White-sand beaches dotted with all-inclusive resorts have made Mexico’s Riviera Maya famous as a place to play and indulge. But the region is also rich in natural and manmade wonders that will entice travelers interested in having their creature comforts and a dose of culture, too.
The most remarkable are Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve—a UNESCO World Heritage site that protects the area’s incredible biological diversity—and Tulum, the only Mayan site overlooking the ocean. Tulum’s 60-something culturally significant structures, including temples and castles, made up a thriving commercial center and were occupied until the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
Consider Tulum’s El Castillo your point of departure for a full exploration of and immersion in Mayan culture, which, while ancient, is also very much alive in modern Mexico. As you road trip through the fascinating coastal area, you’ll be tempted to take off-the-beaten path detours (literally) that lead to sacred spots and adrenaline-inducing adventures.
Between stops, you can take a seat at a local table to sample the cuisine of Riviera Maya. Cochinita pibil, a melt-in-your-mouth, pit-roasted pork dish, will leave you wanting seconds, and some of the Riviera’s locally grown and produced ingredients, such as honey, will compel you to stuff your suitcase with edible souvenirs.
So what about those adventures and cultural deep dives? Where do you go to learn about Mayan history and modern Maya culture? One option is to structure your trip around stops at the key Mayan sites. In addition to Tulum, there’s Cobá, which has the highest pyramid on the peninsula, and Muyil, one of the earliest and longest inhabited sites. Muyil is located inside the biosphere reserve, so expect to see abundant wildlife. More than 300 species of birds live or migrate through the reserve, leaving little reason to wonder why the site’s name means “Origin of the Sky.”
Local guides are happy to lead you on birdwatching tours or snorkeling trips. Along the way, they’ll offer informed commentary about the long history of the Maya. You can also take a dip in a cenote. These natural pools are considered sacred by the Maya and found throughout the region. Travelers who live for thrills might want to drop into one of the Riviera Maya’s adventure parks, like Xcaret, where they can zip line, rappel, and sky dive, looking at the natural beauty of this region from every possible angle. Seen from above, it won’t be hard to understand why the region was such an attractive place to build an enduring civilization.
When night falls, or when you need a taste of urban life, head to Playa del Carmen. Its 5th Avenue is the place to shop, gallery hop, or go out for drinks and dancing, whether it’s day or night. Coralina Daylight Club offers a party atmosphere (pool included) all day long. By night visit Cocobongo which offers incredible thematic shows based on pop culture that will sparkle the fun. When you’ve run out of energy, settle into a room at one of Playa’s resorts, many of which offer luxurious accommodations and doting service.
No matter how long your visit is or how well you use your time, you’ll likely find yourself wanting to return. The Riviera Maya’s blend of ancient and modern, culture and adventure, and cuisine plus party scene is magnetic.