Playa del Carmen, 30 minutes south of Cancun, has quadrupled in population in the past few years, due in large part to its wide soft beaches, miles of snorkel-friendly reef and proximity to Cancun’s airport.
Even further south, the Riviera Maya becomes more laid-back, with smaller enclaves of resorts – many with beautiful strands of clean, palm-lined beaches carved out of a flat jungle. This section of the Rviera Maya is more about the natural environment, which helps explain the prevalence of natural parks designed to raise visitor’s appreciation of the ocean environment.
Xcaret is the largest such park. You can spend the day floating through underground caverns, snorkeling in lagoons, swimming with manatees and visiting a sea turtle nursery, butterfly pavilion and aviary.
Budget-minded travelers can choose from family-run hotels, fishing lodges and beach shacks without electricity tucked among villages and coves running down the coast.
The Riviera Maya saves one of its best cultural offerings for last: 80 miles south of Cancun is Tulum, well-preserved ruins of the ancient Maya civilization, perched on a 40 foot cliff above the shimmering Caribbean. Stroll among temples and dwellings that were abandoned after the Spanish Conquest in the 1500s.
Coba, a vast jungle city 30 minutes west of Tulum, was occupied by the Maya between 800 A.D. and 1100 A.D. and features steeped pyramids, temples, ball courts and uncovered ruins. and Chichen Itza
Back up north a short ferry ride from Cancun is Isla Mujeres (Island of Women), a very relaxed alternative to Cancun’s frenetic pace. Highlights include snorkeling the vibrant reef of El Garafon National Park and swimming with dolphins.
Cancun’s other nearby island is Cozumel, a scuba-lover’s dream 12 miles offshore that offers diving for all levels – challenging drift dives, deep walls, shipwrecks, and the popular caves and canyons of Palancar Reef, discovered in the 1960s by Jacque Cousteau.