Secret Treasures of Mexico's Riviera Maya

01 Oct 2018

When you hear the word “Riviera,” you naturally think beaches. And while Mexico’s Riviera Maya has beautiful beaches to spare, some of its rarest treasures are tucked just off those white sand shores—within lush jungles, ancient ruins and freshwater sink holes.

With Cancun for a gateway - and a modern highway connecting all the dots - the 86-mile stretch that starts just past Puerto Morelos in the north and ends in Punta Herrero in the south makes for easy travelling, too. Still, in a region where every turnoff may well harbour its own trove, you’ll want some guidance. Here are some ideas.

The caves & underground river of Rio Secreto

Translating to “secret river,” this literal buried treasure might still be undiscovered had a local farmer not inadvertently exposed a deep hole in the jungle floor while he was out chasing an iguana in 2005. (You can't make this stuff up.)

Turned out he’d stumbled upon an extensive cave system with an ethereal river running through it. Research soon followed, confirming that - like many caves in the region - this was once a Maya ceremonial site, complete with altar remnants. Now, a percentage of the Rio Secreto system is open to visitors who wade past the very formations once considered divine fangs in the Mayan cosmovision. 

You’ll be outfitted with a wetsuit and helmet, plus a headlamp to illuminate the otherworldly limestone structures that erupt from the crystal-clear freshwater and the cave walls as the mostly knee-deep river leads you from one otherworldly cavern to the next. The underground portion of the tour takes about 90 minutes and covers about half a mile of terrain - all of which is rewarded with an included lunch of regional specialities, and hard-to-believe memories of the experience you’ve just had.

Where to stay: Well-positioned between Puerto Morelos and Playa del Carmen, the adults-only Secrets Maroma Beach has spacious rooms with private terraces or balconies. 


The cenotes at Kantun-Chi

Just south of Rio Secreto, more buried treasure awaits at Kantun-Chi: four separate cenotes (the region’s famed limestone sinkholes, where the crystalline freshwater makes for unearthly swimming and snorkelling).

Uchil Ha, a jewel-toned open air cenote, is best for snorkelling, with natural daylight that makes the water glow and the fish extra-vivid. Zacil Ha looks like a natural swimming pool, too, but is more enclosed, with streams of light filtering thorough the water to magical effect. And at Sas ka leen Ha, the park’s biggest cenote, you’ll see a shrine where the ancient Maya are believed to have performed purification rituals. You can explore all four on your own with a basic pass, or book a guided tour for additional access to an underground river and caves.

Where to stay: Now Sapphire Riviera Cancun, which - speaking of purification rituals - counts a temazcal ceremony among its all-inclusive offerings.


The wonders of Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

There are many ways to explore Sian Ka’an - a 780,000-acre UNESCO World Heritage site whose name means “origin of the sky” in the Mayan language. 

But to ensure that you squeeze the most mind-blowing mix into your visit, book an excursion with ecotour outfitter, Visit Sian Ka'an. The jam-packed day includes everything from a visit to jungle-shrouded Mayan ruins to a cruise through natural canals and a lagoon. One major highlight? When you don a life jacket to jump off the boat and let the gentle currents push you through mangroves where wild orchids bloom. 


The buzzing 5th Avenue of Playa del Carmen

The heart of Playa (as Playa del Carmen locals call their town) isn’t the beach but rather La Quinta (Fifth Avenue), where big international brands share a 20-block, pedestrian-friendly stretch with unique boutiques (look for the heart-themed tienda called Corazón de Mexico) and the spectacular Frido Kahlo Museum.

For the bulk of the drag’s nightlife and restaurants, stroll between 15th street and the Olmec head fountain. But there’s hidden treasure here, too: Amazing tuna ceviche and Mexican craft beers await at Puerto Cocina Urbana, tucked away in a plaza off the Avenue.

Where to stay: Just three miles south of Fifth Avenue, Hotel Riu Palace Riviera Maya fronts a prime white-sand beach in Playacar. 


The archaeological wonders of Cobá

Though the 13th-century Mayan ruins of Tulum are on every tourist’s radar for good reason (see: their seaside location), you can have a crowd-free experience if you drive 45 minutes inland to Cobá, where the jungle obscures the ruins of an ancient Mayan city that dates as far back as the 7th century. 

The imposing central pyramid, Nohoch Mul, is the second-largest in the Yucatan at 138 feet high, and getting there takes a while from the entrance, so rent bicycles to explore the sacbes (elevated roads built by the Maya), ancient ball fields and various stelae and altars on your way. Then climb the 120 steps to the top for incredible emerald views that stretch to forever.

Where to stay: The all-inclusive Grand Bahia Principe Cobá, set on a lovely beach just south of Akumal and with an onsite water park for kids. 


The multi-sport offerings at Aktun-Chen Natural Park

For a sampler of inland wonders in one action-packed afternoon, try Aktun-Chen—a soft-adventure smorgasbord near Akumal, where the underground river walk was deemed one of the best in the world by National Geographic. 

Another local favourite? The zipline, which will have you soaring above the jungle, with possible monkey, toucan and white-tailed deer sightings in route. And once you’ve had your fill of adrenaline, you can kick back in the park’s jungle-shaded hammocks. 

Where to stay: A short drive north of Akumal and well-positioned for daytrips to Tulum and Playa del Carmen, too, Dreams Puerto Aventuras Resort & Spa overlooks a marina and the sea. 


Snorkelling Yal-Ku Lagoon

The convergence of fresh water from cenotes and saltwater from the Caribbean makes for magical snorkelling at Yal-Ku Lagoon in Akumal. 

Rent gear onsite, then fin your way past the mixing and mingling groups of freshwater fish (mullet and gar) and tropical (sergeant majors and tangs). While the water isn’t as crystalline as in the cenotes, it’s consistently calm thanks to the lagoon’s sheltered position, so turtles and rays like the vibe, too.

Where to stay: After a day spent snorkelling the lagoon, retreat to the colonial charms of the all-inclusive Iberostar Paraiso Lindo, on the beach and less than an hour north of Akumal. 


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