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 excursions 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.
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 the best excursions in the Mayan Riviera
We write a lot about Mexico.
And 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 experience for ourselves the best Riviera Maya tours and excursions.
Tough job, right?
9 fab things to do in Mayan Riviera
In this post, we highlight 9 of 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.
1) 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 cenote systems we explored was at the Jungle Maya ecopark (run by Alltournative Ecological Adventures), 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 possible excursions in Riviera Maya, snorkeling or floating in a cenote (or two!) would be our top pick. (Next visit, we’d love to try scuba diving in a cenote.)
Read more in our post: Check out the 10 most beautiful and best Riviera Maya cenotes
2) Chill out in Tulum
Spend a day in chilled-out Tulum, where eco-chic boutique hotels are strung along a sugar-white, seven-mile beach.
It’s one of Mexico’s coolest (hottest?) resort destinations, attracting an international mix of European and North American visitors.
And, as you might expect, there are many terrific things to do in Tulum.
Go for a bicycle ride:
Maybe 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.
Enjoy the beach in Tulum:
When 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 seaweed problems on that gorgeous Tulum beach. It makes swimming unpleasant along several beaches. 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 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.
Mayan Riviera ruins of Tulum:
One beach we noticed that didn’t have any seaweed issues was at the base below Tulum’s Mayan ruins.
Built by the sea, Tulum was 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 here afterward.
Don’t limit yourself to Tulum: These are the 5 most popular Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula
Yoga in Tulum and organic food:
You can also practice your down-dogs and sun salutations at a yoga class in Tulum.
Jungle-meets-beach in feel, Sanara is a lovely contemporary hotel.
And it has a glass-walled, beachfront yoga studio with full-on views of the blue surf. It offers yoga in Tulum two or three times a day, and its 90-minute yoga classes are open to outside guests.
Be sure to also stop in at The Real Coconut, Sanara’s beachfront eatery.
It serves up delicious organic meals (nacho chips are made from coconut) and the freshest smoothies.
3) 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 delight at 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.
4) 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.
5) Go snorkeling with turtles in Akumal
Akumal – which means “place of the turtles” in Mayan – is a nesting and feeding site for green and loggerhead turtles which graze on the sea grasses found off the Yucatan coast.
It’s also where 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.
To get there, you can catch the public colectivo bus from Playa del Carmen (the area’s thriving beach town and shopping and restaurant hub).
Check in first at the small ecological center to watch a short video about how to responsibly experience the Akumal turtle snorkeling. They can also refer you to a guide and equipment rentals.
6) Get your thrills at Xplor Adventure Park
Looking for heart-pumping thrills? Xplor is the area’s most adventurous theme park.
This 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, 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.
7) 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.
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.
8) 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.
We booked a daytrip with Sian Ka’an Community Tours (based in Tulum) – see their website. Our tour with them was excellent.
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.
9) 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, 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.
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.
Have you been to Cabo? See this: Los Cabos Travel Guide to an Awesome Holiday!
More Mexico travel inspiration
Here are just two more of our Mexico posts you might want to read now…
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Photo credits: 3 and 30 to 33 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase