The Riviera Maya get serious about presenting the best of Mexico and the Maya World as you navigate south of Playa del Carmen. While mega-resorts have claimed huge swaths of shoreline, there are still isolated coast and inland areas and communities that are attractive for expat living. The construction of the new Tulum International Airport (near Muyil, just south of the city of Tulum) will ease arrivals and departures like never before (opening in 2024).
Heart of Riviera Maya PUERTO AVENTURAS
(75km / 47 mi south of the Cancun International Airport)
Puerto Aventuras—or simply “Puerto,” to its friends— is deep in the heart of Riviera Maya. This world-class residential community development, built around a marina, is home to about 6,000 residents and has its own bevy of attractions for visitors. You can practice your swing at the par-36 jungle golf course, opened by Thomas Leman in 1991, bat some balls on the tennis courts, or while away the morning at the nautical museum, but you’ll really want to leave some room on your itinerary for a swim with the dolphins and the manatees. On land, there are shops, restaurants, delicious Mexican bakeries, condos, villas, and several hotels (about 5,200 rooms total, making it the largest hotel area after Playa del Carmen and Playacar, with about 13% of the region’s rooms).
(92 km/57 mi south of the Cancun International Airport)
Akumal (pronounced ah-coo-MAHL) literally means “place of the turtles,” which makes it turtle central! This is where you’ll find the Centro Ecológico de Akumal (CEA), a nonprofit center dedicated to environmental marine research, education and sea turtle protection. The destination was once part of a large coconut plantation and was first developed back in 1958 by
Mexican divers salvaging a sunken Spanish galleon just offshore. Luckily for future visitors, they formed CEDAM, an internationally acclaimed society of divers dedicated to community service and ecological preservation. Today, Akumal is home to a tight-knit population of ex-pats and snowbirds who have been coming here for years and want to protect the community, the flora and the marine life, which bodes well for keeping the area as pristine as possible while permitting development.
There are shops, galleries and arts and crafts, as well as a few hotels, resorts and private residences strung out along the coast. The biggest draw is its silky, white-sand beaches, protected by offshore reefs, making it a haven for divers
from around the world who come here year-round. In fact, they’ve been coming here for decades—even before there were roads to get here! Back then, though, they’d have to stash their flippers, masks and tanks on a boat and come over all the way from Cozumel.
From north to south, in Akumal you’ll find:
YAL-KÚ LAGOON: The limestone rocks and outcroppings make this a perfect home for all sorts of underwater life, and the crystal-clear water lets you see each fin. There’s an entrance fee to paradise of about US$12, and there are also eco-bathrooms for visitors, plus snorkeling equipment, and life jackets for rent.
HALF MOON BAY: The beauty of this natural arc has drawn developers so here you’ll find villas, private homes, condo developments, beachfront restaurants, and couple of small hotels. Check out Lol-Ha for great seafood (probably fished that same morning), tacos and, surprisingly, free Wi-Fi so you can #insta everything.
AKUMAL BAY: This is the site of the area’s original development. Today it’s home to some great dive shops, beachside restaurants, and the Akumal Beach Resort. If you come here off-season, you’ll find more Mexican tourists than foreigners, which gives it a distinctly “local” flavor. On the south end (Akumal Sur) there are condos and hotels. The Riviera Maya Golf Club to welcome visitors (the greens are just across Highway 307 from the Bahia Principe resorts). Of course, the swimming is great.
(About 117 km/72 mi or 90 minutes south of the Cancun International Airport)
The Mayan archaeological site of Tulum has graced many a Mexican advertisement and for good reason: it really is that breathtaking and it’s one of the loveliest sites in the entire Republic. This is the focus of the southern end of the Riviera Maya and comes complete with a low-impact, boho-style seaside hotel zone and the funky fun inland city of Tulum.
But first, a little history: Back in the 16th century when the Spaniards first arrived, the seaside Mayan city of Tulum—one of only a handful of Mayan port cities— was still in use. Today, visitors can roam its small temples and buildings, including the Temple of the Frescoes, with its faded interior wall murals still visible, and the Temple of the Descending God, which shows a god tumbling from the heavens.
There are over 60 well-preserved structures within the three massive walls that surround the site. It’s open from 8:00 to 17:00 hrs. but we recommend coming in early in the morning or late in the afternoon to miss the mass of visitors that descend from the huge tour busses. There’s an admission fee to get in, and there are several English-speaking guides available to take you through and give you some insight into this marvelous place. At the entrance to the parking lot there’s a busy outdoor souvenir market, so you might want to bring some pesos with you. From there you can walk to the site or take a tram. Depending on the time, you’re going to want to take a swim in the small beach beside the site, so you can look up at the ruins and marvel at the Maya’s ingenuity.
Just beyond the parking lot is a road that leads to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, one of Mexico’s top ecotourism attractions.
Tulum Hotel Zone
This area, found just a couple of kilometers south of the archaeological site, has become a magnet for those looking to escape big development and worldly worries: indeed, many travelers say they feel a spiritual connection to it. It’s peaceful, quiet, and eco-friendly—the place to go if you’re looking for yoga by the sea or meditation in the salt air.
Most accommodations are of the earthy boutique sort, with thatched roofs, solar panels, and generators. But while the appeal for backpackers is big, it also attracts the eco-chic crowd in search of the barefoot-with-white-linen experience offered by establishments.
There are over 2,000 sleeping units in this area, but they’re spread out over almost 100 different properties, so you’ll find a variety of experiences and price points from eco-cabins, bungalows, and hotels to campgrounds, all sprinkled along the 10-km (6-mi) stretch of beach.
(117 km/73 mi south of the Cancun International Airport)
This town is a surprising blend of European and Mayan in the very best possible way. Think Mayan huts, French restaurants, budget lodging and boutiques. It’s an experience unlike any other! This city is also a transit point for buses headed south to Chetumal and Belize. As if that weren’t enough, there are several cenotes near Tulum; most have been explored, so you can access them safely and easily. Some of the “must-sees” include the famous Calavera (Death’s Head), the Grand Cenote, the Sac Aktun (“White Cave” in Maya), and the Car Wash (also known as Aktun-Ha, or “water cave” in Maya).