Playa del Carmen and the Mayan Riviera
Mention Yucatán and you may hear a thing or two about Cancun; beautiful and recommended as it is by travellers, it has become somewhat of a tourist trap.
In place of the all-too-popular Cancun, head over to the nearby paradise of Playa del Carmen, where everything is cheaper and less crowded, but still equally beautiful. With its bay dipped in the exotic Caribbean Sea, Playa del Carmen is located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.
The city itself bathes in a European-chic vibe, with Italian businesses filling up La Nueva Quinta (“New Fifth Avenue”).
The reefs are popular with both snorkellers and divers, and you can easily spot rare creatures such as rays, moray eels and sea turtles.
Playa del Carmen (Google)
There are five-star, all-inclusive resorts here available for a fraction of the price of those in Cancun.
Beyond the beaches, visitors flock to Cancún for the glorious marine life just off the coast along one of North America’s largest coral reefs. Whale sharks come here to feed from May through September, so you could take a boat out for the day to swim with these gentle giants and marvel at their matchless majesty.
The Riviera Maya is a tourism and resort district just south of Playa del Carmen. It straddles the coastal Highway 307 along the Caribbean coastline of the state of Quintana Roo. It is a tropical paradise of crystal clear waters that harbors true living treasures, some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, and an exuberant tropical rainforest teeming with rare wildlife.
It is the perfect place for a romantic hideaway, where you can do extreme sports or enjoy the coolest nighttime entertainment.
There is also plenty to explore at the once-sleepy beach town of Tulum, now famous as a detox destination known for New Age retreats, replete with low-impact resorts and yoga studios, but where you can also find family-oriented properties.
Mérida and the World of the Maya
The Mundo Maya – or Mayan world – is tourist trade shorthand for the 150,000 square miles of jungles, mountains and plains that stretch from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula all the way down to El Salvador.
Right across this territory, the Maya established impressive cities between the third and tenth centuries. Promoted to tourists principally through Cancún’s beaches and the citadel at Chichen Itza, it was once one of the most advanced civilizations on Earth.
The city of Mérida, a symbolically important city which was the cultural and commercial capital of Mexico’s Yucatán region, is the perfect place to start your tour through the “Mundo Maya”. A graceful city melding urban graciousness with rural rhythms – with folk concerts on the main plaza throughout summer – it once grew rich on sisal or henequen, an agave hemp used to make rope, carpets, cloth and paper.
Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, Mérida, Yuc. (Google)
Merida is now the ideal port of entry to the Peninsula due to its growth in air connectivity. There are currently direct flights arriving from Milan and Rome, and from major U.S. destinations such as Houston, Dallas and Miami. Nonstop flights from Toronto, Canada were just recently opened too.
But Merida itself is destination that deserves a two or three days stay; here you can sample the local Yucatecan cuisine in dozens of extraordinarily good restaurants, experience the vibrant local life at the different “mercados” (markets), visit the majestic cathedral, the first one in the whole American continent, attend world class museums and art galleries, or just walk along the streets and admire the city’s beauty.
Campeche is a colonial fairyland, its walled city center a tight enclave of perfectly restored pastel buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, fortified ramparts and well-preserved mansions. Added to Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites in 1999, the state capital has been so painstakingly restored it almost doesn’t seem like a real city. But leave the inner walls and you’ll find a genuine Mexican provincial capital complete with a frenetic market, peaceful malecón (boardwalk) and old fishing docks.
Downtown Campeche (Google)
Besides the walls and numerous mansions built by wealthy Spanish families during Campeche’s heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries, no fewer than seven of the baluartes (bastions or bulwarks) have also survived. Additionally, two perfectly preserved colonial forts guard the city’s outskirts.
Relatively few tourists visit Campeche, and its citizens – the big-hearted and proud campechanos – are likely to show you an unobtrusive hospitality not seen in other regional capitals.
The city’s central location on the Gulf of Mexico also makes it the perfect base for day trips to Edzná, the Chenes sites and neighboring beaches.
The Peninsula is the center of great tourism activity, not just for its natural attractions, archeological treasures, colonial gems, majestic monuments and cultural richness, but also for the hospitality of its people and perfect weather during the winter.
So, now you know why you should be spending your Christmas vacation in the Yucatan Peninsula.