The Riviera Maya Revs Up

The 125-mile stretch of Mexican coastline is booming with business

By: Maribeth Mellin

Let’s tackle the geography lesson first. Mexico’s Riviera Maya is far from a single destination. Instead, it’s a series of beaches and towns along 125 miles of Caribbean coastline and jungle between Puerto Morelos and Felipe Carrillo Puerto. Nearly 3 million tourists are expected to visit the area in 2007. Most won’t have a clue where they’re headed.

Some think they’ll be in Cancun, but they could be facing a two-hour drive in congested traffic to reach their idyllic escapes. Their fantasies of dancing the night away in dazzling discos won’t come true unless they fork out $80 or more in cab fare. The same confusion holds true for Playa del Carmen, the commercial capital of Riviera Maya’s coast. Far too many properties claim proximity to this booming city without providing transportation to the cafes and shops in the tourist zone.

The Riviera Maya, a confusing destination at best, changes constantly. It’s the fastest-growing destination in Mexico, with its tourism increasing 20 percent in 2006.

“Thanks to Hurricane Wilma, many people discovered the Riviera Maya,” said Javier Aranda Pedrero, who became the director of tourism for the Riviera Maya Tourism Promotion Board (FPTRM) in February.

The region had 30,705 hotel rooms in 2006, a number that increases 9 percent annually. According to Carlos Mora of the tourism board, the region is projected to have 75,000 rooms by 2025. That’s a lot of hotels to inspect. During several recent trips to the area, I sampled many Riviera Maya resorts and hotels, from celebrity hideaways to all-inclusive compounds with multiple hotels and activities. I’ve chosen a few favorites to illustrate what’s on offer and help you sort through the maze of the Riviera Maya.

When I first explored Mexico’s Caribbean coast in the 1980s, rickety wooden signs or Coke bottles on sticks marked sandy entrances to one-of-a-kind escapes. Travelers swung in hammocks beside tents and cabanas far from the ruckus of civilization.

Now Highway 307, which runs from Cancun to the Belize border, is jammed with buses, taxis, trucks and timid tourists searching for poorly marked exits. I’m not happy driving this highway anymore and was completely steamed when I tried to find exclusive Esencia in Xpu-Ha. The entrance was a narrow rutted road beside a small Maya house. Less than amused by the faux-authenticity, I figured I would not be impressed.

Boy was I wrong. Two hours later I emerged from the Aroma Spa with a huge grin and a whole new attitude. Esencia has since become my favorite small hotel on the coast, albeit one that’s far more expensive than the campgrounds of old. The hotel’s main Mediterranean villa was built for an Italian duchess in the early 1990s and retains a graciously casual ambience. The villa’s suites are all enormous, face the sea and have a minimalist design that’s repeated in newer garden suites, some designed for families. According to general manager Abigail Rojas, the architects designed the two-story villas with private pools and bedrooms for nannies caring for the kids.

“But we found out the families don’t bring nannies,” she said. “This is their special time with their children, their time together.”

Esencia’s style is subdued. Simplicity rules in the oval spa where organic and indigenous ingredients are used in treatments and baths. Chef Alejandro Rojas, soon to appear at New York’s James Beard House, uses local produce and herbs to create innovative menus featuring quail, venison and fresh fish. Guests linger on their terraces in padded white lounge chairs by the two pools or beneath gauze-draped huts on the beach. Those I spoke with were content to never leave the property.

Need to Know: A few other exclusive hotels with rates hovering around $500 a night dot the coastline. Ikal Del Mar, recently acquired by Kor, has an eco-friendly design with 30 cottages shrouded in vines. The circular spa is among the coast’s best. Maroma, the first luxury hotel in the Riviera Maya, is now operated by Orient-Express and has 65 rooms and suites, a large, modern spa and three restaurants. These private hideaways are gradually becoming overshadowed, however, by upscale residential communities rising nearby.

“As long as you can see that, you won’t get lost,” the bellman said, pointing to a replica of Chichen Itza’s soaring Castillo pyramid en route to my room. I wasn’t convinced. The 300-acre Iberostar Playa Paraiso complex, with 2,002 rooms in five hotels, plus an 18-hole golf course and a full-scale shopping center, had me utterly flummoxed. Fortunately, my suite was a comfy cocoon with a whirlpool tub, well-stocked minibar and a quiet pool beyond the terrace. The temptation to order room service was nearly overwhelming. Instead, I went searching for the beach, passing a wave pool filled with excited kiddies and a swim-up bar surrounded by jolly grownups. Continuing over a bridge and through the palms, I reached a sea of yellow lounge chairs facing turquoise water. Families played in white sand as the sky turned a pink-tinged gold. On my way back to dinner, the lights came on, glowing inside a mock Mayan temple above the pool. Following a series of arrows and interconnected corridors, I easily found my way back to the pyramid, now filled with revelers enjoying the cocktail hour. Everyone I spoke with was in a mellow, merry mood and raved about their vacations.

Huge all-inclusive compounds started popping up along the coast in the late 1990s and now contain at least one-third of the Riviera Maya’s hotel rooms. Locals joke about the “Second Spanish Conquest” when talking about the Spanish all-inclusive companies including Iberostar, Barcelo, Bahia Principe and Riu that have gobbled up great chunks of the coastline. Iberostar first came on the scene at Playacar, just south of Playa del Carmen, in 1997.

“In our first years there we had over 90 percent occupancy,” said John Long, the company’s vice president for sales and marketing in North America. “And the occupancy’s never gone much below that.”

When asked why the company established such a strong presence in the area Long replied, “The Riviera Maya is a unique area. Not many places in the world have such beautiful beaches with so much space to build.”

According to Long, other companies have more hotel rooms in the Riviera Maya, but none have as complete a compound with golf, spa and shopping. And Iberostar has been able to successfully tap into the U.S. market. Families are a huge part of the market, Long said, but young honeymooners and retirees fit in as well.

At Paraiso Maya, guests gravitated to the area that best suited their moods. Some read in lounge chairs on a peaceful island in the pool; others battled strangers on the sand volleyball court. I headed to the spa’s awesome indoor pool for a blissful underwater massage and began to understand why a family I’d met at check-in had stayed here eight times.

Most of Iberostar Paraiso’s hotels are best for clients who want to stay put in safe, familiar surroundings with enough amusements to keep all family members happy for days. For those seeking more upscale surroundings, Iberostar premiered its first five-star Grand hotel on the property in March 2006. Resembling a Greco-Roman palace fit for several hundred kings and queens, the Iberostar Grand has 300 opulent suites, some with private pools and butler service. Reproductions of paintings by Gauguin, Miro and Klimt lined corridor walls while murals of cherubs and clouds covered sky-high ceilings. The effect is something like the Bellagio mixed with the Venetian and Versailles.

Need to Know: All-inclusive companies with a major presence in the Riviera Maya include Real Hotels, with more than 800 rooms right in the midst of Playa del Carmen’s tourist center. Riu has six hotels in Playacar, about a 15-minute walk from Playa del Carmen’s shops and restaurants.

Bahia Principe’s three hotels are clustered in a compound south of Akumal, one of the best diving areas on the coast, while the Barcelo Maya’s two hotels, with over 1,000 rooms, are just north of Akumal. The Barcelo Maya Palace Hotel will open at the end of 2007 and will be an all-suite property with 756 junior guest suites.

Croaking cormorants nested in mangroves near the wooden deck of my suite. Egrets dipped into a dark canal, practically swimming beneath my feet. I felt like I was in the Amazon.

My room was one of 401 units perched along a series of waterways at the Fairmont Mayakoba, a hotel unlike anything else in the Riviera Maya. Precious few suites face the sea at this 1,600-acre, master-planned development by the Spanish conglomerate Obrascon Huarte Lain. When completed, the Mayakoba resort will encompass six luxury hotels, dozens of million-dollar vacation villas and an 18-hole Greg Norman golf course called El Camaleon (which hosted Mexico’s first PGA tournament in February).

According to Salvador Linares, general director of Mayakoba, the property was purchased nearly 20 years ago. But the resort concept was a hard sell, since the entire acreage includes less than one mile of beach. Linares envisioned an environmentally sensitive development built around a series of canals leading to the sea.

“People said this man is crazy,” Linares said with a laugh. “There’s not enough beach for all this. But Fairmont understood my concept.”

The hotel opened in the summer of 2006 on 46 acres within Mayakoba and offers a few premium suites, gourmet restaurant and one pool facing the sea. Motorized launches putter beneath bridges, while golf carts hum above, both ferrying guests between the spa, pools, rooms and sand. The main pool flows past a series of sun decks, a market and a restaurant in the center of the property and the exceptional Willow Stream Spa sits beside the enormous open-air lobby. The whole layout reminded me of resorts in Thailand and Bali far more than anything in Mexico.

A chic 128-unit Rosewood Mayakoba is scheduled to open in late 2007, while Banyan Tree’s 120-villa hotel and Kor’s Viceroy residential resort are slated for sometime in 2008. According to Linares, the entire project should be completed in 2009 though two more golf courses are planned for the future.

Need to Know: Clients seeking luxury accommodations on the beach should know their rooms could be far from the sand. Golf carts make regular circuits of the property, and it takes about 10 minutes to get from most rooms to the beach. On the other hand, the whole setup is sublimely luxurious. My room had an enormous bathroom with a deep soaking tub and glassed-in shower facing a plant-filled terrace, a plasma TV, DVD and Internet access, and an enjoyable practical layout with plenty of desk and table space and a fabulous bed. Tell clients to bring bug spray the eco-conscious design includes lots of still water where bugs love to breed.

Bulldozers and cement trucks rumble through guarded gates all along Highway 307 as resort developments near completion. Soaring billboards promise unparalleled luxury for vacationers and vacation-home owners alike.

These grand dreams often take years to reach fruition. News releases from 2005 announce the imminent opening of a Mandarin Oriental hotel, close to Mayakoba. The projected date is now Fall 2007. When completed, it’s sure to join the ranks of super-luxurious properties in the area. Like the Fairmont, the hotel is built along lagoons, canals and the beach, with the jungle and cenotes incorporated in the design.

The Kor Hotel Group is one of the newest players in the region, with several major developments in the works. The Tides Playa del Carmen, on an eight-acre beachfront property at the north side of town, will have 209 luxury resort residences designed by famed Mexican architects Legorreta+Legorreta. A long stretch of beach just south of the Tulum archeological site is fenced off for another Tides project still in the planning stage. Kor is also opening a Viceroy residential resort in Mayakoba in 2008 and has acquired Ikal del Mar, one of the loveliest small spa hotels on the coast.

The most important development, however, is the new international airport in the works for the Tulum area (the site is actually about 10 miles inland). Although construction hasn’t yet begun, the airport is scheduled to open in 2009.

Lay of the Land

Puerto Morelos: About 12 miles south of the Cancun airport, this traditional Mexican town with a small main plaza, a crafts market and several restaurants is on the cusp of development. Several upscale hotels lie between town and the airport, while the El Cid Marina sits just south of town. Nearby attractions include a botanical garden, a small zoo, Selvatica Adventure Park and several freshwater cenotes.

Playa Paraiso: Iberostar’s compound is about seven miles south of Puerto Morelos and 13 miles north of Playa Del Carmen. The coastline here is lined with small hotels including Ikal del Mar. Several large-scale residential resorts are in the planning stages for this area.

Playa del Carmen: About 75 miles south of the Cancun airport and 40 miles north of Tulum, Playa is the Riviera Maya’s main city with more than 125,000 residents. The highway is lined with big-box stores, offices and shopping centers, and traffic is horrendous. Most tour and car rental companies have offices in Playa, and the ferry to Cozumel departs from here. It has the best shops and restaurants on the coast.

Playacar: The southern end of Playa del Carmen contains one of the coast’s first master-planned developments, with a golf course, residential housing and several all-inclusive hotels.

Xcaret: The Riviera Maya’s most famous attraction is less than five miles south of Playa.

Puerto Aventuras: Another early golf and marina development with several hotels.

Xpu-Ha: About eight miles south of Playa del Carmen, this long, quiet beach is home to Esencia. The Barcelo Maya is just north of the beach, hidden on the other side of a small point.

Akumal: This beautiful bay, about 14 miles south of Playa del Carmen, is one of the few beach communities that has remained relatively small and self-contained. Several small hotels line the bay. A dirt road leads to Yalku, a gorgeous sculpture park and lagoon with great snorkeling.

Tulum: Change is coming to this laid-back community. The famed archeological site has been struggling with its popularity, and development companies are gobbling land. Still, small hotels and yoga retreats attract a diverse clientele.

CENTER>One of the best resources for understanding the layout of the Riviera Maya is the map published by Can-Do maps. For ordering info see

The Next Wave

Luxury is the buzzword for the Riviera Maya’s future. Even the all-inclusives are going way upscale. At Azul Blue, which opened in Tulum in December 2005, all 96 suites have butler service, whirlpool tubs for two, iPods loaded with tunes and other high-end amenities. With rates starting at about $700 per night, per couple, this is not your normal all-inclusive.

“We’re definitely the first gourmet all-inclusive here,” general manager Renaud Pfiefer told me during a recent stay.

Many of my fellow guests had stayed at other Karisma hotels in the Riviera Maya and loved the experience. All raved about their suites, which are comfortable as well as luxurious. The cuisine in the three gourmet restaurants also garnered praise and certainly exceeded expectations. Pool butlers quickly provided towels, adjusted umbrellas, and room service, especially in the morning, was speedy and gracious.

Azul Blue is the largest hotel by the Tulum ruins and certainly the fanciest. Its one drawback is the absence of a long beach beside the sea. There is a sandy area for sunbathing, but the shoreline is rocky and the water often too rough for swimming and snorkeling. Guests take a shuttle van to a fabulous beach club nearby but must pay extra for their drinks and food. Still, Renaud sees a bright future for the hotel, saying confidently: “This place is going to take off.”

Azul Blue is offering a $100 bonus to agents who book reservations by June 30.