RIVIERA MAYA – MEXICO.
Twenty years ago, very few people had heard of the Riviera Maya. All it was, were a few isolated fishing villages and rural Indian Villages along a spectacular, unspoiled coastline. Today, the ever busyHighway 307, a two lane highway in each direction, connects a growing number of tourist towns. There are signs all the way as one passes exits to resorts, golf courses, condo developments , ecological centers and archaeological ruins one after another. I was also impressed to find that Cirque de Soleil has their own property along Highway 307, where the Mexican Cirque group live and train, that includes a concert center for performances. The road is always busy with a preponderance of tourist buses and vans traveling between the sights in this active tourist area
Highway 307 was originally known as the Cancun – Tulum Corridor. Officially, Cancun is not on the Riviera Maya, although it now blends into it because it echoes the tourist development of the coastline straddling the Caribbean Sea. This ongoing development does not stop for the entire length of the 81 mile corridor that extends from Cancun to just south of Tulum . Officially, the Riviera Maya runs between Playa del Carmen to just South of Tulum, but conversationally it now includes the entire coastline. In 1995 the Riveira Maya had 1470 Hotel rooms – today there are more like 35,000 and growing. With this sort of development, it is the fastest growing tourist destination in Latin America.
The coastline is not visible from Highway 307 and is separated from the water by a strip of land composed of wild jungles with tropical animals, birdlife and an underground river system that creates caves, caverns and cenotes, which are sinkholes, some large and some small in which people can swim.
There are also notable archaeological ruins dating from Mayan times along the coast and this is a whole other subject as well as a separate magnet for tourists. as the area is rich in Mayan history.
PLAYA DEL CARMEN.
Playa del Carmen, a small fishing village until a few years ago, is midway between Cancun and Tulum and is the fastest growing city in Latin America with a 26% annual growth rate. Arriving in Playa del Carmen, you can feel the energy that has transformed this former fishing village into a hip and happening town, with roadworks, and on going building development.
Although it is rustic and “au naturel”, “Playa” as it is known colloquially, has a sophistication and is more European than any other Mexican resort. It is one of the top diving destinations in the world with extraordinary underwater marine life and caves along the Great Mayan Reef. It also has miles of pristine beaches with clean white powdery sand and translucent undulating waters in varying shades of torquiose and aquamarine depending on the tides and time of day.
Playa has attracted some prestigious hospitality groups, such as Rosewood, Mandarin, Thompson and Grand Hyatt who recently opened a sophisticated resort that extends from the Pedestrian Street to the ocean front, showing off spectacular architecture and killer views. In addition, there was an influx of developers who arrived to build condos and transform this sleepy little fishing village into a thriving coastal resort. The atmosphere is more European than most Mexican tourist towns and has a rustic charm because of its inclusive tropical vegetation that has been carefully preserved as an important design feature. Having survived one real estate bubble due to overpricing, over development and worldwide conditions, Playa recovered from the downturn and prices have again appreciated. It is on its way to becoming an interesting tourist town to include a growing population of permanent residents.
The main thoroughfare is Fifth Avenue. (Avenida la Quinta) a” pedestrian only” street one block up from the beach that is loaded with hotels,shops and restaurants. Even though Fifth Avenue is in the center of town, great care has been taken to keep the indigenous vegetation and restaurant tables are set among tall trees with trailing vines. and the occasional cenote (sinkholes that are part of the ecosystem.). Fifth Avenue is funfilled with lots of rustic charm and enough distractions to attract visitors at all times of the day and night. Playa has grown up a lot and now has a Symphony Orchestra, a planetarium, art galleries and international music and film festivals througout the year.
Ah, Tulum !! Until a few years ago Tulum was barely on the map. Then it was “discovered” by backpackers who are at the forefront of finding unique and beautiful places off the beaten path. By word of mouth, they passed along the virtues of this unique and magnificent paradise, with its miles of pristine beaches and crystal clear aquamarine waters and it is now mainstream and an internationally famous hotspot. Small hotels were built to cater to those coming in search of good health, spiritual and yoga retreats and there has been an influx of new restaurants, bars and coffee shops. Even with these changes it remains jungle shrouded and eco friendly with an emphasis on wellness.
In Tulum, Highway 307 passes through the center of town where it becomes a main thoroughfare for a few blocks , very much like any other beach town, with clothing and sovenienr shops, mini markets interspersed with small restaurants and ice cream shops.
But taking Avenida Coba off Freeway 307 where it becomes Beach Road and driving toward the ocean, there is a distinct change in character. The road is lined with small hotels specializing in ecotourism, spiritual and yoga retreats, where in spite of the development they have been able to preserve the New Age vibe and natural habitat. Importance is placed on the outdoors. Some hotels provide semi outdoor bedrooms with floors, ceilings and moveable walls equal to glamping, that are priced comparably to accommodation in any major city hotel in the world that has built in A/c and proper walls !! There are strict rules about architecture, development and preservation of the natural habitat. This is a unique enclave that has deliberately sidestepped rampant commercialism.
Most of the hotels are concealed behind dense vegetation and fences made from grasses and timber. There is always a guard at the gate to protect the privacy of the guests and no street lighting is allowed at night. Tulum is is now frequented by international celebrities and one can read about Tulum in every magazine both high and lowbrow, social, health, travel and fashion – it checks all the boxes. This is no longer the backpackers exclusive heavenly beach paradise and even though it is laid back, it has joined the ranks of places to see and be seen.
The Great Mayan Reef System.
The Great Mayan Reef also known as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is another of the attractions to this area. It is a complex eco system and is the second largest barrier reef in the world, stretching 600 miles while straddling five countries including Mexico. It follows the Caribbean Coast from Cancun through the length of the Riviera Maya and is known for its multitude of dazzling coral colonies in exquisite colors, that can take up to ten thousand years to grow and develop. Fortunately the marine life in this reef system is healthy and is not being killed off by pollution or the earth’s warming that is also affecting the oceans as sea levels rise due to ice melting from glaciers and the Arctic Cap. This ecosystem has the longest underground river system including cenotes, which are freshwater sinkholes for swimming, some with caves and stalagmites and stalagtites. It is a spectacular reef with sixty five species of stony coral and five hundred species of fish, mollusks and crustaceans, loggerhead and green turtles and queen conch.
One of the annual natural underwater “events”that takes place from May to September, is the migration of the whale sharks, the largest of the fish species, that come from colder climates to the warmer waters of the Caribbean Sea off the River Maya Coast to feed and mate. Tags on the sharks, put there by marine biologists indicate that some them have swum as far as five thousand miles to reach the Great Mayan Reef System. It is estimated there are about eight hundred of these bus sized, forty foot long “fish” that migrate each season to feed off plankton and small fish from the reef. Quite a lot of traffic. !! There are more males than females present and it is suspected the pregnant females swim off somewhere else to “pup” or give birth. Part of the mystery surrounding the whale sharks is how they mate and give birth as no amount of scientific invasiveness has succeeded in finding out these intimate details.
The Mexican Government is aware how precious and valuable the Mesoamerican Reef System is and why it attracts snorkeling and scuba divers to the area from all over the world, making it a prime tourist destination.
More to come……………….