The Maya Riviera runs along the east coast of the Yucatan peninsula. East side of this flat peninsula with cities of Cancun and Playa del Carmen has developed into tremendous tourist region with hundreds of resorts and other tourist services to provide for the millions of sun and fun seeker vacationists. However, indiginous Maya culture and original – or real Mexican – can be found when you just open the secured gate of your gigantic resort or go even further inland.
What to do in Yucatan?
Mexico and Yucatan especially can be all about alabaster-white sand beaches and just enjoing them. Many vacationists from all over the world especially from colder countries fly to the peninsula to just relax and have fun in the sun. Cancun has been a party destination for Americans for decades already. Many European capitols now have direct fights to Cancun, which makes it an easier escape to the sun during winter months. And Playa del Carmen has grown into a massive tourist paradise with lots and lots of famous brand shopping opportunities. Many visitors come just for a day as several Caribbean cruisers stop for a day in Cozumel island just outside of Playa del Carmen.
But it can also be about daytrips and a combination of activites around the peninsula. Go on arranged tours or explore the peninsula by yourself. Mexico (at least Yucatan) seems to have a very well established transportation systems, and several bus and colective options to choose from. Or rent a car and drive around – the roads are mostly in very good condition and signs clear and well posted. Yucatan peninsula is very flat unlike other parts of Mexico. The only “hills” you can hike are the ruins really.
Images: Coba ruins, main pyramid 42 m high and we all climbed on top! Beautiful Tulum ruins on the beach. A nearby cenote for a fresh swim in Coba.
Here’s our few picks for attractions and activities:
1. Explore Maya ruins & dip in the cenotes
Yucatan peninsula is famous for its Mayan ruins, the most famous being Chichen Itza in central Yucatan. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and apparently very well preserved. But being so famous and a wanted place to see comes with disadvantages. Huge tourist crowds. Chichen Itza welcomes busloads of tourists every day, so you definitely won’t be there alone. However, there are few other ruins for you to explore almost by yourself…
There are several other ruins in the Yucatan besides Chichen Itza. Uxmal near the city of Merida is said to be as spectacular as the Chichen Itza. Coba on the other hand is as large a park as Chichen Itza or Uxmal, but not yet as well preserved. It only opened to crowds some years ago and there are tons of sites still under dirt waiting to be dug out in the open and preserved. Coba main pyramid is twice the height of that in Chichen Itza and you can climb on top. Tulum ruins are on the Mayan Riviera coast – an amazing location and beautiful ruins, but much smaller than the other three mentioned above.
Hundreds of travel agents provide day trips to all of these ruins. They often include a guided tour in the ruins together with a visit to a Mayan pueblo or idyllic town (ig in Vallibolido) and a trip to swim in of of the larger cenotes – a sinkhole filled with clear water. As yucatan is a completely flat peninsula with only a little dirt on the surphase a massive deficit of fresh water. The ground is however rich in limestone and with ground transformation over centuries the soft limestone has caused underground rivers and holes (cenotes) to form. In ancient times cenotes were the only source of fresh water to the Mayans – and thus greatly valued and often considered as holy places.
From Cancun to Chichen Itza is about 200 km. From Playa del Carmen to Chichen Itza is about 270 km since the bus has to route via Cancun. Cancun to Uxmal near Merida is about twice the drive. Playa Del Carmen is quite close to Tulum, only an hour drive. We took a daytrip from Playa del Carmen to Tulum ruins and Coba ruins as well as visited a Mayan pueblo near Coba ruins. In Coba you get to climb on top of the 42 m high main “pyramid” (which is not a pyramid since its not a tomb, rather a temple and an observatory). A collective picked us up at our hotel at nine in the morning and dropped back at about 7 in the evening. Altogether we paid 180 USD for the three of us, including transportation, all entrance tickets, guided tours and a buffet lunch. Prices are negotiable on trips arranged by agents, so settle your price 😉
2. Culture, traditions and pueblos
Mayan culture and authentic Mexican culture is hard to find when staying only in hotel and resort areas of Cancun or Playa del Carmen. You can witness hints, however, always with an international or commercialized twist. The most authentic Mayan you see in Playa del Carmen for example, are those low-wage jobs occupied by Mayan descendants in high class tourist resorts. In case you want to experience authentic Mayan current day living and cultivation of heritage, stay away of the commercialized western tourist traps.
Fortunately many of the daytrips include a visit to real Mayan pueblos – little villages. Of course they are presented as an attaction, but you still get to experience what normal living conditions are alike for many Mayans today. Mayans today still speak their own language. Children are spoken to mostly only in Mayan at home until they start school (in Mexico at least). Official school language is Spanish. Traditions are slowly fading, due to the fact that so many of the descendants and mestizo, mixed of American indian and Spanish or other European ancestry.
Many of the Mayan descendants are artesans, especially women who mostly stay home. They receive little or little extra income for making handicrafts to sell themselves or in cooperatives. Bright colourful textiles are very typical, as are all items related to the Mayan calendar and signs, dream catchers, pottery and paintings.
We visited a little Mayan pueblo on our way to the Coba ruins. Miriana and her family welcomed us to their little house, or hut should I say, where she cooked corn tortillas for us with spinach-onion filling (to make them tacos). The hut has a fireplace, a few shelfs and a hammock that the three-person family sleeps in. Her daughter introduced their pet spider monkey and chickens and turkeys in the backyard. Their hut has a dirt floor. A separate toilet was installed only two years ago. Miriana and her husband live on the handicraft sales they make in front of the house. Visiting a home like this puts a little more perspective to a traveller’s thinking.
More about the Mayan heritage coming soon.
3. Las Playas
Many travel to Mexico because of its beaches. No wonder. Yucatan peninsula and the whole Mayan Riviera has a long thread of absolutely beautiful alabaster-white sandy beaches. Those you see in the travel ads illustrating a paradise. Both Cancun and Playa del Carmen have their own hotel zone on long beaches, just hotels and resorts after another. Tulum has absolutely gorgeaus beaches as well as smaller and more quiet villages between these bigger cities, such as Akulum and Puerto Morelos.
You can find all kinds of accommodations along the coast line: major resorts in Playacar area in Playa del Carmen, city hotels and hostels, cabanas on the beach and even camping in the natural reserve area. And everythin in between these. And similary, all kinds of beaches along: resort and hotel own beaches, public beaches, crowded beaches, quiet beaches, small bays and long long coast line beaches to walk for miles.
A cloudy day on the beach in Tulum.
4. Go underwater around the islas
One note: big cruise ships stop at the Cozumel island for a day, which means a lot of tourists on the ferry (which takes about 45 minutes from Playa del Carmen and costs about 150 pesos roundtrop per person) and those activities that are easily reachable from Playa del Carmen.
5. Theme parks
One thing the Mexicans (or foreign investors) have done well are major theme parks in the Maya Riviera. There are several parks to visit, all so massive that be sure to reserve a whole day for one park visit. Main parks such as Xcaret 10 km from downtown Playa del Carmen has been up and running for 25 years already! Other parks behind the same owners are Xelha, Xplor, Xplor Fuego, Xenotes, Xenses and Xichen. You can get some discounts you wish to visit more than one of this coop’s parks. Xcaret is the largest of the parks with several. Others are more focused on certain experience or theme. For example Xelha is a massive water park, whereas Xplor is more an amusement park with all kinds of rides and built experiences. There are several other theme, amusement, water and activityparks in the peninsula, so plenty to choose from for all ages!
We spent a whole day in Xcaret. Left our hotel at 9 in the morning and returned at 10 pm. And we still did not get to see or experience all there was available in the park! Xcaret is a park built around a real original Mayan pueblo and ruins. Similar to Tulum ruins, Xcaret was built as a port pueblo – for trade and travels on the sea. One thing especially nice about Xcaret – as they advertize – was that they seem to preserve and value the Mayan and Mexican heritage, value culture and nature. This you see in the park attractions, even if the park is obviously making a nice turnover. An amazing night show is tributed to Mexican cultural history. Mayan tradition and culture is conveyed in a greatly preserved pueblo.
Animals in Xcaret exhibitions. And the ultimate “dive with sting rays” experience!
Nature is taken care of and a great variety of animals in the park are mostly in good living conditions and cared for in their natural habitat. For example, we saw monkeys jumping in the three tops over the parking area. Coral in the aquarium for example is claimed to be rescued as a broken part of the reef due to a storm and which would otherwise have been destroyed. Picture taking and petting the sharks as well as riding dolphins exhibits were a bit more to teasing tough, in our opinion. Diving with sting rays in a big tank was a breathtaking experience for us; however, gets you thinking whether it really is ok for the rays or not. Anyways, Xcaret is a day of water activities too – it has several swimming possibilities, one of them being a 600 meter long underground river undernieth the park. Experience that!
6. Shopping & gastronomy
Several shopping options in Cancun and Playa del Carmen. In the latter there are several malls on the famous beach street the Calle Quinta Avenida as well as malls outside city area. Quinta Avenida is full of small boutiques, souvenir shops, local handicrafts and bars and restaurants. And shopping centers too. All world famous brands are represented. Prices seemed to be close to those in major metropols too, so don’t expect big discounts… except most likely big sales at the same time as in every where else too. We visited Mexico just in the beginning of January and did not encounter any major sales then.
Images above: Calle Quinta Avenida in Playa del Carmen has shops for everything. Especially those familiar souvenirs… Skulls & skeletons are a major theme as the Mexicans annually celebrate Dia de Muertos, Day of the Dead similar to Halloween.
If you stay in resorts of the common tourist areas in eg. Playa del Carmen, you have kitchens from all over the world to choose from. Downtown area and especially Calle Quinta Avenida provide a massive selection of restaurants. You can find some real gems if you just take a few steps of the Quinta Avenida party places – and step into what may look like small in the front but may have beautiful gardens in the backyard to dine in. Even Mexican cocina, however, not the real indiginous Mexican meals. Once you visit small villages and pueblos, you get to experience more authentic Mexican cuisine.
Yucatan for chilling or days full of activities
To visit Yucatan peninsula comes with several possibilities. Plenty of sunshine, astonishing beaches, water sports and life under water, quiet places, ancient ruins of the great Mayan civilization, a variety of activities to choose from as well as just relaxing in an all-inclusive major resort. Yucatan is for budget travellers to enjoy – accommodation and food or meals you can get at very low prices in a more low profile places. Or you can easily spend a massive amount participating and experiencing many activities. A few examples: getting a 6kg laundry load done for you cost only 60 pesos (abt 2,5 €) in a local laundry shop. A collective van from Cancun to Playa del Carmen 118 pesos for three people. One day tickets to Xcaret for 3 persos 329 USD (only entrance, no extra activities, one buffet meal included). Dining out in a mid-range fairly decent restaurant on Calle Quinta Avenida about 600 pesos (abt 30 €; including 2-3 meals and 3 drinks). One meal in local Burger King about 70 pesos (3,2 €).
Images below: an iguana in Tulum ruins, found Finlandia in a sign pole in downtown Playa del Carmen, beautiful Cozumer island beach front at night & local street art in our hotel neighbourhood.