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23 Totally Awesome Things to Do in Riviera Maya, Mexico

So you’re in the captivating lands of Mexico

Your beach chair is positioned just so under a palm tree to take in the cerulean sea. And the margaritas are stiff and cold.

Life is perfect at your luxury resort in the Riviera Maya, thank you very much.

But chilling in tranquility is just one of the best things to do in Riviera Maya.

A whole slew of adventures and unmissable activities are loads of fun too!

Snorkeling with sea turtles? Just one of the many fun Mayan Riviera activities.
Snorkeling with sea turtles? Just one of the many fun Mayan Riviera activities

Things to do in Riviera Maya, Mexico

If you can tear yourself away from your little piece of tropical paradise, even just for a day or two, you won’t regret it.

So keep reading and we’ll tell you about all the goodness this magical place has to offer!

So where is Riviera Maya?

This picturesque region (also known as the Mayan Riviera) spans a 100-mile stretch of coastline on the Yucatan Peninsula. It runs just south of Cancun to Tulum and beyond.

Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is possibly the most well-known resort city in this area. Hugging the Caribbean Sea, this cute coastal city is halfway between Cancun and Tulum.

Attractions throughout the Riviera Maya in Mexico

There are attractions scattered throughout the region, however.

You’ll come across cenotes – natural limestone sinkholes filled with tequila-clear freshwater. You can snorkel in these cavernous spaces among amazing stalactites and stalagmites.

Then there are adventure eco-parks – ziplining above the forest anyone?

Ancient Mayan temples and ruins also await (some you can even climb).

Nor can we forget the vast UNESCO biosphere reserve of Sian Ka’an for immersing yourself in nature.

And these are just some of the highlights. There’s so much more to discover on your Riviera Maya vacation!

Riviera Maya: Things to do

Things to do in Playa del Carmen

1) Learn to SUP

2) Discover Xcaret

3) Shop on 5th Avenue

4) Chill at Xpu-Ha

5) Experience the magic of Joya

6) Take the ferry to Cozumel

7) Get your thrills at Xplor Rivera Maya

Things to do in Tulum

8) Bicycle around Tulum

9) Enjoy the Tulum beaches

10) Explore the Tulum ruins

11) Do yoga in Tulum

12) Snorkel with turtles in Akumal

13) Kick back at La Buena Vida

14) Visit Sian Ka’an

15) Try tasty tacos

Things to do near Cancun

16) Swim with whale sharks in Isla Holbox

17) Explore Chichen-Itza

18) Tootle around Isla Mujeres in a golf cart

19) Snorkel at an underwater museum

Other things to do in the Yucatan

20) Take a dip in a cenote

21) Sleep in an overwater bungalow

22) Try a Temazcal

23) Visit the botanical gardens at Puerto Morelos

Riviera Maya travel tips

Where to stay

Best time to visit


Checking out what to do in Riviera Maya

We write a lot about Mexico.

We’ve written about all the top things do in Mexico, and we’ve visited Mexico on many trips.

(Tulum – indeed, the whole Riviera Maya – is among the best warm escapes in January, when the winter weather in North America and Europe is particularly miserable.)

One time, a magazine asked us to curate itineraries for a Riviera Maya cover article. Each itinerary was to cover five dreamy days, tailored to suit different traveling styles.

How could we say no?

So we jetted off to the fabled Mexican Caribbean coastline and set to work to experience all the wonderful things to do in the Yucatan.

Checking out Tulum (an essential part of researching what to do in Mexico's Riviera Maya)
Checking out the food in Tulum (an essential part of researching what to do in Mexico’s Riviera Maya)

That was a particularly good “working” trip to get us out and about – exploring what to do in the Mayan Riviera.

But we’ve also visited Cancun, Tulum, the off-shore island of Cozumel and other areas in and around the Yucatan Peninsula on our own holidays.

We know this Mexico vacation area well and can point you in the right directions!

23 Cool things to do in Mayan Riviera

Yes, the beach is great, but there's so much to explore beyond your hotel in the Riviera Maya!
Yes, the beach is great, but there’s so much to explore beyond your hotel in the Riviera Maya!

Here in this post, we highlight our favorite things to do on the Mayan Riviera. These are bucket list activities – no matter whether you dig nature, culture or adventure.

We’ve organized them around the main hubs of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

But several adventures (like swimming in cenotes) can be enjoyed throughout the Yucatan.

Things to do in Playa del Carmen

Let’s start right in the middle. Because no matter where you base yourself in the Riviera Maya, you’re likely to do at least one activity in Playa del Carmen.

A thriving Mexican beach town, Playa del Carmen is the area’s shopping and restaurant hub.

1) Learn to SUP

One of the fun things to do in Playa del Carmen is to go stand-up paddle boarding (SUP).

The waters off Playa del Carmen are typically calm and still, especially at sunrise and just before sunset – making Playa del Carmen ideal for SUP boarding.

Go SUP boarding at sunrise in Playa del Carmen.
Go SUP boarding at sunrise in Playa del Carmen (Credit: Aloha Paddle Club)

Located at Fusion Beach in central Playa, the top-rated Aloha Paddle Club rents a range of SUP boards. They also offer lessons and daily group outings.

If you’ve never tried SUP, their sunrise session is the most popular.

After 5 to 10 minutes of basic instruction, you’ll be upright and paddling like pro! It’s a pretty amazing way to greet the day.

2) Discover Xcaret

Xcaret is one of the most popular attractions in Riviera Maya
Xcaret’s shows highlight Mexico’s history and culture through song and dance (Credit: Xcaret)

One of several theme parks in the region, Xcaret Eco-Park is a fabulous theme-cum-ecological-park.

It’s huge – and one of the top attractions in Riviera Maya.

It boasts everything from a replica of an authentic Mayan village to vibrant evening shows, complete with a horse exhibition and pre-Hispanic dances. There are more than 50 natural and cultural attractions in all!

There are more than 50 natural and cultural attractions in all!

Mayan culture show at Xcaret
The Mayan culture shows are great to watch (Credit: Xcaret)

But there’s a heavy emphasis on water activities, so you’ll find underground rivers and caves for snorkeling.

Family-friendly, Xcaret also has a lovely stretch of white sand beach with calm waters (beach chairs are available).

Even if your own resort has a great beach, this is a great spot to spend some time swimming and playing with your children.

Xcaret snuba
You can try snuba at Xcaret! (Credit: Xcaret)

Come sunset, Xcaret’s grand nightly show, the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular, takes place.

More than 300 performers dressed in colorful costumes take you through the history and culture of the region.

Xcaret tickets

This Riviera Maya water park is not all-inclusive. There are several levels of pricing, so you can choose what you want to do:

Day tickets

  • Xcaret Basic Ticket: Tour three underground rivers, access the beach and enjoy several other attractions.
  • Xcaret Plus Admission: Adds a lunch buffet and access to the Plus Area (with lockers, dressing rooms and washrooms) to the basic package.
  • Xcaret Total Admission: Enhances the Plus ticket with premium activities like a SeaTrek walk on the seabed and Snuba adventures.

You can pre-book your official Xcaret day tickets here and get guaranteed park entry.

Night tickets

Xcaret tickets with transportation

2-Day Combo: Xcaret, Xel-Ha, Xplor and Chichen Itza

You can even get a top-rated 2-day combo ticket, with round-trip transportation from your Yucatan hotel and food and drinks included.

Pick two attractions from Xcaret, Xel-Ha, Xplor and Chichen Itza (covered below), for example, Xcaret and Chichen Itza. Save money and enjoy two of these Yucatan attractions within 15 days of each other.

More information

For more info on Xcaret Park, check Xcaret’s website.

3) Shop on 5th Avenue

No, we’re not referring to the famous Fifth Avenue in NYC. We’re talking about La Quinta (5th Avenue) in Playa del Carmen.

This is the main street in Playa del Carmen, and it runs for about three miles through the town.

Along with restaurants and bars, you’ll also find dozens of shops selling wonderful Mexican souvenirs and gifts – everything from ceramic plates and jewelry to leather handbags and embroidered children’s clothes.

Note that while bargaining in Mexico is common on the beaches and markets, prices are mainly fixed at these stores.

4) Chill at Xpu Ha

A 20-minute drive south of Playa del Carmen takes you to Xpu-Ha, one of the prettiest beaches in the whole Riviera Maya.

Xpu-Ha is one of the best beaches in Riviera Maya
Isn’t this beach beautiful?

The turquoise waters are especially lovely in all their different hues of blue.

It costs 50 pesos (about $3.00 USD) to enter via the Xpu-Ha Beach Club – less than a cappuccino back home.

You’ll find beach chairs for rent, little beach bars, eateries, bathrooms and showers.

The beach club is open all year, Tuesday to Monday, from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm.

5) Experience the magic of Joya

For a special evening, book the champage dinner show of Joya.

Part of Cirque du Soleil, Joya is only held in the Riviera Maya – nowhere else in the world – at a magical venue purpose-built just for this performance.

Cirque du Soleil Joya
You walk by this lagoon with a waterfall to reach the palapa-shaped Joya theater (Credit: Vidanta Riviera Maya)

A wooden walkway leads around a lagoon into the whimsical theater, designed to look like a giant blue cenote.

Seated at your table by your lovely flower-costumed hostess, you’ll be delighted by the colorful chandeliers, pearly blue plates and breadsticks shaped like trees.

And what’s this? Why, an edible menu!

Riviera Maya excursions? You must watch Joya
While eating dinner, we were entertained by jazz singers and tango dancers (Credit: Vidanta Riviera Maya)

The three-course dinner starts one hour before Joya begins.

Sip Moet & Chandon. (Cirque has the exclusive license to supply Moet & Chandon in Mexico, so in Mexico you can only drink this bubbly at Joya.)

Nibble on smoked salmon appetizers and choose from a braised rib or salmon main course.

Just be sure to save room for the quartet of desserts – from a coconut jam pudding to a sinful chocolate confection, served in a surprising dish.

And then…

Be mesmerized as you watch trapeze artists swinging on vines, a mermaid contortionist, jugglers, an Olympic gold-medal gymnast, masked wrestlers and other artists perform incredible feats.

Riviera Maya tours and excursions: See Joya
The Cirque du Soleil Joya show is only performed in the Riviera Maya; it’s magical! (Credit: Cirque du Soleil)

It was our first Cirque du Soleil – and we were utterly enchanted.

Watching this show is something you must do in Riviera Maya, even if you’ve seen Cirque du Soleil performances before!

6) Take the ferry to Cozumel

One of the best Riviera Maya excursions you can make is a day trip to Cozumel.

Cozumel is a relatively small island a short ferry ride away from Playa del Carmen. It’s particularly known for its excellent scuba diving (and snorkeling).

A day trip to Cozumel is a fun excursion from Playa del Carmen.
A day trip to Cozumel is a fun excursion from Playa del Carmen

One idea: Rent a jeep or car and drive along the 45-mile paved road that circles much of the island (there are some rentals near the Cozumel ferry dock).

Stop at scenic viewpoints or beaches as the mood hits you, and grab lunch at one of the many beachside restos that dot the route.

A good tip is to plan your Cozumel day trip for when there are no cruise ships in the port at Cozumel. This way, you won’t have to share the island with thousands of other day-trippers.

How to get to Cozumel from Playa del Carmen

There are two passenger-only ferries to Cozumel:

They leave from the ferry dock in Playa del Carmen. The ride takes about 30- to 35-minutes.

You can get your round-trip Cozumel ferry tickets here.

If you’re wondering whether to bunk down in Cozumel, read our post on Cancun vs. Cozumel to find out which option is a better holiday base for you.

7) Get your thrills at Xplor

Looking for heart-pumping thrills?

One of the most adventurous things to do in Riviera Maya is to hit the Xplor adventure park.

It’s the place for ziplining in Riviera Maya.

Fun things to do in Riviera Maya? Ziplining
Who’s having fun ziplining in the Riviera Maya? Janice, of course!

It has some of the highest and most extreme ziplines in Latin America – two circuits of 14 bad-ass ziplines.

On the highest Xplor zipline, you’re flying almost 150 feet above the ground. At the end of another zipline, you splash down into a cenote.

We’ve tried ziplining before (in Thailand, Canada, and elsewhere in Mexico). Despite this, one of us (would that be the fairer one?) really had to be persuaded not to wimp out! The ziplining at Xplor is genuinely intimidating.

But it was fun, really!

If you’re feeling a bit nervous about the ziplining, you can ask to be tethered to your traveling companion (though once you get the hang of it, you’re sure to feel comfortable enough to go it alone).

Plan to spend a full day at the park because there’s a lot more to do too… Like riding amphibious ATV-style vehicles through the Mayan jungle and rafting through underground caves.

Xplor, Mexico
Rock on! At Xplor, it’s a bumpy, fun and wet ride (Credit: Xplor)

The fun doesn’t stop when the sun goes down either.

There’s also the option to explore Xplor (oh, bad pun) at night from 5:30 pm to 11:30 pm. A BBQ rib dinner buffet is included in the Explor Fuego Park night experience.

Xplor Riviera Maya tickets

  • Daytime: The daytime (9:00 am to 5:00 pm) all-inclusive Xplor entry ticket price includes all adventure activities, plus lunch and smoothies or juices.
  • Daytime with transportation: If you don’t have a car, see this Xplor Park ticket with transportation. It includes roundtrip transportation from various pick-up locations and hotels along the Riviera Maya.
  • Night: For Xplor Fuego at night (with the dinner buffet), see this night-time Xplor ticket. It includes transportation from hotels in Cancun, Playa del Carmen and elsewhere in the Riviera Maya.

Things to do in Tulum

Tulum, Mexico
Ahhh, beautiful hippie-chic Tulum!

Chilled-out Tulum is one of Mexico’s coolest (hottest?) resort destinations, attracting an international mix of European and North American visitors.

It’s so magical that it’s been designated one of the Pueblos Magicos in Mexico (“magic towns”).

The town of Tulum is located right by Highway 307 (the highway connecting Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum).

There are different areas where you can stay in Tulum. But most of Tulum’s eco-chic boutique hotels are strung along a sugar-white, seven-mile beach. 

8) Bicycle around Tulum

One of the cool things to do in the Riviera Maya (and a fun way to see Tulum) is to go biking in Tulum.

We rented bicycles and went for an exploratory ride. There are many little bike rental stands around. And the cost is only a few dollars for a couple of hours.

Bicycling is one of the best things to do in Tulum, Mexico.
Bicycling is a great way to explore Tulum

If you’re looking for more exciting activities in Mayan Riviera, there’s this Tulum cenote bicycle tour.

Along with exploring the lush Mayan forests near Tulum, you’ll get to swim and snorkel through a mix of caverns, underground rivers and sunlit sinkholes.

9) Enjoy the beaches in Tulum

With white sand beaches lapped by azure waters, Tulum is paradise for beach bums!

Be sure to hit Playa Paraiso, one of the main beaches in Tulum.

Hang out on a beach in Tulum
Hang out on a beach in Tulum

Unfortunately, the last time we visited, a brown seaweed called “sargassum” had invaded many of the Riviera Maya’s shores.

Hopefully, when you visit, you won’t encounter sargassum on that gorgeous Tulum beach you’re lazing about on (though it’s still an ongoing issue in 2024).

The scratchy sargassum makes swimming unpleasant. Not so good for tourists who like pristine beaches, but great for the coral reefs and marine life, which thrive on the seaweed!

Different methods are being used to combat the sargassum problem.

At some resorts, hotel workers bury the seaweed in the sand to make the beaches prettier to look at.

Other resorts use a network of boats to collect the sargassum offshore. Some even install an offshore barrier, preventing the seaweed from washing up on the beach.

We understand the Riviera Maya seaweed comes and goes, and there are times when it doesn’t appear at all.

The hotels have been tasked with tackling the problem. So, when you’re booking a beachfront hotel, have a quick peek at the latest reviews to see if they’re keeping things in check.

The seaweed didn’t bother us too much though. We could still lounge by the beach, but we’d mostly swim in our hotel pool instead of the sea.

10) See the Mayan Riviera ruins of Tulum

Go on, dive in! The Tulum ruins beach had no sargassum when we visited
Go on, dive in! This beach at Tulum had no sargassum when we visited

One beach we noticed that didn’t have any seaweed issues was the beach below Tulum’s Mayan ruins.

Built by the sea, Tulum is the most beautiful of the ancient Mayan cities.

Iguana at Tulum ruins
We saw lots of iguanas enjoying the sunshine at the Mayan Riviera ruins of Tulum

Today the ancient ruins in Tulum are one of the most popular attractions in the Mayan Riviera. You’ll definitely want to visit them!

Bring your swimsuit, then you can cool off with a swim there afterward.

11) Do yoga in Tulum

How would you like to practice your down-dogs and sun salutations at a yoga class in Tulum?

yoga in Tulum - yoga at sanara
Eco-chic Lula offers daily yoga in Tulum in an ocean-view studio (Credit: Lula/Sanara)

Jungle-meets-beach in feel, Lula (formerly Sanara) is a lovely contemporary boutique hotel with a glass-walled beachfront yoga studio. Bonus: The studio features full-on views of the blue surf.

Their daily yoga classes are renowned and open to outside guests.

Other places where you can do yoga in Tulum include Zenses Resort, Holistika and Alaya Tulum. (Their yoga sessions are open to non-hotel guests.)

Alternatively, this SUP yoga class in Sian Ka’an offers something a little different.

You’ll take part in a truly unique yoga class – on a Boga SUP yoga paddleboard – in one of Mexico’s largest protected areas. After the 75-minute session, you can paddle around the lagoon at your leisure. Return transfers from Tulum Pueblo are included.

12) Snorkel with turtles in Akumal

You'll see sea turtles grazing on sea grass when snorkeling in Akumal.
You’ll see Akumal sea turtles grazing on sea grass when snorkeling in Akumal

Akumal Bay is about 16 miles north of Tulum on Highway 307.

Meaning “place of the turtles” in Mayan, Akumal is one of the oldest coastal resort areas in the Yucatan.

It’s also a nesting and feeding site for green and loggerhead turtles which graze on the sea grasses found off the Yucatan coast. Here, you can snorkel with sea turtles in the wild.

Snorkeling with turtles in Akumal is one of the most special activities in Riviera Maya. The mornings tend to be busier, so go in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. 

How to visit Akumal

Technically, the beach is public and free.

But practically speaking, you have to pay an entrance fee of about $5 USD to access the beach if you’re coming on your own.

Check in first at Akumal’s ecological center to watch a short video on responsible snorkeling. This will help you experience Akumal turtle snorkeling without disturbing the wildlife. They can also refer you to a guide and equipment rentals.

If you’d like to go on a guided tour, you should try this highly-rated Tulum, sea turtles and cenotes” day trip.

It combines snorkeling with the Akumal sea turtles with a trip to the Tulum ruins and even a cenote swim. Transfers from your Cancun or Riviera Maya hotel are included, along with lunch.

13) Kick back at La Buena Vida Beach Club

On Halfmoon Bay near Akumal, La Buena Vida is the coolest beach club – for adults as well as families.

This beach bar and restaurant has tables in the sand, a pool to swim in, hammocks and bean bags for lounging, and bar swings. There’s even a treehouse for the kids to climb.

You must try the tamarind margaritas – they’re absolutely delicious!

Tamarind margarita
You’ll love the tamarind margaritas at La Buena Vida!

On the food menu? Shrimp fritters, fresh salads, fish tacos, ribs, and burgers.

Because La Buena Vida is right on the beach, you can go for a swim while waiting your food.

In fact, the beach vibe is so chill you might end up spending the whole afternoon and evening here!

If you’re looking for things to do in Riviera Maya for couples, swinging by La Buena Vida is a fantastic choice.

14) Take a Sian Ka’an Tour

The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage site, located south of Tulum – a 1.3 million-acre nature preserve.

As a biosphere, all living habitat is protected, including local Maya people who live in buffer zones on the edges.

Most of the reserve’s wetlands, tropical forest and mangrove lagoons are untouched and inaccessible.

However, a special section is open, which you can visit for sustainable tourism exploration.

Explore the Muyil ruins

Muyil is one of the oldest of the Mayan Riviera ruins and cities
Muyil is one of the oldest of the Mayan Riviera ruins and cities

First up on our Sian Ka’an tour was a visit to the archaeological site of Muyil. This was a tromp across rocky paths, slippery with green moss.

“Muyil” means “pile of rocks”- and indeed, most of the buildings have indeed been reduced to piles of rocks by banyan tree roots. Even so, a few steep-walled pyramids remain, entangled by vines.

Because of its relatively remote location, buried in the humid rainforest, Muyil is visited by far fewer people than Tulum. 

The Muyil ruins feel wilder, more raw. It almost felt like we had time-traveled back to the movie set of Raiders of the Lost Ark!

Beware the poisonwood trees!

In the rainforest, we learned about native tree – and some of their perilous aspects.

Thorns on the trunk of the sacred Ceiba tree (the Mayan "tree of life")
Thorns on the trunk of the sacred Ceiba tree (the Mayan “tree of life”)

The black poisonwood trees are the ones to be wary of.

Stand under a black poisonwood tree in the rain, and the dripping sap will burn your skin.

The antidote comes from the sap of the “tourist tree” – so named for its red peeling bark.

Walking in the tropical rainforest on our Sian Ka'an tour
Walking in the tropical rainforest on our Sian Ka’an tour

Float down a river

Eventually our walk took us to a dock, where a small panga ferried us across two lagoons to a gently flowing river.

What to do in the Mayan Riviera? Explore Sian Ka'an
We caught a boat ride here to cross a couple of lagoons for our “lazy river” float

Slipping into the water and using our life jackets as flotation devices, we floated down the river, pushed by the current.

Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any (harmless) baby crocodiles or manatees. You’re more likely to encounter them if you go earlier in the day.

But we saw many eagles, ibises, pelicans, herons and other birds in the mangroves. And the natural lazy river experience was novel – and fun!

Sian Kaan tours
If you’re lucky, you’ll spy baby crocodiles (harmless!) on your float (Credit: Alltournative Ecological Adventures)

Back at the Sian Ka’an visitor center, we tucked into a very late Mayan lunch of pibil chicken (made with red achiote seeds, in tomato paste), cooked in banana leaf.

The natural wonders of Sian Ka’an are a far cry from the big adventure theme parks like Xcaret and Xplor in the Riviera Maya.

If you’re a nature lover – or just want to get away from the main tourist attractions – put Sian Ka’an on your list of must-do Riviera Maya activities.

Sian Ka’an tours

We booked our day trip with Sian Ka’an Community Tours (based in Tulum). Our tour with them was excellent.

Another great option is this exciting Sian Ka’an boat trip. Offered by Tulum-based Mexico Kan Tours, it gets top marks and has 800+ 5-star reviews. You’ll spot wildlife, relax on stunning beaches and savor a delightful Caribbean lunch.

15) Eat fresh tacos

Cravin’ tacos? Mouth-watering, oh-so-fresh, really delicious tacos? Then get yourself to Taqueria Honorio Tulum.

Along with vegetarian and fish tacos, this small, cheap no-frills Mexican food joint serves up some mean cochinita pibil tacos (pulled pork).

Expect to wait a bit (reservations aren’t taken), as it’s a popular spot with both locals and tourists.

You can also taste a variety of tacos at several different taquerias on this popular Tulum taco-and-tamale walking tour.

Things to do near Cancun

There’s no doubt that Cancun is famous for its white sand beaches. But there’s more to Cancun than just the beach.

The area surrounding Cancun is rich in culture, history and biodiversity. You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to interesting things to do around Cancun!

16) Swim with whale sharks at Isla Holbox

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world

How would you like to snorkel with some amazing underwater creatures?

Then you must swim with whale sharks in Isla Holbox. It’s one of the best Riviera Maya day trips you can do from Cancun.

We’ve swum with whale sharks in La Paz (near Cabo San Lucas in Mexico). And it truly is an unforgettable experience.

Whale sharks are sharks, which are part of the fish family. But they’re completely harmless. They’re the largest fish in the sea – some are larger than 40 feet long.

When whale sharks are spotted, you slide into the water from your boat, and snorkel alongside them. They swim just a few feet below the water’s surface.

Whale shark season, Cancun

The Isla Holbox and Cancun whale shark season is May to mid-September.

That’s when an estimated 800 whale sharks (the largest congregation of whale sharks in the world) gather to feed on plankton in the warm waters off the tiny island of Isla Holbox, north of Cancun.

Cancun whale shark tours

Swimming with whale sharks at Isla Holbox is one of the best Riviera Maya excursions!
Swimming with whale sharks at Isla Holbox is one of the best Riviera Maya excursions!

Many visitors book their all-day whale shark tour from Cancun or wherever they’re staying on the Mayan Riviera, which includes round-trip transportation.

There’s even a chance to see manta rays, dolphins and turtles on the adventure. You finish off the day with a late lunch on Isla Mujeres.

But the tour does involve a 2-hour powerboat ride to get to where the whale sharks feed. And unfortunately, the ride can be choppy, and sea sickness can be an issue for some people on the boat ride.

Isla Holbox whale shark tours

The other option for swimming with whale sharks in Cancun is to catch an early morning bus from Cancun to Chiquila (a ride of about 3+ hours), then the ferry (½ hour ride) to Isla Holbox.

You’re then able to take your whale shark tour from the island. For example, this whale shark adventure from Isla Holbox has received a “Badge of Excellence.”

Isla Holbox boasts undeveloped beaches and a laid-back vibe. And you can swim with whale sharks there too!
Isla Holbox is renowned for its undeveloped beaches and laid-back vibe

The island boasts beautiful white sand beaches, and there are places to stay in Isla Holbox. Some people stay overnight on Isla Holbox – so they’re fresh and ready to go for their whale shark tour the next morning.

There may still be 1- to 2-hour boat ride to reach the whale sharks’ feeding site, but the waters are calmer than from Cancun. So this can be a better option if you’re not great with boat rides.

17) Tour Chichen Itza

Chichen-Itza is an spectacular Mayan city in the jungle
Chichen-Itza is a spectacular Mayan city in the jungle

Chichen Itza is one of the most important archaeological sites in Mexico. This vast complex of Mayan ruins is recognized as one of the seven New Wonders of the World.

Full of enormous pyramids and other monuments (including the Grand Ball Court, where the Mayans played to the death), the ancient city is amazing to behold.

Don’t miss it. It’s one of the best day trips from Cancun.

How to visit Chichen Itza

Snuggled deep in the jungle, Chichen Itza is about a 2-hour drive from Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

Here’s an excellent all-day small-group tour of Chichen Itza that includes a cenote swim and visit to the colonial city of Valladolid as well. (Hotel pick-up and drop-off, along with lunch, is included too.)

Or go early and beat the crowds on this top-notch private guided tour. It includes a cooling dip at Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman (or other cenote of your choice), followed by an à la carte lunch in Valladolid.

18) Explore Isla Mujeres in a golf cart

One of the best excursions in Riviera Maya is to visit Isla Mujeres.

This tiny laidback island is just across the Bay of Women from Cancun.

A great day trip from Cancun is to take the ferry to Isla Mujeres.
A great day trip from Cancun is to take the ferry to Isla Mujeres

Reached by a 20-minute ferry ride, Isla Mujeres is popular as a day trip from Cancun as well as an overnight escape.

When you get to the island, we suggest you rent a golf cart from one of the rental companies near the ferry terminal. This will allow you to tootle around the island freely.

Be sure to check out Playa Norte. Sprinkled with beach bars and restaurants, this beautiful white sand beach is the perfect place to chill for a while.

But don’t spend all your time there, because you must also explore the rocky outcropping of Punta Sur on the southern tip of the island.

Home to the Mayan ruins of Ixchel Temple, it’s bordered by a waterfront walkway with stunning views.

Other stops on your Isla Mujeres golf cart tour should include the colorful Crayola House (which resembles a box of crayons) and Garrafon Natural Reef Park.

Luxury Isla Mujeres sailing tour

Alternatively, if you’d rather have the organization done for you, you can sail on a luxury catamaran to Isla Mujeres.

Enjoy an open bar, snorkeling, swimming at Playa Norte and a Mexican buffet at a beach club – all on this fun excursion from Cancun.

19) Snorkel at an underwater art museum

One of the most unique Riviera Maya tourist attractions is the Museo Subacuatico de Arte or MUSA, found off the coast of Cancun.

Check out the eerie sculptures at the Cancun underwater museum (MUSA).
Check out the eerie sculptures at the Cancun underwater museum (MUSA)

This amazing underwater art installation consists of several sunken galleries, where more than 500 life-size sculptures are attached to the ocean floor.

They’re made of materials that encourage coral reefs to grow, so sea life can find new places to thrive.

How to visit MUSA

You can only see these sculptures by scuba diving, snorkeling or going out on a glass bottom boat.

Try this high-speed adventure tour in Cancun, where you’ll zip across the water on speed boat and snorkel at several Riviera Maya attractions.

You’ll explore the mangrove canals of Nichupte Lagoon and the clear blue waters near the Punta Nizuc National Park reef, wrapping up with a visit to the MUSA underwater museum.

Or you might like this 4-hour snorkeling tour of MUSA and Manchones Reef.

Other things to do in the Yucatan

Wait. We’re not finished yet! There are still more great Yucatan Peninsula activities to enjoy.

20) Take a dip in a cenote

The Riviera Maya region of Mexico is peppered with more than 300 cenotes.

Cenotes are cave pools fed by underground freshwater rivers, with openings to the sky where the roof has collapsed.

Things to do in Mexico's Riviera Maya? Snorkeling or swimming in a cenote is unique.
Things to do in Mexico’s Riviera Maya? Snorkeling or swimming in a cenote is unique

The ancient Mayan people who lived in the Yucatan believed cenotes were gateways to the underworld. (They sometimes threw sacrificial victims and buried their dead in cenotes.)

When you see the fantastic stalactites and stalagmites inside some of these beautiful cenotes in the Mayan Riviera, you’ll think they’re other-worldly too!

Many cenotes in Mexico are filled with amazing stalactites and stalagmites.
Many cenotes are filled with amazing stalactites and stalagmites

One of the special cenote systems we explored was at the Jungle Maya eco-park, where we rapelled down into Sac-Actun.

Sac-Actun is the world’s longest underground river and cenote system, mapped by National Geographic cave divers. Mayan artifacts have been found here, along with 12,000-year-old human bones.

After a Maya shaman blessing, we snorkeled through the dark waters (underwater flashlights in hand). We followed our guide through astonishingly beautiful freshwater caves.

Gran Cenote is one of the most popular cenotes, partly because it’s only a few minutes away from Tulum. It also has lots of turtles and fish, with birds and bats flying above you.

Of all the top things to do in Riviera Maya, snorkeling or floating in the crystal clear water of a cenote (or three cenotes!) is our #1 pick.

Having fun on a rope swing at a Riviera Maya cenote
Having fun on a rope swing at a cenote

Next time we visit the Riviera Maya, we’d love to try scuba diving in a cenote.

In fact, this 2-tank cenote scuba diving adventure lets you dive into the heart of these natural wonders.

21) Sleep in an overwater bungalow

You don’t have to jet off to the Maldives or Bora Bora for overwater bungalows. There are overwater bungalows in Mexico’s Caribbean region too!

Overwater bungalows at Palafitos Overwater Bungalows at El Dorado
For a unique experience, stay in one of these 30 overwater bungalows (Credit: El Dorado Spa Resorts)

One of Mexico’s best beaches is Maroma Beach. It’s found about 11 miles north of Playa del Carmen.

And here, jutting out from the white sands, you can find the adults-only Palafitos Overwater Bungalows at El Dorado.

They’re Mexico’s first and true bungalows perched over the water.

A stay here is all-inclusive (which is good, as there aren’t other eating places nearby).

Climb down the ladder from your balcony directly into the azure waters for a swim. Peek through the glass floors in your room at the mesmerizing water. Sip cold ones in the private pool on your deck, then rinse off under your outdoor shower.

Yes, these bungalows are pretty exclusive!

22) Try a Temazcal

A Temazcal is a Mayan sweat lodge experience and purification ceremony. It was originally reserved only for priests, kings and Mayan athletes.

Temezcal at Azulik
We didn’t try a Temazcal; we found it hot enough in the Mayan Riviera! (Credit: Azulik)

Today, many travelers are interested in experiencing this ancient cleansing tradition for themselves – it’s said to be incredibly relaxing.

It’s not for the claustrophobic though.

You hunker down inside a domed rock igloo to meditate and sweat, as your shaman chants and herbed vapors swirl around.

It’s definitely one of the more unique things to do in Riviera Maya!

The Temazcal at the Wayan Spa (Credit: Viceroy Riviera Maya)
The Temazcal at the Wayan Spa (Credit: Viceroy Riviera Maya)

Where to go for a Temazcal

Several local towns and resorts in the Riviera Maya have sweat lodges and offer a version of the Temazcal.

For an upscale personally-tailored Temazcal, we’d suggest the Mayan-inspired Wayak Spa at the Viceroy Riviera Maya.

23) Visit the botanical gardens in Puerto Morelos

The Jardin Botanico Dr. Alfredo Barrer Marin is one of the best places to visit in Riviera Maya for nature lovers.

Found near the small beach town of Puerto Morelos, these botanical gardens comprise 160 acres of medicinal plants, an orchid garden, 300-year-old trees, native palms and other plants and bushes.

Explore the mangroves by boardwalk, cross a suspension bridge and keep your eyes peeled for howler monkeys.

You can take a colectivo to get there (see Transportation below).

Just remember to bring bug spray to protect against annoying mozzies.

Traveling to Riviera Maya: Tips

To make the most of your stay, traveling to the Riviera Maya requires a little planning. You’ll want to figure out the best time to go for you, decide on where you want to stay and know how to get around.

Read on…

Where to stay in Riviera Maya

Grand Velas Riviera Maya

Are you a foodie?

Then you’ll love the Grand Velas Riviera Maya, a luxury all-inclusive resort known for its excellent dining. We certainly drooled over its wide range of restaurants.

Tulum accommodations

Tulum is your happy place if you like boho-chic boutique hotels. We’ve actually written a whole post about the best places to stay in Tulum on the beach.

Lula (a Colibri Boutique Hotel), for example, has 19 minimalist-style (air-conditioned) rooms on a beautiful stretch of Tulum Beach, plus a beachside yoga studio and superb vegan restaurant.

Lula Tulum
This is a lovely boutique Tulum hotel (Credit: Lula)

Or you can save a little money and stay in Tulum Town.

It’s no hardship though at Hotel Bardo, where rooms come with private pools and open-air showers.

Indeed, there are many hotels in Tulum with private plunge pools!

Other luxury accommodation options?

We mentioned there are some fabulous overwater bungalows in Mexico near Playa del Carmen. (There’s also a resort in Bacalar too.)

As for all-inclusive options, Secrets Silversands and the Hyatt Zilara Cancun are among the other best all-inclusive resorts in the Cancun and Riviera Maya area.

Best time to visit Riviera Maya

The best time to visit the Riviera Maya is between late November and early March. This is the dry season (and also the high tourist season).

Just know that the weather will be hot and tropical – but that’s why you’re going, right?

The rainy season is from May to October, with the most rain falling typically in September and October.


How to get to Riviera Maya

Flights to the Riviera Maya arrive at Cancun International Airport.

There are a number of ways to get to your hotel or resort.

Taxi, rental car or public bus

You can take a taxi, rent a car or hop on the ADO bus from the airport to Playa del Carmen or Tulum.

(As for the bus, we’ve ridden the first-class buses in Mexico for longer distances – and they really are first-class. You’ll find the ADO bus quite comfortable.)

Private airport transfers

There are also options for pre-booking airport transfers with various companies.

We recommend this highly-rated private luxury SUV service from the Cancun airport. It makes your airport-to-hotel transfer easy. (The cost varies, depending on whether you’re going to Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, etc.)

Or you can arrange an airport transportation pick-up with your hotel before arrival.

How to get around the Riviera Maya

Small mini-vans called colectivos zip along Highway 307 between Cancun and Tulum all day long.

They are air-conditioned and a great inexpensive way to get around from place to place.

That wraps up our post on Mayan Riviera activities!

The sheer diversity of this slice of paradise has us itching to return soon.

You’ve got everything from Tulum’s chill beaches to Playa del Carmen’s buzzing vibe. Each spot is a unique mix of adventure, culture and relaxation.

Whether you’re ziplining at Xplor, paddle boarding at dawn or swimming in hidden cenotes, there’s a thrill for everyone.

So, when are you planning your adventure to Mexico’s Riviera Maya?

And if you have any thoughts you want to share, you can do so in the Comments section below.

Experience more of Mexico!

Los Cabos: From whale watching to sunset cruises by Land’s End, check out these epic things to do in Cabo San Lucas.

Colonial cities: Explore the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico. We’ve visited many of them!

Zihuatanejo: Here’s all you need to know about the beaches in Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa.

Trying to decide between different Mexican hot spots? Cabo vs. Cancun – which is better? What about Cancun vs. Puerto Vallarta?

Our top travel tips and resources

Hotels: is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)

Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more.

Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)

Need more help planning your trip? Check out our travel tips and resources guide for airline booking tips, ways to save money, how to find great hotels and other crazy useful trip planning info.

Pssst! If you make a booking or purchase through our site, we may earn a small commission (at no cost to you). Thanks!

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Best things to do in Riviera Maya
Things to do in Riviera Maya

Photo credits: 17, 28 to 32 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase

About the authors

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!


Thursday 27th of May 2021

Great content about Mexico! Thanks for sharing your experience. I also had a great time there, especially diving with the bull sharks in Playa del Carmen!

Janice and George

Thursday 27th of May 2021

Thanks for letting us know :-). The bull shark diving sounds like an interesting experience. We'll have to look into this further!

Kyuo Yun

Tuesday 10th of March 2020

Hi, love your blog! Our family is thinking of going spring break 2020... Can you tell me the conditions of the beaches? Especially in Tulum? Thanks!


Janice and George

Tuesday 10th of March 2020

We're jazzed you like our blog - thanks!

As for the Riviera Maya beaches, the seaweed is still there, but the hotels are working hard to keep it at bay with offshore barriers. Have a look at this 2020 update on the Sargassum seaweed affecting Mexico's beaches. If you go, have a great trip!

Fraser Laveay

Tuesday 24th of December 2019

Loved all of this. Thanks for some ideas for one of the best places on earth. I used yours and this article for a great trip to the Riviera Maya!

Janice and George

Wednesday 25th of December 2019

Glad you found our suggestions helpful... And glad you loved your trip!


Thursday 7th of June 2018

Wow what an amazing post! I absolutely recommend visiting between April and June because prices of condos, tours and airplane tickets drop then!

Janice and George

Thursday 7th of June 2018

Very true :-). Shoulder season is always good for deals!


Sunday 12th of June 2016

It's been so long since we've visited Tulum I can't even remember. Probably more than 15 years. We used to go very often in Mexico but we stopped going after a while. We noticed they didn't treat as nicely as they did many years ago. Things might have changed in the meantime, but we have already seen this area so many times that we don't feel like going back. It seems you were have having a blast though. Ziplining? I knew you are brave, but not quite that brave, Janice. Good for you, though. Did George try it too? Great pictures, like always.

Janice and George

Tuesday 14th of June 2016

We find the Mexican people very friendly, especially those in the hotel and restaurant service business, so we like going to Mexico :-). And yes, George went ziplining too! (And, no, not brave, just "close our eyes and hope for the best!")