Beyond the beach: Riviera Maya on Mexico's Caribbean coast
It's famous for its superb beaches but there's so much more to Tulum's trendy next-door neighbour, Riviera Maya.
It’s 8pm and we’re watching a vintage Meet Joe Black movie on the beach. The blow-up cinema screen is propped up by palm trees, while the sun loungers we were applying SPF on earlier in the midday heat are now makeshift cinema seats. It doesn’t get much more perfect – until a sandstorm suddenly whips up and we’re forced to watch the ending indoors (well, nobody wants sand in their popcorn).
Freak storms aside, the white sand beaches in Riviera Maya are idyllic day or night, and it’s not the only time I’m blown away by natural wonders during my trip, either.
It’s my first time visiting Mexico’s Caribbean coast and the landscape is vastly different to the more rugged backdrops on the Pacific side.
On a glorious sunrise flight to Cancun from Mexico City, the view from above is like a never-ending blanket of dense jungle – the kind that’s uninterrupted and makes you wonder when civilisation will start to unfold. There are more trees than I’ve ever seen in my life and a good preview of what to expect when we arrive at our hotel, Grand Velas Riviera Maya.
The front of our Grand Class hotel – all Instagram-perfect palm trees, white sand and serene ocean – is a stark contrast to the back, which is dense Mayan jungle that looks like a thick curtain of tropical trees. Beach or jungle, whichever camp you’re in, is in abundance on Grand Velas’ epic sprawling site, which boasts three hotels within the resort: Zen Grand, Grand Class and Ambassador.
Why the trio of options? Well, some people prefer the sound of the ocean from their balcony, while others love the feeling of waking up in the lush jungle, is the resort’s explanation. And for the indecisive like me? You can easily move around the palm-tree populated resort via shuttles to fully absorb both settings.
Not long after arriving, I observe giant pelicans catching their fish suppers in the sea, and spot families of turtles in the jungle river that look so ancient they have a layer of algae moss decorating their shells. To put the magnitude of this jungle resort into perspective, it takes a full five-minute drive to reach our hotel lobby from the towering grand entrance on the highway.
We venture to the top floor to take in the vast views of the jungle. We’re told if we look closely, we might even spot the odd swinging spider monkey (‘mono arana’ in Spanish).
“About 70 per cent of the hotel grounds remain as nature intended,” Emma Gomez, our Grand Velas guide, tells us. “The mangroves are our protection against hurricanes, so they can never be removed.”
While the epic Mayan jungle is beautiful, it does mean that venturing outside the hotel for day trips requires some forward-planning. Chichen Itza is one of the most popular archaeological visitor sites in Mexico and requires a full day’s sightseeing, as it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Riviera Maya.
For a closer exploration of mystical Mayan civilisation, we visit neighbouring Tulum’s 13th century city ruins to take in the ancient Mayan culture (about an hour’s drive away). You can skip the tourist queue and get an official guided group tour (approx £54), which is well worth the extra admission price.
It’s a humid 28C in the jungle, so I’m surprised when our wonderful guide Jorge (he has a distinctive two-tone beard) puts a sturdy denim shirt over his long-sleeve top before starting our tour. We soon discover why when we venture into the jungle to see the ruins, and are greeted by a flurry of wild creatures at every turn – opossums, skunks and raccoons – clambering on him for a cuddle.
“They wait for me every day, so sometimes I even have to pop in on my days off,” Jorge says, as a young family of coatis – raccoon-like animals – chatter at his feet, vying for his attention. The small three-month-old coati babies groom each other with their long, flexible noses and then burrow for insects as their mum, Lucy, has a well-earned siesta on Jorge’s shoulder.
As Tulum is a popular tourist hangout, there are selfie sticks and smartphone clicks galore, but it’s a fascinating insight into Mayan civilisation. Jorge points out subtle carvings in blue and red that we might have missed without some insider knowledge. He tells us the murals and paintings on walls in hieroglyphics are “like Facebook for families” that acted as an identifier. Mini thatched roofs hang over some of the walls to protect the remaining carvings and paintings from being weathered by tropical storms.
When we return to the hotel, it seems fitting to dine at the all-inclusive Mexican gourmet restaurant, Frida. We’re given a must-try tip by the executive chef, Mario Lopez, to try the ceviche and tostadas dishes that combine seafood and pork. He tells us that one of the signature foods from the region is cochinita pibil, a slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatan Peninsula, that fuses Mayan cooking techniques with Mexican food.
Our aperitif chilli margaritas are suddenly interrupted by a guacamole master. He wheels over a trolley of 12 mini dishes containing potential additions to customise your vat of guacamole, as it’s smashed right in front of you. Bespoke guacamole? If this is what holidays in the Mexican Caribbean are like, count me in.
Carrier (0161 492 1354; carrier.co.uk) offers seven nights at Grand Velas Riviera Maya from £4,025 per person, based on two adults sharing a Zen Grand Suite Nature View room on an all-inclusive basis, including return flights from London Gatwick with British Airways and return private transfers. Price based on departures April 29, 2019.