Along Mexico’s sleepy Yucatan peninsula, you’ll find hundreds of kilometres of pristine sand-edged jungle. Near the north end of that strip of sand, Cancun marks the beginning of a string of Mayan Riviera resorts tucked into the jungle facing the sea all the way to Tulum, a two-hour drive south. Playa del Carmen sits midway.
Intrepid explorers vacationing here are perfectly positioned to plunge into the jungle to discover ancient Mayan cities and underground river adventures, not far from the sybaritic delights of their all-inclusives.
But those wanting to see what life was like before tourism arrived can hop a ferry to sleepy little Isla Mujeres (from Puerto Juarez, north of Cancun) and the far bigger, Cozumel (ferries leave every hour from Playa del Carmen). Isla Mujeres, a little island town with just three streets, is a flat-out charmer. On Cozumel, scour back streets for bargain souvenirs, then sip a monster-size margarita at Las Palmeras by the pier while you wait for your ferry back.
Countless nightclubs cram the region, but pedestrian-only Fifth Avenue in Playa del Carmen is the No. 1 evening hotspot. Rolandi’s Pizzeria makes great pizza, but canoodling couples will love intimate meals at secluded, upscale Cocina 38, on Fifth Avenue at Calle 38.
For even wetter family fun, hit the theme parks south of Playa del Carmen. The newest, the 53-acre Xplor, is built around all-natural caves, cenotes and rivers where you swim, drive amphibious vehicles and raft. The older Xcaret, Xel-Ha and Hidden Worlds Family Cenote Adventure Park offer tamer water sports spiced with Mayan culture and, for an eco-oriented learning experience, try Rio Secreto.
Yucatan is peppered with caves where early Mayans lived and worshipped, like Balankanche, a key entrance to the sacred underworld, just east of Chichen Itza. The peninsula’s cenotes—open sinkholes into underground rivers—offer unique swimming. Try snorkelling in Nohoch Nah Chich, (part of the world’s longest underground river system), with an exclusive Alltournative Offtrack Adventures program that includes ziplining and rappelling.
The beach always beckons, whether it’s Cancun’s resort strip beach, Playa del Carmen’s or Puerto Morelos’ soft powder, edged by funky little dining spots. For peaceful somnolence, try Playacar, south of the Playa del Carmen pier, or Puerto Aventuras, just south of PDC.
The mysterious Mayan civilization left behind magnificent ruins like small, seaside Tulum, famous Chichen Itza and Coba with its signature Nohoch Mul pyramid. All of these sites are best experienced on a guided tour that often includes a visit to a traditional Mayan village and lunch. Try a Jamaica—a drink made from hibiscus flowers.
Mexico’s Magic Towns
There are 111 pueblos mágicos in Mexico, each one designated as such for its enchanting beauty, architecture and centuries-old culture. Here are five magic towns—Sayulita, Todos Santos, Tulum, Isla Mujeres and San Sebastián del Oeste—that are easily accessible from major cities and resorts.
Five Things to Do in Riviera Maya and Cancun
Steeped in Mayan culture and surrounded by crystal-clear Caribbean waters, stunning lagoons and a vast jungle landscape, the area around Cancun and the Riviera Maya is begging to be explored. Go swimming in the sacred Gran Cenote, search for turtles in Akumal Bay, visit the pyramid of Chichén Itzá and eat at highly acclaimed, Mayan-inspired Hartwood Tulum.