The Mayan Riviera stretches about 80 miles from Cancun to Tulum. If your goal is to avoid massive hotel complexes, Senor Frog’s restaurant chains and throngs of American tourists, rent a car at the airport in Cancun and head directly south! Spend a couple nights in Playa del Carmen where you’ll get the feel of a seaside Mexican town, then onto Tulum, where you’ll find eco-resorts, less people, 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, open-air restaurants, roadside coffee stands and several fantasic hotels lining the beach. In Tulum there are no full moon parties and chain eateries. What you will find is a long stretch of pristine, powdery white sand beach with warm, turquoise water.
Here is NewNowNext 9 of the best from the Mayan Riviera. Just a hop, skip and a jump from the developed sands of Cancun to the more authentic Mexican town of Playa del Carmen and the small stretch of Heaven on Earth known as Tulum.
1 – Pick A Fantastic Hotel
Encantada Boutique Hotel & Spa is a small, eco-friendly hotel right on the beach in Tulum. Eight luxurious rooms with private bathrooms and king size beds feature soft linens, blue glass walk-in showers, extremely high ceilings, gorgeous hardwood floors and massive sliding doors that open up onto private decks featuring chairs and hammocks. Each room is uniquely decorated with local hand-made artwork and fabrics, lit by soft-glowing candles and cooled by numerous ceiling fans and the fresh ocean breeze. The beach is steps from each room with coupled chaise lounges tucked under grass topped umbrellas. Encantada offers a taste of real luxury in Tulum and the staff is super-friendly and helpful. Carlos, behind the open-air bar, makes the best margaritas in town, not to mention his perfect morning lattes. Breakfast comes with a stay at the hotel and 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 is a hotel with a name as clear and fitting as the stretch of water that it overlooks. Out of the 22 cabanas, ask for room 22. This private garden suite (a converted spa) features a giant outdoor tub, private outdoor shower with two conch shells as the shower heads and facing hammocks and a massive king-sized bed. Perfect for romance! Stroll through the shady sand-covered path to the beach where you will find a full service bar, outdoor spa and upper level Playa Azul Restaurant. Don’t miss the shrimp tacos, the best in Tulum! With its iconic straw-roof cabanas, delicious beach side cocktails and accommodating staff, this hotel defines what Tulum calls “eco-chic”.
For the fashion forward and décor-obsessed, check out the small, but sexy, Coqui Coqui Boutique Hotel and Perfumeria. Out front on Boca Paila Road, park your car on the street then pass down the sandy path behind the hotel’s sign until you placard that reads “reception on the beach.” Turning the corner you’ll find not only reception on the beach, but a small restaurant, a shop and a spa … all at your disposal. If you can, grab room 6 for a second floor ocean view in this authentic, Mexican stone villa. 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. To further your Mexican escape, immerse yourself in the scents and fragrances local to the Yucatan Peninsula in the uber-chic lobby perfumeria. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll be sharing your afternoon margarita with an international celebrity. Amanda Seyfried stayed at Coqui Coqui this winter, weeks before hitting the red carpet at the Oscars! 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. The luxury rooms on the upper floor include in-room Jacuzzi tubs, beautiful sitting areas, private decks overlooking the sea, in-room record players with a set of real vinyl and in the armoire, a copy of the Karma Sutra! This Asian theme is consistent throughout the hotel in the décor, but also in the hotel’s incredible Thai restaurant (see below).
In the heart of Playa del Carmen and a block from the beach sits the Acanto Boutique Hotel. This quaint yet luxurious hotel features full apartments for a great vacation. Set behind hacienda-style gates and 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 uber-private Viceroy Hotel & Resorts. Nestled into the jungle, this romantic getaway features a “no kids allowed” policy and 41 private villas. Enjoy a completely private patio and plunge pool, outdoor shower, high-ceiling thatched-palapa roof, 500-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, plush down pillows, and a terrace replete with chaise lounges, hand-carved stone dining table and a handmade crochet hammock. Villa locations range from oceanfront and ocean view to verdant jungle gardens. Winding paths through tropical plants lead past a full-service spa (see below) 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 fresh local cuisine
Altamar Restaurant & Lounge is located in “downtown” Tulum, directly off Highway 307 and is as local (and as delicious) as it gets. Open-air, dimly lit, with a warm and welcoming staff, this restaurant is THE place to go for local, authentic Mexican cuisine. We’re not talking quesadillas and enchiladas. Each night the chef will feature a small selection of fresh full fish, cooked on the bone however you like it – a must try for seafood lovers. If you aren’t as bold, try one of the many ceviches, tacos or steak options. Make sure to ask about their cooking classes, scheduled daily…a perfect vacation date. If you’re looking for something more eventful, check out the second floor lounge on Fridays for drink specials and a house music 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 restuarant 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!
We all love guacamole and enchiladas but when traveling in Tulum, it’s nice to have other options. Exotic, spicy and delicious are three words that describe the authentic Mezzanine Thai Restaurant. Step off the beach and onto the streets of Bangkok (ok, really just up a flight of stairs) to sit overlooking the Caribbean Sea while sampling a traditional mix of Thai curries, crisp and tangy salads made with herbs grown in Mezzanine’s garden, fresh seafood delicacies and of course a classic Pad Thai. Don’t miss the best café style breakfast menu 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, book a tour with Mexican Kan Tours. Covering about 780,000 acres, this World Heritage site is a place of conservation and scientific research surrounding the planning and implementation of environmental policies to protect wildlife and create viable solutions for sustainable use of natural resources. The tour begins around 9am with a group of about 8 people. After a jungle ride south of Tulum to the remote town of Punta Allen, jump on a speed boat and zip off into Ascension Bay where you’ll spot sea turtles, dolphins and giant pelicans and soaring frigates. 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. End the day eating a late lunch prepared by locals. Mexican Kan Tours also has tours to the famed ruins of Chichen Itza, the remote Mexican town of Coba or for the more adventures, zip-lining and limestone cavern snorkeling tours!
4 – Get your yoga on!
It’s no secret that the Hollywood jet set is slowly discovering the serenity and “chill” factor that Tulum provides. 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 an underground limestone “cenote”
For a fun day of snorkeling with giant sea turtles and cenote explorations, check out Dive Adventures Tulum. Just a short ride from Tulum in Akumal, snorkelers are able to swim out from the beach to a coral reef full of fish of every color of the rainbow and turtles… yes, massive sea turtles! After some lunch you’ll head over for a swim at Dos Ojos cenote, a fresh underwater cave system found only in the Yucatan Peninsula. This experience is not for the cowardly as 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 with a massage
If you happen to pass the Viceroy Hotel on highway 307 south to Tulum, stop in for a day at the Wayak Spa or even stay a couple of nights! The full spa offers couples massage treatments, temazcal baths, state of the art saunas, steam rooms and a gym. It’s no secret that Mexico’s tropical expanse of forest along the Maya Riviera is a treasure trove of natural curatives. With such an extensive and diverse selection of native herbs, the Wayak Spa’s specialty is in combining the most exquisite of essential oils with the art of reflexology, deep tissue work and stress-reducing techniques. To truly purify one’s soul, try a Temazcal bath. The word Temazcal originates from the Aztec words meaning house and vapor and a Temazcal bath is simply that, a very intense and spiritual experience inside a specially designed sweat lodge. The structure, made from mortar and stone, is symbolic of Mother Nature’s womb. Through the use of steam and healing herbs, the Temazcal ceremony purifies the body and the spirit.
7 – Swim with dolphins!
You’ve seen the photos on Facebook of your friends kissing dolphins and well, now is your chance! Stop in at Dolphinaris along Highway 307 on your way to Tulum for a 90-minute swim with a dolphin. With your own trainer, ask all the questions you want and after showering and using hand disinfectant, you are allowed to touch the dolphins everywhere but their face (ok, not everywhere). The best part is holding onto their fins while being led through the pool at top speed!
8 – Visit ancient Mayan ruins
If you feel like you’ve spent enough time worshiping the sun and sea, do like the Mayans did and worship kings and gods at the ancient ruins located on the Northern end of the beach. Be prepared for lots of tourists but if you go first thing in the morning, it’s worth it for the dramatic vistas when the sun rises over the Caribbean. Crumbling limestone walls and temples sit atop Tulum’s breathtaking coastline, it’s no wonder the Mayans settled here! Make sure to bring pesos because unlike the beach, the ruins are not free and will cost you approximately 5 US dollars for entrance.
9 – Be a beach bum all day long!
Finally, it goes without saying that the beach is the main draw to the entire Mayan Riviera. In Tulum, particularly, you’ll be amazed at the lack of crowds and how each hotel seems to organically mesh with the ocean. If you’re a sun lover, Tulum is the way to go.
Tulum — Bossest Beach Nominee, Traveler’s Choice 2012