By Kara Williams, on January 20, 2015

What’s new in the Riviera Maya

Hands down, the Riviera Maya is my favorite area of Mexico. First, because it’s so easy to fly to the region from my home state of Colorado (Denver to Cancun flights abound). Second, the white-sand beaches that flank the Yucatan Peninsula from Puerto Morelos to Tulum are unparalleled in the country. Although Mexico’s Pacific Coast, including Puerto Vallarta, has its remarkable sunsets, I prefer walking along and playing in the more eye-catching turquoise Caribbean Sea.

My family and I have been visiting the Riviera Maya for 14 years, since my older child was an infant. We’ve watched the area explode in popularity and development; Playa del Carmen, in particular, has grown enormously, with many new shopping centers along its downtown, pedestrian-friendly 5th Avenue. Now, glitzy boutiques and upscale restaurants far outnumber rustic souvenir shacks and local taco stands (head a couple blocks off “La Quinta” for more authentic, hole-in-the-wall joints).

With progress in the Riviera Maya has come new hotels and resorts, as well as more opportunities for adventure and entertainment. Here’s a peek at new and upcoming developments around town.

Cirque du Soleil: JOYÀ

Run, don’t walk (or in the spirit of the show, you could do cartwheels), to the Cirque du Soleil extravaganza, JOYÀ, which debuted in November 2014. This exclusive show is in a custom-built theater across from The Grand Mayan, about 12 miles north of downtown Playa del Carmen. The theater grounds are set amidst a mangrove jungle with precision landscaping and over-lagoon walkways. The theater itself, a circular, 600-seat performance space, is perched above a cascading waterfall back-lit in colorful lights. But the real show is inside, when acrobats, trapeze artists, and other “artists” (a.k.a., performers) delight the crowd with amazing feats of strength and balance.

Amazing contortionist at JOYÀ. Courtesy photo.

All of the circus acts are interspersed within a story of an aging naturalist—”a mix of Don Quixote, Charles Darwin, Faust, Leonardo da Vinci and other great men”—his granddaughter, Joyà, and his quest to pass on what appears to be a great book of knowledge. Frankly, I rarely understand all of the symbolism and fantastical storytelling in Cirque du Soleil shows; simply, I am blown away by the impressive sets and costumes, the evocative music, and of course the incredible circus acts.

You can buy basic show tickets to JOYÀ if you’re on a limited budget, or splurge on the more expensive VIP dinner experience. My family opted for “Champagne and Show” combo and had excellent seats, with stellar views of the unbelievable contortionist (see photo). That said, since this is an intimate theater-in-the-round, there appeared to be no bad seats in the house. Note: Children under age 5 are not permitted in the theater.

Hotel Cacao

While the Hotel Cacao, which opened to guests in September 2014, is smack dab in the middle of downtown Playa del Carmen, just off bustling 5th Avenue, you wouldn’t know it once you walk down its dimly lit, narrow entrance. Inside, admire the modern, open-air atrium that takes center stage at the high-rise boutique property. Ascend to the very cool rooftop bar, to find an even quieter and relaxed oasis, with an infinity pool, hanging rattan chairs, cushioned chaise lounges, and a funky bar covered in colorful, whimsical tiles.

Open-air atrium at Hotel Cacao. Courtesy photo.

When my husband and I settled into a couch to sip cervesas, nibble on ceviche, and watch the sunset from the sophisticated rooftop lounge area, more than once I said, “We would totally stay here if our kids weren’t with us.”

Other decorative highlights at Hotel Cacao include an entire wall in the atrium covered in a jungle-themed mural by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra; brightly painted and shell-covered Volkswagen Beetles designed by Tommy Hilfiger; and sleek, minimalist rooms with bathroom amenities from Italian fashion designer Missoni. Hotel Cacao suits sun-seeking visitors to the Riviera Maya who appreciate quirky style and contemporary surroundings—and who don’t mind a walk to the beach. The property is not oceanfront, but guests can access the ocean just a few blocks away.

Hyatt Playa del Carmen

The Hyatt Playa del Carmen is scheduled to open in downtown Playa del Carmen by July 1, 2015. The “urban beach hotel” is on Mamitas Beach, steps from 5th Avenue (at Calle 26). It’s not all-inclusive (like many resort properties on the beach in the Riviera Maya), and will feature 314 rooms, a full-service spa, an expansive fitness center, two on-site restaurants, three outdoor pools, an an arcade room, a movie theater and a Camp Hyatt for kids.

Viewfinder Tip: Book adventure tours well in advance when visiting the Riviera Maya, as the most popular excursions sell out early during peak travel times.

New adventure tours

Finally, Riviera Maya Adventures, the sister company to Puerto Vallarta Adventures (the outfitter with whom my family had a great experience flyboarding last year), was expected to introduce new adventure tours this winter season. I tried to get my extended family (13 of us!) on the Luxury Sailing & Snorkeling half-day trip while we were in the Riviera Maya over the Christmas holiday. Alas, this popular tour sells out quickly, especially at peak travel times. The sailing adventure departs from Puerto Aventuras, but the company can pick your group up from Riviera Maya hotels. It includes not only snorkeling at Inah Reef, but also stand-up paddleboarding and a gourmet lunch with alcoholic beverages—after the sports.

Another new tour combines history and active adventure, with a visit to the Mayan ruins of Tulum as well as swimming in a cool cenote to admire centuries-old rock formations. This Tulum & Cavern Adventure also includes lunch on the beach.

What new adventures are you seeking in 2015?