Traveller's Guide: Mayan Riviera

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New flights from Gatwick make Mexico's Caribbean coast more accessible than ever. Mick Webb explores the beaches, wildlife and ancient culture

The Riviera Maya is the name that's been given to the strip of Caribbean coastline on Mexico's Yucatán peninsula which starts just south of the mega-resort of Cancún and stretches for 120km south to the more homely town of Tulum. The beaches of fine, startlingly white sand, a warm sea of contrasting blue hues, not to mention the presence of the world's second-largest coral reef a short distance offshore, provide the basic ingredients for a holiday paradise.

Jutting out like a seal's head from the rest of Mexico, the peninsula can also claim its own very distinctive personality, thanks to its connections with the Mayan people. The flat landscape, covered in low-rise forest is dotted with the ruins, many sensitively restored, of their once powerful civilisation. But 500 years after its final collapse, the vestiges of the culture live on: in the subtle spices of Yucatecan dishes such as cochinita pibil, (a slow-roasted, pork dish), in place-names such as Akumal ("the Place of the Turtles") and above all in the local Mayan people, who staff the resorts and keep the services running with calm courtesy.

Mayan languages are still widely spoken, so it's worth adding a Dios botic ("thank you") to your list of holiday phrases.

The Riviera's gateway is Cancún airport, from where Highway 307, the principal artery, heads arrow-straight south to Tulum and then on towards the frontier with Belize. On the coastal side of the road a sequence of huge, eye-catching gates mark the entrance to luxury resort hotels while blue-and-white signs advertise the water-based theme parks that also punctuate this coast. Beyond Tulum, though, the forest takes over in the shape of the massive Biosphere Reserve of Sian Ka'an.

The Riviera's focal point, midway between Cancún and Tulum, is the town of Playa del Carmen, known generally as Playa, and a metaphor for this region's recent, explosive development. Local people recall the tiny village in whose three streets, made of sand, the residents were outnumbered by monkeys; 25 years later, the population is over 120,000. The growth has been fuelled by the creation, to the south of Playa, of the resort area of Playacar, with massive hotels, a golf course and luxurious, well-hedged houses owned mainly by US retirees.

At the opposite end of town is the cool and funky beach of Mamitas, where beautiful people, mainly Mexican, flaunt their good looks. In between runs the beguiling, pedestrianised street of Quinta Avenida – Fifth Avenue – where tattoo parlours rub shoulders with jewellery shops, cafés, clothes boutiques and small hotels whose patios are filled with trees and plants. Playa is also the main departure port for the island of Cozumel, one of the world's top dive destinations.

Most European holidaymakers stay at one of the Riviera's recently built beachside hotels. Tour operators offering all-inclusive packages include Thomson (0871 231 469; thomson.co.uk) and Thomas Cook (0870 758 0205; thomascook.com). However, you can also make your own arrangements, thanks to the now-restored British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) link from Gatwick to Cancún. You can then find your own accommodation and explore the area by car or bus, since most of the major attractions are an easy day trip from Playa del Carmen. In addition to the BA flight, Monarch (08719 40 50 40; monarch.co.uk), Thomson and Thomas Cook sell seat-only deals on their flights to Cancún.

The weather is warm all year round, becoming extremely hot during the wet season, (from May to November) which is characterised by short heavy showers. This is when hotel prices are at their lowest. High season starts around mid-December and lasts till spring. Hurricanes can occur between June and November.

Another concern for visitors is the drug-related violence that has claimed thousands of lives, particularly in the north of Mexico, but has made relatively little impact on the Yucatán. Check the latest Foreign Office advice at fco.gov.uk/travel.

Mexican Tourist Board: 020-7488 9392; visitmexico.com.

Monumental shades of the past

Although the great cities of the Mayan civilisation were built inland, you'll find isolated examples of their buildings scattered among the new monuments to tourism: Playacar, for instance, is the rather incongruous setting for the ruined temples of Xaman-Ha. The most interesting site on the Riviera is just north of Tulum, where the Mayans built a fortified town (between the 13th and 16th centuries) on a dramatic headland overlooking a beautiful bay. It opens 8am-5pm daily, admission 51 pesos (£2.60). To avoid the crowds and the sun, visit early in the morning.

Farther away, but equally essential viewing, is Chichén Itzá. You'll need a day to get to and then to "do" this extraordinary monument to Mayan builders. There's ongoing academic debate as to when exactly it was built and whether or not it was the product of a fused culture of the Mayans and the Toltecs, who succeeded them. In any case, there's much to marvel at, including the great pyramid of El Castillo and huge ball court, where losing a game may have led to the loss of players' heads. It opens 8am-5.30pm daily, admission: 160 pesos (£8.10).

Much less visited and only half the distance to Chichén, on the road from Tulum, is Cobá. This is a magical place, where the different groups of buildings occupy jungle clearings, making a midsummer visit more tolerable. Its centrepiece is the pyramid of Nohoch Mul, which is worth climbing for its views over the forest canopy, decorated with brightly coloured flowers and birds. The site, much of which has not been uncovered, is vast so it's worth renting a bike (30 pesos/£1.50) at the entrance; it opens 8am-5pm, admission 51 pesos (£2.60).

Water, water everywhere

Although the big hotels of the Riviera Maya have laid claim to their own stretches of beach, there is plenty of the warm, white stuff to go round. The town beaches of Puerto Morelos in the north of the Riviera, of Playa del Carmen and of Tulum are all clean and gorgeous. The reef which runs the length of the coast, although broken in places, is an important factor in protecting the shoreline from rough seas, and the closer it is to the beach, the easier it is to get to see the coral and the kaleidoscopic array of fish and sea creatures.

Near Tulum is a sequence of lovely bays, where the reef is a mere 400m from the shore: Soliman Bay, for instance, which is lined with upmarket beach houses (most of which are for rent), Tankah Bay, which has a few small hotels and the more developed resort of Akumal.

Nature has also provided the Yucatán peninsula with a ready supply of natural swimming pools, known in Spanish as cenotes. There are dozens of these limestone sinkholes, which contain soft, refreshing water and are a wonderful way of cooling off and, in some cases, of exploring caves filled with stalactites.

Some have been developed with cafés and offer snorkelling gear for hire. You may need to pay entrance fees: the Gran Cenote, a couple of kilometres west of Tulum, has some dramatic stalactites (admission: 100 pesos/£5) while at Tankah Bay the beautiful Cenote Manatee offers a long, refreshing swim down a series of interlinked cenotes, lined with mangroves and filled with fish. What's more, it's free.

Water, fun and thrills are the common thread of the theme parks that punctuate the Riviera's coastline. The southernmost one is Xel-Ha, 15km from Tulum (00 52 998 884 7165; xelha.com). Developed from a natural lagoon in a stunning setting, its activities include snorkelling in the company of parrotfish, swimming with dolphins and manatees, jumping off "the cliff of courage" and other ways of keeping children and adults amused. This comes at a price: 1,011 pesos (£50) for adults and 512 pesos (£26) for children under 11. Open 8am-6.30pm every day of the year.

Closer to Playa del Carmen is Xcaret (00 52 998 883 0470; xcaret.com; 8.30am-9.30pm daily), which is billed as an "eco-archaeological park" and combines activities such as floating down an underground river and watching dolphins with the chance to see and learn about animals and watch a show that recounts the history of Mexico. Admission is 883 pesos (£44).

Its sister park, Xplor (00 52 998 849 5275; xplor.travel; 9am-5pm daily except Sundays), goes straight for the all-action market: hurtling down ziplines, driving amphibious vehicles through jungle and river or paddling rafts down underground rivers are some of the adventurous activities. Not for the frail, the faint of heart or the short of cash: admission for adults is 1,267 pesos (£63).

Guaranteed: a wild time for all

Wherever you stay and wherever you explore, you will see colourful flowers such as the bright red poinciana, and hear the loud calls of equally bright birds. Pelicans, turkey vultures and the mighty frigate birds are very visible, while iguanas and raccoons can be spotted even in the grounds of hotels. But the best way to savour some wild nature is by visiting the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve, pictured. This enormous protected area (the size of Norfolk) of tropical forest, savannah and lagoons is home to the whole range of the region's wildlife, including jaguars, howler monkeys, turtles and manatees, plus an extraordinary number of birds such as the beautiful and elusive motmot.

You can get to Sian Ka'an under your own steam (aim for the entry gate at Muyil, just south of Tulum) but the best way is to go on an excursion with an experienced guide. A day-long tour in a small group with the company EcoColors (Skype ecocolors_marketing; ecotravelmexico.com), for instance, is US$146 (£91) per person.

Getting below the surface of the Caribbean is another essential activity for the Riviera visitor. Diving is a primary activity in resorts such as Akumal, while snorkelling can be enjoyed all along the coast. Rays, turtles, groupers, barracudas and nurse sharks, as well as a host of smaller, colourful fish, swim around the coral outcrops.

Among the better places are the protected area north of Puerto Morelos, the bays just north of Tulum and the island of Cozumel.

There's no shortage of accommodation available on the Mayan Riviera, with the number of beds now surpassing that of neighbouring Cancún. At the luxury end of the market, you might follow in the sandy footprints of Jennifer Lopez for a week of beachside pampering at the boutique and spa hotel, Zoetry Paraiso la Bonita (below, part of the chain, zoetryresorts.com), a 20-minute drive from Cancún airport. A night for two costs 6,800 pesos (£340), all-inclusive.

Packages in more modest accommodation in the Playacar area are much cheaper. Thomson Holidays, for example, has an all-inclusive seven-night package departing 10 December from Gatwick, for a remarkable £680 per person.

A week next March at the five-star Fairmont Mayakoba, a few kilometres north of Playa del Carmen, set in a landscaped area of lagoons and jungle, costs £1,285 through British Airways Holidays (0844 493 0758; ba.com).

For smaller (and cheaper) hotels, its worth checking out Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen or Tulum. The latter's Hotel Crucero (00 52 984 871 2610; el-crucero.com), near to the ruins, has dormitory beds from US$10 (£6.60) and doubles from US$40 (£26) while there are beach-side rooms at all standards and prices to be found along the coastal strip.

Finally, for those considering self-catering, there are some stunning properties available in the bays along the southern part of the Riviera. A beachside palapa to relax in and seagoing kayaks to take you out to the reef are often part of the deal.

The website, locogringo.com, is the place to go to see what's available and for how much.

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