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Paradise floats – The Mayan Riviera

GOLF TODAY NORTHWEST — To appreciate the magic of the Mayan Riviera, one has to look back to the 10th century ruins of Tulum, which is the only coastal city the Mayans ever built. It served as their seaport, fortress and temple. Along this coast, the Mayans found porcelain white beaches, reefs teeming with fish and a dense jungle pumping with animal and plant life.

The Mayans believed that the region, located along an 80-mile area just below Cancun, is floating and unattached to the earth. Below the surface runs a network of underground rivers, accessible by beautiful, fresh-water cenotes. Picture a swimming hole out of a Norman Rockwell painting and you have a cenote — perfect for plunging away the heat of the afternoon.

Photo by Deston Nokes

Photo by Deston Nokes

While Tulum itself may be ancient, the Mayan Riviera is only about 12 years old; a marketing concept conjured to help promote the area’s tourism. It’s actually a helpful distinction because, while Mexico has thousands of places for golf, nightlife and lazy, sandy sunning, it’s not likely that many offer breadth of culture and adventure one can experience in this Yucatan playground.

It’s a terrific vacation for golfers and their families.

Located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, the Mayan Riviera is accessible, safe and friendly. The area incorporates the communities of Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Playacar, Puerto Aventuras, Akumal, Tulum, Felipe Carrilo Puerto and Cozumel.

“We are competing with Los Cabos to become the number-one destination for American tourists,” said Carlos Mora, spokesperson for the Riviera Maya Tourism Board. “We are investing a lot in terms of spas, resorts, golf course design and more direct flights into Cancun.”

According to reports, the Guinness Book of Records ranked Playa del Carmen the world’s fastest-growing town (by a rate of 26 percent per annum). Despite the clatter of new construction, there’s a concerted effort to preserve the area’s natural and manmade treasures, while accommodating the area’s frenetic growth. New hotels can’t be more than 12 meters high (about 39 feet) to preserve views. Golf courses have to retain jungle around the course, and can’t touch, change or destroy areas with mangrove.

The jungle is thick and expansive. Balls hit into it are generally gone for good.

Finding a place to stay shouldn’t be an issue, with choices ranging from small, boutique lodging along the cosmopolitan, pedestrian-only streets of Playa del Carmen, to nearby all-inclusive luxury resorts with acres of rooms and recreation. Upon landing, a chauffeur whisked me from to airport to the palatial and friendly Royal Hideaway Playacar.

It’s the only place I’ve ever found my toilet paper roll monogrammed with my name in gold letters. I didn’t know if it was just a welcoming amenity or if someone had told them in advance about my golf game.

Our plan each day was to start with cooler, early-morning golf, followed by afternoons and evenings filled with adventures below the earth and above the trees.

MexicoTake a stroke if you hit the iguana

We began with the Iberostar Playa Paraiso Golf Club, a devilish slice of fun carved out of the jungle by P.B. Dye. Teeing off in the face of its narrow fairways made it a painful adventure for this slicing driver, but to be greeted by rollercoaster, undulating greens was almost mocking. However, those in my foursome were far more impressed than stressed. The $125green fee for guests includes a cart, food on the course and beverages.

Our concentration was interrupted by coatimundi bounding out of the jungle onto the course. The long, furry creature is part fox, part monkey, part anteater and part raccoon.

Closer to Playa del Carmen, we played the challenging Playacar, designed by Robert von Hagge. You won’t find many courses in the U.S. that force you to play around cenote hazards, archaeological remnants and huge iguanas that threaten to disrupt your putt. Considered one of the most challenging courses in the region, it is a par 72 with a distance of 7,144 yards, surrounded by a diversity of lakes and exuberant vegetation. Even at $190, a pretty common rate for the area, it was a terrific test.

Last, we teed off on the Jack Nicklaus masterpiece, El Camaleón Mayakoba, which has similar jungle-oriented hazards, including dense mangroves, but with the added bonus of ending up with a spectacular view of the Caribbean coastline.

Zip lines and fresh-water plunges

Just a few minutes outside of Playa del Carmen, we had our first opportunity to experience swimming in a cenote, riding zip lines and congregating before a Mayan ceremonial prayer.

Guided by Alltournative Off Track Adventures (www.alltournative.com), we snorkeled in a clear, fresh-water pool formed by rainwater filtered through limestone. Paddling around with snorkeling gear, one can see scuba divers venturing into tunnels leading off to other pools. The Mayans considered them gateways to the underworld, but to us they were simply clean, pristine and dazzling. There are plenty of maps showing where cenotes are, and visitors will want to take care and use only biodegradable lotions and sunblock before entering a cenote in order to help keep the waters clean.

Next we flew above the jungle and over cenotes on zip lines set up on the property, one propelling us 535 feet across the treetops. Last we experienced a traditional Maya purification ceremony inside a dry cenote.

MexicoBTulum and Sian Ka’an Nature Preserve

Tulum’s reputation as an exotic vacation destination is growing because of its ancient Mayan ruins, stunning ecotourism, and for its international reputation as a center for yoga, meditation and massage.

Modern Tulum possesses some of the finest, white sand beaches in the Caribbean. Just a 90-minute drive south from Cancún, Tulum hasn’t experienced the level of development seen in neighboring Mexican Riviera cities, due in great part to local efforts to control growth and preserve the area’s natural splendor.

The dominating structure in the walled, Mayan ruins is the Castillo (castle), which served as a fortress as well as a temple. In addition, there are murals in the House of Columns, the Temple of the Descending God and the Temple of the Frescoes. You can stroll in and around the structures, and enjoy a variety of shows and presentations.

At the southern end of the Mayan Riviera lies the immense Sian Ka’an (Mayan for “where the sky is born”)Nature Preserve, 1.3 million acres of grass savannas, mangrove
lagoons, white sand flats, and 70 miles of the second largest barrier reef in 
the world. There you can encounter 2,000-year-old Mayan archeological sites, a hundred different mammal species (including jaguars, pumas, ocelots, anteaters and monkeys) more than 300 types of birds, and a nesting ground for endangered sea turtles.  It was established as a Biosphere Reserve in 1986 and incorporated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. By contacting CESiaK, the Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an (cesiak.org), visitors can enjoy an educational, biological tour of the waterways andMayan canal systems inside the preserve.

Xcaret – an amazing Mayan spectacle

Our last night was spent at Xcaret, a Mayan theme park with water activities, tours, dolphin swims and an amazing evening show. Entering the 6,000-seat capacity arena we were greeted by a lineup of torch-lit, costumed Mayan gods, sharp, fierce and feathered.

Any fear that I would be subjected to an eternal two hours of glitz and pomp dissipated when the show began with a game of pok-ta-pok –a 3,500 year-old contest where captured nobles competed against their conquerors. It was riveting to watch the two sides use only their hips to nudge a large, heavy, rubber ball through stone rings high on the adjacent walls. Thankfully there were no sacrifices at the end.

Next there was a Mexican rodeo demonstration and a stunning smorgasbord of both Mayan and Mexican pageantry and performance, featuring traditional costumes and dance from every state in Mexico. The acrobats flying and spinning overhead to the elegant, heartwarming performers held the mostly-Mexican crowd riveted.

“I’ve seen this show maybe hundreds of times,” said Xcaret spokesperson Adrian Vazquez. “Here we love our country like we love a woman. It’s very romantic and deep. The show always makes me feel so proud to be Mexican.”


Vacation resources:

Mayan Riviera Tourism: www.rivieramaya.com (includes interactive map)

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve: www.cesiak.org

Golfing: www.cancungolf.org

Cenote swimming & zip lines: www.alltournative.com

Mayan theme park: www.xcaret.com

How to get there

Frequent, direct flights are available from many U.S. cities to Cancun – just 3-½ hours from the Northeast.


The year-round temperature is about 78 degrees. In the summer, temperatures can rise 100 degrees, but ocean breezes help keep you cool. The rainy season is between June and October, but the region still receives 260 sunny days a year.


The Mexican peso is the official currency, although U.S. dollars and Euros are widely accepted. Currently the exchange rate is about 10 pesos = $1.

Time zone

U.S. Central Standard Time, with daylight savings observed.

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