Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya: Land of the Maya, playground of the tourists
They named it yah (pronounced yash). It's a green/blue/turquoise color the early Maya, a group of people unique to the Yucatán peninsula, used to describe the rolling sea and placid fresh water wells, around which they constructed myriad imposing city-states that towered above the jungle. More than a description, yah represented the color of the center of the universe, the source of life created by their rain god Xaác (chack), where the god Xucek (y-shok´) could plunge into its magical depths and be rejuvenated.
A millennium has past since those ancients walked the paths that led through dense foliage to the edge of gnarled, rocky precipices or to a vast expanse of beach. Where the Maya practiced rituals and bore sacred offerings, visitors today bring bathing suits and cameras. Their senses are rewarded with all that lies above and below the shores of the Riviera Maya. When asked during an interview what territory the Riviera Maya covers and how it was named, Fernando Garcia Zalvidea Managing Director of the Real Resorts in Playa del Carmen, where I stayed, reported that it starts about 20 miles south of Cancun's International Airport, continues to Punta Allen in the Sian Ka'an peninsula, and includes the sites of Coba and Tulum. After months of collecting ballots from visitors, the former Corridor Turistico was officially renamed Riviera Maya in September 1997, an apt term for the 90-mile stretch of gorgeous beach along this coast. Playa del Carmen lies in the center of the Riviera Maya, easily accessible by collectivos (mini vans), direct buses or taxis from the Cancun International Airport.
Water Sports in Playa del CarmenInnumerable options are available to visitors who want to take advantage of the activities and sights in and around the area. Water sports include windsurfing boards, wave-runner boats and deep-sea fishing. For Scuba divers and snorkelers, Playa del Carmen offers an abundance of fish on the reefs, which are located 150 to 400 feet off the sandy terrace. The reef starts as a shallow ledge and drops to 90 feet before sloping to 200. Groupers and turtles linger at cleaning stations, and spiny lobsters cluster in patch reefs at the shallower depths. Manta rays have been seen on the reef as well. Drift diving is the norm (currents can be swift at times); temperatures average 80 degrees and the visibility ranges from 60 to 100 feet. Boats, guides and snorkeling/scuba equipment are arranged through the resort’s concierge. South of Playa, experienced divers follow paths down to flooded sinkholes (cenotes). Short stalactites are found at the mouth of the caves and, once inside, they range from miniatures to barrel-size, especially when joined to stalagmites. The smooth surfaces of some have "grown" sideways to form slabs of rock called tun. Divers and guides use lights to pierce the recesses of the caves, which reveal globular protuberances, the hardened ooze of a distant past. At a snorkel site, Xaác's Corale, it's possible to squeeze single file through 300 feet of a semi-flooded maze of stalagmites and stalactites that have a metallic ring when tapped. The passage opens to an icy turquoise pool – yah. Each cenote is mystical and each is awe-inspiring.
Exploring Playa del Carmen and the Riviera MayaOn land, Playa del Carmen has an 18-hole golf course designed by Robert van Hagge. About 50 minutes south by car are the 700-year old ruins of Coba and Tulum. Inside several of the 60 well-preserved buildings in Tulum are wall paintings depicting Xucek. Remarkably, fragments of the original colors are preserved. Your hotel's oncierge can usually arrange tours to these sites as well. North of Tulum is Xcaret, an eco-archeological park, where guests can experience Mayan festivals, swim in clear-water cenotes, view marine life in an aquarium and learn about the region's flora and fauna. The Mexican culture as we know it today has been shaped not only by Mayan influences but also the Spanish conquistadors, other European nations and the United States as well. Nightly dinner/extravaganzas take place in the Gran Tiachco Theater, where 300 artists perform a musical history of Mexico's heritage and traditions, through dances, chants and songs.
Health and Wellness at Real Resorts in Playa del CarmenFor those into health and wellness, the resort offers relaxation exercises conducted by a trained Mayan Shaman who assists guests in connecting with their inner being. It's said the Mesoamerican Shamans experienced a cleansing and spiritual rebirth after they prayed and chanted in an igloo-type stone hut, in which Copal (incense from tree resin) smoldered. A Shaman accompanies guests into the Temazcal hut on the Real's property to take part in the ceremony. Tell friends you're going to Mexico and they'll ask if it's safe. Northern Mexico has a problem with the drug cartels, but in the rest of the country, hospitality and an artistic style are inherent in the Mexican nature. You can have a thoroughly enjoyable, safe holiday, and return home like Xucek rejuvenated.
Denise Mattia is a freelance photojournalist living in New York City. She is the recipient of two degrees in Theatre and Art and a grant for her work in reef conservation. Her worldwide travel features and photographs (topside and underwater) appear in national and international publications. She is president of the New York Travel Writers Association and an active member of SATW, IFWTWA and PATA.