THE true beauty of Mexico's Riviera Maya is outside its usual entry point.
So if you're flying into Cancun for your Mexican holiday, give the tourist trap full of obnoxious Americans a wide berth.
There's so much to see that you would miss out sipping cocktails by the pool at a resort packed with university students anyway.
Stay in Playa del Carmen or Tulum and visit the attractions from there.
Tulum is a quaint seaside town with coastal vistas that will make your friends turquoise with envy when you post photos on social media. But it is the ruins of a former Mayan walled city, that acted as a major port for the area that captures the most attention. Perched upon 12m-tall cliffs, you can wander around imagining what life must have been like there between the 13th and 15th centuries. Hire a bike to ride to the site from your accommodation and pay the money to hire a tour guide so you get the back story to the well-preserved buildings. And take bathers so you can take a dip at the beach at the bottom of the cliffs. The town also has some lovely restaurants and craft shops - a good place to buy chilli and mole sauces too if it's your last stop in Mexico.
PLAYA DEL CARMEN
THERE'S a food market on the corner of Avenida Benito Juarez and 15 Avenida Nte that has incredible Mexican food. It's authentic, super cheap and oh so delicious. This writer may or may not have eaten there four nights in a row. Try one of each taco, the quesadillas and whatever else takes your fancy. There are photos to point to if you don't have a lick of Spanish. There's also a crafts market a bit further along. But, of course, there are myriad spots along the main tourist strip too. If you fancy a drink, there's a bar called Pez Vela with swings as seats and there's a slush margarita bar called Fat Tuesday where they'll let you taste them all before you choose your poison and the occasional tequila shot might come your way. It's also the perfect spot for some beach time. Hire a lounge chair and order drinks or snacks to you between swims in the picture-perfect Caribbean. Playa is also the jumping point for many cool adventures in the Riviera Maya, including Cozumel which is just a ferry ride away and surrounded by gorgeous reefs.
THIS architectural marvel is a reasonable bus ride away from Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Tulum but it's worth the day trip. One of the seven wonders of the world, it is modelled on the Mayan calendar. You know the one? The calendar that predicted the end of the world in 2012. Each section of El Castillo, or the Pyramid of Kukulcan in Mayan, represents a part of the calendar. At the equinox in spring and autumn, the sun aligns perfectly with one of the staircases to create triangles with light and shadows that lead down to serpent's heads. It gives the illusion of a serpent slithering down the side. There are tour companies heading to Chichen Itza from all over the Yucatan peninsula but if you want to avoid the crowds, you'll need to catch an early bus yourself. ADO buses leave Merida at 6.30am and arrive just after the site opens at 8am so you can have the place almost to yourself. They also leave Cancun and Playa del Carmen but not until 8.45am and 8am, respectively.
THE idea of swimming in a cave might bring out cold sweats for some people but cenote exploration can be an exciting new addition to your scuba experience. The Riviera Maya has heaps of these sinkholes, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposed groundwater beneath, known as cenotes. The Mayans once used them as water sources and sometimes for sacrificial offerings. There are plenty to choose from but Dos Ojos (meaning two eyes) comes highly recommended for diving and snorkelling. Diving through the two eyes of the cave, popping up in one spot to see where a colony of bats (literally) hangs out, is the kind of thing you can dine out on for years. The fish and coral near Isla Mujeres, near Cancun, love their very own under water museum. There are more than 400 statues for marine life to make their home and they are moving in with little hesitation. From cars to people and dogs to weave through, it's also unsurprisingly become an hot diving spot. It's accessible via bus even when staying at Playa but this one is best accessed in Cancun when you first fly in or at the chilled-out Isla Mujeres.
IF you've ever had the burning desire to swim among turtles, Akumal Bay is your sure-fire chance. Unlike most snorkelling trips in the big blue where you might chance seeing the graceful ocean dwellers, the protected waters at this bay is a perfect habitat for them to feed and their presence is guaranteed. Obviously it's important not to touch them but you can swim alongside them for as long as you can snorkel. There are plenty of tours available to the bay, which is between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, or you could catch a bus or taxi. If you're driving, you can park for free and hire snorkelling gear to head out with the turtles and then rent a lounge chair to relax among the palm trees. This month there has been a temporary conservation ban, though, so check before you go to see if the ban has been lifted.
IT's actually a short 70-minute flight from Cancun over to Cuba so why not also explore the land of the cigar before trade with America changes the landscape. People aren't wrong when they say Cuba is stuck back in the 1950s, it's like a time warp. Classic cars, dilapidated buildings and the absence of global branding are among the most obvious signs. But there's so much to explore - that's a whole other story here:
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