The Riviera Maya landscape is a rare blend of lush mangroves, twisting river waterways teeming with wildlife and a turquoise beachfront that can’t be imitated. The almost 80 miles of land that stretch below Cancun used to consist of tiny free-spirited towns, where visitors would take respite from the heat in rustic beach-side huts or spend the day exploring the nearby Mayan ruins and verdant jungle.
Although visitors are still traversing the nearby archaeological sites, they’re resting their heads on high-thread-count pillows at the end of the day. The new crop of luxury Riviera Maya hotels dotting the jungles and coastline are worlds away, albeit only a few actual miles, from the noise, skyscraper properties and party atmosphere of Cancun. In the Riviera Maya, there is a much different ambience: the properties hark back to a different era. Hotels in the Riviera Maya can’t be taller than four stories and can only be built on 5 percent of a developer’s total land. Unlike in Cancun, this leaves lush areas of open space where rooms have been built to complement nature, simply tucking in and out of the foliage, doing their best not to disturb the landscape. In fact, most high-end hotels in the area employ a resident biologist to advise on environmental practices.
Tides Riviera Maya
Just outside Playa del Carmen, beachgoers come to the Tides Riviera Maya as much for the pristine sand as for the unparalleled privacy. According to my travel partner, the Tides margarita is the best in the world. We made this beverage discovery on the first day of our journey in the Riviera Maya. After a 45-minute drive from the Cancun airport, a tour of the winding jungle property and a slip into our swimsuits, we were beachside, sampling the bartender Manuel's freshly squeezed lemon juice and agave concoction and breathing in the scents of a warm ocean breeze, freshly made tortillas and suntan lotion. The pool area at the Tides is smaller than at other big-name hotels in the area, but with only 30 bungalows on property and the seven miles of white sand beach, there doesn’t seem to be a need for more chlorine. The intimacy of the pool area extends to the entire property. You never feel like you’re at a major resort. The allure of the Tides is that you’re made to feel like you’ve stumbled upon a Shangri-la complete with a narrow, unmarked dirt road entrance, a vacationer's utopia. In fact, our taxi driver, who had been carting travelers from the airport to their hotels for more than two decades, was just as excited as we were to get to the property, as he had never seen it.
Each of the thatched roof bungalows at this Viceroy Group hotel sits singularly protected in the deep foliage of the Mayan tropical forest. Once you're inside your compound, the secluded space, over 1,000 square feet of it, is all yours. There’s an outdoor terrace with plunge pool, dining area and daybed; indoors, a canopied bed, marble shower complete with local handmade soap (hand-cut for each guest) and yes, air-conditioning, make it hard to ever want to leave. Staying isn’t so hard to do, considering that the attentive staff are pleased to provide room service from the on-site La Marea restaurant. Chef Mariana Perez has created a menu teeming with Mexican, Mediterranean and Mayan dishes. Don’t miss the grilled calamari with shaved garlic and cilantro or the Egyptian lentil soup with queso fresco, carrots, spinach and plantains.
They say good things come to those who wait, and when it comes to Mayakoba they are right. It took almost a decade to build Mayakoba, involving intense biological studies and unearthing a system of freshwater canals formerly hidden underground for thousands of years. The jungle-and-beach resort enclave originally intended to have six luxury hotels inside its gates; as of now, the Rosewood Mayakoba, Banyan Tree Mayakoba and Fairmont Mayakoba are the only operating hotels.
The beachfront space at Mayakoba hotels is limited, but made up for with an extensive series of waterways and mangroves traversable by a resort boat. Mayakoba is only about 30 minutes south of Cancun, but once you're inside the gates, it couldn’t be farther away. Upon entering the resort area, guests leave their vehicles behind; hotels are explored on foot, by resort shuttle, bike or boat.
One of the best parts about staying in Mayakoba is that each of the hotel brands complement each other. Stay at one resort and visit the others by water taxi for dinner or a spa treatment. Most items can be billed to your hotel room via the hotel’s reciprocity program.
Fairmont Mayakoba was the first to open here. The five swimming pools, including a 10,000-square-foot pool and waterslide, are larger than at other hotels in the area, and the rarity of a kids' club—complete with kids—makes the setting perfect for families or large groups. Couples traveling without children can take refuge in one of the best pools on site: an adult-only, infinity-edge version overlooking a lagoon framed by mangroves.
Each of the rooms at this Mayakoba hotel has the Fairmont’s signature design, with expansive marble bathrooms, flat-screen televisions and soaking tubs. Even the most standard rooms here are some of the most luxurious in Mexico, but the signature casita suites are about 1,000 square feet and feature a wraparound balcony with a panoramic view of the lagoon, a separate master bedroom, two bathrooms, an entryway and a living room.
For dinner, walk, bike or hop on the golf cart shuttle to one of the resort’s restaurants. Las Brisas Restaurant and Lounge Bar seems to be the most in demand on the property, with a beachfront setting and healthy servings of fresh tuna tartare, but don’t miss dining at El Puerto Restaurant, which has expansive views of the resort’s waterways and a rare Mexican boutique wine list that would impress most wine country palates.
At the hotel’s Willow Stream spa, experience the Yucatan Healing Retreat in a side-by-side couple’s treatment suite, complete with a private balcony, shower, Jacuzzi tub and bathroom. The two-hour treatment starts with a footbath and follows with a body scrub, mask and massage. During the ritual guests can choose what local products they’d like used in the treatment, including Mayan clay, cacao or honey and yogurt.
Only a short water-taxi ride away is the Rosewood Mayakoba, which offers unmatched views of the Mayakoba lagoons. With a pedigree that includes one of the finest resorts in all of Mexico—Rosewood’s Las Ventanas al Paraiso—vacationing is an understatement here. With a plunge pool in every suite, private butlers to take care of needs you didn’t even know you had and an on-site restaurant that is deserving of multiple Michelin stars, luxury is taken to a whole new level.
The resort's 128 suites include nine different layout options. All are accessible via boats that navigate the boulevards made of canals and lagoons. Although all the rooms are impressive, most of the employees say the Deluxe Overwater Lagoon Suite is their favorite. The room feels more like a private villa than a suite, jutting over the emerald-green lagoon waters. These rooms feature floor-to-ceiling glass-door walls and a private terrace; your options include taking a dip in the plunge pool, waving to neighbors across the lagoon, sipping a Chilean wine at the outdoor dining table or watching the local birds take up residence on your private boat dock.
Although room service is perfectly acceptable when your suite could very well grace the cover of Architectural Digest dinner at the hotel’s Casa del Lago shouldn’t be missed. On our visit, Executive Chef Daniel Bausa’s tasting menu included a watermelon and feta salad with candied lemon vinaigrette that is as refreshing as it sounds, and with a wine cellar that can store up to 2,000 bottles, the wine pairing option is a must.
El Dorado Casitas Royale
About a 20-minute drive from Mayakoba is the El Dorado Casitas Royale, where besides cash for gratuities, you can leave the pesos behind. The resort is a gourmet inclusive property, complete with more food and drink options than you can sample in one visit. Before visions of two-for-one drink deals and lackluster cruise ship fare enter your mind, take note: this all-inclusive property is different. From the welcome glass of champagne while you’re checking in to the 24-hour room service, beach butlers, infinity pool casitas and seven on-site restaurants, the hotel has raised the bar on the all-inclusive concept.
The adults-only El Dorado Casitas Royale is set on the same property as its sister resort the El Dorado Royale—think of it as a hotel within a hotel. Both hotels share the same restaurants but the Casitas have reserved beach areas and a more individualized villa feel. Although the total property is large with over 800 suites at both destinations, the maze of beachside pools that snake between the hotel rooms and the seemingly endless beachfront make the property feel much smaller than it is. One of the biggest advantages the El Dorado Casitas Royale boasts over traditional all-inclusives is the quality of the restaurants. For an Iron Chef-style dining experience, get a table at Fuentes, which features five open kitchens under a 90-foot thatched roof. The restaurant has large flat-screen televisions that showcase the chefs cooking that night’s meal. Foodies will flock to the on-site fondue spot, dinner theater, and Pacific Rim themed Kampai restaurant for fresh sushi.
If your travel plans include children, choose the resort's sister property, the Azul Sensatori. The Puerto Morelos location boasts family-friendly entertainment, food and a kids' program.
Whichever Maya Riviera resort you choose, you'll find luxury, genuinely friendly staff, gourmet meals and, if you're lucky, a sampling of those hard-to-forget magaritas.
3 Must-Visit Reasons to Leave Your Hotel
1 Xcaret Only four miles from Playa del Carmen, this eco-friendly, water-themed park has endless activities including snorkeling, archaeological tours, a butterfly pavilion and an orchid greenhouse. xcaret.com
2 Chankanaab Bay Located in Cozumel, about a 40-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen, the area has some of the best snorkeling and diving in Mexico. With almost 20 miles of reef, 200 different fish and underwater caves to encounter, it’s worth the trek. mexicowaterjets.com
3 Archaeological Zone at Tulum A walled Mayan archaeological setting on a cliff overlooking turquoise waters, the site has buildings from around 1200 A.D. dotting its interior. The zone is open from about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. mayaworld.cc