Viceroy Riviera Maya
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Just an hour from Cancun but a world away from Spring Break madness
By Nina Kokotas Hahn
On Mexico’s sun-drenched Riviera Maya, an area rich with ruins of the ancient Mayan civilization, 12/21/12 marks a resetting of calendars and an opportunity to prepare the mind and body for a fresh start. To celebrate, the locals have created an explosion of Mayan-inspired activities. Assuming that the world does not end, now may be the perfect time to visit and try these experiences—especially in January and February, when daytime highs reach the low 80s and hurricane season is long gone.
You’ll be hard-pressed to see these ancient rituals executed more authentically than at Playa del Carmen’s diverse collection of hotels. The town, a short drive south from Cancun’s airport, has undergone a renovation boom in recent years. Bucking the area’s reputation for cookie-cutter resorts, Playa del Carmen’s all-inclusive properties strive to be not only luxurious but also culturally significant and environmentally sound. For example, at the eco-focused Sandos Caracol Eco Resort & Spa (866-336-4083, sandos.com), you don’t have to be a guest to partake in a shaman-led session in a temazcal (a traditional Mayan sweat lodge), followed by a plunge in a cenote (freshwater sinkhole) and a tour of Xcalacoco ruins located right on the grounds.
More worldly pleasures can be found along Playa del Carmen’s cosmopolitan Quinta Avendia, or Fifth Avenue. Shop for beautiful Mexican textiles and Day of the Dead art at La Hierbabuena Artesaniá (52-984-873-1741). Sample the ginger- and mint-infused mezcal at Rufino Mezcaleria (52-984-803-2054) and take a bottle home. For seviche, go to Los Aguachiles (52-984-142-7380). For elevated Mayan cuisine, try the mayajito ($8.50), made with a native plant called chaya, and blackened turkey ($13) at Yaxche Maya Cuisine (52-984-873-3011).
Reasons to Visit Nearby Tulum
1. SWIMMING Aquamarine waters bless the beaches throughout the region. Tulum’s Playa Maya is worth seeking out for its wide shoreline and soft sand underfoot while swimming. Snorkel with sea turtles almost year-round at Akumal Bay.
2. RUIN SPOTTING At every turn, you’ll find Mayan ruins, such as the imposing Castillo, a 13th-century temple (off Hwy. 307; admission $4) and the nearby Temple of the Frescoes (above). Just west of Tulum, bike through the jungle of Cobá to reach Nohoch Muul, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula (admission $4.60, bike rental $3).
3. HIKING Romp through 1.6 million acres of mangrove forests and lagoons in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve on the new Tour de Chicle (52-984-871-2202, siankaantours.org; $99).
Where to Stay
Paradisus Playa Del Carmen La Perla (888-741-5600, paradisuslaperla.com; from $671) has “swim-up” suites with fish tanks in headboards. At the Viceroy Riviera Maya (800-578-0281, viceroyhotelsandresorts.com; villas from $605), hide away in one of the 1,700-square-foot thatched-roof villas—on the beach or in the jungle. Grand Velas Riviera Maya (877-418-2963, rivieramaya.grandvelas.com; from $694) offers a new posture-aligning Mayan shawl treatment at its 89,000-square-foot spa. Sandos Caracol Eco Resort & Spa (866-336-4083, sandos.com; from $260) delivers the best bang for your buck.
Fly directly to Cancun’s airport from O’Hare (United, American) or Midway (AirTran) in less than four hours. Roundtrip fares start around $400. From there, drive 50 minutes south to Playa del Carmen. Shuttles and taxis are available, but rent a car if you plan to explore.
Photograph: Courtesy of Viceroy Riviera Maya