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Your beach chair is positioned just so under a palm tree to take in the cerulean sea. The margaritas are stiff and cold. Life is perfect at your luxury resort in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, thank you very much.
But chilling is just one of the best things to do in Riviera Maya.
A slew of Riviera Maya activities are loads of fun too!
Things to do in Riviera Maya
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.
The Riviera Maya refers to the 100-mile stretch of coastline on the Yucatan Peninsula, running just south of Cancun to Tulum and beyond.
The cute coastal city of Playa del Carmen is halfway between Cancun and Tulum.
You’ll discover cenotes – natural limestone sinkholes filled with tequila-clear freshwater – where you can snorkel among amazing stalactites and stalagmites. Adventure ecoparks (ziplining above the forest anyone?). Ancient Mayan ruins (some you can even climb). A UNESCO biosphere reserve for immersing yourself in nature – that’s Sian Ka’an.
And a whole lot more!
Checking out what to do in Riviera Maya
We write a lot about Mexico, and we’ve visited Mexico on many trips.
One time, we were asked by a magazine to curate itineraries for five dreamy days, to suit different traveling styles, for a Riviera Maya cover feature.
How could we say no?
So we jetted off to the fabled Caribbean coastline and set to work to specifically experience all the wonderful things to do in the Yucatan.
Tough job, right?
19 Cool things to do in the Mayan Riviera
Here in this post (based on all our trips to Cancun and the Yucatan), we highlight our favorite things to do on the Mayan Riviera that every visitor should put on their list – 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 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.
The top-rated Aloha Paddle Club rents a range of SUP boards and also offers lessons.
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
One of several theme parks in the region, Xcaret Eco-Park is a theme-cum-ecological-park.
It’s huge – and one of the top attractions in Riviera Maya.
It boasts everything from a replica of a Mayan village to evening entertainment, complete with a horse exhibition and pre-Hispanic dances – more than 50 natural and cultural attractions in all.
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.
3) Shop on 5th Avenue
No, not the famous 5th Avenue in NYC. We’re talking La Quinta (5th Avenue) in Playa del Carmen.
The main street in Playa del Carmen, it runs for about three miles through the town.
Along with restaurants and bars, you’ll also find dozens of shops selling everything from ceramic plates and jewelry to leather handbags and embroidered children’s clothes.
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.
The water is especially lovely in all its different hues of turquoise and blue.
It costs 50 pesos (about $2.30 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.
Do you go ga-ga over gorgeous beaches? Then check out these 21+ prettiest beaches in the world!
5) Experience the magic of Joya
For a special evening, book the champage dinner show of Joya.
This Cirque du Soleil Joya performance is only held in the Riviera Maya, nowhere else in the world – at a magical venue purpose-built for Joya.
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!
The three-course dinner starts one hour before Joya begins.
Sip Moet & Chandon. (Cirque has the exclusive licence to supply Moet & Chandon in Mexico, so in Mexico you can only drink this bubbly at Joya.) And 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.
It was our first Cirque du Soleil – and we were utterly enchanted.
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).
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.
You’ll want to plan your Cozumel day trip for a day when there are no cruise ships in port in Cozumel, so you don’t have to share the island with thousands of other day-trippers.
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 Xplor.
This adventure park is the place for ziplining in Riviera Maya. 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 done ziplining before (in Thailand, Canada and elsewhere in Mexico). One of us (would that be the fairer one?) really had to be strong-armed not to whimp out of the ziplining at Xplor.
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 the 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.
Things to do in Tulum
Chilled-out Tulum is one of Mexico’s coolest (hottest?) resort destinations, attracting an international mix of European and North American visitors.
The town of Tulum is located right by Highway 307 (the highway connecting Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum), but Tulum’s eco-chic boutique hotels are strung along a sugar-white, seven-mile beach.
8) Bicycle around Tulum
A fun way to see the area 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.
9) Enjoy the beaches in Tulum
With white sand beaches lapped by azure waters, Tulum is paradise for beach bums! (Playa Paraiso is one of the main beaches 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.
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, or install an offshore barrier, to prevent 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.
It didn’t bother us though. We could still lounge by the beach, but we’d mostly swim in our hotel pool instead of the sea.
Where else are there great beaches in Mexico? Check out the 5 most beautiful beaches in Cabo San Lucas (you gotta love Lovers Beach!)
10) See the Mayan Riviera ruins of Tulum
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.
Today the Mayan ruins of 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?
Jungle-meets-beach in feel, Sanara is a lovely contemporary hotel with a glass-walled beachfront yoga studio, featuring full-on views of the blue surf.
It offers yoga in Tulum two or three times a day, and its 90-minute classes are open to outside guests.
If you’re a yogi, you’ll love doing yoga at Sanara Tulum.
12) Snorkel with turtles in Akumal
Akumal 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. There, you can snorkel with sea turtles in the wild.
Snorkeling with turtles in Akumal is one of the most popular things to do in Riviera Maya – especially in the morning. So go in the afternoon to avoid the crowds.
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 a treehouse kids can climb, tables in the sand, a pool to swim in, hammocks, bean bags for lounging and bar swings.
You must try the tamarind margaritas – they’re absolutely delicious!
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 there!
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. But a section is open for sustainable tourism exploration.
Explore the Muyil ruins:
First up on our Sian Ka’an tour was a visit to the archaeological site of Muyil and a tromp across rocky paths, slippery with green moss.
“Muyil” means “pile of rocks.” And most of the buildings have indeed been reduced to piles of rocks by banyan tree roots. But 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 trees.
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.
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.
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!
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.
15) Eat fresh fish tacos at Taqueria La Eufemia
Cravin’ tacos? Mouth-watering, oh-so-fresh, really delicious fish tacos? Then get yourself to Taqueria La Eufemia.
Add a great salsa bar (try the pineapple habanero salsa), ice-cold Mexican beer, friendly staff, decent prices and a great location on the beach – and you have the perfect taqueria!
Things to do near Cancun
16) Swim with whale sharks at Isla Holbox
How would you like to snorkel with one of the most amazing underwater creatures?
Then you must swim with whale sharks in Isla Holbox, a tiny island north of Cancun.
We’ve swum with whale sharks in La Paz, Mexico (near Cabo San Lucas). And it truly is an unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Whale sharks aren’t in fact sharks, but fish. They’re the largest fish in the sea – some are larger than 40 feet long. But they’re completely harmless.
When whale sharks are spotted, you slide into the water from your boat, and snorkel alongside them as they swim just a few feet below the water’s surface.
Whale shark season, Cancun:
The Isla Holbox and Cancun whale shark season is June to 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 Isla Holbox.
Cancun whale shark tours:
Many tourists book their tour from Cancun (or Playa del Carmen), where they stay. This typically involves a 2-hour powerboat ride to get to where the whale sharks feed.
Unfortunately, the ride can be choppy, and sea sickness can sometimes be an issue 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 (1/2-hour ride) to Isla Holbox, and take your whale shark tour from the island.
The island boasts beautiful white sand beaches, and there are places to stay in Isla Holbox. So some people stay overnight on Isla Holbox to do their whale shark tour there.
You still have a longish boat ride to reach the whale sharks’ feeding site, but some say the waters are calmer and sea sickness is less of a problem when you take a boat tour from Isla Holbox.
17) Explore Chichen Itza
A vast complex of Mayan ruins, Chichen Itza is one of the most important archaeological sites in Mexico.
Full of enormous pyramids and other monument (including the Grand Ball Court, where the Mayans played to the death), the ancient city is amazing to behold.
Other things to do in the Yucatan
18) Take a dip in a cenote
The Riviera Maya region of Mexico is peppered with more than 300 cenotes – cave pools fed by underground freshwater rivers, with openings to the sky where the roof has collapsed.
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 cenotes, you’ll think they’re other-worldly too!
One of the special cenote systems we explored was at Native Park Tulum (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.
A Maya shaman blessed us first, then we snorkeled in the dark (underwater flashlights in hand) behind our guide through astonishingly beautiful freshwater caves.
Of all the top things to do in Riviera Maya, snorkeling or floating in a cenote (or three!) is our #1 pick.
More cenotes? You bet! Read our post on the 10 most beautiful and best Riviera Maya cenotes
19) 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.
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.
Traveling to Riviera Maya: Tips
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. (Check rates and availability here.)
We drooled over the Grand Velas. See why: Eating at the Grand Velas Riviera Maya restaurants is like going on a 9-step foodie un-diet!
Other luxury all-inclusive accommodation options?
Secrets Silversands and the Hyatt Zilara Cancun are among the other best all-inclusive resorts in the Cancun and Riviera Maya area.
With 19 boho-chic rooms in a jungly setting, a beachside yoga studio and a private beach, Sanara Tulum is one of the sweetest boutique hotels in Tulum.
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 (also the high tourist season). Know that the weather will be hot and tropical – but that’s why you’re going, right?
The rainy season is May to October, and the months with the most rain are typically September and October.
How to get to Riviera Maya:
Flights to the Riviera Maya arrive at Cancun International Airport. To get to your hotel or resort, you can arrange an airport transportation with your hotel before arrival, take a taxi, rent a car or take the ADO bus from the airport to Playa del Carmen or Tulum.
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.
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.
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Photo credits: 14, 23 to 27 16, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase