Thanks to its sparkling coastline, fabulous food and blue sky climate, the Mayan Riveria has charm by the bucketload. Kaye Holland visits the hottest destination in Mexico If the weather is really getting you down, fret not. Simply pull out your sense of adventure and make for Mexico’s Mayan Riveria. True the journey to get there is something of an odyssey but this is a small price to pay for a perfect mix of winter sun, beautiful beaches, sea as turquoise as glass, ancient temple ruins, fine food and loud and proud Latin culture – in short everything you could want from a Mexican holiday.
Cancun is the gateway to this pocket of sunny paradise and if all you want to do is drop and flop – let’s face it relaxing on a soft sandy beach in front of a luxurious hotel will always hold considerable appeal, especially at this time of year – then look no further.
A favourite fun and frolic destination for American Spring-Breakers who come for a cocktail of sublime beaches and throbbing nightlife, Cancun is big, bold and brash (no one is ever going to accuse Cancun of being subtle) – and there’s no point trying to resist this.
Cancun: Mexico’s premiere Spring Break destination
But don’t spend too long in this resort lined strip for a Cancun club or sun bed only gives you a limited view of what the state of Quintana Roo (pronounced Kin tah nah roh) has to offer. Beyond the babble, bars, banana boats, jet skis and sunburned crowds of Cancun, lie extraordinary cenotes (freshwater filled limestone sinkholes), sleepy villages, towering temples and charming, cobblestoned streets. And all are within easy distance meaning that with a bit of judicious planning, much of the Mayan Riviera can be covered in a week.
Playa del Carmen was a particular highlight for me, being hip as well as hot. Playa, as this postcard perfect charmer is affectionately referred to, has long been lauded as the most original, fascinating and fashionable place to holiday in Mexico and it didn’t disappoint.
The popular resort town of Cancun
The town has decades of experience of welcoming European and American sun seekers who flock here to see and be seen on Playa’s Bounty advert beaches. World class snorkelling and diving (the underwater world is a paradise for snorkellers and divers of every ability) can fill your days. Or you can just drift off a beachside bed and ogle the mahogany flesh – expect a competitive parade of preening bling – that is always on display before hitting Quinta Avenida which hums with activity at any hour.
Playa del Carmen’s world famous beach
The buzzy Quinta Avenida is a beguiling place both for camera clad tourists and those who simply want to blend into a destination that knows how to have a good time. You can shop till your drop, drink margaritas at midday (well you are on your hols) from glasses the size of goldfish bowls, enjoy a magic muscle melting massage for the price of a pizza and confrontingly good cuisine. For food is a massive part of Playa’s pleasures and reason enough to place the Maya Riveria at the top of your 2014 travel wish list.
Apply the never eat what you could have at home rule and head to a restaurant specialising in Yucatecan food such as Yaxche (8032936; corner Av 5 & Calle 2). The line is long but it's worth it for taste bud tingling treats like tikin xic (fish in spicy sauce) tostadas and tacos (little mouthfuls of meat on corn bases) and arroz a la Mexicana(Mexican rice) – all washed down with a warm tequila (Mexicans are mad about tequila and its brother, Mezcal). For post dinner drinks, hit the bumpin bar scene that rages on until dawn – indulgence is one of Playa’s USPs.
There are plenty of places to stay (Playa del Carmen caters to every budget from top end to backpacker) but if you’re after a hotel that has charm and character – accommodation that is worth your time yet won't hurt your wallet – check into Hotel Cocodrilo. Proof that sophistication is possible on a shoestring, the ambience at Cocodrilo is suspended somewhere between a private home and a chic guesthouse.
Avoid the grim all-inclusives and choose characterful accommodation like Hotel Cocodrilo
From Playa, push on south to Tulum. There’s something of a buzz building around Tulum: The Sunday Times’ Michael Hennegan hailed Tulum as the “only place to be on New Year’s Eve” while Louis Vuitton has even gone so far as to name a bag after the town. However compared to its cousins, Cancun and Playa del Carmen, it’s still without the crowds (but with the character).
Individuality, you see, is what Tulum does best so you won’t find identikit chain hotels and restaurants catering mostly to tourists here. Rather you’ll find boutiques, bakeries and cantinas (traditional Mexican watering holes) and the discreet Amansala Eco-Chic Beach Resort (Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore are both fans of the property’s bikini bootcamp). Other assets include sugar-like sands and azure waters but only a philistine would come to Tulum without seeing the world famous Maya ruins which, without a doubt, is one of those travel benchmarks.
The magnificent Tulum Ruins
The scenery – think ancient ruins set against a backdrop of golden beaches and blue Caribbean sea – is so beautiful it will bring a tear to your eye. Everyone you'll speak to will advise arriving at the ruins at around 8am – i.e. before the coach tours. But unless you enjoy getting up early when on vacation, I’d recommend visiting the 14th century temples late in the afternoon. It’s then that you can enjoy jaw dropping view after jaw dropping view and watch the sun set – deep red fading to pink – without having to share the site with herds of other tourists.
A stunning cenote
Rich in natural splendour and culture, Tulum will warm any traveller’s heart and chances are you’ll find that the few days you intended to stay flow into weeks. Which would be just as well for there’s a host of excursions that depart daily from Tulum for hot spots such as Chichen Itza – the best restored of the Yucatan Maya sites and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World – that should rank on every tourist’s itinerary.
Even better: the sites and bites are all affordable – not Eastern Bloc cheap mind, but nowhere near as pricey as Ibiza. Yet arguably the Riveria Maya’s biggest attraction is its people who are utterly charming (hospitality is a national obsession) and always take time to talk. All told with so much on offer, you might be planning your next trip before your first is even finished…