Sandwiched between the high-rise glitz of Cancun and the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum along Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, and atop a magical underground river sits the marvelous Riviera Maya. Just a few years ago it was a collection of sleepy fishing villages dotting the Caribbean coast. Today it comes alive as an international vacation destination for scuba divers, sun lovers, naturalists and explorers.
Originating in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C., the Maya are probably the best-known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica. Rising to prominence around A.D. 250 in present-day southern Mexico, the Mayan empire once covered Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The Maya established an advanced civilization, building elaborate ceremonial structures including temple pyramids, palaces and observatories - all without metal tools or beasts of burden. In addition to their impressive earthly accomplishments, the Maya also turned their gaze skyward, tracking celestial movements and the passage of time to create sophisticated calendars - including calculating the solar year at 365.242 days. Their hieroglyphic language is still pondered by modern scholars.
Today's Mayan descendants' number about 6 million, making them the largest single block of indigenous peoples north of Peru. Some modern Maya live much as their ancestors did centuries ago, working as farmers and craftsmen. The Mayan language is still widely spoken throughout the Riviera Maya region.
If you want to enjoy the warmest sun, the waves, the reefs and the natural wells on the Caribbean coast, Riviera Maya is where you want to be.
The Riviera Maya boasts the world's second largest coral reef, which is easily reached from Cozumel, a short trip from the resort. The warm, gentle Caribbean currents ensure the area is a popular destination for scuba diving and snorkeling. Exploration of mystical underwater cenotes (luminous caverns that were once a source of fresh water for the Mayans who inhabited the area), a visit to the Mayan ruins at Tulum or Chichen Itzá (one of the new Seven Wonders of the World) will add a truly unique element to your stay. Nearby, Playa del Carmen provides an exuberant nightlife in addition to sophisticated boutiques and stores offering traditional Mexican handicrafts.
Riviera Maya Fun Facts
- The Riviera Maya was a vacation destination long before Cancun. For decades divers, explorers, archeologists and treasure hunters from around the world have visited here.
- Some of today’s most popular sports can be traced back 3,500 years to the Mayan sport of ulama. Teams of up to seven players would volley a rubber ball back and forth without using their hands or feet. Points were scored when volleys weren’t returned, like in tennis, or when they crossed an end zone similar to those found in American football. Players would wear protection to minimize the impact of the nine-pound, volleyball-sized sphere. After being banned by the Spanish in 1585, ulama survives in only a few isolated pockets of rural Mexico.
- The world’s two largest underground rivers are found in the Riviera Maya, measuring more than 435 miles. Also called “cenotes”, these underground rivers were formed by thousands of years of dripping rain water upon the subsoil’s calcareous rock, forming vast fresh water rivers and epic stalagmites and stalactites. The cenotes were sacred spaces for the Maya and an essential source of fresh water. Over the years, archeologists have found Mayan remnants in the cenotes, including jewelry and human remains. A snorkeler’s dream, visitors can access these magnificent mazes from Cozumel and Isla Mujeres with the aid of a tour guide.
- The Riviera Maya has two major Mayan archeological sites: Tulum and Coba. The Tulum ruins were first inhabited in 564 A.D., but the city reached its peak nearly one thousand years ago. It is built on dramatic 50-foot cliffs above the Caribbean ocean. The city acted as an important port and trading center for the Maya inhabiting the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Deep in the jungle and just a 45-minute drive from Tulum are the ruins of Coba, or “waters stirred by the wind”, built nearly 1,500 years ago. During its prime, Coba, with up to 50,000 inhabitants and covering 30 square miles, functioned as an important trading city between the Caribbean and inland Mayan cities.
Spanish is the official language in Mexico and it’s the official language of 21 countries around the globe. English is by far the most spoken language besides Spanish. Many Mexicans that work in tourism speak Spanish and English and sometimes Mayan. Below are a few phrases you can use during your stay.