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Close Encounter: Xcaret offers dolphin, ray and shark encounters for the whole family.

Photo Credit: Photos Riviera Maya Destination Marketing Office

By Judy Waytiuk

Despite a slow 2009 season, the Riviera Maya remains at the top of winter vacationers’ hot hit lists. Travellers are being drawn back to its beaches with assortments of highly competitive pricing packages, upgrades on existing properties, and new deluxe offerings designed to attract the adult-only, let’s-spoil-ourselves-rotten market.

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It’s A Beach: And a romantic one at that with miles of white sand and ideal weather.

Let's Go Upscale
The Barcelo Maya Beach and Barcelo Maya Caribe resorts, part of the region’s five-in-one all-inclusive Barcelo Maya Beach Resort complex recently finished off $6.2 million worth of room upgrades including flat-screen TVs, rain showers, high-end bedding, and iPod/MP3 docking stations in suites.

All-inclusive Valentin Imperial Maya Resort on Playa Secreto launched the Valentin Privilege Package: private early check-in and late check-out, pre-arrival concierge services, fruit basket, fresh flowers, wine and chocolate-covered strawberries on arrival, reserved pool/beach seating with towels, exclusive access to the Privilege Lounge, and “ultra-premium” bar service – all for just an extra $50 per day when a hotel reservation’s made.

Then there’s El Dorado Royale, a Karisma Spa Resort, with food that’s caught Wine Spectator’s attention for four years running. There are swim-up, garden and ocean view suites, and, at the El Dorado Casitas Royale, beach butlers don’t just offer drinks, but sunblock, books and tasty nibbles.
Such frills – adding value instead of slashing prices – are one way to counter discounting, which is also rampant in the region and which changes packaged price structures almost weekly for larger, beach-and-buffet-style all-inclusive mega-resorts. “For special dates, especially for long weekends, many large, all inclusive properties are offering kids stay free packages into the autumn, which is fantastic, especially for families,” said Ana Mari Irabien, Public Relations Director for the Riviera Maya Destination Marketing Office

What's New?
Try, just try, to keep track of continuing development along this busy coast.

Nature fun park Xplor puts visitors in amphibious vehicles and rafts to explore caves and underground rivers, and in harness for 14 zip lines and two hanging bridges. At the Aktun-Chen cave and cenote, there’s a new zipline and hanging bridge. But if you want more than ziplines, there’s Hidden Worlds and its new Avatar One, the world’s only roller coaster zip line. (Don’t eat lunch prior to this ride.)

Tried-and-true eco-archaeological park Xcaret now offers swimming with dolphins and their young, and for adrenalin-junkies, swimming with sharks – peaceable nurse sharks that is. The park’s also opened a replica of a traditional Yucatan hacienda – the Hacienda Henequenera and Mexican Folk Art Museum.

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Not Dead Yet: Mayan Ruins like Tulum keep the ancient Mayan culture alive along the Riviera Maya.

On the flip side are the ancient Mayan ruins, most popularly Coba and Tulum. A brand-new way to see Coba is the Coba Sunset Tour, offered by the Mayan Express tour company, starting in the afternoon with a ruins tour, and a ceramic workshop, followed by a traditional dinner served lagoon-side, and live theatre beside a cenote.

Another ruin now gaining attention is Muyil, in the Sian Kaan Biosphere. “It is very easy to get to, because there are directions from the highway,” noted Irabien. Not to be forgotten, she added, are the ruins at Xel-Ha, the popular nature park on the ocean side of the highway. “Xel-Ha used to be one of the most important cities and there is a small archeological site on the other side of the highway.”

On the ever-expanding accommodations front, the first Fiesta Americana property’s opened in Playa del Carmen – the 108-room One Playa del Carmen. The new 96-room Ocean Breeze Riviera Maya is tucked into a quiet corner of the larger resort, perfect for couples and honeymooners. And contemporary, edgy Reina Roja Boutique Hotel in Playa del Carmen offers 63 rooms and a handful of themed suites – one all mirrors, another billed as “designed for erotic delight”.

On deck: the 260-suite Azul Fives Hotel, by Karisma, set to open this fall with oversized suites as large as three bedrooms; 450-room hotel JW Marriott Milla de Oro Resort & Spa and 150-room Renaissance Milla de Oro Resort set to open in 2011.

Festivals & Events
The fourth annual Riviera Maya Underground Film Festival, October 13 to 17, screens experimental animation, fiction and documentary shorts at various venues, while the ninth annual Sea Turtle Festival, October 16 to 19 is a free event that educates attendees about the endangered species. The fifth annual Life and Death Traditions Festival, October 30 to November 2 at Xcaret, includes theatre and dance performances, concerts, parades and special Day of the Dead rituals.

The world-renowned Riviera Maya Jazz Festival runs November 25 to 28 with jazz greats like The Manhattan Transfer, George Duke and John MacLaughlin in free evening, beachside concerts at Mamita’s Beach Club.

To end the year, Winterbeach Festival, December 27 to January 1, combines music, fashion and entertainment to ring in the New Year while the bpm DJ Fest, December 30 in Playa del Carmen, celebrates music created by DJs throughout Mexico.

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