The Riviera Maya is a marketing creation — a very successful one. Cancun's flash and verve aren't for everyone and some travelers inevitably drifted south along the Caribbean coast. Decades ago the Riviera Maya already had some tourism anchors in place: the Mayan ruins of Tulum, the sleepy, sexy vibe of Playa del Carmen, and the liquid beauty of Xel-Ha, a lagoon that offered magical snorkeling. As more travelers discovered the Riviera Maya, large beachfront resorts began to spring up offering visitors an eco-conscious and culturally-sensitive vacation experience. As the Riviera Maya developed, one of its charms was its appeal for a wide range of travelers, from families with kids in tow to jet-setting couples looking for five-star luxury.
At the beach, kids are never at a loss for something to do and usually stay in motion for hours, until they wear themselves out. Families vacationing in the Riviera Maya will most likely stay in one of the seaside resorts, which means they'll have a beach within easy reach, with options for all kinds of watersports.
With their resort as a base of operations, parents can plan a series of day trips to explore the countryside. The Riviera Maya is easy to navigate by rental car since almost all points of interest are near Highway 307, the main road stretching the length of the Riviera Maya. Signs are clearly posted, the main road is in good condition and unlike in many countries in the Caribbean, driving is on the right.
While there are dozens of family-friendly attractions in the region, two should be high on any family's itinerary: Tulum is an important Mayan archeological site with a stunningly beautiful location overlooking the sea. The architecture and history is bound to get kids' imaginations humming. Xcaret Park balances theme park appeal with nature and Mayan-based attractions. A family could spend a whole day here, swimming with dolphins, tubing through underground caverns, touring a cave hung with bats or visiting a recreation of a Mayan village. Xcaret is easily the most developed family attraction in the Riviera Maya.
Recent resort developments in the Riviera Maya seem to be trying to out-do each other in luxury. Two of the most recent are Rosewood Mayakoba and Banyan Tree Mayakoba. The best restaurants in the region can be found at these five-star properties, as well as the most sophisticated spas. The superb level of services and amenities may make it hard for guests to leave the grounds of the resort.
The best shopping in the Riviera Maya can be found in the town of Playa del Carmen, which has grown over the years to create its own unique vibe; a combination of South Beach and St. Tropez. Playa's Fifth Avenue is a pedestrianized street lined with boutiques. Some of the stores specialize in glossy brand names, while others present unique crafts that are gallery level works of art. There's also a wide choice of restaurants and cafes; drop into Yaxche (pronounced Jag-shay) where you can sample authentic Mayan cooking with a luxe twist.
The Riviera Maya has seven golf courses. One of the best is El Camaleón Mayakobá, a course designed by Greg Norman that winds through three distinct terrains: ocean, jungle and mangrove.
Sophisticated travelers can bring some added value to their vacation by scheduling their trip during one of the annual festivals, such as the Riviera Maya Film Festival, usually held in April; or the Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine & Food Festival, customarily held in March.
If you're traveling on a shoestring but still want a resort vacation experience, book a stay at one of the budget-priced all-inclusive resorts. This will ensure you have a serviceable room, plenty to eat, a pool and a beach, and most likely a lively crowd. If you choose a resort within walking distance of Playa del Carmen, you'll have access to free entertainment while strolling around the town.
Playa del Carmen also makes a great base if you're going to rely on mass transit, since it has a bus station right in town. Pay the same price as locals to reach sites like Tulum. One thing to keep in mind is that the bus stops on the main highway, which can often be a mile or more from the beach, tourist site or center of a town.
When you are off-resort, don't be afraid to sample street food from vendors. Just don't drink the water and choose dishes that have been thoroughly cooked.
Take the ferry from Playa del Carmen to the island of Cozumel for an economical day trip. The ferry leaves on the hour, takes 45 minutes and costs $13 each way.
Lovers will find the Riviera Maya setting a picture-perfect backdrop for romance, with long stretches of white sand beaches, palm trees swaying in the breeze and lush jungle plants festooned with vibrant flowers.
If a couple's resort has a spa, they're in business. If they're staying at a smaller property they'll have the option of visiting one of the region's day spas for a couples massage; XPÁ has three locations; Xcaret, Xel-Ha and Puerto Aventuras. If they choose the spa at Xel-Ha couples can combine their treatment with snorkeling at Xel-Ha lagoon, a gorgeous natural aquarium.
One of the most mystical and in some ways challenging experiences is to go through the Mayan temazcal ritual. This resembles a Native American sweat lodge, in which a handful of people enter the temazcal with a shaman. The entrance is sealed off and the shaman relates Mayan folk tales as he throws herbs and water onto a fire of hot rocks, making a fragrant steam. The process usually takes an hour and it can sometimes feel challenging. If a couple sticks it out to the end they'll emerge feeling cleansed and filled with a sense of peace. You can often find temazcals at the higher-end resorts. Another option is Dos Palmas, a traditional Mayan community offering an authentic temazcal experience.
For a magical experience, stay overnight in a cabin at the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a protected coastal area with over 300 species of birds. Lovers can create an indelible memory by catching the sunrise in the place the Mayans named "Where the Sky is Born."