Some call it a more soulful Mexico. Infused with a preponderance of Mayan culture and steeped in history, the Yucatán’s Caribbean mingles tropical hues and flora with Mexican high style. Flowing south from Cancún to Tulum, the beach district called Riviera Maya encompasses some of the area’s most exquisite crescents of sand, expanses of untrammeled jungle landscape (complete with jaguars and monkeys), and healthy offshore reefs. It’s trumpeted for stellar diving and snorkeling, and stands out as a prime spot to spy whale sharks. Though highly developed in parts, most construction has been conscientious, and the government has made sure that the region’s fascinating ancient ruins and temples (some of them listed by Unesco) reign as Riviera Maya’s true stars. With more artifacts discovered each year, these centuries-old finds continue to enrich our understanding of the past. Peppered with swimmable, fresh water springs—known as cenotes—Riviera Maya promises more than beach play. Those willing to leave the ocean adventures, sailboats and pool cabanas behind for the day can hike, ride horses, explore caves and temples and peruse museums. Opportunities to delve into local Mayan culture abound—from cooking courses to stints in a temazcal sweat lodge—a spiritual ritual meant to purify the mind, body and spirit. Cap that with nonpareil culinary offerings, exemplary hotels that brim with personality and, of course, potent margaritas—and you’re sure to begin planning your next trip before you even return home.
Rafael Zafra, prodigy of elBulli’s Ferran Adrià, brings Spanish glamour to the Riviera Maya with Restaurante Benazuza. Interpreting Mexican products and classic cuisine with a molecular gastronomist’s slant, Zafra serves up rich moles, duck tamales and steamed tacos. Ensconced in sleek surroundings that befit the cuisine, the restaurant offers an unforgettable 20-course tasting menu.
It’s difficult to get a reservation at the hottest eatery on the Riviera Maya, but it’s well worth the effort. See-and-be-seen Hartwood in Tulum serves locavore surf and turf and this 100 percent sustainable restaurant changes its menu every single day. In the restaurant, open-fire grills and a handmade wood-burning oven channel the techniques of Mundo Maya—the soul of the region. Along with craft cocktails, expect items such as agave pork ribs, jicama salad, grilled octopus with sweet potatoes, lobster salad and house-made ice cream.
Yaxche, Playa Del Carmen
Delve deeply into the Riviera Maya’s roots at Yaxche, where Chef Ramón Lizaola borrows from his mother, creating and re-envisioning family recipes that may date back centuries. Utilizing Mayan flavors and ingredients, from peppers to achiote to pumpkin seeds, Lizaola introduces diners to his new renditions of Mexican favorites—such as chili rellenos wrapped in banana peppers rather than the classic poblano. With a whimsical ambiance that showcases the region’s temples and mysteries, Yaxche delivers a regional sense of place.
Catch, Playa Del Carmen
Call it a restaurant with a view.Overlooking the bustling town of Playa del Carmen and the sea, occupying the rooftop of the Thompson hotel, this hip seafood restaurant mixes global techniques with local products. Unique creations, such as the hellfire roll (with blue tuna caught just off the Ensenada coast, green apples and balsamic vinegar) hit the mark—as does crispy shrimp and catch-of-the day wonton tacos. Finish with “hit me” chocolate cake, a wonder of liquid Klondike, roasted with white chocolate ice cream brownie and devil’s food cake.
Grand Velas Riviera Maya
Redefining all-inclusive, Grand Velas RivieraMaya brings only the best to play. Stretching across 206 verdant acres alongside the turquoise sea, this exemplary resort manages to honor more eco-initiatives than any other retreat in Mexico—even while operating eight outstanding restaurants, providing upmarket wines and giving guests the choice between three distinct hotel experiences, including an adults-only section. The two bedroom Grand Class Presidential Suite can house four. Double-height ceilings, hand-painted frescoes, local art and hand-loomed fabrics add to its charm. A plunge pool on an ample terrace overlooks the Caribbean. Enjoy its crowning glory: an in-suite champagne and caviar bar.
Belmond Maroma Resort & Spa
Once the private home of a visionary architect, the intimate and elegant Belmond Maroma Resort & Spa lords over a sugary-white, secluded beach about an hour from the airport. With beachside rooms and an art-bedecked main house, the chi-chi resort also vaunts a shaman-built beachside temazcal (sauna), and a hut-like tequila and ceviche bar. Bed down in the Oceanside One-Bedroom Suite, located steps from the water, which offers a private fitness room, outdoor shower, plunge pool and palapa for private spa treatments.
Banyan Tree Mayakoba and Rosewood Mayakoba
Mayakoba, an eco-conscious compound just south of Playa del Carmen, incorporates four five-star hotels into its wilderness-like expanse. A unique melange of mangrove forest, lagoons and man-made canals, the sensitively built, wildlife-rich complex whisks guests by boat to the beach and between the resorts, which share amenities, such as the Greg Norman-designed golf course. Set on opposite sides of the landscape, the top stays are Rosewood Mayakoba—a contemporary-style haven—and the spa-focused Banyan Tree Mayakoba. Both have grand residences on the beach. Rosewood Mayakoba’s Beachfront Presidential Suite, with three bedrooms and private butler service, showcases the view via floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Down the shoreline, Banyan Tree Mayakoba’s Oceanfront Three Bedroom Villa, built around a private pool, is ideal for families, and provides stellar ocean access. Or book Banyan Tree’s Sanctuary Spa Pool Villas, which sit lagoon-side with a personal pool, and offer unlimited spa treatments and wellness menus.
Banyan Tree Mayakoba: Oceanfront Three-Bedroom Villa from $3,570 per night, Sanctuary Spa Pool Villa from $1,399 per night, contact Jesus Estrada, reservations manager, email@example.com, +52 984 877 3688, banyantree.com
Chichen Itza and Tulum Ruins
It gets crowded and the trek is long, but Unesco-listed Chichen Itza is worth it. Stone temples, ball courts and pyramids, edged by jungle, provide just a glimpse into the spectacular Mayan settlement; plan to spend hours exploring. Many choose to stay the night, and return the next morning when the ruins are less crowded and bathed in golden light. Alternatively, Tulum, an hour south of Playa del Carmen, is an extant 13th-century Mayan port and city-state. It nestles a cliff by the sea and can be accessed by foot, bike or car.
Unique to this region, cenotes (freshwater sinkholes) are plentiful. They connect in subterranean tunnels, creating the world’s largest underground river system. Sacred to the Mayan people in past and present times, the cenotes have crystalline water, framed by limestone and local flora. Explore them with fins or by foot. Don’t miss Cenote Dos Ojos, located just south of Tulum on Highway 307. It boasts two round pools, perfect for scuba divers, swimmers and snorkelers.
Breaststroke with the biggest fish on earth. Funny-faced, harmless whale sharks mirror hippos in size. They crowd the waters along the Riviera Maya from May to September in search of plankton snacks. Join an expedition (such as reputable Solo Buceo), which takes guests 30 miles offshore by small boat to spot the magnificent creatures.
Cancún Underwater Museum (MUSA)
It’s a whole new way to visit a museum. MUSA, the largest underwater exhibition in the world, presents hundreds of statues amid the reef. Home to countless colorful fish, MUSA was created to promote the interaction between art and the environment. Here, the scientifically directed installation promotes healthy coral and marine life, while offering a family-friendly ramble in the sea.