Few places on earth cause as much amazement as the Riviera Maya. This is a 125-mile-long coastline that extends along the incredible turquoise blue waters of the Mexican Caribbean, on the eastern shores of the State of Quintana Roo.
What makes the Riviera Maya so different from other coastlines around the world? It has a large quantity of beaches with glistening white sand and mild surf. Near the shore, a low-elevation jungle, typical of the tropics, acts as a wall to the sea.
Practically impenetrable, it's a habitat for a rich variety of flora and fauna and for geological formations. Here are the "cenotes"—deposits of capricious shapes and different sizes, produced by the subterranean rivers that emerged to the surface over the course of millions of years. Facing the Riviera Maya's coast is the world's second-largest coral reef, making it an ideal place for scuba diving and snorkeling.
The starting point of the Riviera Maya is Puerto Morelos. Just south is Playa Maroma, a 370-acre eco-park of tropical jungle, mangroves and cenotes, where travelers can enjoy biking, canoeing, kayaking, trekking and horseback riding. Playa del Carmen, the largest town in the Riviera Maya, offers the flavor of a small fishing village mixed with a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Shopping, restaurants and nightlife center around Playa del Carmen's Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida).
The resort area of Playacar is home to a number of upscale and all-inclusive resorts, more than 100 small archeological sites, the Xaman-Ha Aviary (home to more than 200 bird species) and Cavernas Sacbe, a rock cavern.
Xcaret is an eco-archaeological park offering a unique glimpse into the region's natural surroundings and interactive activities like snorkeling in underground rivers, swimming with dolphins, horseback riding and scuba diving. There's also a natural aquarium, museum, botanical garden, Mayan village and unique folkloric shows at night.
The small bay and beach of Paamul, where turtles come to leave their eggs, offers visitors another of the region's best spots for diving and snorkeling and is a great place for a picnic.
The upscale resort area of Puerto Aventuras offers the ideal location for visitors looking to relax in comfort and tranquility. Best known for the annual fishing tournament held here each May, this town centers around the Riviera Maya's only full-service marina. The Cultural and Poly-Religious Center, the only one of its kind in the Riviera Maya, is also here.
Continuing south, visitors will note Xpu-Ha, a large beautiful bay and beach with calm waters and great visibility, as well as Kantenah, another secluded beach area. Xpu-Ha is home to the Cenote Manatee, one of the largest cenotes in the region, and the Xpu-Ha Lagoon. Kantun Chi is a remarkable eco-park in the heart of the Riviera Maya that is excellent for snorkeling in freshwater cenotes and exploring the underground caverns. Its name means "yellow stone mouth" in Mayan. Aktun-Chen features three caves filled with stalactite and stalagmite rocks, cenotes and an opportunity to see the Riviera Maya's diverse wildlife.
The small town of Akumal, known as "the place of turtles," is a favorite place of the endangered marine turtles, as well as for divers. It's also well known for its ecological center, Ukana-I, which is used for both research and as a community center. Just north of Akumal is Yalku Lagoon, ideal for swimming and snorkeling.
The beaches of Soliman Bay and Tankah are favorites for both locals and tourists. Further south is Xel-Ha ("the place where water was born"), a 150-acre eco-archeological park. An incredible natural aquarium where the ocean combines with the freshwater springs and underground rivers, Xel-Ha is ideal for tubing, snorkeling and swimming. Xel-Ha is also home to macaws and is surrounded by a thick jungle, caves and cenotes. Archeological sites containing altars dedicated to Yum Chac are located nearby.
The archeological site of Tulum ("walled city") offers some of the most impressive Mayan ruins anywhere. Built on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, this site contains more than 60 well-preserved structures. Tulum also offers beautiful beaches and cenotes, including the well known Calavera, the Grand cenote and the Car Wash. Located inland, Cobá is one of the most important archeological sites in the Riviera Maya. The main pyramid, Nohuch Mul, is 138 feet tall, the highest on the west side of the Peninsula.
To the extreme south of the Riviera Maya on a small peninsula is Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, which offers an opportunity to explore mangroves, ancient Mayan canals and the almost untouched wilderness of the jungle. Only a limited part of the reserve, a large protected area of 1.5 million acres with more than 62 miles of the Great Maya Reef, is open to tourists. Located within the Reserve are Boca Paila and Punta Allen, a village with only 600 inhabitants whose livelihood is dependent on spiny lobster fishing.
The southernmost point in the Riviera Maya is the town of Felipe Puerto Carillo, considered a central point for all Mayan communities of the area. It provides a glimpse into the past, as the town has preserved much of its ancient Mayan culture. Its numerous historic and archaeological sites include The Temple de la Cruz Parlante (Temple of the Talking Cross) and a cultural center from the last century.