitter in the Butterfly Pavilion, observe turtles and manatees in coves; admire coral reefs and fish in the aquarium and at the jaguar enclosure, stare back at the largest cats on the American continent. For extra fees, swim with dolphins or nurse sharks; snorkel with stingrays; spin on a fast boat as it speeds and turns through the park’s waters, or view underwater life without knowing how to dive by trying either Snuba (put a breathing apparatus in your mouth) or Sea Trek (don a helmet which has air pumped into it. Your face does not get wet).
Xel-Ha, more water-focused than Xcaret or Xplor, also offers Snuba and Sea Trek (extra fees). We sit on inner tubes to float on the river. When the current slows, we arm-paddle. The park also offers ziplines.
It’s best to avoid all 3 parks on days when the cruise ships are in Cozumel or limit exposure to the crowds by arriving to the parks in the afternoon. Xplor Park Cancun, www.xplor.travel; Xcaret, www.xcaret.com; Xel-Ha, www.xelha.com.
Snorkel and dive Cozumel
Cozumel, an island 12 miles offshore of Playa del Carmen, is a 45-minute, sometimes rough, ferry ride away. Known for its spectacular diving and snorkeling, Cozumel’s visibility nears 100-feet in places and there’s much to see. The second largest barrier reef system in the world, the Great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, lies off Cozumel’s shores, stretching for 1,500 miles down the Caribbean to Central America.
Although you can snorkel off sandy beaches in places, the best snorkeling and diving is found over the deeper reefs reached by boat. Go with an experienced tour operator who knows the local conditions because the current in this region can be swift. That can be great for drift diving and often scary for snorkelers.
At Palancar Reef, a Cozumel legend that stretches more than three miles, view large coral heads, big barrel sponges and sea fans swaying in the current. Along with schools of rainbow-colored fish, Paradise Reef features star coral and brain coral. Other good sites include Colombia Shallows and El Cielo, a sandbar whose surrounding seas harbor abundant star fish. Isla Cozumel, www.cozumel.travel