The Mayan Riviera is an 80-mile stretch in Mexico that reaches from Cancun to Tulum, and it’s a great destination for those looking dodge Senor Frog’s, impersonal hotel chains and throngs of American tourists.
Spend a couple of nights in Playa del Carmen, where you’ll get the feel of a seaside Mexican town, then it’s onto the less crowded Tulum, where you’ll find eco-resorts, boutique hotels and plenty to do. Boca Paila Road stretches about five miles through the jungle and along the beach of Tulum: Nestled between palm trees and thick jungle vegetation are yoga studios, plein-air restaurants, roadside coffee stands and fantastic beachfront accommodations. You won’t find full-moon parties or chain eateries here, but you will find long stretches of powdery-white sand and warm, turquoise water.
Check out the NewNowNext 9 for the Mayan Riviera, which reaches from the developed sands of Cancun to the more authentic Mexican town of Playa del Carmen and the small stretch of Heaven known as Tulum.
1. Book an out-of-this-world hotel
Encantada Boutique Hotel & Spa, a small, eco-friendly hotel right on the beach, offers eight luxurious rooms—each with king-size beds, walk-in showers, handmade artwork and massive sliding doors that open up onto private decks. The beach is steps away, with chaise lounges nestled under grass umbrellas for guests’ convenience.
Encantada’s friendly staff is more than helpful: Carlos, behind the open-air bar, makes the best margaritas in town—not to mention perfect lattes for the morning after. Breakfast includes fresh fruits, juices and homemade breads with an incredible banana cinnamon spread. Encantada is truly a special place along Boca Paila Road, especially for a couple looking for a romantic getaway.
Playa Azul Tulum, or “Blue Beach,” is aptly named for the stretch of sea overlooks. Ask for cabana 22, a former spa converted into a private garden suite , it features a giant outdoor tub, private outdoor shower (with two conch shells as the shower heads) and twin hammocks for lazy lounging.
Stroll through the shady sand-covered path to the beach where you will find a full service bar, outdoor spa and upper-level restaurant.
If you want something chic and stylish, check out the small but sexy, Coqui Coqui Boutique Hotel , where Amanda Seyfried, stayed just weeks before hitting the Oscars’ red carpet.
Park your car on Boca Paila Road, then pass down the sandy path behind the hotel’s sign until you reach the placard that reads “reception on the beach.” Turning the corner you’ll find not only a reception area, but a small restaurant, a shop and a spa.
Try to grab room 6 for a stunning second-floor view of the ocean. With your own private balcony facing the beach, sleep with the door wide open so the breeze coming off the ocean flows in and over the king-sized canopy bed.
Coqui Coqui also invites guests to immerse themselves in the scents and fragrances of the Yucatan in the uber-chic lobby perfumeria. If you have the time, check out Coqui Coqui’s hotels in Coba and Valladolid, both just a few hours drive from Tulum.
Coco Tulum offers a chance to step off the grid and check-out of life for a while. For the ecological conscious traveler, book a beach bungalow that features king-size beds and private decks while sharing communal bathrooms. If you’re looking to splurge a bit, grab a deluxe room with a private bathroom and an upper floor deck for sunrise worshipping. Each bungalow is steps from the beach so falling asleep to the sound of waves lapping against the shore with a slight breeze is always an option.
Coco’s beachfront features a bay of hammocks tucked under a sleek, yet rustic wooden sun protector. After a dip in the ocean, rinse off in the Frank Gehry-inspired open-air shower alongside the row of hammocks. Not a bad way to spend the day! Coco’s restaurant along Boca Paila Road offers a fantastic option for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The morning hotcakes are amazing and for the coffee-lovers out there who need a major shot of caffeine to start the day, you won’t be disappointed with the barista’s skills.
Mezzanine Tulum sits on an elevated hillside overlooking the vast white beach and just minutes from the famed ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum. The hotel offers a real hotel experience. Everything happens on the main deck surrounding a beautiful kidney-shaped pool. Here you can lounge on beds, swing in hammocks, eat breakfast, lunch or dinner and on Friday nights experience the best party that Tulum has to offer.
Mezzanine features in-room spa treatments, access to beach chairs and umbrellas along with kayaks to take out to the coral reef. The rooms have extra high cathedral ceilings and a loft space with an extra bed for parties larger than two.
Upper-floor luxury rooms include in-room Jacuzzis, private decks overlooking the sea, and record players with a set of real vinyl albums. (There’s also a copy of the Kama Sutra in the armoire if you’re feeling frisky.) An Asian theme dominates the hotel decor, as well as its incredible Thai restaurant, Mezzanine (see below).
In the heart of Playa del Carmen, just a block from the beach, sits the Acanto Boutique Hotel: This quaint yet luxurious hotel features full apartments for a great vacation.
Built around a tropical courtyard with a swimming pool and Jacuzzi, Acanto offers a cozy romantic atmosphere where the staff caters to every need. Families are welcome and the full-size apartments are perfect for a group. There are 21 units featuring full kitchens, marble floors, granite counter tops and central air conditioning. Wrap around terraces, walk-in showers, flat screen TVs and wireless access in the lobby put the icing on the cake! Acanto is steps from Playa del Carmen’s main shopping area along La Quinta Avenida not to mention the town’s nightlife hub. Try 100% Natural around the corner from Acanto for an amazing breakfast!
About 20 minutes north of Playa del Carmen is the exclusive Viceroy Hotel & Resorts. Nestled into the jungle, this romantic getaway has 41 private villas and a lovely no-kids policy. Enjoy a completely private patio, plunge pool and outdoor shower. Under a thatched palapa roofs, the terrace offers chaise lounges, a hand-carved stone dining table and handmade crochet hammocks. (Villa locations range from oceanfront and ocean view to ones offering views of verdant jungle gardens.)
Winding paths through tropical plants lead past a full-service spa and open to a beautiful pool steps from the beach. An open-air bar and restaurant are open all day along with “tropical butler” service for poolside iced towels. For a touch of fine dining, book a table at La Marea which is set on the upper floor of a gorgeous, open-air dining room. With white linen tablecloths and candlelight, La Marea offers a dining experience that you simply can’t miss. Try the tuna tartar and the pozole seafood stew while sipping a refreshing Mexican Sauvignon Blanca. The restaurant features a contemporary interpretation of Mexican cuisine with Mediterranean influences. Each day the menu offers an array of specials and chef’s recommendations depending on the most fresh seafood and local prime meats available.
2. Dine on local and exotic fare
Located in “downtown” Tulum, Altamar is an open-air restaurant with a warm and welcoming staff—and it’s the place to go for authentic regional cuisine.
Each night the chef features a curated selection of fresh full fish, ceviches, tacos and steaks. (Make sure to ask about their cooking classes, scheduled daily.) Looking to spice up your night? Slip into the second-floor lounge on Fridays for drink specials and a house DJ.
Secluded at the end of the long stretch of hotels along Boca Paila Road, Hechizo sits perched, overlooking the ocean and provides the perfect setting for a romantic lunch or dinner on the water. At night, sit outside under the stars or inside the beautifully set dining room. The menu offers an exotic seafood selection including lobster, octopus and scallops. Hechizo means “enchantment” after all, and you will leave under its spell. The restaurant opened its doors in 2003 by husband and wife team Chef Stefan Schober and Pastry Chef Ying-Hui Thai Low. Expect a visit by Chef Stefan at your table as he takes the time to explain each of his “babies” on the entre menu. Each dish is created with the passion of fine dining as Chef Stefan shops daily for fresh, quality ingredients, inspecting each dish as it goes out from the kitchen. Don’t leave without sampling one of Hui’s magical desserts!
One of the best things about traveling in Tulum is the variety of foods: Though it’s right off the beach, Thai-influenced Mezzanine will make you think you’ve stepped on the streets of Phuket, with an globe-trotting mix of curries, seafood and tangy salads (made with herbs grown in the restaurant’s garden).
It’s also home to the best café breakfast in Tulum and a killer latte that will get your day going.
Hartwood Tulum is set in an open air environment located on the jungle side of Tulum’s Boca Paila Road. The restaurant proudly operates with the use of solar panels as its only source of sustainable energy. All food preparation is executed by hand – with no use of electrical appliances. All of Hartwood’s cooking is done in a wood-burning oven and on an open grill. Ingredients are sourced locally including seafood and pork along with all farm grown produce. Because Hartwood uses only the freshest of ingredients, the menu changes daily but if you happen to see the beef short ribs when you visit, do yourself a favor and order them!
In May of 2013, Hartwood Restaurant is calling foodies, aspiring chefs and environmentalists alike to join in their second OH! Food Workshop. From May 24-29, 2013, guests can join nearby hotel Casa de las Olas as it collaborates with Chef Eric Werner of Hartwood Restaurant and Celti Restaurant’s Chef Claudia Perez in a three-day Yucatan-inspired cooking extravaganza, complete with a five night accommodation in the serene Casa de las Olas. The workshop focuses on Hartwood’s local farm-to-chef cuisine. Three classes are offered and provide a combination of delicious sustainable cooking alternatives that Hartwood and many businesses of Tulum adhere to.
3. Discover the Sian Ka’an biosphere
For an incredible day on the Sian Ka’an biosphere, a World Heritage wildlife preserve that stretches nearly 780,000 acres, book a tour with Mexican Kan Tours. (Excursions of up to eight people start at about 9am.) After a jungle ride south of Tulum to the remote town of Punta Allen, you’ll jump on a speed boat and zip off to Ascension Bay, home to sea turtles, dolphins, giant pelicans and plump-chested frigatebirds. Spend an hour snorkeling the crystal clear waters over vast spreads of coral and dip into a natural white sanded swimming pool called El Blanquizal.
Mexican Kan Tours also has tours to the famed ruins of Chichen Itza, the remote Mexican town of Coba or, for the more adventurous, zip-lining and limestone-cavern snorkeling.
4. Get your asana on
Hollywood jet setters have discovered the serenity that Tulum provides—Amanda Seyfried recently came to visit before hitting the Academy Awards red carpet.—but the rest of us need some chill time, too: Yoga is a mainstay in Tulum and has been for decades. As soon as you arrive in town you’ll pick up on the vibe which is everything opposite of hustle and bustle. Yoga Adventures Tulum is a travel planning service that also offers a unique guesthouse and yoga studio right on the beach, which fits perfectly into the feel of Tulum. There’s really nothing like perfecting your downward dog while a slight breeze off the Caribbean Sea runs through your hair. Mexican Mud meditations on the beach and sweat lodge spiritual excursions can also be arranged.
5 – Snorkel in an underground cavern
For a fun day of subterranean and exotic ocean creatures, book an excursion with Dive Adventures Tulum. A short ride from Tulum in Akumal, snorkelers swim out from the beach to a coral reef full of colorful fish and giant sea turtles. After lunch you’ll head over for a swim at the Dos Ojos cenote, a kind of fresh underwater cave system found only in the Yucatan Peninsula.
This experience is not for the cowardly (or claustrophobic_—you’ll snorkel through stalagmites, stalactites and a giant bat cave. But if you’re lucky enough to land Sebastian as your fearless leader/tour guide, expect an unforgettable experience.
6. Pamper yourself
If you happen to pass the Viceroy Hotel on Highway 307 south to Tulum, stop in to the Wayak Spa for a day—or even several nights. This full-service spa offers couples massages, temazcal baths, state-of-the-art saunas and a gym.
But its the traditional Temazcal baths that are the real draw: Made from mortar-and-stone, these specially designed sweat lodges purify mind and body with a trove of herbs, essential oils and natural curatives culled from the Mayan Riviera’s tropical forests.
7. Swim the dolphins
You’ve seen the photos on Facebook of your friends kissing dolphins—now it’s your turn. Stop in at Dolphinaris along Highway 307 for a 90-minute swim with a private guide and plenty of porpoises. The best part is holding onto their fins while being led through the pool at top speed.
8. Visit ancient ruins
If you feel like you’ve spent enough time worshiping the sun and sea, do like the Mayans did and worship god-kings at the pre-Colombian ruins along the beach’s northern end. (“Tulum” is actually the Mayan word for “wall” or “fence.”)
The ruins are almost always clogged with tourists but if you go first thing in the morning, you’ll see some breathtaking vistas as the sun rises over the Caribbean. (It’s no wonder the Mayans settled here.)
Make sure to bring pesos, because unlike the beach, you have to pay to get into the ruins. (Admission is about $5 US.)
9. Be a beach bum
It almost goes without saying that the beach is the real draw along the entire Mayan Riviera. What makes Tulum so special, though, is the lack of crowds and a surfeit of accommodations that organically mesh with the landscape. If you’re a sun lover, this is the place to be
Related: Tulum : Bossest Beach Nominee, Traveler’s Choice 2012