By Karen Rubin
Authentic. That pretty much sums up what distinguishes the Riviera Maya – this glorious 81-mile stretch of Mexico from the charming Playa del Carmen south to the archeological wonder of Tulum.
Yes, the region has stunning beaches, luxurious resorts with swim-up bars and opulent spas, and all the amenities and activities globe-trotting tourists expect – especially of any that conjures up the “Riviera”. But the Riviera Maya has managed to preserve its heritage, character and identity in such a way as to add tremendous dimension and interest even to the most casual vacation getaway. That’s the “Maya” part.
And for a family holiday, the Riviera Maya offers all the fun of a tropical paradise with the mind-expanding experience of a different culture and country.
In this respect, the Riviera Maya represents a triumph of ecotourism – using cultural heritage and natural environment to lure tourism that in turn sustains and preserves cultural heritage and natural environment – for the benefit of native peoples and visitors, alike.
We had come to the Riviera Maya to participate in what is becoming an annual re-creation of the ancient Sacred Mayan Journey -an extraordinary opportunity to take part in ancient rituals and traditions and interact with modern-day Mayan people.
We soon realize there are many different ways to appreciate on a daily basis the cultural treasures of the Mayan civilization – ancient and modern – as well as the natural splendors.
This becomes clear within moments of our arrival at the Occidental Grand Xcaret Resort.
You enter an open-air two-story reception building with a giant thatch roof, the Caribbean sea breezes wafting through, and immediately notice on the lower tier that a small river runs through it. And then you peer out toward the sea to see in the distance the ruins of a Mayan temple.
As you explore the sprawling property, you come upon other archeological sites – a Spanish Colonial church from the 1600s, for example – and realize this place is very, very special, and has been for centuries. You immediately feel the most powerful connection with people who lived centuries ago.
The Occidental Grand Xcaret has done an incredible job of retaining its natural landscape, as well. The resort is a sprawling place with three-story hacienda-like villas tucked into jungle. Small bridges cross over tiny rivers and waterways that flow through the property. A shuttle – an open-air carriage like at DisneyWorld – regularly circulates the property if you choose not to walk.
As you walk (or ride on the shuttle) to your own building, you get some sense of how special this place is – there are deer, flamingos, macaws, monkeys, and other animals living on the property. You can walk through the densest part of the woods on a fairly rustic nature trail and come upon these animals.
I was struck by the obvious effort to keep everything natural, true to the place and its heritage, and we subsequently learn this is by design – the property is actually owned by the same company that owns and built Xcaret, the phenomenal eco-archeological park just next door, and gave the developer strict criteria of how many trees could be cut down, and so forth.
The result is staggeringly beautiful and extremely pleasing – delightful “treasures” and surprises you discover.
Meanwhile, there is ever manner of activity and amenity to enhance a resort-style vacation – from gorgeous free-form swimming pools (the volley ball and water polo nets are popular, as is the in-pool bar) – to miniature golf, tennis courts, an indoor fitness center, a sand beach lagoon, and even a Mayan-style “sauna” (like a sweat lodge). There are also those stunning four-poster double beds dramatically perched on cliffs overlooking the sea, that are so wonderful for honeymooners and other romantics.
There is an open air theater where there is nightly entertainment, a teen center, a supervised children’s program (for ages 4-12) and “fun house”, a lovely dining room that looks like a piazza, plus several other restaurants sprinkled around the property.
The Occidental is an all-inclusive hotel – and I am amazed at all that entails – everything from fantastic dining in a choice of restaurants serving a marvelous array, beer or wine, to unlimited drinks at the pool, to activities including children’s club, fitness center, archery, plus scheduled activities, to nightly shows in an outside theater and at the Disco, even tax and gratuities.
What is more, the Occidental includes a ticket for admission to Xcaret, a world-class attraction comparable to Busch Gardens Tampa, that is literally next door to the resort, which you can pick up at the tour desk right in the lobby (where you can also arrange for just about every manner of adventure).
In fact, in late afternoon, you may be amazed to see a wooden canoe with Mayans in full feathers and regalia, float right into the resort lobby.
So, when we arrive from Cancun airport, about an hour’s drive, knowing I had a fairly tight schedule for our time in the Riviera Maya, I take advantage of the free ticket to spend the afternoon at Xcaret, but you can easily spend two or more full days there (in fact, you can purchase a second day at half-price and return any day within a week).
Wasting no time, I take the delightful 10-minute stroll along a small “river”, beside lovely hotel shops (really, really nice), and enter Xcaret. In the mornings (9 a.m. to noon), you can actually take a small boat ride into the park from the hotel lobby.