When the decision was made in the late 1960’s to develop Cancun as a major beach vacation destination, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula became a major tourism hotspot, spurring even more development south of Cancun along the Caribbean coast in what is known today as the Riviera Maya. Conceived as a nature-lover’s paradise and eco-friendly destination to complement all the glitz and excitement of Cancun, the Riviera Maya stretches for more than 80 miles along the Mexican Caribbean Sea and includes idyllic beach towns like Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Puerto Aventuras and Tulum.
Today, new development is reaching even farther south past Tulum and has also moved to encompass other parts of the Yucatan Peninsula, including areas around Merida and Isla Holbox to the north and west of Cancun. Most visitors still fly into the region via the Cancun International Airport, where they can opt for a personal tour guide, taxi or car rental and travel Route 307 - the main highway leading south - which is a well-maintained road with excellent signage.
The Yucatan Peninsula is Mexico Tourism’s New Frontier!
It’s easy to stay in Cancun, downtown Playa del Carmen, Tulum or any of the other small towns along the Mexican Caribbean coast and set out on one-day trips or even brief one or two-night excursions to explore other parts of the Yucatan Peninsula. Three of the main tourist destinations south of Tulum include the small towns of Bacalar and Mahahual, as well as the larger city of Chetumal, which is close to the Belize border.
It looks just like an idyllic beach destination at first glance, but the town of Bacalar is actually located about 16 miles from the ocean on the shores of the magical Lagoon of Seven Colors. As you might guess from its name, this incredible body of water shimmers in a wide range of different hues, while the town itself is home to a variety of attractions, including an 18th century fort, a pirate museum and a colonial-era church.
Although smaller than Bacalar, the beachfront town of Mahahual offers easy access to the world’s second-largest barrier reef just offshore and the town also has a picturesque malecón, or oceanfront promenade. Once a small local fishing village, the town itself has retained its laid-back vibe and offers the perfect place to enjoy some of the best beaches in the world.
The border port city of Chetumal thrives on business instead of just tourism, giving this larger city an extra dose of authenticity. Popular sites include the Museum of Mayan Culture and the waterfront boulevard, as well as a Manatee Sanctuary and the nearby ancient Mayan archaeological sites of Dzibanché, Kinichná and Kohunlich.
Situated just two hours inland and east of Tulum near the charming colonial town of Valladolid, the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá rises out of the lush, tropical jungle to thrill travelers from around the world with its beauty and grandeur. This 740-acre site is a vast complex of pyramids, temples and other structures, including the 100-foot pyramid of El Castillo.
Finally, if you're staying in Cancun or Playa del Carmen, consider visiting the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal and make it a two or three-day overnight with a stop in the eclectic colonial city of Merida, which is also the capital of Mexico’s Yucatan State. Set in the Puuc hills, Uxmal is home to the Pyramid of the Magician and was once the center of Mayan economic and political power. Today, it also is a UNESCO World Heritage site and features a variety of incredibly preserved pyramids and temples with intricate hieroglyphic carvings that are oriented according to complex geometric order and astronomical patterns.
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Wondering where to stay in the Riviera Maya? Read Tulum Real Estate Rentals: Enjoy the Vacation of a Lifetime! for an insider’s perspective on the region's best accommodations.