Hacienda de la Tortuga Hotel
Where to Stay: Hacienda de la Tortuga Hotel in Akumal features well-appointed condos and a stone-wrapped beachside pool. In Tulum, guests at Mezzanine have kayaks, snorkeling gear and bicycles, all at their beck and call.
Where to Eat: Check out the Turtle Bay Cafe & Bakery in Akumal, where you can get smoothies, granola, espresso and other gringo fare that’s hard to find in the area. Nearby is La Buena Vida, a fun Day of the Dead-themed restaurant that has rope swings for seats at the bar.
Getting There: To get to Riviera Maya, you can fly directly into Cozumel (CZM) or make the drive from Cancun (CUN).
Hotels in Tulum
Many “hotels” in Tulum are little more than a bed with a roof over them. But in the past few years, a handful of boutique hotels and eco-lodges have opened that offer comfort (no bugs!) without losing that laid-back Tulum vibe. Try Mezzanine or its sister property, La Zebra, which preserves the Tulum mosquito-net-and-prayer feeling with a row of stylish cabanas that open directly onto the sand, and another newer group surrounding a pool. And if you don’t mind roughing it in eco-chic style, you can stay right in Sian Ka’an, in tent cabins on platforms raised above the dunes and wetlands.
Relax in Tulum
In Tulum, you can try out reflexology, reiki and every kind of yoga you can think of. But of course what you really want to do is swim, kayak, snorkel and leave plenty of time for bird-watching by boat in the watery wetlands of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to the south.
Twenty minutes south of Akumal is Tulum, where the Riviera Maya’s groovier side gains ascendance.
Akumal is the best for viewing smaller, brighter tropical reef fish, but if you want to swim with the big boys (barracuda, yellow stingrays and nurse sharks), a day trip to the island of Cozumel is the way to go. The steep dropoffs around this limestone island make for visibility as great as 250 feet, but the water is deep just a few feet offshore and the currents are very strong, so it’s only for experienced swimmers. Ferries leave from Playa del Carmen for Cozumel nearly every hour for the 30-minute trip; you can make it a day trip or stay overnight at one of the island’s many hotels and resorts. Private snorkeling boat trips are also offered by many outfitters from Playa del Carmen and San Miguel, the main town on Cozumel Island.
Playa del Carmen
For more sophisticated nightlife, it’s necessary to retrace your steps north to Playa del Carmen, which has a lively downtown area for shopping and dining and an unmistakable European flavor, especially during the Italian holidays. The seafood at La Casa del Agua, prepared with the odd distinction of dual Mexican and German influences, is noteworthy, but the live music on the second-floor terrace is an even better reason to go. The Italian influence is manifest at La Vagabunda, owned by several generations of an Italian family.
Akumal is a funky little beach village with unspoiled local flavor and a great breakfast and lunch hangout, Turtle Bay Cafe & Bakery, which makes an excellent centralized location from which to explore the peninsula. (Just to be clear, Cancun isn’t technically part of Riviera Maya; for a water-themed Yucatán experience, drive south from the airport and avoid the city entirely.)
Hidden Worlds Cenotes Park
You can explore cenotes with minimal effort at Hidden Worlds Cenotes Park in Riviera Maya, which offers an unusually authentic experience for a water park, though it still has the theme-park downsides of jostling crowds and high prices. Or you can go on your own with the help of the wonderfully sensitive guides at Akumal Dive Shop; they are also the ultimate experts on snorkeling the reef at Akumal, which has some of the most abundant tropical fish and coral right offshore.
Snorkeling in a cenote—one of the strange underwater caverns that pock-mark the limestone-bedded Yucatán Peninsula—is an adventure unlike any other. The water is icy cold compared with the bathtub temperature of the Caribbean, and it’s dark and a bit eerie. There are roots poking out, and the fish are insanely colorful against the dim background. Cenotes are beloved by divers, who rave about the maze of underwater rivers and caverns lined with fossils.