Last Updated on November 24, 2021
The Riviera Maya is one of the most popular destinations in Mexico, and it’s easy to see why: crystal clear Caribbean waters, pristine beaches, beautiful beach towns and Maya ruins galore! Add to that the unique natural feature of this region: cenotes, which are underwater sinkholes, the marine life, which includes turtles, and plenty of adventure activities, and you’ll want your vacation to never end. If you booked your vacation but you’re still not sure what to do in the Riviera Maya, read this articles for some ideas (and to get you excited for your trip!).
I’ll share some of the best things to do in the Riviera Maya and how you can have the best vacation of your life. No matter if it’s the first time you visit this region or the second or third time – there’s always something new to discover.
Places you should see in the Riviera Maya
Cancun is mainly known as a resort town, thanks to its expansive “hotel zone” – a narrow, L-shaped sandbar with nearly 100 hotels, many all-inclusive resorts and 13 miles (21 kilometers) of beautiful white-sand beaches. This part of Cancun, which is completely built around the tourist industry and caters to tourist needs, is perfect for travelers who are just looking to relax and enjoy the beach for a few days. However, there’s more to Cancun than just the Zona Hotelera. If you head downtown, you’ll experience the more authentic part of the city: This is where the locals live and hang out, where you can dine at excellent restaurants that don’t just cater to tourists and that are cheaper than the restaurants in the hotel zone, and there are several markets and shopping centers.
Cancun is also the perfect place to base yourself to explore other parts of the Yucatan, and you can book tours to archeological sites, to cenotes, to nearby colonial towns and beautiful islands. You can find some of the must-do activities and best things to do in Cancun here.
2 Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is the most popular tourist destination in the Riviera Maya, and you’ll find everything you could possibly need in Playa: a number of malls and excellent shopping, especially along Fifth Avenue, the main pedestrian street in Playa del Carmen. World-class dining – in addition to Mexican fare, you can also find international cuisine in Playa. No matter if you’re looking for high-end dining options or local street vendors – Playa’s got you covered! There are also movie theaters, spas, beach clubs and nightclubs in Playa.
If you want to visit Holbox island, the ferry for Holbox also leaves from Playa.
3 Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres is easy to visit – you can either take an organized boat tour from Cancun, or simply hop on the ferry and spend a day there. The island is tiny, and the best way to get around is by golf cart. You can rent them right near the ferry pier. If you don’t want to explore but just enjoy some of the best Caribbean beaches in all of Mexico, head to Playa Norte, which is just a short walk from the ferry.
Tulum is known for two things: the breathtakingly beautiful Maya ruins, which overlook the turquoise Caribbean Sea, and the picturesque beach with soft, powdery, white sand. I recommend visiting the Maya ruins early, because around 10am, all the tour buses from Cancun arrive and it gets crowded. The earlier you can get there, the less people will be there, and the more you’ll be able to enjoy the ruins. It’s also a good idea to visit the ruins early because it gets hot later in the day – and that’s when you’ll want to be on the beach. Tulum ruins open at 8am and close at 5pm.
If you have a car, you may also want to add the Gran Cenote to your visit, one of the most scenic cenotes in the Riviera Maya.
Cenotes and beaches in the Riviera Maya
These natural sinkholes, usually created through the collapse of the ceiling cave, are one of the unique features of the Yucatan peninsula. The Yucatan is full of them – there are thousands of cenotes here. Many of them are located right along the Riviera Maya, and these sinkholes make for perfect swimming spots. The water is usually crystal clear and begs you to swim in it, and if you visit several cenotes, you’ll discover that no cenote is like the other. They’re vastly different – sometimes you can’t even see the sinkhole from above and have to enter through a tiny entrance! If you dive, you should not only plan a dive in the ocean, but also seek out a cenote to dive in (there are various cenotes in which you can dive) because that way you’ll be able to explore even more of these fascinating creations of nature and see spectacular underwater stalagmite formations. Here are some of the best cenotes to visit in the Riviera Maya.
Water Parks and Eco-Parks in the Riviera Maya
If beaches and cenotes aren’t enough, check out one of the eco-parks in the Riviera Maya, like Xel-Ha and Xcaret. Xel-Ha offers amazing snorkeling in an inlet that flows directly into the Caribbean Sea, a scenic lighthouse from where you can enjoy amazing views over the Riviera Maya from 98.5 feet (30 meters) high before descending in a spiraling waterslide, a cliff climb and jump, and several cenotes.
You can zipline (and end the ride in the water!), explore mangroves and jungle trails, and for kids there’s a “Children’s World” full of adventures. You can swim with dolphins and snorkel with manatees, and even have a stingray encounter. At Xcaret, you can swim in underground rivers, enjoy the vistas from a scenic tower, snorkel with stingrays, and get close to turtles. There is a designated Children’s World, where kids can swim in shallow cenotes and wading pools, and nature lovers can see flamingos, jaguars, deer, manatees, spider monkeys and saraguato, bats and tapirs. Both parks are massive, so if you go, definitely set aside an entire day for your visit.
If you are looking for an adrenaline kick, visit Xplor, where you can enjoy ziplines, go on a jungle ride in an amphibious vehicle, take a ride on a raft through an underground cave, and other thrill rides. Rio Secreto is another great place to visit if you’re feeling adventurous: a huge underground cave system, where you swim through spectacular cave formations.
Hotels and resorts in the Riviera Maya
There are plenty of hotels and resorts along the Riviera Maya – when choosing a hotel, it’s important to consider what you like in a hotel. Most of the larger all-inclusive resorts are further away from the town, so you won’t be in walking distance to local restaurants and local shopping, but if you prefer the amenities of a large resort, some of them are absolutely stunning. Just be aware that you’ll need a car or hire a taxi to visit other places along the Riviera Maya.
If you want to be close to restaurants and nightlife, I recommend staying in Playa del Carmen. For the best small boutique hotels, check out Tulum. One of my favorite hotels in Playa del Carmen is the Grand Hyatt Resort.
If you don’t need the amenities hotels and resorts offer, check out Airbnb. There are plenty of vacation rentals along the Riviera Maya, and smaller towns like Puerto Morelos and Akumal present a much more “local” experience than Cancun’s hotel zone.
Transportation in the Riviera Maya
The closest airport to the Riviera Maya is Cancun International Airport. Cancun has direct flights to most of the major hubs in the U.S., including Chicago, New York, Miami and L.A. It is easy to get from Cancun airport to all popular destinations along the Riviera Maya, and Cancun Airport Transfers service bring you to Playa del Carmen, Akumal, Tulum, or whatever your destination is in that area.
These are the distances from Cancun airport to the main tourist destinations:
- Playa del Carmen (45 minutes / 35 miles)
- Tulum (90 minutes / 73 miles)
- Akumal (75 mins / 57 miles)
- Puerto Morelos (20 mins / 15 miles)
- Bacalar (4 hours / 208 miles)
You can also rent a car in Cancun if you’d like to be mobile during your stay. The roads are in good condition, and it’s easy to drive in this part of Mexico. Because the attractions, beaches and towns are quite spread out along the Riviera Maya, having a car will give you more flexibility and enable you to explore at your own pace.
Prepare for your trip to the Riviera Maya
To make sure your trip goes flawlessly, it is essential to take some precautions and prepare for your trip. The three main things to consider are:
● Buy travel insurance.
This is especially important if you’re planning to do partake in any adventurous activities: ziplining, diving, snorkeling – but even swimming in a cenote, or visiting Maya ruins. In some of the Maya ruin sites, you can climb to the top of the pyramids, and accidents can happen.
● Get money on arrival at the airport.
You could try to pay with US Dollars everywhere, but then you’ll be charged a “tourist tax” – meaning you’ll be charge more than the actual price in Mexican pesos. I don’t recommend exchanging money at a Money Exchange, especially not at the airport, because they take a big commission. Get money out of the ATM instead. On that note: familiarize yourself with the current exchange rate. You don’t want to end up taking out $2.30 in cash because you didn’t know how much 50 Mexican pesos are.
One US Dollar currently buys you around 21.40 Mexican pesos – I recommend taking out at least MXN4,000 (US$187) for a week long vacation – this will cover tips, meals in local restaurants that don’t accept credit card payment, ice cream on the beach and snacks. If you are planning to visit some cenotes, check online to see if you have to pay in cash (Tripadvisor is a great resource, GoogleMaps reviews are also helpful).
● Buy eco-friendly sunscreen.
Be considerate of the environment and buy eco-friendly sunscreen prior to your trip. The underwater world of the Caribbean Sea is fragile, and if you’re planning to swim with turtles in Akumal, you should be conscious of what kind of sunscreen you use. Sunscreen is usually more expensive in tourist destinations, so it makes sense to stock up before your trip. Amazon has several eco-friendly sunscreens.