10 Best Sites In The Mayan Riviera, Mexico
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The Mayan Riviera of the Yucatan peninsula is one of the most popular destinations in Mexico and it’s for some very good reasons. The beaches are amazing with light-blue or turquoise water of the Caribbean Sea. The parties are awesome, with tequila-based cocktails or the local Corona beer. The towns are magical, some keep the Spanish colonial style up until today. The Mayan history is fascinating. The food is delicious – Mexican flavors can’t go wrong. And the shopping is fun and pretty cheap.
My vacation on that side of Mexico was one of the best I had in the last few years, and honestly, it wasn’t even on my bucket list. I was able to combine all the features that make a vacation awesome. It started with relaxing in the sun on the beach or by the pool, with a cold beverage or a cocktail. I enjoyed the beautiful views of the sunrise every morning. The nature of the cities is beautiful. I learn about the history of the region, the Maya culture, and visited the Maya attractions. And bottom lime – I had lots fo good time.
Do you want to know what to do in Riviera Maya? here are the best things to do in the Riviera Maya Mexico:
Tour Playa del Carmen
Playa Del Carmen is my favorite city in Mayan Riviera. It is not fancy or luxurious, and this is what I liked about it. The main street, La Quinta (5th) Avenida, is nothing to compare to New York City’s 5th avenue. Here, La Quinta Avenida is a cool pedestrian street with restaurants, gift shops, and clothing stores. The fashion is mostly beach or surf style, but you can also find some large retailers’ stores on the street and at the shopping center, at the north end of the street. The next Avenida – 10th (they jump in 5s), has more restaurants, but it is generally a quieter street.
If you want to enjoy local (and famous) art, check out the Frida Kahlo Museum, on La Quinta Avenida and Calle 8 Nte. Frida Kahlo is well known Mexican legend and you will see her famous portrait everywhere – gifts, street art, t-shirts, and more.
Tip: The best accommodation would be on the beachfront line or on la Quinta Avenida, and you can also find Airbnb apartments in the surrounding streets. I stayed at the Thompson Hotel, on La Quinta Avenida, and loved it. This 4.5-star hotel has a beautiful rooftop pool and a bar, and it has access to the beach through their beach hotel, about 5 minutes walk.
Dive in Cozumel
Cozumel is the biggest Mexican island in the Caribbean Sea. It is just a short boat ride from Playa del Carmen and one of the best Mayan Riviera attractions. The Southern beaches are the relaxed ones and would be the best places for families looking for a quiet time with beautiful views. The beaches of the north are for divers who want to see the coral reefs, sea turtles, rays, and other amazing creatures of the sea. With over 45 dive sites, Cozumel is one of the best diving destinations in Mexico.
It is also interesting to go inside the island and visit the archeological site of San Gervasio park with the Mayan ruins (nothing to compare to Chichen Itze – read below). In the south of the island, there is an ecological park Punta Sur. Here you get to connect with nature and see beautiful birds, crocodiles, and more.
Discover the past in Chichen Itza
The Mayan city of Chichen Itza is a fascinating place. It is one of the new 7 wonders of the world and is also a UNESCO world heritage site. It is one of the most famous sites in the Yucatan peninsula, with the oldest building dates to the 5th century. Impressive.
The main building here is temple El Castillo – the great pyramid that stands in the middle of the site. Around the pyramid, there are more old Mayan houses, buildings and even a ball-game court. Being so famous, Chichen Itza is very popular with tourists. It might be crowded, but the tours inside are well organized and recommended. The visit to Chichen Itza was one of the interesting things to do in Maya Riviera.
Tip: Passing the entrance towards the pyramid, dozens of local sellers will offer you beautiful Mayan art (or just t-shirts). These are great souvenirs for yourselves or your families. The place is touristy, so prices might be a bit high, but use your bargain skills and get a better deal.
Swim in a Cenote
The Cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula are a great place for another water attraction that is not on the beach. The Cenotes, which are typical for this region, are natural sinkholes, created when the roof of an underground cavern collapses. This revealed natural pools of fresh and clear water, that are now a touristic attraction. The entrance is from the top of the cenote and you walk down (even as deep as 30 meters) to the pools. This is an incredible experience to be inside and to look up at the limestone walls around you. Enjoy the sunlight that comes in and admire nature at its best.
Many cenotes are worth visiting. I have been to Cenote Ik-Kil, which was beautiful and fun. The site was very convenient, as they offer towels and lockers for your personal belongings.
Tulum is a small town, about a one-hour drive from Playa Del Carmen and it is one of the popular destinations in the Mayan Riviera. It is famous for two main things – the Mayan ruins and the beaches, which you can experience in luxury or on a budget.
The Mayan ruins of Tulum are different than Chichen Itza. First, they are located on a cliff with a beautiful view of the turquoise water and the beaches right under it. The site itself is wide open and you walk between old temples and castles, with iguanas walking freely around you. Make sure to put on sunscreen and bring your hat, because the sun is in literally burning you here.
South of the ruins, with a short taxi ride, you get to the beaches of Tulum. I think that they are the best in this area and even some of the best beaches in North America. If you are not staying in a hotel on the beach, you can go to one of the beach clubs. You will get access to the water for the day, usually with sunbeds and a restaurant/ bar.
Stay in an all-inclusive hotel in Cancun
Cancun is the biggest city in the Mayan Riviera, and where most of the international flights land in. The city itself is basic, so I didn’t spend much time in it.
However, the hotel zone of the city is where you want to be. It is a 7-shaped coastline with white sands and beautiful blue water. Most of the hotels here are all-inclusive and it is the place to feel like in paradise. Eat and drink as much as you want, morning to night, in a variety of restaurants that the hotel offers. This is the place to take it easy, sit in the sun and do nothing but relaxing.
I am usually not a fan of not doing much, but I spent 2 nights here and enjoyed every second. If you want to spend some time outside of the hotel, the streets of the hotel zone offer more restaurants, bars and clubs, a shopping mall, and a marina. Staying in an all-inclusive hotel in Cancun is one of the best things to do in Mayan riviera.
Enjoy the beaches of Isla Mujeres
The small Island of Women (Isla Mujeres) is in the water of the Caribbean Sea not far from Cancun. This island is magical – so small, but with so much to do. If you want to get away from a big city, this is where you should stay for at least one night. Alternatively, you can take the ferry from the Hotel Zone of Cancun or the dock at Puerto Juarez (cheaper) for a one-day round trip. In any case, this is spending time on this island is one of best things to do in Riviera Maya Mexico.
Transportation on the island is either by foot or by renting a golf cart that takes you anywhere you want. Golf carts are the best way to get to the south of the island. Here you will find a temple for the Mayan moon goddess at Punta Sur, and another beautiful reef at Garaffón de Castilla. Still, I would not skip walking in the small streets and on the other shores, to enjoy the peaceful vibes of this charming island.
The beaches on the island are amazingly beautiful with crystal clear water. The north shore is full of beach clubs, with chairs, umbrellas, foods, and drinks. Other water-related attractions here are swimming with Whale sharks and visiting the turtle sanctuary at Tortugranja.
Discover MUSA – the Underwater Museum
The Underwater Museum of Art is not the standard museum you might think of. It is literally under the water and the only way to see it is by scuba diving, snorkeling or taking a ride in a glass-bottom boat. The Museum was created by British sculptor Jason De Caires Taylor and contains around 500 real size sculptures. Being between Cancun and Isla Mujeres, accessing the museum is from Manchones, Punta Sur on Isla Mujeres, or Punta Nizuc, the south of the Hotel Zone in Cancun. This is a phenomenal, one-of-a-kind experience.
Spend a day in an all-inclusive park
A great way to spend a day here is in the eco-parks, which offer a full-day experience of fun, amusement, and nature. The most famous one is Xcaret, with underground rivers for swimming and snorkeling, Coral Reef Aquarium, and Mayan cultural events and performances. Xplor and Xel Ha are other parks, where you can get more extreme adventures. Zip-lining above the jungle and into the water, kayaking in underground caverns, water tubing, and water slides can be found here. If you are looking for some activities in Riviera Maya – these are the places for you.
Party at the Coco Bongo Club
Coco Bongo is not just a club. It starts and ends with DJs playing recent hits, but in between you get a full show of acrobats, conga lines, live bands and musician impersonators. The performances are tributes to musicians, movies and shows. From The Beatles and Mad Max, to Moulin Rouge, Spiderman, Beetlejuice, Madonna and more.
Coco Bongo has two clubs, the bigger one in Cancun, and another one in Playa Del Carmen. Tickets are available online or in the hotels, by their promoters. If you find them, try to get a better deal like drinks vouchers for free.
Accommodation – I stayed in Playa Del Carmen as it is in the center of the Mayan Riviera with an easy way to get to all the destinations around. One hour south to Tulum, one hour north to Cancun’s port to take a ferry to Isla Mujeres, a short ferry to Cozumel, and a great exit point to Chichen Itza.
There are many travel agencies in the streets of Playa Del Carmen that offer the best excursions in Riviera Maya and organized day trips. I found a good day trip that combined a few of the attractions abovementioned. Chichen Itza, Cenote Ik Kil, lunch with a live show of Mayan dancers, and a short visit to the colonial city Valladolid. The travel guide was entertaining, and it was very convenient to have a bus taking us from site to site. Most important is that it brought us back at night, without the need to drive when we were exhausted.
There’s another archeological Mayan site in COBÁ. The Coba ruins in the middle of the Jungle are smaller and less touristic than Chichen Itza. However, the main attraction here is to climb up the pyramid and see a beautiful view of the Jungle around you.
The Maya Riviera of Mexico is like Paradise and I know I want to go there again. There are many places where you can enjoy white sand beaches, or explore and learn about ancient civilizations, but for me – I love it that this place combines it all. 8-10 days in the area will be enough to cover all the sites, and also to have some great time on the beach doing nothing but getting some sun. Even if you plan to come for a shorter time and do less, I am sure you will enjoy it, because it is really amazing here!