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Photo Caption: Actors re-create early Maya culture at Xcaret.

By Lee Foster

Mexico’s Riviera Maya region, on the Caribbean shore of the east-coast state of Quintana Roo, is both one of the newest and one of the most engaging tourism areas of the country.

Large-scale tourism began here only around 1995, following the successful development of nearby Cancun, to the north. Visitors come to the Riviera Maya to enjoy the dependably warm climate, the beaches and reefs, and the Maya cultural ruins at Tulum and Coba. Travelers savor the nature resources in eco parks, participate in adventure sports such as snorkeling and zip-lining, and indulge in the good life at luxury resorts, with all-inclusive packages a favorite pattern.

Today the Riviera Maya area receives about 3.6 million visitors a year and accounts for about 28% of all international touristic visitors to Mexico. This is an astonishing figure, considering how recently tourism started here. The region is also considered safe and far from the drug and migration difficulties of Central and Western Mexico. Resort infrastructure is new, benefitting from the progressive environmental policies possible with modern planning. Tourism is the main economic activity in the region. Quintana Roo became an official state in Mexico only in 1974. The Riviera Maya is a north-south coastal corridor that extends from the village of Puerto Morelos, about 20 miles south of Cancun, to about 80 miles south along the coast and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, ending at the town of Punta Allen.

Mid-December to mid-May is the busy travel season here, as visitors from the north arrive to escape the wind-chill factor. During summer the weather will be warm and humid, with watersports the appreciated antidote.

Whatever you do here after your plane lands at the Cancun International Airport, which is about a 30 minute drive north of the region, it is likely that you will want to visit one of the major Maya ruins, such as Tulum or Coba. Chances are you will also explore some of the great nature attractions at Altun Chen, Xel-ha, Xcaret, Akumal, and Sian Ka’an. Possibly you will lodge at one of the prominent all-inclusive luxury resorts, with Hacienda Tres Rios and Grand Velas as prime examples.

Let’s consider all these attractions in greater detail.

Tulum Archaeology Site

Tulum was a relatively late development in the Maya cultural story, flourishing between 1200 and 1520 AD, after the Classic Maya period. Tulum enjoys a magnificent cliff-top setting adjacent to the sea. Be sure to see the relatively well-preserved buildings known as the Castle, Temple of Frescoes, and Temple of the Descending God. Tulum’s beach harbor below a cliff, plus the narrow entrances in perimeter walls on the other three sides, made the site relatively impregnable as a fortified trading city and religious ritual center.

While walking the Tulum ruins, one can imagine the priest class gathering on the platforms to observe the stars and seasons, making the elaborate calendar calculations that were a valuable knowledge. Only the priest could predict the most desirable time to plant crops or when a season of drought might end. The date December 21, 2012 represents an end to the 5,125-year Maya-Long-Count-Calendar era and the beginning of the next period, a change that the Maya considered an auspicious beginning, rather than an apocalyptic ending. Maya priests were gifted and attentive astronomers, seeing the sun, moon, and stars as gods who managed time. The original name for Tulum, Zama, literally meant “dawn.” The setting is particularly lovely in the morning as a visitor faces the Caribbean from the cliff-top structures. Tulum was one of the first Maya cities that the Spaniards saw.

A lively trade in items as diverse as cotton, jade, honey, and obsidian for knives occurred throughout the region, with Tulum ideally positioned along the coastal route. From promontories on the cliffs at Tulum one can gaze around the ruin and see its strategic importance as a high point for seaward or landward observation of approaching friends and foes.

Coba Archaeology Site

Coba was founded in the Classic Maya Period (250-1000 AD) and is one of the highest physical points in the Yucatan, rising 138 feet in the pyramid known as Nohoch Mul. You can walk up the steep stone steps to the top of the pyramid and look out over the surrounding jungle. A rope on the pyramid aids in getting you up and down the uneven stone staircase of the edifice.

Coba was known partly for the extensive network of 45 roads that radiated out from this major, sprawling city of 50,000 people. The ruins are spread out in the jungle, so it is common for visitors to engage a bicycle rickshaw driver to get around. Each bicycle carries two passengers in a front-of-bike chair. Other aspects of the ruins to explore include a well-preserved ball court and a small temple. Stellae, inscribed stone slabs, such as one at the ball park, show the Maya mode of communication, often serving as a calendar record of the past. Coba’s Stella 1 is an important stone document in the calendar calculations.

The names for Maya sites sometimes have a beguiling beauty that adds to the mystique. Coba is said to mean “water stirred by wind.”

Tres Reyes Maya Community

To encounter a small, contemporary Maya community, it is possible to engage the services of the Tres Reyes pueblo. About 60 families have banded together to display authentic modern Maya religious rituals and village life, plus offering some adventure sports on their terrain, such as rappelling and zip-lining. Their guides are also well-informed native experts for tours of the principal Maya archaeological sites, such as Tulum and Coba.

The religious rituals at Tres Reyes are interesting to attend. You can meet a Maya shaman who performs Maya offerings and blessings. Walking through a cenote, an underground river sinkhole, with an informed guide also acquaints you with the prominence of plants and nature in the Maya world. The Maya were expert botanists as well as astronomers.

Aktun-Chen Dry Caves Walk

The Aktun-Chen dry caves, where water has dissolved the underground limestone aquifer, is an amazing site to see. The main geologic feature of the flat Maya country is its porous limestone ground, highly susceptible to being dissolved, creating the cenote or sinkhole system. You walk underground with a trained guide for an hour through a dozen, well-lit caverns, stopping to admire the stalactites and stalagmites that take eons to form. Nature’s capacity to produced sculptural art is the main experience.

Iguana in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Iguana in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Tree canopy zip-lines and cenote swimming are also possible at Aktun-Chen. Local fauna, such as deer, tapir, and peccaries, are on display.

The Riviera Maya region is said to have one of the longest underground river systems in the world. The rivers can be seen and accessed at large pools, as part of the cenote system, but in some situations the caves are dry and walkable.

Akumal Snorkeling

Snorkeling at Akumal is a good way to make an initial acquaintance with the Great Meso American Barrier Reef. The reef is said to be the second largest in the world, surpassed only by the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. This reef, offshore along the Quintana Roo state coastline, is the largest such reef in the Northern Hemisphere.

A day of snorkeling can acquaint you with the abundant fish life, turtle population, and coral formations. At Akumal it is easy to rent gear and engage a local guide if desired. Close to shore, you will likely see large green hawksbill turtles swimming about and feeding on the sea vegetation. A slender green fish, known as a remora, attaches itself to the shell of some turtles and hitches a ride, waiting for opportunistic moments when the turtle has stirred up food that may be of interest to the remora. Farther out, you may see squid, rays, colorful fish, and some coral. More pristine settings can be sought out, using the guide services available at hotels, but Akumal is a start for immersing yourself in the water-world richness of the Riviera Maya.

Xel-Ha Water-sports Park

Xel-Ha is an elaborate eco-attraction and water-sports park with a quality all-inclusive buffet restaurant. Walk around the park, swim and snorkel in the lagoons, jump off cliffs into the water, ride in inner-tubes down a flowing river, and enjoy the biological richness, with more than 400 species of flora and fauna present. On land, you may meet a wily mammal, known as a coati, or pause to watch an enormous iguana lingering in the sun. The park is at an ocean-side setting where the river enters the sea. Fish life is abundant in a brackish lagoon.

Xcaret Eco-Archaeological Park

Xcaret is the most elaborate eco-archaeological park in the region, ranking at the top of must-see lists for many visitors. The comprehensiveness of Xcaret is a major appeal.

At Xcaret, colorful cultural performances approximate the Maya religious and sport rituals of the past. During a fascinating evening show, called the Mexico Espectacular, you can see a re-creation of the unusual sport of the Maya, which amounted to bouncing a large rubber ball through stone hoops placed vertically on the side walls in a ball park. Players could use only their hips to propel the ball back and forth. Another variation of this Maya sport has a wood ball on fire, with the players using hockey-like sticks to propel it past their opponents. The elaborate show, performed each evening by about 260 actors in the Tlaxco Theater, is an entertaining look at Mexican history and culture, portrayed in song and dance, celebrating the ancient Maya, the dramatic meeting of European and Mexican peoples, and the many cultures that make up the country. Scale models at Xcaret show the principal Maya cities and ceremonial sites in all their greatness.

The nature experiences at Xcaret are as impressive as the cultural offerings. Be sure to see the orchid house, the butterfly pavilion, and an island where spotted and black jaguars are displayed in a simulated wild environment, separated from you only by a moat.

Xplor Adventure Sports Park

The Xcaret company also operates a parallel adventure park, Xplor, devoted to active sports. Cave walking, cave rafting, cave swimming, all-terrain-vehicle drives through the forest, and zip-lines that end up immersing you in the water are the sports menu. One ingenious zip-line simulates a hammock from which you are eventually dumped into the water.

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

Sian Ka’an is an enormous protected nature area, famous for its bird life and other nature attractions. The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve amounts to 1.3 million acres of tropical ecosystem with the State of Quintana Roo. The terrain includes lowland forests, flooded savannahs, and mangrove forests. Engage a local Maya guide from Community Tours Sian Ka’an to take you in a small boat tour through these grassy marshlands. Admire some of the 300 bird species, such as white ibises, and 800 plant species found here.

Hotel Hacienda Tres Rios

Luxury all-inclusive resorts are a prominent feature in the region.

One example is Hacienda Tres Rios, which prides itself on being a leader in the “green” movement in Mexico. Buffet leftovers are all composted for their extensive gardens. Take the Nursery Tour to get the full environmental story, including reforestation of the region with mangroves following the damage from past hurricanes. The hurricanes destroyed many mangroves by pushing salt water inland, killing the trees. The property is built slightly elevated, on concrete pillars, to let the natural rivers flow through it, underground. An Italian restaurant on property, Portobello, is a fine-dining leader in the region.

As a sign of how Mexico travel has matured from a culinary perspective, Chef Oscar Orbe at Hacienda Tres Rios has a “Chef’s Tasting” intimate restaurant extension of his kitchen. Chef Orbe’s creations might be described as Inventive Contemporary, rather than anything slavishly derivative from earlier Mexican or worldwide cuisines. The country that helped add chocolate and tomatoes to the international palate now triumphs with its own culinary creativity for the 21st century. Nowhere are food traditions less shackled than at Hacienda Tres Rios.

Hotel Grand Velas Riviera Maya

Arguably, the grandest of the luxury all-inclusive resorts is the Grand Velas. The seaside sugar-sand location, enormous swimming pools, five-star restaurants, 24-hour in-room dining, and large rooms are major attractions. Rooms look out towards the Caribbean and have amenities such as travertine marble floors, 42-inch flat-screen TVs, and whirlpool baths. The well-stocked mini-bar is part of the-all inclusive package, and there is a bottle of fine tequila awaiting each arriving guest. These grand hotels benefit from the most modern planning, allowing luxury with less environmental costs, such as re-using water for irrigation. Comfort against stomach upset is assured because of careful water purification systems. Grand Velas is also well known for the region’s largest luxury spa, with 40 treatment rooms.

Fine dining at the Grand Velas parallels the pleasures cited regarding Hacienda Tres Rios. The fine-dining French option, Piaf, equals anything one might find in San Francisco, New York, or Toronto. Your dinner selection might consist of seared scallops, then French onion soup, and rack of lamb for the entrée. The Grand Velas “Mexican” restaurant, Frida, pushes beyond the expectations of classic Mexican cuisine.

All considered, the development of Quintana Roo and the Maya Riviera is a relatively new and enormously successful region of Mexico tourism. The visitor sources are mainly from the U.S. and Canada, but also from Europe and new outbound travel players, such as Russia. It takes more than an hour to drive from one end of the Riviera Maya to the other on the north-south highway along the coast, so outings must be planned with a map in mind. Allow plenty of time for each excursion, especially when the weather is warm and a moderate pace is advisable.

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Mexico’s Riviera Maya: If You Go

The overall information source for Riviera Maya is www.rivieramaya.com.

Other helpful websites are:

Tulum http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulum

Coba http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coba

Tres Reyes Maya Community www.alltournative.com

Aktun Chen Dry Caves www.aktunchen.com

Akumal Dive Center www.akumaldivecenter.com

Xel-Ha www.xelha.com.mx

Xcaret www.xcaret.com

Xplor www.xplor.travel

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve tours www.siankaantours.org

Hotel Hacienda Tres Rios www.haciendatresrios.com

Hotel Grand Velas Riviera Maya http://rivieramaya.grandvelas.com/

For a book with an authoritative insider’s view of this Maya region, see Joshua Berman’s Moon Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize & Honduras (Moon Books).

Another helpful overall book is Joshua Eden Hinsdale’s Explorer’s Guides: Playa del Carmen, Tulum & the Riviera Maya (Countryman Press).

For tours, one experienced operator is Best Day Tours http://www.bestday.com.mx/Riviera_Maya/Tours/.

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