No matter what sort of traveler you are, the Mayan Riviera, or Riviera Maya, is a perfect holiday destination. Everybody, whether a sun-seeker, adventurous backpacker, archaeological enthusiast, all-inclusive lover or luxury expert, will find their own reason to fall in love with this enchanting area. Washed by the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, it is located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo and preserves some of the most impressive natural treasures along the Yucatan peninsula. During my recent visit to Mexico, on a press trip with Visit Mexico and Riviera Maya Tourism, I had the opportunity to see it for myself on a day trip with AlltourNative Tours, a leading culturaly minded tour operator based in Playa del Carmen.
I was excited to learn about Maya culture at the famous ruins, so I didn’t mind the otherwise all too early wake up call that rang through my beautiful junior suite in the Andaz Mayakoba Hotel at 6:00 am. Wanting to get a jump on the day, I passed on tossing and turning and instead grabbed a bicycle and took a quiet pedal through the hotels sprawling grounds, towards the restaurant, where I downed coffee and a delicious Mexican breakfast, before being picked up at the reception at 7:30 am.
On our way to the ruins, the driver picked up Alfredo Kuri, who was going to be our guide for the day. Alfredo is a native of Veracruz who is passionate about his job and Maya culture. We were amazed by how knowledgeable he was about the country’s history, Mayan communities and archeology. He has been working for AlltourNative for more than 20 years and one can feel how proud he is to be a member of this eco-tourist project that works towards the sustainable development of Maya communities. Through their tours and excursions, AlltourNative works hard to preserve Mayan heritage while sharing their cultural and historical legacy with visitors.
Our first stop was at the impressive Tulum archaeological site, a 40 minute drive from Playa del Carmen. This ancient settlement is known as the walled city, Tulum means “wall” in Mayan, and served as a trading seaport. It was built around the year 1200 AD on a 12 meter tall sheer limestone bluff on the beach, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, and is the only Mayan city built on the coast.
After we parked, we toured the ruins for about an hour with our guide, Alfredo. Several astonishing stone buildings can be admired here, both civic and religious, but the most important structures within the site are El Castillo (The Castle) and the Temple of the Frescoes. It is believed that the population of the city used to be around six hundred people, probably only nobles, but today it is only home to wildlife. On this latter note, you’ll want to keep an eye out for the iguanas, as these little creatures really own this place!
After Alfredo finished explaining the culture and history of Tulum, we explored on our own for a while, taking advantage of some photo opportunities. We walked to the highest point of the cliff to enjoy a stunning view of the region. The vision of the ocean and the beach against the ruins and cliffs will took my breath away. In fact, Tulum’s beach is considered one of the most beautiful beaches along the Mayan Riviera, and the perfect spot for taking a swim after visiting the ruins. However, we weren’t so lucky. What was supposed to be a postcard image of a white sand beach instead showed the sad reality of some of today’s Caribbean beaches. A brown seaweed with a sulfur stink called ‘sargassum’ is accumulating along the coastline. These invasions are believed to be the consequence of pollution and climate change and the cause of some detrimental effects on marine life.
The Tulum ruins are some of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico, so they can get crowded. We arrived early and there was barely anyone while we were there. However, when we left at around 10 AM, the entrance was packed. So in order to enjoy this it to its fullest, I recommend arriving early. The entrance is cheap, around 70 pesos (less than $4), but they charge extra for gopros, tripods or selfie sticks. This is true for most tourist attraction in the area.
After Tulum and a one hour drive, we made it to Coba, one of the places I was most looking forward to on this trip. Located in lush jungle settings surrounded by lagoons, this ancient archaeological site is a must-see site for anyone coming to the Yucatan Peninsula! Its design is unique from other Maya cities. It is a complex system of internal roads leading out from the main city that communicate with the sea and connecting with nearby Maya cities.
After Alfredo explained the history of Coba, he left us to explore on our own for an hour and a half. Luckily, rickshaw drivers were offering rides. They are optional, but I would highly recommend to hire them or get a bike, not only because the walk is long, but it will also help you to cope with the heat. We rode down the long gravel roads through numerous buildings, including temples and the courts of that legendary ballgame where they infamously cut off the head of the captain of the losing team, all of which beautifully merge with the landscape, and where we found many spots to stopped and take photos.
Although there are many impressive structures at Coba, the pyramid Nohoch Mul was the most astonishing. Standing 138 feet tall, it is the highest in all of the Yucatan Peninsula, and I did not think it twice before starting my way up. Climbing to the peak of the temple is only 120 uneven steps, but it can be scary if you are scared of heights or suffer from vertigo. From the top, you are awarded with a breathtaking view of the immensity of Coba’s surrounding jungle. Totally worth the effort!
After Coba, we made our way to Tres Reyes, a Mayan community in the jungle and home to just a handful of families with which AlltourNative works together with providing schooling for the children, training and jobs. Alfredo showed us around the village where we could see first hand how the Maya live and learn from their traditions and culture.
Our immersive experience included the traditional Mayan ritual of a blessing ceremony. It was performed in Mayan by a Shaman (a religious healer) using copal incense. Even though I didn’t understand his words, it was lovely to hear the sound of this ancient language. After Señor Marino blessed us each individually, cleansing our spirit and allowing us to enter the underworld, we headed through the tropical rainforest to a nearby cenote, an underground cave with clear water. For Mayans these spiritual wells are believed to be a portal to speak with the gods.
As we made our way through the forest, while Alfredo was explaining the areas plants and animals, we were attacked by thousands of enormous ants! It took us a while to react, as we didn’t initially know what was happening, and by the time we were running away our legs were already covered in the hungry little beasts. After Alfredo made sure we were all safe, we felt like foolish tourists and we had a good laugh at ourselves. We finally made it to the cenote Chimuch, meaning cenote of life. We entered into the natural sinkhole through an underground stairway where tropical trees and vines were growing freely. Swimming in the pristine cenote waters is an incredible experience, and I took a moment of calm there, feeling lost in another time. Before we left, we went to a small hut where some of the woman of the community showed us how they cook fresh, hand-made corn tortillas. Everybody was very welcoming, and offered us delicious local snacks.
We were also treated to a traditional Mayan lunch buffet including an unforgetable lime soup, chicken, rice, beans, pasta, green habanero sauce, red sauce, potatoes, cooked vegetables and, of course, more hand-made corn tortillas. To drink, we had the locally famous ‘agua de Jamaica’, which is a sweet hibiscus tea and a green juice. To drink, we had a hibiscus tea and a green juice, both of which were fantastic.
With this, the tour came to an end and it was time to go back. At around 7 PM we headed back to our hotel in Playa del Carmen. Visiting the Riviera Maya with AlltourNative was an wonderful experience. Ancient cities, archaeological sites, small Mayan villages, sacred cenotes combined with the exuberance of a landscape like no other. From all the excursion that we did during our trip, this was one of the best. It’s the perfect combination of culture and nature with a culture-conscious alternative tour operator that gives a lot back to the community. We recommend using them for this or similar tours in Quintana Roo. Happy adventuring!