This past November my husband and I traveled to Playa del Carmen in the Riviera Maya, a 93-mile stretch of Caribbean coast along Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. We were on a whirlwind five-day trip for my daughter’s wedding. This was our first time in the Caribbean and I was curious to see the area, but since we’d be busy with the wedding, I was worried that we wouldn't have much time for sightseeing. Amazingly, we were able to experience quite a bit in our short time there—just enough to whet our appetites!
We stayed at the Occidental at Xcaret, a beautiful five-star resort tucked away in a lush tropical rainforest, and adjacent to the famed Xcaret Park, an eco-archeological wonder that truly gives a taste of the area’s Mexican culture and ecosystem. Staying at the gateway to Xcaret, it was easy to sample this amazing area without having to travel far. And, the natural, slightly wild, feel of the resort made us forget we were staying at a five-star hotel. We saw monkeys swinging in the trees and even a boa constrictor coiled around a high tree branch taking a nap. You could entice the monkeys to come closer by offering pieces of banana which they would take right from your hand. Wild agoutis, iguanas, and many tropical birds abounded.
The Ruins of Tulum
My daughter wanted to go as a group (family and friends) to see the ruins of Tulum, so we took a day trip there. These ancient Mayan ruins, dating back to the late thirteenth century are the only Mexican ruins built on cliffs overlooking the ocean with access to the beach. As you stroll through the grassy rolling hills doted by black and gray stone outcroppings, the spirit of this bygone culture is almost palpable. In places, the ocean provides a serene backdrop to frame what is left of the ancient city. We were surprised at the number of iguanas in this area—they were literally everywhere we looked.
After touring the ruins, we went into Tulum proper and rented a boat that would take us on a site-seeing tour to view the ruins from the ocean. This vantage point offered breathtaking views of the white-sand coastline and the ruins. Snorkeling was included in the boat rental and a few members of our group enjoyed swimming with the fishes. I was amazed at how far into the aqua-blue water I could see when I looked over the edge.
Dave and I spent a day by ourselves exploring Xcaret Park, a natural wonder to be sure. It cost $200 for a day pass for two and allowed us to exit and re-enter the park as many times as we wanted (very convenient since our hotel was just outside the park). We walked the jungle trail, including the orchid greenhouse, and took a raft ride on the “secret river” where we saw a turtle swimming in the crystal-clear water. A chorus of tropical birds serenaded us as we went. It felt like paradise.
A major highpoint was swimming the underground river which flows throughout Riviera Maya and has a number of access points called cenotes, large sinkholes created by collapsed cave ceilings. We entered the river through a cenote in the park and swam approximately two kilometers to the exit on the other end. It was a mild shock when first entering the cool water (average 72° F with a depth between 5 and 16 feet), but I soon acclimated. There were several exit points along the way if you wanted to get out before the end. It was a truly amazing experience. Other interests in the park included: several ruins, a replicated Mayan village, a gigantic three level aviary with every bird species imaginable, and a butterfly garden. They also had wild animals for viewing. We saw a puma, a leopard, and manatees swimming in their enclosure.
After having dinner at our resort, we returned that evening for a live performance depicting the history of Mexico from the time of the Mayans till present day. This was truly one of the best Mexican shows I’ve seen. At the end of the trip we were tired but satisfied, at least for the time being. It is definitely a place we would like to explore more in the future.
Traci Wilson (author) from Salem, Oregon on December 11, 2018:
I think it depends on whether you want to do a lot of exploring and try out some different restaurants. If you just want to relax and have the resort experience, I'd go with the all inclusive. If you want more of an adventure and want to mix it up, go with a standard setup.
Leah Lefler from Western New York on November 27, 2018:
We are going to Cancun in April and will visit the Riviera Maya area to visit the XPlor park. I really can't wait to go! Would you stay in an all-inclusive again or would you go non-AI the next time you visit Cancun? We're staying at a non-all-inclusive resort, but we are up in the convention center area of Cancun and have easy access to restaurants in that area.