Mayan Riviera: One Week Highlights Tour

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Imagine the scene: 4:00 a.m. at the Providence, RI, airport. Four adults, six kids, four bags, ten carry-ons one cooler and a partridge in a pear tree. We have to use the group check in desk, too many people. The Mommies are shuffling passports and babies. The Daddies are wrestling bags and trying to keep boys off of the conveyor belt and out of the bag scanning machines. Everyone is excited. It is snowing outside. Finally the bags are checked, the boarding passes are procured and we head for the security check point. Another line, more boy wrestling, Mama’s wishing there had been time for tea before leaving the hotel. Bags on the conveyor belt, shoes off, belts off, we parade through the scanner, past the somber faced guard. Everyone makes it... almost. 

Ruins at Coba“Ma’am, I’m going to need to search your son,” the guard says to me. Fighting my urge to tell him what I really think about the airport security fiasco, I ask Gabriel, “What did you pack?” The guard fishes through his bag: cards, stuffed animal, book, big honkin’ pocket knife... no, wait, TWO knives! “Gabe, didn’t I say NOT to pack your tools and knives?” “No Mom, you didn’t tell me!” From Hannah, three people back in the line and just having arrived through the scanner, “Yes Mom, you clearly said NO toy guns or knives or tools.” “Thank you.” Sigh. Boys. My tearful son mailed home his knives with a look of obvious regret. So began the adventure. 

Fly into Cancun, but get out of there as soon as you can. It’s a city built entirely for the tourist trade and is the least authentically Mexican place in the entire country (and we’ve been to every state!) Rent a car and take off down the coast!

Planning Your Week:

Below you’ll find our top four “must see” picks for the coastal area of the Yucatan Peninsula commonly referred to as the Mayan Riviera. These will give you a good blend of history, culture, marine life, animal diversity, and outdoor adventure. Spend at least one of the other three days you have snorkeling or SCUBA diving at Scuba Mex. The other two days, REST! The beach at Paa mul is the best place on the coast for quiet family time! Enjoy!

Where to Stay: Paa mul

Sunrise- Paa mulMy first memories of Paa mul are as an eight year old girl with braids bouncing on my back. My parents had emancipated me from third grade and we were traveling for the winter. Dad negotiated with Ariel, the owner at that time, to rent a concrete block room on the end of a three room unit by the sea for a month or maybe more... I can’t remember. I do remember that it was a blissful time of exploration, climbing vine covered pyramids, finding scorpions and coral snakes and hermit crabs and practicing my french with a little girl in another traveling family. Much has changed in nearly twenty five years. This time, we’re renting pole built, thatch cabanas just down where the concrete units are being torn down. The latest hurricane destroyed them. 

Paa mul is one of the cheapest places to stay on the “Mayan Riviera” and it’s one of the best. It’s a combo of camping spots for tents and RVs, a small hotel block and several idyllic little beachside cabanas. It has a swimming pool and a restaurant, but you’ll definitely want your own set of wheels as it’s pretty far off the beaten path, down the coast a half an hour from Playa del Carmen. It’s also home to Scuba Mex, one of the best dive companies on the coast, so if you’re into SCUBA, Paa mul is the perfect place to base yourself.


Tulum (Too-loom) is considered by some to be the most beautiful of the Mayan cities. Likely because of it’s location, on fifteen foot high cliffs, by the sea. Tulum means fence, or wall, but originally this place was probably called Zama, which means morning in the Mayan language. The first time the Spanish saw it in 1518, they thought it was so incredibly beautiful that they compared it with Seville in Spain!

Tulum RuinsThe Maya civilization emerged somewhere between 500 and 325 BC. No one is really sure where they came from. Some believe they originated in the highlands of Guatemala, others think that maybe they got their start in the plains of southern Mexico, near Veracruz. The Maya were characterized by their calendar, astronomy, architecture, pottery, sculpture and painting. They had a well defined social structure, with those in higher positions devoting themselves to war, religion & architecture. The stonemasons and builders were considered of a lower class, but were still very important within the culture, as they were responsible for building the long lasting monuments that we see here today. The farmers were of the lowest class, but sustained the society with their primary crops of maize, manioc and sweet potatoes.

Mayan artists primarily depicted religious figures through stone sculpture and with paint still visible on some of the well preserved frescoes, such as the one here at Tulum in the temple of the frescos. The Maya also had scribes who recorded their history, religion and mythology using glyphs and recorded dates using an accurate numerical system which archeologists have decoded and now allows us to know more about their history. One of the most amazing accomplishments of the Maya was the development of their two calendars. Astronomers studied the stars and the cycles in the skies and developed two calendars. One, a ritual calendar, was used to determine the dates of religious importance. The other, a solar calendar, consisted of 18 months of 20 days each, with five “unlucky” days added in. 18x20+5= 365... they had an accurate calendar! Their astronomers were so accurate that they could predict eclipses and they plotted the orbit of Venus!

Plan a half day to tour Tulum. I recommend going early in the morning to beat the tour bus traffic. Because Tulum is one of the most visited ruin sites on the coast, it’s also one of the most tightly controlled. You won’t be allowed to climb around on any of the ruins. Do pack your swimsuit though, as there is a really great little beach at the base of the cliff face.


Voladores- TulumWhen you’re leaving Tulum, pay attention! On the long walk on a dirt road back out to the entrance you’re likely to hear the sounds of a flute playing. Hannah and Gabe, who’ve been to Mexico before and know this sound started looking up and all around, excitedly shouting, “Voladores! (vol-a-dor-ays) Hey Guys!! We hear the Voladores!” What are Voladores you may ask? The flying men, of course! Five men in beautiful red, embroidered costumes with feathered headdresses climb a pole 150 feet tall. Four of the men tie ropes around their ankles and tip off of the square, rotating platform at the top of the pole, spinning slowly as their ropes unwind and lower them to the ground. The fifth man remains at the top of the pole playing a wooden flute and beating a hand drum.

Traditionally, this ceremony was performed by the Totonac Indians of Papantla as an act of worship to their gods. Today, the Voladores fly all over Mexico, sharing this part of their ancient culture with thousands of visitors.


Xel-ha (shell-ha) is one of a kind. Part zoo, part research station, part water park and all adventure! It consists of a little bay that has been netted off to keep out predatory fish (like sharks!) and within that bay all sorts of fish are being allowed to grow to enormous sizes and numbers, cared for by the marine biologists on staff. We visited Xel-ha when I was a child and I was overwhelmed by seeing a parrot fish nearly the size of my dining room table at home! If anything, Xel-ha has just gotten better. I promise that this will be a serious contender for the best day of your trip. Arrive early to sign up for an afternoon swim with the dolphins and spend the remainder of the morning snorkeling around the bay, in awe of the wildlife.Little Ezra, at three, snorkeled his way in among the blue fish and shouted through his snorkel “Hello fishies!! Mama, I see a Dory, now I see a Bubbles! There’s a NEMO Mommy!! A NEMO!!”

Don’t miss Xel-ha, and plan for a full day at the park!


X-caretX-caret (ish-caray) is an eco-park dedicated to preserving the eco-systems of this area and educating visitors about the natural world, local wildlife, and the pre-Hispanic history of Mexico. X-caret means “small inlet” in Maya and is located right on the edge of the Caribbean sea. Here you’ll have the opportunity to see a replica of a Mayan village. We are visiting lots of ruins while in Mexico, but sometimes it’s hard to imagine what those ruins would have when they were an inhabited village, full of life. The ruins we see now are what is left of the centers of these cities, where the pyramids and palaces were located. The peoples homes and everything else made of wood instead of stone are gone. At X-Caret you’ll see replicas, and reenactments which are the best guesses of archeologists and artists. 

One of the neat things about X-Caret is all of the creatures that can be explored! They have an aquarium room with live local marine life including a touch pool. The children enjoyed feeling sea urchins, starfish, conch and other slow moving under water creatures who don’t mind a gentle petting. We were fascinated by the little feet, almost like hairs that starfish use to move and how differently urchins and conch get around.

Spend a full day at X-Caret, schedule in several of the cultural performances offered throughout the day,  and whatever you do, do NOT miss their evening music/dance and sports event, Mayan style. It will bring ancient Mayan culture alive in ways nothing else will! 


Leaf cutter ants- CobaCoba, (ko-baa) is my favourite set of ruins on the Yucatan peninsula. Th name means “water stirred by winds” and is related to the five lakes which are en- compassed by this ancient Mayan City. Coba flourished between 600 and 900 AD, but was likely inhabited for a thousand years before that. Coba is different from some of the other archeologi- cal sites that we are visiting in that it has been cleared, but very little of it has been excavated. There are an estimated 6,500 structures here, but most of them are still bur- ied in the jungle. Coba is thought to have been the center of a large metropolis connected by as many as fifty sacbes, (sack-bays) or elevated roads, built between cities. These roads were built for foot travel and commerce. Goods were moved by people carrying parcels, as the Maya did not use wheeled transportation, even though they knew about it, and did not have horses until the arrival of the Spanish. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 people lived in and around Coba. 

Coba is very spread out and requires a lot of walking through the jungle. Bring your bug spray, and walk slowly to discover what lovely plants and animals might be seen as you hike between the ruins. Keep your eyes peeled, there are some spectacular trails of leaf cutter ants running along the jungle floor and up the trunks of trees! 

The best part of Coba is that you’re still allowed to climb on lots of the structures, including No-huc-Mul, the tallest pyramid on the Yucatan! The climb can be scary, take your time, use the chain to hold on, and enjoy the spectacular view from the top of the world! Because Coba is solidly off the beaten track, you’ll want to plan a full day for the drive out and back. Buses can be arranged if you’d prefer.

Dolphin Swim- Xel-Ha
Dolphin Swim- Xel-Ha
Scuba Mex Diving-Paa mul
Sunrise- Paa mul
Paa mul- cabanas
Paa mul Beach
Tulum Ruins
Tiny swimming beach below ruins at Tulum
Voladores- Tulum
X-Caret touch pool
X-Caret-Night performance
Paa mul rest and beach day
Leaf cutter ants- Coba
Ruins at Coba
Article Type: 
In-Person Impressions


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