Back in the late 1970s, I joined several college buddies on a spring break getaway to the fabulous new resort of Cancun. After a few days of sitting on the beach, we decided to rent a Jeep and head out for parts unknown. Our journey took us south along a jungle-shrouded two-lane road that ran through sleepy fishing villages and skirted brilliant white-sand beaches. We stopped for tacos in a little place called Playa del Carmen, swam in a roadside cenote filled with crystal-clear fresh water, admired Mayan ruins at Tulum and napped on a deserted beach. Although I didn't know it at the time, this would be the first of many visits to the eastern coastline of the Yucatan. Dive trips to Cozumel would often include a day trip to Playa del Carmen by ferry. Later, when offshore fishing became a passion, I spent time in the developing resort village of Puerto Aventuras. These days, I make the beachside village of Akumal my base of operations when exploring the area's magnificent underwater caverns and cave systems. For years, this region was described in vague terms such as south of Cancun, or across from Cozumel. The eastern Yucatan coast seemed immune to the influences of development and mainstream tourism. Except for the tour buses that delivered Cancun day-trippers to the ruins of Tulum, it remained the playground of in-the-know travelers who patronized small hotels, guesthouses and privately managed rental condos. But no more. In the past couple of years, the world has discovered this unspoiled piece of Caribbean coast. The 70 miles of beachfront between Puerto Morelos and Tulum is becoming one of the hottest new resort destinations in the Caribbean, and it even has a new name that reflects its heightened stature among sun seekers: the Riviera Maya. Signs of growth are everywhere. A brand-new four-lane ribbon of concrete runs from Cancun south to Tulum, and at regular intervals along its length, grandiose gatehouses give access to golf courses, upscale villas and secluded luxury resorts. And for every new resort now open for business, two more are under construction. If the current rate of development continues, the area will double the number of available hotel rooms within the next four years. Will this change spoil the very things that first attracted many of us to this quiet coastline? To date, the answer is no. Unlike Cancun, with its unbroken string of beachfront high-rises, chain restaurants and raucous nightclubs, the Riviera Maya is about secluded luxury. The majority of new resorts are self-contained properties set on hundreds of landscaped acres and hidden from the road by a buffer of jungle green. While many visitors to the Riviera Maya come from Europe, North Americans are also discovering that there is life south of Cancun and west of Cozumel. This tourism wave also includes a growing number of divers. Historically, many of the small beachfront dive concessions scattered along the coast focused on providing resort courses and shallow-reef tours for guests at the all-inclusive resorts. But as the region grows, new dive operators are beginning to market to experienced divers by offering multi-tank dives, farther-ranging boats and new sites. The western side of the Cozumel channel doesn't have the steep walls and jet-stream-style currents found on Cozumel, but coral and fish life are abundant and healthy. The eastern winds and swells that predominate throughout much of the year are also more of a factor than on Cozumel's western shore. But the Riviera Maya's ace in the hole is the growing number of accessible freshwater sites -- sites that are now luring divers to the mainland to experience what many consider to be the world's finest cavern diving. In reality, the Riviera Maya is not competing for a share of Cozumel's traditional dive market. Instead, it is attracting a different breed of divers: those who hope to include underwater pleasures in a multi-activity or family vacation. For example, couples visiting one of the new resorts can begin the day with a walk on the beach, grab a morning dive, play 18 holes of golf in the afternoon, and then enjoy a massage before dinner. Likewise, divers such as myself who are now in a family way can rent a beachfront condo in Akumal, spend the morning on the beach with the kids, then spend the afternoon in the ocean -- or making a cavern or cave dive in one of the many nearby cenotes. The ecological parks of Xel-ha and Xcaret provide the opportunity to drift an underground river by inner tube, swim with dolphins in a sparkling lagoon or relax on a palm-shaded beach. Just down the coast, the ruins of Tulum and Coba await, and the now-bustling town of Playa del Carmen offers restaurants, shops and night life. To date, the nature of the region's development guarantees it will not become another Cancun. With more than 90 miles of coastline and millions of acres of white-sand beaches, the Riviera Maya still has plenty of solitude to go around -- and plenty of reefs that have yet to see a diver's bubbles. For more information, try these contacts: Riviera Maya General Information: 800-GO-PLAYAApdo Postal, 31 Playa del Carmen Quintana Roo, Mexico, 77710e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.orgWeb: rivieramaya.comPlaya del Carmen Hotel Association: Phone: 011-52-987-306-46Mexican Government Tourist Office: 800-44-MEXICO Fax-Me-Mexico: 541-385-9282, Document Number 611 and 612Mexico Tourism: 800-44-MEXICO
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