Mi casa es su casa, a popular Mexican saying meaning “my place is your place”, is a fitting catch phrase for the Riviera Maya. There’s a bed for every style and budget here: all-inclusive resorts, hotels, holiday apartments, rooms in private houses, hostels, and even hammocks. If you see somewhere that takes your fancy, then ask about it. Chances are if you can sleep in it, you can rent it.
Stretching south of Cancun to Punta Allen (including the islands of Isla Mujeres and Cozumel), the Riviera Maya promotes itself as a Caribbean Paradise. Its appeal is diverse, from layabout beach holidays to jungle trekking and archaeological adventures with the region boasting an underground river system, rare wildlife like the jaguar, a thousand year heritage of Mayan culture, internationally-renowned chefs and nightclub dancefloors filled with pumping pelvises. The hotels are equally as diverse, from shabby to gob-smacking luxurious, and the Mexicans are warm and inviting, if not a little opportunistic. Guaranteed the seafood is fresh and just about every bar has Happy Hour. In some places it’s all day long. So what are you waiting for? The 2-for-1 margaritas are calling…
Thirty years ago Cancun was a mass of coconut trees. There was no town and no tourism. Development over the past three decades has been immense and a little careless. Today, Cancun seems old and damaged, the poorer cousin of its Riviera counterparts. An all-inclusive hotel package can be cheap, but you’ll compete with the schoolies because of it, and those surreptitious extras can add up. The Zona Hotelera is particularly adept at extracting cash from tourists.
We avoided the resort conglomerates that make up the landscape of Zona Hotelera. Instead we stayed downtown at Hotel El Rey Del Caribe. The hotel was chosen for its location and commitment to environmentally-friendly practices. Whilst it was reasonably central to Av Tulum, the main eating and shopping strip downtown, the room was lackluster and barely passable at US$70 per night. The hotel’s 25 double rooms all open onto an interior tropical garden with swimming pool and jacuzzi, but these amenities were closed during our stay. In addition we foolishly paid US$29 to the hotel for an airport transfer. This was an exorbitant cost given the scores of taxis vying for our business (brace yourself for the onslaught) and the fixed price colectivos on standby. Many of the resorts along Zona Hotelera provide their own courtesy shuttle from the airport.
Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) does not sport an exotic array of women as its name might suggest. It’s a small fishing community that comfortably blends its locals with tourists: a rarity along the dollar-focused Riviera Maya. The tiny Mayan temple at the island’s south end, full of female figures, gives the place its name. It’s not much of a ruin, having been hideously modernised, but it sits dramatically on a rocky cliff. Only 8 km long and less than 1 km wide, a guided taxi tour around the island for US$15 (1-1.5 hours) is one way to see the entire island and indulge in some local gossip. You can also rent golf carts, mopeds or bicycles. Isla Mujeres attracts divers, snorkelers and sports fishermen. The sealife is abundant and interactive, thanks to the sale of fish food and the encouraged manhandling of pet sharks. That said, the turtle conservation park is definitely worth a look. It might not comply with current conservation theories but the right intention is there. Plus you’ll get to see rare breeds like the Hawks Bill and White turtle. Other activities worth investing your time in include snorkeling the Garrafon National Park reef, chartering a fishing boat or just relaxing on Playa Norte, the island’s best and calmest beach.
Isla Mujeres’ strategic geographical location in the Caribbean demands a naval presence. You’ll see gun-slinging marines surveying the sea for illegal Cuban immigrants, but their involvement on the island extends further than simply hunting down boat people. The first basic services for the island were established with the assistance of the marines, and in recent times, the navy has been invaluable during emergencies. In fact, much of Isla Mujeres is under repair since Hurricane Wilma ravaged the area in November 2005. Rubble and construction sites litter the Punta Sur (south end), although this should not deter you from staying on the island. There are still plenty of hotels to choose from. We stayed at Hotel Secreto, a relative new comer to the island. As it’s name suggest, the hotel is small and secluded, but any local can give you directions to its discrete entrance. The hotel has a choice of nine deluxe King rooms (all with stunning ocean views), floor-to-ceiling windows and native stone floors. This luxurious retreat instantly envelops you in a warm cloak of serenity and the homage to relaxation is everywhere. Each room has a balcony with day bed overlooking the infinity-edge pool, swaying palm trees and Caribbean sea. You can see the outdoor bar from your balcony and calling out to the bartender to bring up a margarita is encouraged. But seclusion does not come cheaply in a country of almost 110 million people. Hotel Secreto’s rooms cost between US$225-400 depending on what floor you would prefer to stay (highest floor = highest price). A word of warning too: whilst the Caribbean side of the island is exquisite, blustery winds occur even after hurricane season (Sep-Oct). Stay bayside during the cooler months; its much more pleasant. Stay on the Caribbean side during the warmer months; you’ll be grateful for the refreshing sea breeze.
Playa del Carmen
Compared with the rest of the country, Playa del Carmen is a surprisingly well-planned town. It offers a truly cosmopolitan feel with a festive Mexican twist. If 40c tacos and $1.20 beers appeal to you, then venture beyond the tourist boundaries to explore the town west of the main stretch Av Quinta (5th Avenue). You’ll find plenty of cheap and cheerful restaurants and bars. Around the main avenue there’s steakhouses, traditional Mayan cuisine, roving Mexican bands, souvenirs galore and even pet iguanas to take your photo with…
We stayed at the Illusion Boutique Hotel on Calle 8 East, but rest assured there’s no illusions here, just a great hotel that delivers everything it promises. Nestled between the beach and Av Quinta, the service at the hotel is outstanding. The bilingual front desk staff will bend over backwards to help you. There’s a rooftop pool and bar. On the same level the Master Suite and Deluxe Rooms have sweeping views of the Caribbean sea and Cozumel’s night lights. For absolute indulgence, a group of six couples could occupy the entire top floor and commandeer the rooftop amenities. The hotel also houses a day spa with facials and massages starting from US$70. Standard rooms are found on the first two floors. The deluxe version of these rooms have balconies with ocean views, whilst others face inwards to the light-filled atrium. There are no tea and coffee-making facilities in the standard rooms, but temperatures, prices and location lean towards a cold beer or margarita anyway. Rates vary greatly from US$150-350 per night depending on your preferred room type.
Don’t be put off by the enormous cruise ships that line the port of Cozumel. Cozumel is dead quiet and sparsely populated beyond its main town, San Miguel. We hired a scooter and zoomed over to the other side of the island, stopping for a swim, a feed, a drink from the coconut stand and finally a guided snorkelling tour at the reefs around the south end of the island. This is a worthy daytrip away from the hustle and bustle of Playa del Carmen. A ferry from Playa del Carmen costs US$22 per per person round trip.