Lay of the Land
“Mexico is an ancient thing that will still go on forever telling its own story in slabs of color leaves and fruits and proud naked Indians in a history without shame. Their great city of Tenochtitlan is still here beneath our shoes and history was always just like today full of markets and wanting.”~Barbara Kingslover
No one remembers the name of the visitor who suggested rebaptizing the Costa Maya—a jungle and beach corridor south of Cancún that fronts the limpid Caribbean along the Yucatán peninsula—as the more evocative Riviera Maya, but in the mid-’90s the new title kicked off a transformation that turned this stretch of gorgeous coastline into one of the fastest-growing resort areas in Mexico. A rose by any other name, indeed. Driving today on Carretera 307, the area’s main—and only—thoroughfare, which begins in Cancún and runs some eighty miles south to Tulum, you can’t help but be amazed at the building frenzy that is adding new hotel rooms at breakneck speed (by the year 2025, there will supposedly be 110,000 of them along the Caribbean coast). The constructions range from thoughtful eco-conscious projects like Mayakobá, an exclusive community comprising three upscale hotels – Rosewood, Banyan Tree and Fairmont – as well as private residences and a golf course, to all-inclusive mega-resorts. But the government professes to have learned its lesson from the mass-market mess of Cancún, whose concrete-block hotels were erected with little regulation or oversight in the 1970s.
With any luck, the powers that be will keep their word, as this part of the Yucatán is rich in Mayan history and striking natural beauty. The peninsula formed 65 to 70 million years ago when the area was hit by a meteorite. It’s composed mainly of limestone bedrock, creating a fragile environment that has no surface rivers but instead boasts a network of underground cenotes, or sinkholes, which served as the Mayans’ main water supply. Just miles from the coast’s exclusive resorts, which offer every imaginable creature comfort, the jungle looms wild and, to a great extent, untouched. The celebrated Mayan archeological sites of Cobá and Chichen Itzá are sheltered within the maze of lush tropical vegetation (my driver told me the area holds ruins not yet excavated, so deeply are they hidden), as are small Mayan villages whose inhabitants still speak the language and keep alive the traditions and rituals of their forefathers. The area’s complex ecosystem is perhaps best admired in the 1.3 million–acre Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a multi-habitat UNESCO World Heritage site that encompasses everything from wetlands and tropical forests to mangrove swamps and coastal savannas.
And then, of course, there are the famous white-sand beaches and the Caribbean, a flowing tapestry of translucent blues and piercing greens that mesmerizes those lounging on its powdery shore. Whether you call it Costa or Riviera, the Yucatán coast is one of the most beautiful parts of Mexico, if not the world, and one can only hope that it continues being developed in a thoughtful way so that its embarrassment of riches can be enjoyed by generations of travelers to come.
Part of the Riviera Maya’s allure – beyond the stunning natural beauty and high concentration of luxury resorts – is its easy access. Most major US cities have regular direct flights to Cancún, and there are also non-stop international flights from Paris, Munich, London, Madrid and Milan, among other European cities. There’s also talk of a second airport to be built in Tulum, which would certainly affect the relaxed ambience that currently distinguishes this town, located a safe distance from Cancún’s mass tourist arrivals. Given the endless delays on even breaking ground at the airport, though, no one is really holding their breath. Despite all the new development, one thing about Cancún hasn’t changed: arriving is as jarring as ever. Travelers are immediately pounced on by numerous tour operators, taxi drivers and tourist information agents, all trying to sell something or take you someplace. Most of the high-end resorts arrange a pickup, but be sure to confirm this, so you can walk by the hubbub and start your vacation in peace.
Most travelers to the area don’t require a car rental – or only need one for a day of exploring, and a hotel concierge will arrange that directly. But for those renting a house or planning a series of excursions, the Cancún airport has all the standard companies. Expect the process to move at a frustratingly slow pace, but know that ultimately a car – and even reliable car seats – can be procured. Carretera 307, recently widened to four lanes, runs parallel to the sea and starts at the airport, with exits for the resorts from the left lane, if you’re heading south. About halfway between Cancún and Tulum—a drive that takes one and a half hours—is Playa del Carmen, a rapidly expanding beachside town that is as close to party central as you get along the Riviera Maya, with tons of restaurants, bars and little shops. The scene doesn’t compare to the open-bar revelries of Cancún, but the town does become a happening hot spot at night. From Playa’s shore you can see in the distance the overbuilt island of Cozumel, a frequent stop for cruises.
About fifteen minutes south of Playa, the scenery changes noticeably: there’s still construction but much less than to the north, and the jungle seems to get denser as you head toward Akumal and Tulum. Akumal, a scuba and snorkel center whose name means “place of the turtles,” doesn’t have hotels like the other spots; instead, visitors rent houses and villas on the beach. The community is eco-minded, because its scenic Half Moon Bay is a prime nesting spot for sea turtles, and several Mexican environmental organizations are based here. If Akumal is the serene beauty, then Tulum is its sexy sister. Marked by a series of small palapa-style hotels occupying the beachfront that stretches to southern Punta Allen, the former hippie town still has a seriously laid-back vibe along with some newish additions. Among the latter, Casa de las Olas and chic eco-retreat Coqui Coqui blend seamlessly into the throng of less expensive, thatched-roof options. The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is located about ten miles south of Tulum.