Party in Riviera Maya's hip Playa del Carmen, then chill in laid-back Tulum, writes Ruwani Perera

This story starts on an unsavoury note. Don't worry, dear reader: my sidekick and I did not get a tummy bug when holidaying in Mexico.

But it's an important point to clarify. When you speak to people about visiting this part of the world, much of the feedback concerns violent episodes in bathrooms. Like many places, you do have to be careful — avoid tap water, stick to the bottled variety and you should be okay.

We're bound for Cancun, a five-hour flight from Los Angeles, and the gateway to our destination on the Riviera Maya, a stunning stretch of Caribbean coastline on the southeastern tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo.

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Cancun is an ideal base for exploring the coast, with a multitude of purpose-built megahotels. Our holiday getaway begins 45 minutes' drive south, at Playa del Carmen — Playa to the locals — a hip oasis next to the Caribbean Sea.

All-inclusive resorts in this region look great value for money at first glance, but be warned about poor-quality food and drinks. Your margaritas will more than likely be watered down.

We'd chosen Thompson Hotel, a relative newcomer to the strip. It's in Quinta Avenida — Playa's Fifth Ave, the main pedestrian thoroughfare that runs parallel to the ocean.

Thompson is smack-bang in the middle of 22 blocks of entertainment, dining, and shopping distractions. Quinta is ideal for someone like me, who likes a mix of hustle and hibernation during a holiday.

Thompson is not even a year old, but has established itself as a landmark thanks to the stunning rooftop pool and Catch restaurant and nightclub. With 360-degree views of the Caribbean and Playa, Catch offers delicious, fresh seafood with a backdrop of New York nightlife. The walls must be soundproofed well because no late-night revellers disturbed our slumber.

This is a party town with street entertainment well into the early hours. While you wine and dine, for around $7 to $20, skilled mariachi ensembles are on hand to play any request. Don't be fooled by the plethora of Italian restaurants; once the band starts playing there's no doubt you're in Mexico.

Traditional mariachi bands serenade diners along Playa del Carmen's 'Fifth Avenue' entertainment strip. Photo / Ruwani Perera
Traditional mariachi bands serenade diners along Playa del Carmen's 'Fifth Avenue' entertainment strip. Photo / Ruwani Perera

The Riviera Maya boasts some of the most prestigious restaurants in Mexico, and we're not talking tacos and quesadillas. Every conceivable culinary option is on offer and can make this a foodie holiday. Mexican, Mayan, French, Italian, Japanese cuisine — each is an authentic dining experience.

Food highlights include Frida Kahlo restaurant, not just for fans of the artist but for a modern, exquisitely presented take on classic Mexican flavours; La Cueva del Chango serves authentic local cuisine in a jungle setting; and Harry's Grill — not for the New Zealand rack of lamb but for a variety of tasty seafood options and great cocktails.

Work off the fine dining by exploring the region. Hire a car for less than $50 and head 40 minutes south. You'll be in the jewel in Yucatan's crown: Tulum. This stunning destination has been on my travel hit list for many years.

The drive down the main highway is easy, and you can stop at another beachside attraction, Akumal. Check out one of the many cenotes or grottoes that dot this area. They're underground caves formed by limestone recesses, leaving a hole in the earth that leads to a pool of turquoise water. This is nature's beauty at its most wondrous.

Tulum dominates this section of the coast, which was home to trading ports and key points on mercantile routes around the peninsula, Central Mexico and Central America. It was an important port, trading mainly in turquoise and jade.

This is one of the places where you can experience Mexico's pre-Hispanic history, which has enriched its present customs, traditions and festivals.

Many civilisations existed in Mexico before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century; the Mayans are descendants of one of the most important civilisations in Meso-America.

In Tulum, the remains of Mayan archaeological treasures are littered around the coast.

You'll find cities of stone, filled with stories and myths, which remain standing as a testament to ancient splendour.

Be prepared to barter with operators who offer trips out to the reef where you can view the ruins from an equally impressive perspective. Pay anywhere from $30 to $50 for a 90-minute tour that includes guide and equipment.

The boat trip is a definite highlight — snorkelling crystal-clear waters alongside friendly sea turtles. The Meso-American Reef is the largest coral reef in the Atlantic Ocean, extending from the Yucatan Peninsula to Honduras. This is an underwater wonderland with more than 500 species of colourful fish and 65 types of coral.

Tulum is quieter than Playa del Carmen, and the resorts dotting the coast are much more peaceful and laid-back. Be sure to book a table at coveted eatery Hartwood, which worships local produce and fare, and experience the beautiful beach villas at Viento De Mar Hotel.

Surrounding the Riviera Maya are charming islands such as Isla Holbox, Cozumel or Isla Mujeres, a short ferry ride from Playa, making for memorable day trips. Keen divers and dolphin lovers might want to stay longer.

As well as the white-sand beaches, which come with turquoise sea that looks like a professional filter has been applied to your iris, the Riviera Maya also boasts tax-free shopping. Those seeking a reprieve from the endless rays of sunshine can venture to local designers such as Mara Hoffman and Daniel Espinosa or global brand stores and pick up better deals than anywhere else in Mexico.

What truly sets this region apart is the Caribbean Sea — it's a major factor in its captivating charms.

Under the Riviera Maya sky, everything seems brighter, the colours more vibrant, and the contrast of white sand and turquoise water reveals breathtaking panoramas.

This eastern pocket of Mexico is a delight — the weather, people, food and culture are ingredients that make for a fascinating holiday destination.

And not everyone gets gastro. I reckon it's a Mexican holiday myth.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: American Airlines flies from Auckland to Cancun, via Los Angeles, with Economy Class return flights starting from $1538. Prices available for selected dates until June 19, 2018.

Further information: Adventure World's 13-day Classic Mexico tour visits sites significant to Mexican history, including Chichen Itza, Palenque, Monte Alban and Cancun. Priced from $3285 pp, twin share including 12 nights' accommodation.