Once the land of the ancient Maya, the Yucatán Peninsula is home to pristine beaches, rugged ruins and very few tourists
AUTHOR MIKE GUY
PHOTOGRAPHY EHREN JOSEPH
l LIKE ITS DIAMOND-STUDDED FRENCH NAMESAKE ALONG THE MEDITERRANEAN, the Riviera Maya—a stretch of coastline on the Yucatán Peninsula that reaches from just south of Cancún to the peaceful village of Tulum—is a shimmering white-sand playland of the well-to-do. But it can be experienced much more affordably than Monaco, Cap d’Antibes or even Venice. On this riviera, the main attractions aren’t Bianca Jagger in a tiara or even Matthew Perry carousing in St. Tropez, but instead mysterious, vast underwater sinkholes called cenotes, peaceful beachside palapas, a preponderance of yoga mats, and the granite tops of millennium-old Mayan ruins emerging from thick jungle canopies.
The region rode a rising tide of tourism for a decade, with visitors attracted by the Caribbean Coast’s quiet beauty and an abundance of calming retreats among the ruins of Tulum. But what with the recent economic situation, there are now spectacular deals to be had in luxury lodging, and the sites are relaxingly free of crowds. Serenity now.
The bar, a beachfront villaDAY ONE Wake up to the perfect stillness of the mangrove lagoon, and peer through the sheer voile drapes out onto the Caribbean Sea, grateful you didn’t stop in Cancún. Though it’s a great party town, Cancún fulfills a very specific need (i.e., to party). You’re more interested in taking in the area’s natural beauty, indulging in a bit of luxury and learning about the ancient Mayan culture. So you’ve opted to stay at the Rosewood Mayakoba 1, one of four completed resorts in a 240-acre development consortium, called Mayakoba, built with a reasonably light footprint behind the sandy dunes lining the placid sea. Though it’s just 40 minutes south of the rowdy clamor of Cancún’s zona hotelera, it might as well be another planet.
You climb to your private villa’s rooftop salon— complete with an invigorating plunge pool—and take note of the Greg Norman–designed El Cameleon golf course. For a moment, you’re tempted to play a round.
On the beach at AkumaInstead, hop into the Ford Escape hybrid you picked up at the airport Avis, and drive to Playa del Carmen, the bustling heart of the Riviera Maya. Once upon a time, Playa, as the locals call it, was a sleepy seaside pueblo of dirt lanes and huaracherias. Now, it’s wide awake. The crowded main thoroughfare, Avenida Quinta, gives off a highly cosmopolitan vibe. If you pass the Starbucks and Häagen-Dazs stores and the majority of the Mexican tchotchke shops, you can find plenty of interest along the way. There are chaya juice stands, taquerias and the Kumkum & Mezcal Room 2, where you can sample one of 150 of the best brands of firewater in the world.
The cabaña deck
at AzulikSampling is all you’ll be doing at this hour, of course, but grab a bottle of Arellana to go. Strolling farther, you come to 100% Natural 3, a healthy, happy and shady grotto set well back from the crowds on La Quinta. Take a seat among surfers and hippies, and order a salad of fresh camarones and piña and a couple of chicken tacos. Then while away the afternoon at the beach at the end of 12th Street, soaking in the vitamin D and surf scene before dinner.
Ever wonder what the ancient Mayans used to eat? Of course you have. It’s time to find out at Yaxche 4, where you sit before the bewitching altar of an ancient Mayan divinity and order a heaping portion of tikin xic, a flaky fillet of locally snagged grouper marinated in achiote paste and served on banana leaves.
Playa’s Zenzi Beach BarNow it’s time to saunter along Playa’s storied playa. You weave among the lovers and the late-night swimmers until you hit the Zenzi Beach Bar 5, a local favorite that hosts movies in the sand on a wide-screen TV every Monday at 8 p.m. You grab a reclining seat and take in a few minutes of The Shining as the moon shines above the sea. “Aqui estaaaa Juanito!”
Getting up to order a drink, you confide in the bartender that as much as you love Kubrick, you’d prefer to dance a little salsa. She recommends Coco Bongo 6, a popular night club on 10th Avenue and 12th Street. Cross La Quinta, which is now a tangle of well-lubricated tourists and roving mariachi trios, and soon find yourself sweating under the disco ball. On the way back to the hotel, you stop at the local favorite, HC de Monterrey 7, for some steak tacos smothered in black chile sauce so fiery your mouth will still be tingling as your head hits the pillow.