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The Mysterious Magic Of The Mayan Riviera

(April 2000)

When you hear the word "Riviera," visions of the French Cote d'Azur, Cannes, or Monaco typically come to mind. However, there is another Riviera, and it's closer to our part of the world. It's called the Mayan Riviera, or "Riviera Maya," as the Mexicans say. The Mayan Riviera is situated on Mexico's vast and wild Yucatan peninsula and boasts Mexico's number-one tourist destination, Cancun. However, beyond Cancun the real beauty begins with destinations such as Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen, Punta Bete, and Akumal. Each destination is a magical wonder with beautiful beaches, spectacular reefs, great resorts, and mysterious Mayan ruins.

The Mayan Riviera is my favorite part of Mexico. Once a sleepy little village, Playa del Carmen (known locally as Playa, and the resort area known as Playacar) has grown tremendously in the past few years. Originally named Xaman-Ha (waters of the north), Playa del Carmen is a living vibrant destination of the Mayan Riviera. Because of its location between Cancun (Isla Mujeres), Akumal, and its ferry to Cozumel, Playa del Carmen is a great place to explore the Yucatan.

Playa del Carmen has taken great pains to preserve the charm that has always distinguished it from other Mexican tourist destinations. The town's center is closed to car traffic so visitors can stroll the streets and explore Playa's unique laid-back atmosphere. There are many good, inexpensive restaurants and shops to explore. Playa also boasts a championship golf course and a wonderful aviary where you can get up close to a vast array of colorful and friendly tropical birds.

This March I took my second trip to this area in ten years, and the changes I noticed were considerable. Each year more and more people are discovering this exotic location. Nevertheless, while resorts have changed the coast, making it busier, it is still a laid-back place to vacation away from the hustle and bustle of Cancun.

Most of the big resorts are European-owned all-inclusives catering to British, German, and Italian travelers. Americans and Canadians are also flocking to the area in ever-increasing numbers. On this most recent visit, my family and I stayed at the fabulous all-inclusive Gala Playacar Resort. Gala Resorts is a well-known name in Mexico. Its staff of young, energetic "animators" keeps the place hopping with activities such as scuba (the resort offers a one-tank dive daily to certified divers), snorkeling, windsurfing, kayaking, sailing, tennis, and various games. Gala also offers a great kids program for children ages two through twelve, plus other activities for teens. With two gorgeous pools and a pristine white sand beach, there is plenty of room to claim a chair or hammock to read a good book, nap, or just meditate while watching the Caribbean surf.

The resort offers buffet-style meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with lots of variety. In addition, in the evenings you can reserve a table in either the Mexican or Italian restaurants at the resort. The Italian cuisine is excellent. Everything is part of the all-inclusive price, including the aforementioned daily tank dive.

Snorkeling is just one of the many things to do here. Scuba diving along the reef offshore is also topnotch, or you could take a 40-minute ferry ride over to nearby Cozumel, which boasts some of the world's best diving spots. Snorkeling, diving, and tours to Mayan ruins can be booked at your resort. Renting a car is good for independent exploration but can be expensive.

No visit to the Riviera Maya would be complete without a visit to one of the numerous Mayan ruins. The influence of the ancient Mayan civilization is a big part of what makes the Yucatan coast so special. The most famous Mayan site is at Chichen Itza, a two-and-a-half hour drive inland from the coast. Founded in 445 AD, this massive city was inhabited until 1204 AD when it was abandoned. Towering over the site is the Kukulcan pyramid, which rises 70 feet into the air. There are four stairways leading to the top of the pyramid. Each stairway has 91 steps individually, plus the top, shared step, making 365 total--one for each day of the solar year. Twice a year only, during equinox, shadows formed at sunset from the temple terraces connect to form one long snake, with the head at the bottom of the west stairway. Kukulcan's pyramid is built over the top of another pyramid. Our guide informed us that this would be the last year people would be able to climb to the top of the pyramid. Due to the high number of visitors, erosion is becoming a big problem. Therefore, the Mexican government is roping off the area in order to better maintain it.

The walled city of Tulum, located on the coast south of Playa Del Carmen, is smaller than Chichen Itza but is still impressive. Tulum is beautiful, located on a cliff overlooking the turquoise Caribbean waters. Tulum means "fence, trench, or wall," and is the name given to the site in recent times because of the wall surrounding it. As soon as we walked onto the sacred site, several large iguanas with bright orange spikes greeted us. They strutted in a manner that made us feel welcomed to their home. The most striking of the 60 structures in Tulum is El Castillo, which commands a terrific view of the coastline and the small, pristine beach below.

Two things you should not miss, especially if you are traveling with kids, are Xel-Ha and Xcaret. Xel-Ha is a natural formation, made up of a group of inlets, lagoons, sink holes, and caves, that are fed by a mixture of subterranean rivers and springs that make Xel-ha the world's largest natural aquarium. You can snorkel or swim in the inlet or serenely float down the river, but no matter you do you'll discover that Xel-Ha is an aquatic paradise. You can even swim with dolphins and watch them perform their many tricks. Also, there is an extensive array of array of tropical fish, birds, butterflies, and iguanas to be seen.

Closer to Playa Del Carmen is Xcaret, which is part eco-archeological site and part theme park. Built on a Mayan settlement, the site offers ruins, a rebuilt Mayan village and museum, gardens, an aviary, restaurants, and beaches. A wealth of available activities includes snorkeling in underground rivers, scuba diving the reef offshore, and horseback riding. In addition, there's a tropical aquarium, a wonderful turtle sanctuary, and a place to swim with dolphins. At night, Xcaret turns magical with lights and a Mayan dance performance.

You should plan to visit these parks for an entire day. Each has so much to offer that they cannot be explored in only a few hours. We took a combined Tulum-Xel-Ha tour, and it was hectic. As a result, I do not recommend doing combined tours since you'll miss too much.

Visiting the Riviera Maya is a real Mexican holiday. With miles of unspoiled, white, sandy beaches and crystal-clear Caribbean waters, it's a place for those in search of the "real" Caribbean.

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