Cancun/Riviera Maya


Cancun MexicoCancun, Mexico, is wrapped in crystal clear water and brilliant sunshine, so it's no wonder its shoreline gets top billing. Government developers, looking for a way to eradicate the poverty of the region, created this comfortable resort area on the Mexican Caribbean from the sand up to take advantage of the gorgeous aquamarine water and tropical temperate climate. Cancun is the top resort area in Mexico.

Cancun either reassures visitors or annoys them. Travelers who enjoy the feel of Old Mexico will never find Cancun to be as traditional, colorful or as spontaneous. With more than 32,000 hotel rooms, it's not the place for isolated sun worship, either. The resort facilities have overgrown the original plans for the town, making the layout of hotels and shops somewhat cramped as newer, more sprawling properties have been constructed on the edge of town in recent years.

But those hankering for a no-hassle beach vacation can fly in and soak up the sun without speaking a word of Spanish (or exchanging U.S. dollars). And those interested in learning about the ancient Maya civilization can visit several exceptional archaeological sites on day trips.

Also within reach is the island of Cozumel, a haven for divers and snorkelers. And Playa del Carmen—once an oasis of rustic, laid-back charm—is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, with a great variety of restaurants, bars, shops and entertainment. It is also the hub of a growing ecotourism movement. Isla Mujeres, the closest island to Cancun, is still famous for snorkeling and hasn't lost its friendly fishing-village allure.

There are actually two Cancuns: the Zona Hotelera on the island and "Ciudad" Cancun (better known simply as "downtown"), a district on the mainland that is more of a residential and business enclave. You can get from one to the other via a short bus or taxi ride.

The island, which is where most visitors spend their time, is 14 mi/22 km long, less than 0.5 mi/1 km wide and shaped rather like the number seven. It is connected to the mainland by bridges at each end, which were built after a landfill linked the island to the peninsula. It has calm, shallow waters off its northern side, wilder Caribbean seas to the east, and the vast, brackish Nichupte Lagoon between the island and the mainland.

There are no street addresses on Cancun island because there's really only one road—Boulevard Kukulcan. Places on the island are located by their distance (in kilometers) from the northern end of the boulevard, which begins at the edge of downtown Cancun. Markers indicate every kilometer along the side of the road.

Riviera Maya

Riviera MayaMere decades ago, the Riviera Maya was a sparsely populated stretch of Mexico's Caribbean coastline dotted with fishing villages and little-visited Mayan ruins. These days it's Mexico's fastest-growing tourist destination that—like its prosperous neighbor Cancun—has discovered the goose that laid the golden egg.

The Riviera Maya is one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the western Caribbean. It's famous for white-sand beaches and crystal clear water. However, the area also offers ancient Mayan ruins and pristine ecological wonders to explore, as well as nature parks and resorts with all the amenities.

Extensive white-sand beaches, limestone caverns, underground rivers and freshwater pools known as cenotes form the Riviera Maya's main geographical features. Parts of its coastline are covered in mangrove swamps, and other areas lie under low, scrubby forest. Offshore, a barrier reef that stretches all the way to southern Belize attracts scuba divers.

Playa del Carmen is the main town and soul of the Riviera Maya. It used to be where drop-outs from society would go to live the life of happy beach bums. There are still a few around, but the population explosion has brought in paved roads and many small inns, large-scale all-inclusive resorts and dozens of restaurants while retaining touches of the charming ambience that made it popular in the first place—including a pedestrian-only main thoroughfare.

You can swim and snorkel during the day or just hang out at an outdoor cafe and people-watch. When the sun goes down, there's lively nightlife at funky venues, many run by expatriate Europeans and Americans, plus an increasing number of glitzy nightspots that used to only be found up the coast in Cancun. It's also where you catch the ferry to Cozumel.

At Puerto Aventuras, you'll find beautiful beaches and an excellent marina, with berths for up to 250 boats and facilities for sportfishing and watersports. It's also home to the Riviera Maya's only maritime museum, which exhibits wreckage and artifacts collected from famous shipwrecks along the Mexican Caribbean coast dating back to the 16th century.

Unlike Playa del Carmen, Puerto Morelos has, for the most part, retained its charm and tranquil village atmosphere. A playground dominates the main square, and fishing launches still line the town beach. Located 22 mi/35 km north of Playa del Carmen.

The Tulum area is the center of ancient Mayan culture and a good place to explore cenotes—underground sinkholes that are filled with crystal clear water. To explore the ruins in the jungle or to snorkel or scuba dive (with the proper certification) in the cenotes, rent a Jeep or take a guided tour. The ruins of Tulum, however, are overcrowded with cruise-ship passengers unless you arrive when the area opens in early morning. This way, you'll also avoid the hottest part of the day. Tulum's beach is, by most accounts, the best on the whole coast, with limited development helping it fare better during a series of hurricanes over the past decade.

Sian Ka'an is a UNESCO-designated World Biosphere Reserve that protects the myriad species of plant, bird (more than 350 species), fish and other animal life that have made up the rain forests of the Yucatan for millennia. The reserve supports research on preserving these species and stabilizing the ecology of the region, which has been threatened by development and destructive farming practices. Much of the reserve is open to the public, but it is best explored through a reputable ecotourism company, as the area is rather desolate and terrain is quite rugged.

Ecoparks such as Xcaret, Xel-ha, Tres Rios and Croco Cun offer a variety of watersports activities and more opportunities to explore the flora and fauna of the coast. The Riviera Maya's offshore reefs, crystal clear waters and freshwater cenotes make it a paradise for divers and snorkelers. There are numerous reputable dive shops in Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen and Akumal that organize tours.

Those looking to immerse themselves in Mexican culture and history may be disappointed in the Riviera Maya. The region was never a major population center, and mass tourism has stripped much of the Mexican flavor that it may have once had. But, despite its increasing commercialism, the area has a vitality and multicultural ambience that many find irresistible.


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