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Riviera Maya

If you're looking to get away to a place full of natural beauty, culture and adventure, look no further than the paradise of the Riviera Maya. Located on the northeast corner of the Yucatan Peninsula, with pristine turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, lush jungles, and historical Mayan ruins, the Riviera Maya has plenty of outdoor activities which allow you to explore this breathtaking section of Mexico. While there, I had the opportunity to experience so much in my five day/four night stay.

With so many hotels in the Riviera Maya, there is a place to suit everyone's needs, from all inclusive properties on the beach to remote boutique hotels. I stayed at the Sandos Playacar Riviera Hotel and Spa, right off of the beautiful white sandy beach of Playacar, and next to the Sandos Playacar Beach Resort and Spa. The all inclusive is 45 minutes from Cancun International airport, and close to Playa del Carmen, where you'll find great shopping and restaurants on Fifth Avenue. They have more than fifteen bars and restaurants, including delicious buffets, as well as top notch � la carte restaurants. All of the food was really delicious. I didn't have one bad meal. The resort also includes a spa and fitness center, disco, tennis courts, gift and jewelry shops, and a few outdoor pools, one of which is for adults only. Non-motorized sports are included, and they do a great job of organizing activities by the pool by day and putting on a spectacular show at night. I went for a 25 minute spa treatment, which was tremendous. They offer a wide array of services for a reasonably good price. Usually spa treatments are a bit pricey at vacation resorts, but their fair prices was a nice surprise. With so much to do at the resort, you can easily spend your entire vacation there. However, I do think you'd be doing yourself a disservice by not experiencing some of the enchanting activities, scenery, and history the Riviera Maya has to offer.

Altournative organizes adventurous activities such as zip-lining through the jungle, along with its newest hidden treasure, Rio Secreto. They give you the option of a hotel pickup or meeting at their location, about five minutes from Playa del Carmen. Once there, you'll ride in a unimog through the jungle and arrive near the entrance to the underground river. They will give you your gear, including a wet suit, helmet with a light and water shoes. A guide will lead you on a 600 meter tour through a spectacular cave of stalagmites and stalactites. At the end of the hour and a half tour, the guide turns out the lights and lets you float in the water in total darkness, which was incredibly peaceful and serene. Once you're out of the cave, you're treated to a lunch of fresh fruit and sandwiches.

Xcaret and Xel-Ha are two natural amusement parks in the Riviera Maya that are not to be missed. The founder of the land around Xcaret uncovered cenotes formed by collapsed cave ceilings, weakend by 3 million years of erosion from underground rivers running through them and flowing into the sea, and decided that this incredible beauty should be shared with the public. In Xcaret, be sure to see the incredible aquarium, which includes some hands-on exhibits, and learn about the turtle release program. They also have a spectacular performance in the evening. After we left Xcaret, we went to Xcacel and took part in a turtle release at the beach. We were handed a baby turtle that had just hatched. We each gave our turtle a name and a kiss and wished them the best as they started their journey into the ocean.

The natural wonder that is Xel-Ha is an open-sea aquarium with over 70 recorded species of freshwater and seawater fish, and offers a variety of land and water activities and ecological attractions. After a scrumptious Mexican buffet, fully covered in the all-inclusive price of admission, it was off on a bike ride to see some local wildlife before snorkeling in the combination of sea and fresh water. Despite my fear, I even jumped 15 feet off the cliff of courage into the water below. Other water activities at Xel-Ha include swimming with the dolphins, kayaking, and snuba, which uses a combination of snorkel and scuba equipment. If you're more in the mood for relaxation, you can float away the day in a tube.

Punta Venado is another place filled with beauty and adventure. There are various activities to choose from, including horseback riding, snorkeling and ATV Adventure. I took a guided tour through the jungle on an ATV, explored a cave along the way, swam in a fresh water centote, rode the ATV along the beach, and then snorkeled in the beautiful Mexican Caribbean waters. While snorkeling, I saw all kinds of exciting fish and sea turtles and felt the difference in water temperature as I swam over the cenotes. The adventure ended with a great fruit platter and some snacks.

For a bit of a unique experience, you'll want to check out Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. The largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean, Sian Ka'an is approximately 1.3 million acres in size and spans 120 kilometers from north to south, comprising almost one third of the Caribbean coast of Mexico. Community Tours Sian Ka'an is the only locally-run tour operator working in the reserve. The guides are from local surrounding communities whose Mayan ancestors have made Sian Ka'an an historic destination for its culture and its beauty. Named to Conde Nast's Green List in September 2005 as one of the top three ecotourism destinations in the world, the guides do a great job of explaining the Mayan culture and ways of life.

The Muyil Forrest and Float tour combines the ancient Mayan culture, flora and fauna. Through the one hour tour of the Mayan ruins, the guide speaks of his personal experiences living in the area. After walking through the jungle for a bit, we climbed up an observation tower, which displays amazing views of the ruins and lagoons from above the trees. We then took a boat ride into the lagoon to a man-made canal, which we floated down in our lifejackets for about an hour. Definitely a peaceful way to spend the day! Before completing our journey, we took the boat back and went for a dip in the freshwater cenote. To top off an already wonderful experience, they had delicious tamales waiting for us when we got off the boat.

While the trip was absolutely breathtaking and adventurous, it wouldn't have been complete without a little shopping along Fifth Avenue in Playa del Carmen. However, be prepared to bargain! Never pay full price on any item, especially in the jewelry shops. Shop owners are expecting you to bargain with them, so they start out with a price that is quite inflated. However, if you're good at driving a hard bargain, you can get some really nice items for a good price. I bought a few pairs of earrings and a necklace.

While in Playa del Carmen, you must experience the nightlife. Many restaurants have a live performer outside, while such clubs as �The Blue Parrot� have an impressive fire show at 11pm, and great music and dancing throughout the rest of the night.

So if you're looking for a long weekend getaway or better yet, can sneak away for a bit longer, I would highly recommend the Riviera Maya. With so much beauty and culture, you can relax at the beautiful beaches with a drink in hand or partake in the many adventurous activities. With direct flights from many of the major airports, your trip to paradise is closer and easier than you think.

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