Suggest a Mexican getaway, and most people think of Cancun, a balmy beach resort area manufactured as a tourist destination in the early 1970s. The first hotel broke ground in 1972. Now, 33 years later, Cancun has more than 50,000 hotel beds, hundreds of restaurants, and a couple of mega-malls for the throngs of American sun worshippers who come here to play, sometimes every year.
I say, skip Cancun and head 40 minutes south — to the Riviera Maya, a long stretch of beautiful Caribbean coast on the YucatÃ¡n peninsula. The area is lush with coconut palms and jungle, is close to the ancient ruins of Tulum, and has a wonderful laid-back attitude. And while the area has been discovered, it still holds many of the charms of old Mexico.
Where to go
Once a sleepy fishing village, Playa del Carmen has grown over the years, and it remains to be seen how it will evolve. There are several large resorts just south of the town, and the beaches are becoming more crowded. But the town itself is a throwback to a less hectic time and place.
As you stroll through the town, merchants hawk their wares and children frolic in the town square. Donâ€™t be turned off by aggressive merchants. They are just trying to earn a living, and energetic bargaining is a way of life here. On the other hand, Mexican culture is very polite, and a simple â€œNo, graciasâ€ will usually send the shop owners away. If they really bother you, head for the larger stores, where bargaining is less common.
This area of Mexico is known for its silver, Mayan masks, embroidered cotton blouses, hammocks, and other crafts — and, of course, for tequila. Cuban cigars are also available, but remember, you cannot bring them into the United States.
While in town, donâ€™t miss the Xaman-Ha Aviary, a 32-acre park with walking trails that will bring you face to face (sometimes literally) with 60 species of tropical birds, including scarlet macaws, toucans, flamingos, and some very raucous parrots. Great for kids and photographers, especially if you go in late morning or late afternoon, when the birds are most active.
As you head south, be sure to stop at Xcaret Park. This man-made eco-park bills itself as a â€œtheme park,â€ but thereâ€™s a lot of education here, too, including a glimpse of Mayan history and an introduction to the regionâ€™s flora and fauna. Swimming with dolphins is popular here, as is the nighttime folklore show — one of the best in Mexico — but for a truly unique experience, swim or snorkel in the two underground rivers. (http://www.xcaret.com)
Another outstanding place to snorkel is at Xel-Ha Park. Its crystal-clear lagoon is home to one of the most beautiful fish in the sea: the parrotfish. Be warned that Xel-Ha has also been discovered by plenty of cruise passengers, whose ships dock nearby. If you can avoid a ship day (typically Tuesdays and Thursdays) you can also avoid the crowds. Donâ€™t bother bringing your usual sunscreen: Itâ€™s not allowed because the oils harm the fish. But you can buy an eco-friendly sunscreen as you enter the park. (http://www.xel-ha.com.mx)
Tulum is an ancient city with an impressive fortress, and the itâ€™s only Mayan city built on the coast. When it flourished, between the fifth and 13th centuries, it is believed to have been larger than Seville, Spain. As with most ancient places, the Mexicans show Tulum great respect, and beach clothes are discouraged. Wear shorts and a hat (especially at midday), and be sure to bring lots of film, because the vistas from the promontory are absolutely stunning. Morning is a good time to visit, before the tour buses disgorge their cargo of day-trippers.
What to eat
Food is certainly not in short supply in Mexico. In the town of Playa del Carmen, traditional Mayan food can be found at Yaxche Maya Cuisine, which has both beautiful surroundings and outstanding service. The owners of the restaurant are involved with the local Mayan culture, so there is a good chance that your meal may be an educational experience as well as an epicurean one.
Another favorite restaurant is Media Luna, which is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and is the most popular restaurant in the area. The fish is wonderful (this is hearsay, as I do not partake), as are the vegetarian dishes. Speaking from firsthand knowledge, youâ€™d be hard-pressed to find better pasta and salad anywhere in the area.
For die-hard American palates, Playa del Carmen also has a TGI Fridayâ€™s and a SeÃ±or Frogâ€™s. Same food, different T-shirts.
Where to stay
One of the most beautiful hotels in the area is the Grand Xcaret by Occidental. Tucked away in a jungle, this all-inclusive resort abuts Xcaret Park, and admission to the park is included in your stay. The beach is small and man-made as the shoreline is a bit rocky in this area, but the pools are excellent. Besides, youâ€™ll probably want to head to Playa del Carmen (the locals refer to it simply as â€œPlayaâ€) for a day or two at its lovely beaches; there is good reef diving there, as well.
The Grand Xcaretâ€™s rooms are spacious, and no matter how busy the resort is, you never feel crowded. Beautiful parrots are perched seemingly at every turn, and a bar and food is never far away. For a special treat, stay in the hotelâ€™s Royal Club, a private section near the beach with a private pool, restaurant and upgraded rooms and suites. The staff is wonderful and will go out of its way to meet your needs. The hotel also has a great kidsâ€™ program. (http://grandxcaret.com).
For a unique experience, head a little farther south to the Xpu Ha Palace. While the resort is currently closed due to hurricane damage, it is expected to reopen shortly. This oasis is a part of the Palace Resorts chain in Mexico and is perfect for doing absolutely nothing at all. Hammocks abound for your siesta, food and drink are always at hand, and every room has a whirlpool spa and balcony. To get around, youâ€™ll need to use the resortâ€™s internal transportation system: bicycles.
If you must do something more active than pedaling, you can paddle your way through an estuary (see if you can spot a manatee) or take in a few holes of golf at the hotelâ€™s nearby sister property, the Moon Palace. Snorkeling, kayaking, a catamaran tour, and mangrove and jungle tours are also available. (http://www.xpuha-palace.com).
A couple of cautions.
If you rent a scooter or moped to help you get around, please be careful. They can be very dangerous, especially where the ground is soft, sandy, or gravely. Moreover, the deductible on the insurance is often very high.
It is also not a good idea to rent a car in Mexico. If you are involved in an accident, you can be detained until the damage is fixed, or until you have your day in court.
Those cautions aside, Mexicoâ€™s Riviera Maya is one of the most fascinating destinations in the world. Visit while it is still relatively unspoiled and uncrowded, and save me a hammock!