Bursting onto the tourism scene in the late 1990s, Mexico’s Riviera Maya lies directly south of the popular tourist development of Cancun. In contrast to high-rise developments and congested touristy areas of its sister, this playground features spacious world-class resorts, white sand beaches and an exciting array of natural attractions that will entice all members of your reunion.

The Area

The Mayan Riviera straddles the Caribbean Coast along the eastern portion of what’s referred to as the Yucatan Peninsula. Guests arrive at Cancun International Airport, approximately 30 minutes to the north. Since being decimated by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, the airport has undergone extensive remodeling, expansion and modernization. Four terminals serve guests arriving from 30 foreign countries.

The Culture

The Mayan culture is the foundation of this area of the Caribbean. In the period from 300-1000 A.D., the Mayan people built their cities near sources of fresh water so they could secure their basic needs and expand their commercial horizons. Their legacy is on full display at sites spread across the landscape. Archeological sites like Tulum and Chichen Itza are natural draws for tourists, while Mayan ruins are also found in the eco-tourist parks like Xcarat. What’s equally amazing is exploration of new sites and artifacts continues to this day in a modern Indiana Jones fashion.

The Resorts

Rivera Maya spa

The expansive 89,000 square-foot spa at Grand Velas

The Riviera Maya has become famous for its large scale all-inclusive resorts with many fine-dining restaurants and activities for all age groups and interests. With over 300 properties to choose from, selecting the right fit can be a challenge. For upscale groups, an easy choice is Grand Velas. While not a household name in America yet, this resort is making quite a reputation for itself. Set on over 80 acres of protected mangroves, jungle and natural freshwater cenotes, and over 1,000 feet of pristine white sand beach, this AAA 5 Diamond all-inclusive combines modern luxury with natural beauty.

Opened in 2008, the resort features 548 suites in three resort areas. Grand suites are reserved for adults only, with 90 elegant 1,300-square-foot suites complete with Mexican artwork, lunch areas and views of the Caribbean Sea from your private terrace with plunge pool. Ambassador suites are perfect for families seeking to be near the kids and teens club with 1,200 square feet of space, private terraces and luxury amenities and sitting areas. Ambassador suites are a close walk to the white sandy beach. Two massive pools feature ample lounge chairs and private cabanas, premium drinks served by a poolside concierge and if that weren’t enough, roaming ceviche trays to cure midday hunger pangs. Zen Grand class feature private terraces where guests can soak in the unspoiled jungle environment and koi fish ponds. These 1,000-square-foot rooms offer plenty of space and modern luxury amenities.

The Zen area is a completely different experience featuring a towering lobby welcoming guests amid the backdrop of a jungle environment. The Zen pool area is unique in that it’s actually a series of a half-dozen smaller interconnected pools complete with poolside concierge service. Nearby is the mini-golf course with real grass greens and the kids activity area. Zen is also what you’ll experience in the expansive 89,000-square foot spa. Recognized by leading Spas of the World, guests indulge in an exotic menu of spa
services including healing massages, therapeutic treatments and pampering rituals.

All rooms feature twice daily housekeeping, fully-stocked mini-bar and spectacular bathrooms. You don’t have to lift a finger thanks to 24-hour personal concierge. Dinner reservations, tours and activities, spa treatments – whatever your heart desires, is handled for you. Plus, two expansive fitness centers offer a complete lineup of modern fitness equipment, with separate studio for yoga, Pilates and Zumba classes.

The Food

The resort places a strong emphasis on dining. Eight restaurants serving a variety of cuisine, from beachside breakfast, casual lunch and 5-star dinners offer a variety of choices to please any palate while six themed bars are sprinkled around the complex providing additional entertainment venues.

Frida is a AAA four diamond award winning restaurant serving carefully curated Mexican cuisine with a modern twist. The restaurant features live music, hand-crafted cocktails and an outdoor terrace where you can savor gorgeous ocean views.

Family-friendly Chaká is located just steps from the Zen pool area. Dine in the exotic ambiance of mangroves, Chaká, Salam and Chechen trees in this casual, open-air restaurant. Sen Lin takes diners on a journey through the culinary traditions of Asia. Immersed in the jungle, the restaurant highlights the mysticism of the Riviera Maya.

Lucca is another family favorite. It serves Italian-Mediterranean cuisine and a scrumptious menu of fresh seafood, meats and homemade pastas. The five-diamond-rated Cocina de Autor features exceptionally crafted Mexican and Caribbean cuisine. The creative menu takes you on a journey that demonstrates the purity and essence of new and familiar flavors.

Be transported to 1940 Parisian luxury at Piaf. Experience French cuisine with live music and romantic surroundings. Rated Four Diamond by AAA.

The Kids

Riviera Maya

Family Fun at Xel-ha

Three different kids clubs give family reunions a variety of options. Kids 4-12 can enjoy crafts, face painting, board games, group activities and a variety of movies at the Zen Kids’ Club. Two additional clubs are located in the Ambassador, including a teen club with a pool table, air hockey, Xbox gaming stations, dance floor and kiddie cocktail bar. A nice touch here, staff will accompany kids to dinner so adults can enjoy an evening at one of the resort’s upscale adults-only eateries.

The Excursions

While the resort environment, in and of itself, is enough to satiate one’s vacation appetite, venturing outside the hotels provides opportunities to experience Mayan history and local culture. A 30-minute drive north lands you in Cancun with its plethora of restaurants, shopping and nighttime activities. The town of Playa Del Carmen is located in the Riviera Maya. It’s popular with cruisers with its bustling shopping village with hundreds of souvenir shops, restaurants and bars. It’s also the docking station for ferries heading back and forth to Cozumel, the nearby island known as a snorkeler’s paradise.

Tulum is the most famous archaeological site in the Riviera Maya and is the only Mayan city on the coast of the Caribbean Sea. It’s home to structures that at one time were the ceremonial and political center of the city. The site has an accessible beach. Other archeological sites include Muyil and Coba.

Perhaps most impressive is the lineup of family-themed attractions by the Mexican corporation Xcarat. This organization runs five themed parks that enhance the preservation and share the rich Mexican culture with visitors amidst natural surroundings, Mayan relics and waterbased activities. What’s uniquely beautiful about these parks is how they’ve woven in natural surroundings into world-class activities. These parks rival anything in the U.S. with the added-beauty of the natural environment.

Xcarat was the first park opened in 1990. Part natural theme park, part animal preserve part beach resort, the property adeptly balances commercialism with conservation. Stay for the spectacular evening cultural show. Xel-ha is a magical natural aquarium where salt meets fresh water and aquatic life flourishes. Snorkel, dive, tube, zipline and interact with dolphins and manatees or catch a nap on a hammock. The day is yours to enjoy. Xplor features 2.4 miles of ziplines up to 140+ feet in the air. Try the 3-mile jungle trip aboard an amphibious 4-wheel-drive vehicle or water-based activities such as hand-paddle kayaks and cave swimming. Xenotes is where your family can explore four different freshwater sinkholes, expected to have magical powers. Swimming, rafting and kayaking make for a great aqua adventure. Xenses is the latest addition to the park’s portfolio. Through a series of activities, test your senses by discovering different ecosystems. Fly like a bird, slide down a waterfall and float in a saltwater canyon.

The Wrap

Rivera Maya pool

Zen pool area at Grand Velas

Having traveled extensively throughout the United States, Caribbean and Europe, our family has stayed at some amazing places and witnessed countless treasures along the way. The Mayan Riviera stacks up nicely as a world-class resort destination. It checks all the right boxes for family reunions – convenient to get to, sand and sun, culture and plenty of opportunity to enjoy each other’s company. Consider it for your next escape!