All your photos from Riviera Maya end up like postcards. Turquoise waters lap against white sandy beaches, and you’ll have to pinch yourself to believe it’s real. But where, exactly, should you travel to or stay in Riviera Maya? That’s the million dollar question.
Top 5 Picks for Riviera Maya:
|Tulum’s palm-lined beach stretch hides the low-rise hotels to give the illusion of nature, with a hippie vibe and several pyramids to visit within 15–30 minutes drive.||Explore Mayan history by visiting a pyramid; Chichen Itza is the most perserved but many pyramids are closer if you want to avoid driving two hours.||Riviera Maya’s sparkling jewels are its collections of crystal water cenotes – cavern swimming holes – that the Mayans once believed were entries to the underworld.||Akumal is a barely-there beach town, where you can snorkel with turtles just meters from the shore. Grab a snorkel and dive in, then finish with a beer on the beach.||Spend time in a tiny fishing town to see the real face of Mexico, such as Puerto Morelos or Punta Allen. Rent a boat and go snorkeling, see dolphins, or spot the turtles.|
|Try cochonita pibil, slow roasted pork in achiote, and relleno negro, usually turkey smothered in a black sauce of charred chilis.||The tradition of hammock weaving in the Yucatan Peninsula has hundreds of years behind it.||Main festivals: there are several annual dance and music festivals, like the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival; local festivals include Carnival in February, and the spring and autumn equinoxes in Chichen Itza.|
|It takes around 1 hour to drive from Cancun to Playa del Carmen, and 2 hours to Tulum. It’s a two-hour flight from Mexico City.||The main airport is Cancun, with Chetumal serving southern towns.||The best months to travel: November to February; it starts to heat up in March, and May to October is especially hot and humid, with daily rain showers.|
About Riviera Maya
Each town in Riviera Maya has a unique character and vibe, so it’s hard deciding where to base yourself. Some travelers loathe the high-rise hotels of Cancun, while others feel safer in the all-inclusive resorts along the coastline; there are travelers who want to avoid tourists at all costs, while others bore quickly without the hedonism of all-day shopping, eating and clubbing. The good news is: You can find it all in Riviera Maya, to some extent.
Cancun and Playa del Carmen are well developed for resorts, upmarket shopping, international food, restaurants, bars, and tourist activities. You’ll hear a lot of English spoken, and you’ll get all the creature comforts with a twist of Mexican influence. Many resorts are all-inclusive, with private beaches, where you never have to leave. Tulum has taken on more of a hippie tune, with a mixture of eco and luxury hotels, without the high-rise beach strip, like Cancun and Playa del Carmen. People bike around, and the vibe is casual. Then, in between the big three, you’ll find an assortment of tiny towns, some of which have retained their local character, such as Puerto Morelos and Akumal.
The good news is that it’s easy to travel between towns – it’ll take you less than two hours to make the trek between Cancun and Tulum, and if you want to go farther south like Bacalar or Mahahual, you can fly directly to the Chetumal airport instead of Cancun airport. There are plenty of mini buses – or rental car companies – that can take you there.
Many people get confused about what is Riviera Maya. Technically, the state is called Quintano Roo, while the corridor from Cancun to Tulum got dubbed Riveria Maya, and below Tulum is known as Costa Maya. Quintano Roo encompasses the entire Caribbean coastline along Mexico’s northeastern Yucatán Peninsula; to the north lies the state of Yucatan, and Campeche is the western state.
Things to Do in Riviera Maya
Cycle around Tulum and its Ruins
This once-sleepy fishing town has boomed as a hotspot on the Caribbean jewel for visitors who want to escape the tourism hubs of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Long stretches of natural white beaches, aqua water and the obligatory palm tree bending in the wind give plenty of opportunities to get that postcard picture and still feel like you have the place to yourself. Tulum’s development has largely avoided dominating their coastline with concrete holiday plazas, unlike in Cancun and Playa del Carmen, and still feels like escaping the modern world, particularly in the luxury ‘cabana’ sector, where isolated huts are hidden in the coastline without affronting the scenery. It’s a great hopping point to see Tulum’s Mayan ruins, without putting you too far for a day trip to the renown Chicen Itza ruins. There’s also the natural reserve in the south, where development extends to sleepy sandy-street towns where gasoline is bought by bargaining with the local supermarket. If you’ve got a week or 10 days, Tulum can easily fill your time, particularly for honeymooners who want a touch of exclusivity and activity. Just 10km south of Tulum you can find the reserve of Sian Ka’an, translated from Mayan into ‘Heaven’s Door’, where you can kayak down canals, take a lagoon boat tour, visit the semi-virgin beaches, and see the ruins of Muyil.
When you’re looking for accommodation, it’s important to note that Tulum is split between the town centre, and then around 15 minutes away you can find Tulum beach and, in the opposite direction, the Tulum ruins.
There are other pyramids nearby; in Coba, you can still clamber over some of these historic structures, including one of the tallest pyramid on the pensinsula (Nohuch Mul). Zacil-Ha is a small cenote but you can snorkel and dive, and there are a number of facilities.
Relax on Isla Mujeres
Rip off your winter clothing and head to this island paradise, translated as ‘Women’s island’. It’s here you will find one of Yucatan’s most photographed beaches, Playa Norte, with crystal white sand, and flat water so transparent it feels like swimming in a huge natural pool. This beach is where you can spend the whole day, eating fresh seafood at beach-side bars with sandy floors, or take a cocktail by a chair lounge on the beach. You can also hire a golf buggy on this car-free island and drive along its rocky coastline, virgin landscapes and sand dunes.
If you’re in staying in Cancun, many hotels arrange resort day trips, where you can access five-star facilities and some of the best beachfronts of the island. Otherwise, you can get there yourself by taking the local ferry.
Snorkel on Cozumel Island
This island has an eclectic cross of touristic shopping boulevards, internationalized Mexican food and English-speaking touts crawling the streets to catch tourists attention for bars and restaurants. Yet a short distance from the touristic port town lies exclusive beachfront resorts, isolated beach clubs with prime beach real estate, as well as a natural reserve with crocodiles, turtles and birds to be seen in their natural environment. This is a great island for those who like a mix of decent facilities and virgin landscapes, which can be explored via tours or by hiring a mini jeep or moped to explore the island’s untouched reserves, beach bars and clubs, and streches of white sandy beaches. At the beating heart of this island is of course the diving crew, with many devoted returnees, expats and locals dedicated to preserving one of the best reefs on the Caribbean coast, the Mesoamerican Reef. You don’t have to be a diver to experience the reef’s unique beauty, with a submarine tour allowing locals to visit a shipwreck and the reef in a tour at 10 under water. Some interesting sights including the El Mirador sea arch, or snorkeling at Money Bar Beach Club.
Shop in Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen was the first answer to escape Cancun, what some would argue has become Tulum today; naturally development has spread out down the coast, petering out the farther south you go. It may not have as much of a reputation as a ‘party hub’ as Cancun, but that also adds to the charm.
Playa del Carmen is no longer a sleepy fishy though, but you can still find a vibrant local life just two or three streets from the main touristic draft, and offers a mix of fun, entertaining bars and luxury clubs and restaurants. You can find quirky hotels, an emerging high cuisine scene, and easy access to Cozumel. It still has a touristic feel, but at a much slower pace than Cancun.
If you’re there on a Thursday evening, you can catch the weekly art event, Caminarte around ‘La Quinta’, which fills 20 blocks with local and expat artists from 6–11pm. La Quinta Avenida is essentially the main strip in town and a great place to orient yourself. A popular beach club is Mamita’s Beach Club.
Hit Cancun’s Beaches
Whether Cancun deserves a mention as a top Mexican destination is a divided opinion. It’s man-made beaches, multi complex hotel resorts, golden shopping miles, international restaurant chains take away from the experience of an authentic Mexican holiday. Certainly, Cancun is the destination for a do-nothing hotel, where all-inclusive resorts cover all your needs, and many of the local sites can be arrange through tours via your hotel. There’s a lot to be said for convenience on your holiday, particularly for families who might want some supervision included, and there are still some opportunities to find a local taco stand or a day trip to a local village for those who want a bit more. Cancun also has the MUSO, and is a great hopping point to day-trips to any of the islands via ferry. Being the closest to airport, it is also the most accessible. Prices tend to be higher though, so ease does come at a cost.
Despite all that, many love the bar-hopping lifestyle and more than 20km of white sandy beach. The popular beach in the hotel zone is Playa Marlin in the hotel zone, but you can sneak away to Playa Cac Mool or Playa Delfines if you want something quieter (and a selfie with the Cancun sign!). Playa Tortugas and Playa Ballenas have several aquatic sport options, and Playa Las Perlas is a small beach if you feel like trying something different.
Chat with Locals in Puerto Morelos
The easiest way to jump into local life from Cancun is to visit the small nearby town Puerto Morelos. Find mariachi playing on the beachfront, snorkelling offshore, beachfront seafood restaurants, and spend the afternoon people watching around the square.
Swim with Turtles at Akumal
Akumal’s coastline is nestled between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, with many opportunities for a local Riviera Maya holiday and plenty of residential character. You can find holiday houses to rent, affordable beachfront hotels, all-inclusive resorts, and long stretches of natural beaches that rival Tulum’s. The beach in the town center is where you can swim with turtles that feed near the shore. You can rent snorkelling equipment and, just a few metres off the beach, find a great deal of underwater activity. Akumal is Mayan for ‘Place of the Turtle’, and they nest here from May to November, although you can still find them outside of this season. Some locals will try to tell you that a tour or life jacket is mandatory – this is not necessarily true (you can find the turtles yourself), although they may insistent on life jackets (in part to take advantage of tourism, and in part safety).
There are several great places to snorkel in Riviera Maya, so it pays to bring your own set from home, or even to buy a set (for example, Walmart in Playa del Carmen sells basic snorkles for almost the same price as the rental fees). To preserve the area, fins are banned, so leave those behind.
If you’re driving, head to Km 104 on Carretera Federal Cancun-Chetumal; if you catch a mini bus (colectivo) or public bus (Ado), ask to get off at Akumal bridge (puente). If you want to volunteer, check out Centro Ecologico Akumal.
Swim in a Cenote in Riviera Maya
Mexico’s unique phenomena of these underground river caverns are a huge draw for both divers and snorkellers alike. This subterranean caves offer varying experiences scattered all over the Riviera Maya and Yucatan peninsula, from vibrant marine ecosystems, such as in Gran Cenote with its sandy bottom, or underground grotto diving and snorkling such as Dos Ojos (El Pit is also part of this system, and you can visit both in the same day). For families and those looking for an adventure experience, there are well-developed day parks such as Xel-ha, Xplorer and Rio Secreto. They are organized to take you on an adventure of zip-lining, snorkeling, driving ATVs and cave swimming, which can feel touristic but safe.
Cenote La Noria is in between cancun and playa del carmen, you can swim in the covered sinkhole under stalagmites
Cenote Azul is open air, with curious underwater rock platforms that are perfect to stand on in between snorkeling in search of the fish that hide there.
Xel-Há Park is considered one of the largest cenotes, with a well maintained diversity of marine life and hundreds of topical fish to snorkel with, while Rio Secreto feels perhaps less touristic.
Take a Temazcal
Near Tulum you can find the modern spa Yaan Wellness Spa, which offers a wide range of yoga, meditation and Mexican therapies, as does the hotel Azulik and Cenote Encantado. Near Playa del Carmen you can find the off-the-grid and gated community in the jungle, Pueblo SacBe, which has a nearby cenote.
Explore Virgin Natural Reserves
The jungly atmosphere may leave you hunting something more virgin. And this is easily done the more south you head. Beyond Tulum awakens an enormous biodiverse environment of unique bird colonies, delicate fauna and flora ecosystems, and stretches of untouched coastline, jungle and swampy wetlands. You can get lost for weeks in the dense cover of activities but heading as far as Punta Allen is still enough to sample a taste of the area’s biodiversity without costing too much time for other activities north on the peninsula.
Disconnect on Holbox Island
Even Isla Mujeres’s minimal development feels like high-rises compared to Holbox Island, where the small town centre has mostly sand streets, rustic beachfront hotels, and half of the island is protected.
There are loads of watersports and the natural environment is wild and diverse. You can see flamingoes, pelicans, crocodiles on the natural wetlands and reserves that can be explored by boat or bike. Dive underwater to spend time with the island’s diverse marine life – turtles, enormous manta rays, tropical fish and, one of the island’s biggest fames, the 10m whale sharks. It’s one of Yucatan’s best locations to unplug and catch some zen time in nature, although the beaches are not as long or perhaps as beautiful as the Caribbean. It doesn’t mean you can’t watch the sunset sinking of the Mexican Gulf while paddling in knee-deep water for more than 20 metres that is the temperature of a mild bath. Washed down with a giant margarita, it’s quick to see what visitors flock to Hotbox for something a little different. You can also chill at Holbox’s over-water ocean hammocks, or take a street-art mural tour.
It’s just 26 miles (42 km) long, and reached by direct flights or by ferry after you drive around 2–3 hours northwest of Cancun.
Swim with Whale Sharks
Every year Mexico is eye-witness to the natural phenomenon of the whale shark migration. These gentle giants of 6–12m (as long as a bus!) pass by the Yucatan Peninsula, sometimes in groups of a hundred which is rare for these solitary creatures. Despite their name, they are not whales – they are the biggest fish (or shark) in the ocean, but lucky for you, they are docile and mostly concerned with fufilling their need to eat 30–40 pounds of plankton per day. You can identify them by pale spots on their back, which are unique like fingerprints. Another curious fact is that whale sharks are ovoviviparous, meaning they reproduce by a mixture of hatching an egg and growing the embryo inside them, until a live pup is born.
The whale shark season generally runs from beginning of June to mid-September, with end of July and early August giving you the best chance of group sightings. The boat trip depends on where they are in their migration, so you could drive for anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. If you get seasick, you should take along some pills, but it’s an otherwise delightful trip of calm turquoise water, a lunch stop usually of fresh ceviche, a visit to see flamingos and virgin beaches, and some snorkel time.
Online you’ll see many tours recommending to book in advance to ensure your spot, averaging in price from USD 100–200. It’s true that the boats can fill up quickly–so if your time is limited you might book early–but there are generally spots if you book the day before on the island. The benefit? You can find much cheaper tours (USD 70–100) if you go directly to the boat companies (not via a hotel), although you might have to do some haggling or shopping around. If you’re there for a couple of day and flexible with time, this is your best bet.
EcoColor offers a whale shark tour, with more than 18 years experience and a focus on sustainable practices (Enter the code MEXLOCAL to receive a 10% discount when you book here.)
Discover Mayan Chewing Gum
Mexico and Central America are thought to be the birthplace of chewing gum. The Aztecs and Mayans used to extract a resin – chicle – by slicing the trees strategically and creating a chewable substance with it. Today you can go into the jungle and explore Sian Ka lagoons, see how they make chicle, discover Mayan culture, and paddle among mangroves in the largest protected area on the Mexican Caribbean. You can climb a pyramid, swim in a cenote, or fish on the coast
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is UNESCO protected and covers an area of half a million hectares. It includes beaches, coral reefs, a tropical jungle, dunes and cenotes, inhabited by more than 300 species of birds and countless plants and animals.
Kayak in Bacalar Lakeside Town
The ‘Lagoon of Seven Colors’ shifts in color as the sunlight and depth change, making it the ideal place to rent a kayak and experience the multi-hues up close. This quiet town has less than 15,000 people, which is a contrast from when it was once overrun by pirates. In the 17th century, pirates navigated the natural waterways from the sea to plunder and attack a basically defensivelss town.