So you’re in 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 is just one of the best things to do in Riviera Maya.
A slew of adventures and other activities are loads of fun too!
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 where is Riviera Maya?
The Mayan Riviera (or Riviera Maya) refers to the 100-mile stretch of coastline on the Yucatan Peninsula, running just south of Cancun to Tulum and beyond.
Hugging the Caribbean Sea, 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 temples and ruins (some you can even climb).
There’s also a vast 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
One time, a magazine asked us to 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 Mexican Caribbean coastline and set to work to specifically experience all the wonderful things to do in the Yucatan.
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
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 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.
Located at Fusion Beach in central Playa, the top-rated Aloha Paddle Club rents a range of SUP boards and also offers 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
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 a Mayan village to evening entertainment, complete with a horse exhibition and pre-Hispanic dances.
There are 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.
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.
3) Shop on 5th Avenue
No, not the famous Fifth 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 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.
The turquoise waters are especially lovely in all their different hues of 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.
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.
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.
Watching this show is something you must do in Riviera Maya, even if you’re not a newbie to Cirque du Soleil performances.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
But most of 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!
Be sure to hit Playa Paraiso, 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.
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 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?
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 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. There, 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.
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 here!
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 – this Mexican food joint is the perfect taqueria!
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
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 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 visitors book their organized 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 you’d take 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 do the boat tour from Isla Holbox.
17) Explore Chichen Itza
A vast complex of Mayan ruins, Chichen Itza (on the list of the seven New Wonders of the World) is one of the most important archaeological sites in Mexico.
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 daytrips from Cancun.
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.
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 so you can tootle around the island.
Be sure to check out Playa Norte. Sprinkled with beach bars and restaurants, this beautiful beach 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
(Next time we visit the Riviera Maya, we’d love to try scuba diving in a cenote.)
21) Sleep in an overwater bungalow
You don’t have to jet off to Bora Bora or the Maldives. Mexico has overwater bungalows too!
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 your 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.
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!
23) Visit the botanical gardens in Puerto Morelos
For nature lovers, one of the cool things to do in the Riviera Maya is to visit the Jardin Botanico Dr. Alfredo Barrer Marin.
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 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).
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.
Where to stay in Riviera Maya
Tulum is your happy place if you like boho-chic boutique hotels. We’ve actually written a whole post about the 30+ best luxury hotels in Tulum.
Sanara Tulum, 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.
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 (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.
That wraps up our post on Mayan Riviera activities!
Have you visited Mexico’s Riviera Maya? What did you love best? Let us know in the Comments below :-).
Like this Riviera Maya post? Then pin it to Pinterest!
Photo credits: 13, 22 to 26 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase