Photo by Michelle da Silva Richmond
A millennium before Columbus set sail, the savvy Maya built an empire on these scenic Caribbean shores. Their civilization collapsed for unknown reasons, but centuries later clever entrepreneurs reclaimed it from the jungle, launching one of the “hottest” vacation spots in the world. Cancún and the …region that stretches 100 miles to its south, the Riviera Maya, offer a full roster of colorful activities including sun, fun, and salsa in a host of stellar accommodations. Tours to breathtaking archaeological sites and mysterious underground cenotes combine with ancient Maya rituals and modern-day Mexican hospitality to deliver a truly memorable cultural experience.
What to know before you go to Cancún and the Riviera Maya
The Riviera Maya has a subtropical climate, with high humidity and daytime temperatures reaching into the 80s. While there are no distinct seasons, the mildest time of year is between November and January, when daytime temps are comfortable and the air cools off at night. During the rainy season (June to October), the rain is not constant or overwhelming, though June, July, and August are hot, even through the night. Afternoon thunderstorms are usually short-lived. Hurricane season in the Atlantic Basin (accounting for hurricanes on Mexico's Caribbean shore) starts June 1 and ends November 30, but with good planning and an investment in travel insurance, that can be the most affordable and uncrowded time of year to visit. From February to May, tourists arrive in droves. Easter weekend, spring break, and Christmas week are the most popular, and pricey, times to visit.
Cancun International Airport (CUN) is the point of entry to the "Mundo Maya." One of the busiest airports in the Caribbean, CUN sees direct and connecting flights arriving daily from all over the world. The four terminals used for domestic and international flights offer banks, convenience stores, a beauty parlor, VIP lounges, and a business center, as well as a host of restaurants, bars, and duty-free shops.
Traveling around Cancun by bus is easy and inexpensive (just 9.5 pesos), and you can catch one every few minutes along the main streets. Taxis are also plentiful, but establish the fare before you get in. A list of designated fares can be found in the lobby of most hotels, or you can ask the concierge. Taxis and buses are available in Playa del Carmen, Puerto Morelos, Puerto Aventuras, and other towns along the Riviera Maya, but if you plan to travel throughout this area, consider renting a car, as distances are great.
Cancun and the Riviera Maya offer a variety of cuisines ranging from international fare to traditional Mexican dishes, as well as Maya recipes adapted to suit modern-day gourmands. Seafood dishes such as Pescado Tikin-Xic (grilled fish prepared with local spices and wrapped in banana leaves) lead the list, but other local favorites include panuchos (tortillas stuffed with refried black beans and topped with chopped cabbage, pulled chicken, pickled red onions, and avocado), salbutes (puffed, deep-fried tortillas topped with chopped cabbage, pulled chicken or turkey, pickled red onions, and jalapeño peppers), and chochinita pibíl (slow-roasted pork seasoned with local spices and wrapped in banana leaves). Tequila could be considered the national drink. While Mexicans traditionally drink it straight with a side of salt and lime, or chased by sangrita (a blend of orange, lime, and tomato juice topped with hot chili peppers), U.S. aficionados usually opt for the margarita, tequila sunrise, or tequila sour. Beer, another favorite, often has a twist in these tropical climes, with cervezas preparadas and micheladas. A chelada is a light beer blended with the juice of an entire lime and served over ice in a salt-rimmed glass. Add black pepper, hot sauce, and Worcestershire, and you've got a michelada—supposedly a cure for hangovers. The name comes from Michela helada, or “my ice cold beer." Other local beverages include non-alcoholic cuzamil—a tangy blend of fresh orange, pineapple, and chaya (a member of the spinach family)—and jugo de jamaica, made from the hibiscus flower. The Maya drinkbalche, made from fermented tree bark, is mildly intoxicating. And the Maya potion xtabentún is an anise liqueur, fermented in honey from local flowers.
The Maya civilization that flourished on the Yucatan Peninsula spanned more than 3,000 years. Known for impressive architecture and art along with sophisticated mathematical and astronomical systems, vestiges of the mighty empire can be found in majestic ruins throughout the Riviera Maya area and in rituals and traditions carried on by descendants to this day. Dialects of the Mayan language are still spoken throughout the area. Drawing on other ancient traditions, Mexicans celebrate Dia de los Muertos on November 1 and 2; locally, the holiday is called Hanal Pixán. Families go the cemetery to honor their dearly departed and convivir (spend time) with them. In true Mexican style, a social event happens around the remembrance. Mexican dishes are painstakingly prepared—typically cochinita píbil (a dish of marinated and barbecued pork), tamales, and mucbipollo (a chicken stew steamed in a banana leaf)—and then toted to the graveyard, along with bottles of the preferred drink, to the gravesite. Tombs are decorated with the pungent tzempazuchil (marigolds, revered by the Aztecs), and candles and incense are laid around the graves. For hundreds of years, Mexico’s ancient cultures have employed the therapeutic temazcal, a purifying steam bath intended to heal the body and cleanse the mind and soul. Nowadays, many area resorts offer this treatment, a sensory ritual performed by a shaman using meditation, herbs, flowers, and mystical chants.
The Sacred Maya Journey is a reenactment of the annual 17-mile canoe trip from Ppolé (modern-day Xcaret on the Riviera Maya) to the island of Cozumel. For more than a thousand years, oarsmen would travel to the island to pay homage at the shrine of Ixchel, goddess of fertility, medicine, and the moon. The pilgrimage began with a marketplace, where people traded objects to be offered to the goddess. The currency was the cocoa bean, considered "food of the gods." The modern-day re-enactment, in late May, draws people from around the world.
For a deeper immersion in the region, let an expert plan your experience. AFAR's tour partner, Context Travel, can create a customized private tour of the area for you, led by a local historian or anthropologist. The tour will be designed to fit your interests, whether they be cultural, historical, or purely adventurous.
read before you go
Michelle da Silva Richmond is an award-winning travel editor and member of the Society of American Travel Writers, New York Travel Writers Association, New England Travel Writers Network, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She has contributed to Frommer’s, Fodor’s, and Fisher’s Guides to Mexico. She is honeymoon editor for www.bellaonline.com and contributor to various in-flight magazines and many print and online publications.