Travel Tips

Ask the Locals Travel Guide: Riviera Maya, Mexico

Locations in this article:  Mexico City, Mexico

El Dorado Royale MexicoPeter broadcast his radio show from the El Dorado Royale resort in the Riviera Maya, Mexico.

Because of the swine flu “infodemic”, Mexico has struggled to attract visitors. Translation: there’s never been a cheaper time to go.

So we checked in with some of the locals to find out what the locals like to see and do in town, on the beaches and in the water.

Rudy Garcia, Columnist & Reporter, USA Today global edition

“I generally try to stay away from most of the shops right on Fifth Avenue in Playa del Carmen,” says Garcia. “You really can get burned at some of them.” Instead, he prefers wandering along the smaller side streets, particularly streets that are north of the busy downtown section.

Ultrafemme signBut for a splurge, Garcia does recommend the upscale Ultrafemme cosmetics, fragrance and jewelry stores in Playa. “The selection of upscale products and top-notch brands at Ultrafemme is the widest in the region and includes some brands well-known in Europe that are not available in the States.”

And as an added incentive, the Mexican government has reduced customs duties on a number of luxury items in order to encourage shopping. When added to the newly administered percent VAT rebate, “it works out to a nice bargain.”

As for handicrafts “there are some local artisans in the cities but, more often than not, I pick up those items at roadside stands after checking them out closely and bargaining with the owners,” says Garcia.

Singing the blues in Mexico? Jam Session on the corner of 40th Street and Fifth Avenue is a favorite club among locals and ex-pats, where local musicians will drop in to jam with the house band.

At the entrance to Maroma Beach, about halfway between Puerto Morelos and Playa del Carmen, is a little place called Piano Café. “It’s a hoot!” says Garcia. “Locals make up the bulk of its clientele, and the food is good (mainly Mexican), as is the live music. Customers frequently get up to try their hand singing with the piano player.”

Just next door is the Amarte Art Gallery, which features free concerts every Saturday evening. “The concerts might be classical music, Mexican or American oldies, or what have you,” says Garcia. “After the concert, some attendees will go home, but the bulk will go to the Piano Café, and the rest will go next door to the gourmet Pavo Real restaurant. I enjoy Piano Café the most.”

Listen to Rudy on Hour 3 of Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio’s show from the Riviera Maya.

The lively bars on Fifth Avenue in Playa always draw crowds, as do some of those on the beach. “But there are those on 10th and 15th Avenues and on the side streets that offer much more of a local flavor,” he says. “It is fun to go to them when the Mexican Baseball League is on TV. It’s a hoot to see how the folks really get into the game, shouting at players, umpires and referees.”

“For strolling, I prefer the quiet beaches at Puerto Morelos,” says Garcia. “Maroma Beach is also beautiful but a little harder to get to.” The problem, he explains, is that even though beaches legally must have public access, beachfront hotels generally make it quite difficult for non-guests to get access. “However, you can always find a path that will lead you to one, or once you are on the beach just walk in either direction as far as you desire.”

Ancient Clay MaskOnce in Puerto Morelos, which is located about 20 minutes south of Cancun, there’s a great little beach restaurant next to a lighthouse called John Gray’s La Suegra that offers great food, good prices, and a chance to loll around on the beach. You can even spend the day there with the kids. (For those who are a little more daring, alongside the Mayan ruins at Tulum there is a clothing-optional beach that is popular among locals as well as visiting Europeans.)

And if you haven’t guessed already, the Riviera Maya is making a name for itself as a foodie destination. One real standout is the upscale Yaxche, which the National Association of Restaurants named the “Best regional food in entire southeast region of Mexico.” “It’s very typical regional food; a mix of Yucatan and pre-Columbian Mayan dishes, made with original Mayan spices,” says Garcia.

Kenneth Johnson, Naturalist, Marine Biologist and Owner of Eco-tourism Company EcoColor

One can’t-miss activity is snorkeling in the reefs of Puerto Morelos. “These are fantastic reefs and if you are snorkeling with a biologist, it’s even more fascinating,” says Johnson. Puerto Morelos is an old fishing village that is far more peaceful and less crowded than Cancun, and snorkeling is an easy adventure in protected lagoons.

Archway RuinsAlso in Puerto Morelos is Yaax Che, a botanical garden where visitors can hike through 60 hectacres of jungle-y expanse. “Again the key is to have a knowledgeable guide,” Johnson advises. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch sight of wild spider monkeys, agoutis and foxes, as well as various exotic flowers and medicinal plants of the Maya.

The Sian Kaan Reserve is one of the most important reserves in Mexico. Located near the Mayan ruins of Tulum, it’s a massive 1.3 million acres. The reserve features more than 100 mammals and various plant life, as well as ample kayaking, boating, fly fishing and snorkeling. Between December and May, bird lovers (there are 336 known species in the reserve) can take a sunset bird-watching canal cruise.

Several companies offer whale shark trips from the Riviera Maya. “Let me tell you, it is probably the best wildlife experience people can have,” says Johnson. EcoColor’s experience takes adventurers into the waters around Contoy Island, where you can snorkel among the whale shark (they’re harmless), dolphins, manta rays, sea turtles, and other aquatic life.

By Sarika Chawla for

For an in-depth view of the topics on this week’s show, check out Radio Roundup: Riviera Maya, Mexico.

For Hour 1 of the Riviera Maya show, click here.

For Hour 2 of the show, click here.

For Hour 3 of the Riviera Maya show, click here.

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