The Riviera Maya extends 130 kilometers bordering the Caribbean Sea, in the Mexican state of Quintana de Roo, from Puerto Morelos -in the northern part-, 40 kilometers from Cancun, to Punta Allen -in the Yucatan peninsula-, 50 kilometers south of Tulum. The area keeps authentic wonders inside.
“Everyone thinks of its beautiful beaches with fine white sand and turquoise waters and its lavish luxury resorts,” explains Cristina Flores, a local Civitatis guide. However, “you also have to know the secrets that are not talked about so much: cenotes, jungles, nature reserves, Mayan sites or gastronomic experiences.”
Where does your passion for the Riviera Maya come from?
I’m mexican; I was born in Mexico City, but grew up in Querétaro. It was not until I was 12 years old that I visited Quintana Roo for the first time, and I perfectly remember being in an aquarium seeing an anemone and telling my father that one day he would work there. When I finished high school I had the opportunity to take a season off before starting my Natural Sciences degree and I managed to do a 6-month volunteering in Quintana Roo, which really marked my life.
Lucky. From what you say, it was like working in paradise. What makes the Riviera Maya unique?
The Riviera Maya began as a beach destination, like any other in the Caribbean. The big difference came later because, as I mentioned before, not only does it have beautiful beaches and the second largest barrier reef in the world, the largest civilization on the continent was also developed in the area before the arrival of the Europeans. And these beaches are surrounded by extraordinary places such as the cenotes, the jungle, the wetlands and a living culture that is embodied in the descendants of this great culture, the Mayans, with their language, gastronomy and ancient traditions.
Any advice for those who want to visit it for the first time?
The first thing is to decide the time of year. The ideal is to go between November and February, when it is not so hot and the high season peaks are not. There are also joint events that only take place at certain times and you must organize your trip according to your priorities. For example, it is interesting to consider the trip during the spring equinox in the Mayan city of Chichen Itzá; snorkel with whale sharks between June and September; diving with bull sharks between November and February, and experiencing the Day of the Dead -November 2- which we call in the area hanal pixanwhich translates as “the food of the souls”.
There are three fundamental things: a Mayan ruin, a cenote and the barrier reef”
What is the best way to get around?
In Riviera Maya there are no Ubers or the like. Basically there is pre-contracted transport, taxis and public transport. If you are adventurous, you can also rent a car. Upon arrival at the airport, if you do not have a pre-contracted service, it is best to take a bus from the ADO line, which means Autobuses del Oriente, to Playa del Carmen. Personally, I recommend the most ecotourism option that helps the economic development of local businesses and local people; making tourism more sustainable.
Okay, we’ve arrived. What do we do now?
Although it sounds like a cliché, a single trip is not enough. You never quite find out. When they ask me what is the most essential thing in the Riviera Maya, I always answer that there are at least three fundamental things: a Mayan ruin, a cenote and, of course, the barrier reef. Now, on these three things there is an infinite variety of options. And if you have the opportunity, my advice would be to visit one of its islands, among which I highlight Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, Contoy or Holbox.
What specific places would you recommend?
Without a doubt, the ruins of Tulum. The view of the walled city on a cliff facing the Caribbean Sea is a spectacle for the senses. Then you should not miss a visit to a closed cenote, which is one of the youngest, it is usually circular and is covered by a vault with some crack through which the sun’s rays penetrate.
For those who do not know, what are cenotes?
They are deep caverns formed by the total or partial collapse of different layers of land that were flooded, forming impressive wells of crystal clear water. They were and still are sacred places for the Mayans. They believed it was a way to connect with the underworld. In Mexico, the good thing is that you can enter them, visit them and dive. The water is fresh, it does not exceed 25 degrees on average, and it is a real pleasure.
What cenote do you recommend for diving?
There are many and very different ones, such as the Gran Cenote, the Garden of Eden, the Pit, Tajma ha and Carwash. But one of the most striking is Dos Ojos, about 20 kilometers from Tulum, a cavern diving paradise. These are 3 caves connected through underground rivers.
The archaeological zone of Cobá, in the middle of the jungle, is pure magic, especially the pyramid of Nohoch Mul”
What else do you suggest?
Another unmissable experience is snorkeling with whale sharks. It can be done from June to mid-September. Swimming next to the largest fish in the world, which can reach 10 meters in length, is an incomparable sensation. You feel its majesty, its calm and its peace, something unspeakable. I also recommend visiting the Fifth Avenue of Playa del Carmen, where urban life, shops and restaurants are concentrated, and it is a very pleasant walk along five kilometers of pedestrian street.
And something more adventurous?
The ruins of Cobá, together with the national park of the spider monkey reserve, is an excellent excursion where you can find everything: walks, zip lines, abseiling, canoes in the lagoon… Observe the spider monkeys and howler monkeys in their habitat it is a wonder. The archaeological zone of Cobá, in the middle of the jungle, is pure magic, especially the Nohoch Mul pyramid, 42 meters high. It is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula and, before the pandemic, it was possible to climb it to get an incredible view of the Mexican jungle. If you visit any archaeological ruin of the Mayan civilization, my advice is to take a guided tour in order to have a good understanding of what it is and its essential meaning.
The truth is that it sounds very good…
But there is much more, such as the ruins of Chichen Itzá, Isla Contoy, Isla Holbox, Cozumel… Although not as well known, I would recommend going to the ruins of Muyil and the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve, which is 20 kilometers away. south of Tulum. These are remains of the classic period surrounded by high jungle and wetlands where you can see a large number of resident and migratory waterfowl. From Muyil it is possible to hire a boat visit to the crystalline water channels of the biosphere reserve, surrounded by mangroves and epiphytic plants, small ruins and lots of fauna.
Is it possible to meet any Mayan community?
Of course, and it is an experience that should not be missed. It is the best cultural activity in this region. See how they live, try their home-made food, such as handmade tortillas, beans, egg with chaya, etc. And by the way, if you have the opportunity to coincide on a night of the Day of the Dead in one of these Mayan communities, you will see the way in which Mexicans see death, respect it, make fun of it and, in some way, celebrate it, knowing that it is the only sure thing in this life, and that it is not bad, but a simple step. Something that in all my travels I have found unique.
Knowing a Mayan community is the best cultural experience in this region”
Let’s get down to business, where can I look for accommodation?
The most convenient is to stay in Playa del Carmen. Depending on the type of trip you want to do, you will find everything from large all-inclusive resorts to boutique hotels, hostels, vacation rentals, and even inns. It all depends on the tastes of each one. I am in favor of small hotels and vacation rentals that offer you the opportunity to get to know the place better, its people, its life. The city center, along with its famous Fifth Avenue, can be explored on foot or by bicycle. In addition, Playa del Carmen is, due to its geographical position, the best starting point for most of the excursions, since they will involve less travel by road.
As far as gastronomy is concerned. What should you try?
There is food for all palates, from haute cuisine to street tacos. Among my favorites is the tuna sashimi from the Doctorcito, the caramel tuna toast from Las Hijas de la tostada, the regional food, cochinita and black stuffing. Italian and Argentine restaurants abound and almost everywhere they have vegan dishes, without gluten and vegetarians. Of the emblematic places in Playa del Carmen, I would highlight La Cueva del Chango, famous for its breakfasts. But personally, on their dinner menu I love the habanero chili cream. For regional dishes, there is Amate 38, excellent value for money. For fish and seafood tacos, El Oasis.
And at night?
Not to be missed is the Xcaret park, a sample of the rich culture of Mexico, not only of the region. A Mexican cemetery, a replica of a Mayan village, parties, underground rivers and authentic Mexican cuisine. Almost everything is concentrated there. It also has, when night falls, a show full of light and energy in which more than 300 actors participate and which turns out to be a musical journey through history, from pre-Hispanic times to the present. It is ideal to go with family.
As an inspiration for future travelers, do you recommend any interesting book or movie?
Of course. The essential is The Great Mayan Aquifera research and outreach program National Geographic led by the archaeologist and cave diver Guillermo de Anda, based on the biological, geological, archaeological and sociological relationship of the largest flooded cave system in the world. With this, the importance of this system in all aspects and the value of knowing it and preserving it will be understood. This subject occupies numerous articles, special editions and programs of the famous Natgeo.