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  • Writer's pictureLisa Codianne Fowler

Riviera Maya and All That Jazz

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Mexico hosts sizzling jazz festival each year during Thanksgiving Week

The music of the waves
The music of the waves

Every evening was electric. My husband and I were front and center, bare toes buried in the cool sands of Mexico’s shores. There’s an unstoppable energy in the air, not unlike that found walking the streets of Manhattan. Only take that throttle and kick it up a notch. Wrap it up in star-lit oceanfront nights. Toss in family-, pooch- and picnic-friendly, along with a pulsating backdrop of the world’s most cutting edge music and mind-boggling special effects. Now we’re jammin’.

Music in Paradise

Each November, 14,000 “jazzophiles” make a pilgrimage to Playa del Carmen—the heart of the Riviera Maya—for the explosive concerts at the world-renowned Riviera Maya Jazz Festival. Living legends wow the crowds with musical performances ranging from old-school swing to hip hop and fusion.

During our visit, the festival once again featured greats from across the globe as well as several nationally known Mexican bands, among them, Narima, Malo Agua and The Royal Band, one of the country’s most popular. All are wildly creative and formidable contenders for the most sought after sounds in the international jazz scene.

Herbie live
Herbie live

Me and Herbie
Me and Herbie

But the major draw for us was being able to get up close and personal with some of our own jazz heroes: Al Jarreau, Herbie Hancock, Sergio Mendes and Spyro Gyra. We were privileged to be among the 60 journalists from around the world permitted in the roped-off press area near the stage to photograph and videotape one minute (only) from each performance, capturing some of the best national and international jazz acts of all times.

Al Jarreau, a living legend
Al Jarreau, a living legend

Al Jarreau opened to deafening cheers with his rendition of Elton John’s “Your Song,” ended with his classic “Take Five,” and playfully engaged the crowd throughout his set. Sergio Mendes brought down the house with an updated, hip hop version of “Mas Que Nada,” a 40-year-old mega hit reborn in a recent collaboration with Black Eyed Peas. Pat Martino’s riffs were spot on, despite serious health issues and memory loss that forced him to re-learn the guitar mid-career. Spyro Gyra rocked with funky, urban sounds, and Herbie Hancock gave us delicious tastes of the many musical phases he’s moved through over the years.

International crowd
International crowd

and kid-friendly!
and kid-friendly!

What to Expect

The festival takes place outside on the beach at Mamita’s Beach Club. “Doors” open at 6 p.m.; the first concert begins at 7; the last usually ends at midnight. Entrance is absolutely free, and though the festival typically draws a crowd of 10 – 14,000, people are friendly and respectful of each other and the grounds. Bring a blanket, towel or chair to sit on the beach; alternatively, if you arrive early enough, you can claim a table at one of two restaurants with dining al fresco. We varied our viewing venues nightly. Since the stage is built to include a super sound-system, multiple mega-screens and strategic lighting, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house.

Lisa and Patrick on the shoreline at Riviera Maya
It doesn't get better than this

Mi Casa es Su Casa

The evenings were magical, but so were the days, as we simply luxuriated at the Secrets Maroma Beach resort, a 40-minute, complimentary shuttle ride away from the festival.

Most afternoons we sampled Secrets’ restaurants, shopping venues and, of course, aqueous amenities, such as the meandering pools and sun-splashed beach. Mornings began with a breakfast buffet that included everything from tamales and pancakes to green health juice and Bloody Mary cocktails. What a grand and unconventional way to spend Thanksgiving.

“Welcome Home!” We heard it a lot. The staff at the resort greeted us this way each time we entered the lobby from an off-property excursion. It always made us smile. Though one can’t help but smile, gush even, at the lavishness of this sprawling adult-only, all-suite resort.

Secrets Resorts - Unlimited Luxury
Secrets Resorts - Unlimited Luxury

The property certainly lives up to its moniker, “Unlimited Luxury,” featuring seven restaurants, eight bars and lounges, a fitness center, spa, tennis courts, shopping areas, an expansive waiter-attended infinity pool and 12 smaller plunge pools throughout the resort. There are themed parties, live entertainment nightly and big screen movies on the beach. Nestled between more than 500 acres of unspoiled coastal strands and lush rain forests, it retains a feeling of intimacy as well as exclusivity.

Some of the ground floor suites are “swim-out”—step from your room into the refreshing pools that wind around the grounds. Our balcony suite was slathered in marble and featured a whirlpool tub for two; net-draped, four-poster, king-sized bed; step-down sitting area; and all the amenities you would expect from a first-class resort.

Just a few members of the press. We had fun hanging out with our colleagues.

We were members of the VIP club, which means we had access to the concierge room with its endless array of gourmet snacks and full bar. But you don’t have to be a VIP to find food and drink at every turn, even if it’s delivered via 24/7 room service. There’s nothing like sipping champagne on a balcony overlooking manicured gardens, lighted fountains, a white sand beach and turquoise waters. Late at night, all you hear are crashing waves. During the day, songbirds serenade.

Colorful Playa del Carmen
Colorful Playa del Carmen

Beyond the Festival

Few places on earth cause as much amazement as Riviera Maya. What makes the area so different from other coastlines around the world is that here you can completely escape from the outside world. It’s filled with natural wonders: ecological reserves; an emerald-green jungle, a turquoise-blue sea hugged by miles of sparkling beaches and countless lost cities of the ancient Mayan civilization.

Riviera Maya is located within the state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. The terrain is flat and covered by low tropical jungle. Lying hidden amid the intense green is a habitat rich with indigenous flora and fauna and geological formations not found anywhere else in the world. Facing the coast is one of the largest coral reefs in the world, with colorful tropical fish and various types of coral, making the Great Mayan Reef ideal for scuba diving and snorkeling.

Lisa and Patrick being served wine in the ocean, waiter and all!
Awash in the moment

Our visit came to an end all too soon. My only complaint about the experience is the weight I gained, courtesy of all-inclusive Secrets Maroma Beach. Still, on a “scale” of one to five, this was a six-star stay, awash in exotic beauty, gracious people, pampered luxury, and, oh yes—all that jazz.

If You Go

Riviera Maya Jazz Festival (

Written by Lisa Codianne Fowler

Photography by Patrick Fowler and Judy Eberspaechen

Originally published in TravelWorld International Magazine

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