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Mexico’s Caribbean, an earthly paradise of white sand beaches, blue sky and rolling sea, is both very ancient and still in the process of being born. The Maya, sophisticated and mathematically gifted people, were there more than two millennia ago, dotting the region with city-states centered on elegant temples. When the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, they described the Yucatan as “a very towered land.”
The area now called Quintana Roo was governed from Spain until 1876. The authorities never bothered to give it an official name until 1902, the year it finally became a territory. Andres Quintana Roo was an army general who had never served in the region; nevertheless, the new territory was named in his honor. Only in 1974 did Quintana Roo become a state, and that was directly connected to the development of Cancun. The new resort’s promoters argued that they couldn’t attract people to a place so backward that it didn’t deserve statehood.
Since the instant success of Cancun, the northern tip of Mexico’s Caribbean has become “a very towered land” for the second time. But south of Cancun’s wall-to-wall high-rise hotels is a very different world. That is where the Riviera Maya begins, a peaceful stretch of coastline blessed with bounteous flora and fauna, an idyllic climate and a storied past.
One of the wonders of the Riviera Maya is that it took so long to be discovered. But that late start is turning out to be fortunate, because Mexico has had a chance to learn from some of the mistakes made in developing Cancun. Determined to preserve this unspoiled habitat, the government is ensuring that visitors will continue to enjoy the riches of the region’s coral reefs, its cornucopia of birds, fish and wildlife, and its exuberant profusion of tropical flowers and plants.
Among the places to explore the Riviera Maya’s natural attractions are The Great Maya Reef, a 350 kilometer treasure trove of coral, fish and other marine life, accessible from the fishing village of Puerto Morelos; the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, near Tulum, which includes savanna, coast and tropical forest, and its attendant wildlife; Cozumel, a sacred place for divers and snorkelers since Jacques Cousteau filmed it in 1961 and the site of Laguna Chankanab, a national park with botanical garden and reproductions of Maya buildings; Xcaret, an eco theme park with butterfly pavilion and subterranean river system; Xel-Ha, a lagoon and natural aquarium full of iridescent fish.
Easily accessible as day-trips from Mayakoba are several important Maya sites: Tulum, gloriously perched above the sea, with some dozen buildings enclosed in a rare standing wall; Coba, perhaps once the biggest Mayan cities and the hub of its sophisticated roadways, with 6,000 ruins accessible from jungle footpaths and Chichen Itza, a stunning complex of temples, ball courts and other buildings centered on the dramatic 91-step pyramid the Spaniards called “El Castillo.”