I arrived to Cancún, Mexico late on a Wednesday night.
I met Juan Carlos, the driver from Riviera Maya assigned to pick me up and greeted him in Spanish, which surprised him – something that would happen a lot during my visit any time I spoke to anyone in Spanish.
Our common language would be the thing that would make us comfortable with each other within minutes of our hour drive from Cancún to Playa del Carmen. It’s the thing that would allow me to admit to him that I had never been to the area and was wondering what it would be like.
“I wish people knew more about my country,” he said in Spanish. “I wish foreigners knew more about my people. When they listen to the radio and watch the news all they hear about is the bad things in Mexico. But Mexico is a big country. And a lot of is not so bad.”
He proceeded to talk to me about Playa del Carmen and his favorite taco stands in the area. He even shared some of the medicinal qualities of the habañero. An hour seemed like minutes as we drove up to the Barcelo Maya Beach Resort, a member of the Riviera Maya Resort Group, and our hosts.
But as he dropped me off he left me with the determination to ignore all the chatter back home about the state of Mexico and experience it – at least this one of many other regions – for myself.
Lucky for me, Riviera Maya is a great place to kick-off an experience of Mexico. As a first time visitor, the whole concept of the area is to cater to travelers just like me. With the help of many all-inclusive resorts to much smaller boutique hotels, and even a few timeshare options, Riviera Maya seems to have a lot covered in terms of what travelers could want. The area also features an endless amount of activities, and if you love exploring the outdoors you will definitely love it here.
I had the opportunity to do a lot in the short 4 days I was there, most of which consisted of checking out some of the many natural reserves and archaeological destinations around the area.
Before we started the activities we stopped at a local, side-of-the-road taco stand for breakfast. At the Taqueria El Arbolito there were tons of variations to choose from and even as many sauces to pour over them. I was a little nervous about starting my day with such a heavy meal, but that didn’t stop me from doing so. This was also one of the places that Juan Carlos had recommended I try and I have to say he was right on spot with that.
Those soft shell tacos were delicious. The food in general at Riviera Maya was pretty spectacular. If you have any hesitation in trying something new or you have a delicate stomach, you need not at all worry. Check out my friend Beers and Beans beautiful photography display of the food we had there, as well as a list of places we tried a long the way in her article “The Food of Riviera Maya Mexico“.
Our taco stop was then followed by a visit to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. This would be one of the several visits to various natural reserve spots in the Riviera Maya area. The one thing that was immediately apparent was the appreciation for the land and natural resources. It is so closely connected to the history of the people there that it becomes impossible to visit any one location, talk about the natural environment, and not hear about how it either made it impossible for the Spaniards to invade, or encouraged the Mayans to use their ingenuity and develop successful business strategies. Most of the landscape is protected land, something which a lot of the resorts are happy to use to their advantage in promoting the area.
In Sian Ka’an I got to walk through a jungle, followed by more mosquitoes than I have ever seen in my life. But apparently, according to “historical, yet never documented records” these same annoying critters scared away the Spaniards at some point and saved a Mayan tribe or two. While overlooking the jungle and coastal line of the reserve I felt an incredible sense of peace come over me. The beauty of nature, bugs and all, was displaying itself in the most spectacular way possible. Floating down a small canal carved through by the Mayans felt both spiritual and relaxing.
Visiting the ruins – from Tulum to Coba – was a highlight for me. In both locations we had incredibly passionate tour guides. What I loved about them both was their talented story-telling abilities. When you visit Riviera Maya and take one of these tours, if not all (and really, you should do all), expect to be taken back in time not just through sites but through the stories that you will be told. I found them fascinating, even if at times a bit unbelievable. I liked the imagery of Mayan tribes living, playing, praying, fighting and surviving on these grounds.
Even as I talk lovingly of my trip to Mexico people still ask me, “But was it safe?” I won’t deny that there are concerns still around the country, but same is the case in most Latin-American countries you will visit.
I would advise the same level of caution that I would to anyone visiting any place they are unfamiliar with. Riviera Maya provided us with transportation, in the same way they would any of their guests (for a fee), but I comfortably strolled through Playa del Carmen’s downtown area -which is a pretty hip and happening scene, especially at night, as well as through most of the tourist-filled areas in town. In my drive late at night to the resort I didn’t witness a lot of activity in the streets, something which immediately served to break down the portrayal fed to me in the states and allowed me to discover a Mexico very few know exists. The Mexico that many Mexicans wished was talked about far more.
On my very last night in Mexico the moon shined brightly as it courted the ocean below, glistening its waters. I closed my eyes and hoped for another day, another savory taco or shot of Mezcal. But most of all, I longed to hear another story about the Mayans, walk through another jungle, climb another ruin – maybe some more time floating along the canal in Sian Ka’an or have another laugh down the zip line at Aktun Chen.
Whatever my thoughts of Mexico before I arrived, whatever my apprehension, it had all been replaced by a love for a place so deeply rooted in culture and history – complimented by the passion of its people – that it left me moved and affected.
Though I realize my experience was but a brief one surrounded by the catered luxuries we receive as travel writers, I had the gift of language. And it was this gift that allowed me to further connect and go beyond the surface of what we saw. So for this reason, I thank all those who shared their stories and laughter, thoughts and feelings, so that I may see Mexico through their eyes. It is in the people that I met that I discovered Mexico. And it is beautiful.