Sites to be Seen
In addition to a stunning coastline, the Riviera Maya is home to impressive archaeological and natural wonders.
Tulum This extraordinary Mayan city 40 miles south of Playa del Carmen was built about 400 to 900 a.d. on a bluff above the Caribbean Sea. Its squat, fat-columned temples, many with their flat roofs still intact, give Tulum the look and feel of an ancient Minoan (rather than Mayan) town. Landscaped with boulder- and statue-studded lawns, deep-purple succulents, and small palms, Tulum is one of the world's most visited archaeological sites. Go early or late in the day to avoid crowds. And bring a bathing suit, as there's a small beach below.
Cobá The ancient metropolis of Cobá--42 miles off Highway 307, the Riviera Maya's main thoroughfare--is well worth the detour. The site remains largely unexcavated, but what has been unearthed is staggering: mammoth pyramids (including the tallest in the northern Yucatán), monolithic stelae, and ancient playing fields. Miles of jungle paths wind through the thick foliage and can be explored on foot (wear sturdy shoes) or by bike (rentals are available at the entrance). Stay for sunset, best viewed from atop the pyramids. The Mayan Encounter from Alltournative (52-984/873-2036; www.alltournative.com; $80 per person) combines a guided tour of Cobá with a half-day in a Mayan village.
Sian Ka'an Mayan for "where the sky was born," the 2,800-square-mile peninsula 56 miles south of Playa del Carmen has been designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations; as such, it's protected from most development. In its jungles are jaguars, pumas, ocelots, monkeys, and some 400 species of birds; the lagoons and bays are home to dolphins, giant sea turtles, rays, crocodiles, and super-sized starfish. Sian Ka'an is best seen on an organized day trip: Eco Colors (52-998/884-9580; www.ecotravelmexico.com; $95 per person) takes guests game spotting, bird-watching, and snorkeling.
Living it up in Playa del Carmen
Mexico's fastest-growing city has come a long way since the days when it was best known as the sailing-off point for the nearby island of Cozumel. With new cafés and bars opening all the time, keeping up can be difficult. Here, where to eat and drink now.
Da Gabi Avda. Quinta and Calle 12; 52-984/873-0048; dinner for two $30. A cool corner café for some of Playa's best Italian food: brick-oven pizzas, fresh pastas.
Buenos Aires Avda. Quinta and Calle 6; 52-984/804-0232; dinner for two $30. Excellent beef at great prices--planked filet mignon is $10.
La Casa del Agua Avda. Quinta and Calle 2; 52-984/803-0232; dinner for two $38. Trendy second-story restaurant-art gallery serving Mexican, European, and gringo food.
Pancho's Avda. Quinta and Calle 12; 52-984/873-2222; dinner for two $50. A movie-set Spanish colonial courtyard with a pool provides the ambience for modern Mexican cuisine. Superb fajitas.
Java Joe's Avda. Quinta and Calle 10; no phone; breakfast for two $10. An early-morning institution (opens at 6:30 a.m.). Known for its great coffee, sweet rolls, and bagels.
La Cueva del Chango Avda. 38; 52-984/873-1598; breakfast for two $12. An insider's find, set in a jungly garden on the northern outskirts of town. Especially popular for late breakfasts.
Ula Gula Avda. Quinta and Calle 10. A smart watering hole that's been going strong for years--despite competition from the Deseo Lounge, down the street.
Deseo Lounge Avda. Quinta and Calle 12. The pool patio of this happening hotel is Playa's grooviest cocktail stop. Blue Parrot On the beach at Calle 12. Beer and margaritas by the sea--open till 3 a.m.