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
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
SMALL AND BEAUTIFUL
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 www.cancunmap.com.
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. www.karismahotels.com