Riviera Maya: at world’s end, or where new life begins?

Hanging in business class, during my early June flight from O’Hare in Chicago, were three wedding dresses. A flight attendant said seven was the most she had seen at one time.

What was my destination? Cancun, but only for the airplane ride. Then it was off by van to Riviera Maya, a 75-mile stretch of coastline on Mexico’s eastern Yucatan Peninsula. The area is all about white sand and turquoise waters, between Cancun and Tulum, whose Maya ruins sit on a cliff above the Caribbean Sea.

There’s a lot of talk about how the world as we know it ends on Dec. 21 – 12/21/12 – because the Maya calendar only goes that far. A Scientific American article says nerves are jittery only because of public ignorance about pre-Columbia civilizations.

For the Maya, “2012 is just a year when several of their calendars reset, like 2000 for modern calendars,” Erik Vance writes. “It’s not that Maya were tracking the apocalypse but that they saw significance in every new day.”

So while the skittish cower, the modern-day Maya plan to party.

My colleague Josh Berman of Colorado is the author of “Moon Maya 2012” ($7.99, Moon Travel Guides) about the many celebrations associated with the end of the Maya’s 5,125-year calendar. He is in the middle of a whirlwind schedule of radio appearances, beginning most with this line: “I have good news for you … the world is NOT going to end.”

U.S. State Department advisories warn U.S. citizens to exercise caution when traveling in many parts of Mexico because of drug trafficking and other criminal activity, but no such warnings are in effect for the Yucatan area.

Although Mexico tourism from the U.S. dropped 1 percent during the first half of 2012, the Los Angeles Times reports the number of visitors from other countries – particularly Russia, Brazil and Venezuela – increased enough to set a record for tourism in Mexico.

About 28 percent of all the country’s international tourists go to Riviera Maya, where the average temperature is in the low 80s and the 40,000 lodging units in about 390 hotels include dozens of all-inclusive properties, some of which cater to only adults.

As Highway 307 follows the shoreline, thick and lush foliage act as natural barriers and hide the lavish lodging that operates beyond. Each resort entrance begins with a security gate. At the Grand Velas (grandvelas.com), where I stayed, the road then narrows, twists and is engulfed with even more tropical vegetation.

Tourism represents about 10 percent of Mexico’s gross national product, says Gerardo Llanes of the Mexico Tourism Board, and “we are waiting to showcase our beautiful country and culture even more.”

The Riviera Maya branding campaign began 17 years ago, when the lesser-known city of Playa del Carmen “had five streets and pretty much one hotel,” Gerardo recalls. “It was the crossing point (by ferry) to Cozumel, and that’s it.” The area had only 1,300 hotel rooms.

Now Riveria Maya is a destination of its own, with hotels such as The Royal (realresorts.com) amusing tourists with an in-house troupe of acrobats and contortionists who perform aerially in the tall, open-air lobby.

The five-diamond Grand Velas, a few miles away, this year was chosen by Forbes as one of the “10 coolest all-inclusive resorts in the world.” Eight types of restaurants (one specializes in molecular dining) and a spa with a luxurious, 10-step water ritual help make this so.

Although pleasant but small hotels in Playa del Carmen, such as the Maya Bric (mayabrichotel.com), cater to frugal travelers, the no-holds-barred lodging meant for honeymooners and others with special occasions is most highly publicized.

Consider the Fairmont Mayakoba (fairmont.com), where guests in an open-air cooking class can make ceviche for lunch, with the waterfront as their backdrop.

Much more budget-minded is Playa del Carmen’s La Cueva del Chango (lacuevadelchango.com), known for its fresh-juice bar, inexpensive Mexican cuisine and rustic, cavelike setting. A couple of decades ago, it was the home of many spider monkeys.

Regardless of where you land, immediate surroundings are enough of a destination for many vacationers, but the area also boasts significant cultural attractions.

Besides exploring the Tulum ruins or Playa del Carmen, the biggest crowds head to:

Xcaret, where nightly performances showcase Mexican history through hat dances, music and pageantry. During the day, it’s better known as an eco-archaeological park with hiking trails, a beach and floating along lazy rivers. xcaret.com

Xel-Ha, described as the world’s largest natural aquarium. The park is home to a diverse range of marine life. xelha.com

Sian Ka’an, a UNESCO biosphere reserve where fly fishing, kayaking and guided nature tours are possible. So is lodging in eco-friendly cabins. cesiak.org

Cancun and its beachside bustle, high-rise hotels and array of shops, nightlife and restaurants. cancun.travel

For more about the area: rivieramaya.com, 52-984-206-3150.

Five southern states in Mexico – Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Yucatan – make up the Mundo Maya region along with Belize, Guatemala and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. and

Follow Joshua Berman’s adventures and research in Mexico and beyond. He is The Tranquilo Traveler at joshuaberman.net.