Situated along the Caribbean coastline in the eastern portion of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, the Riviera Maya encompasses an 80-mile stretch between the popular resort city of Cancún in the north and the Mayan ruins of Tulum to the south.
Sporting magnificent beaches, clear turquoise waters, spectacular offshore coral reefs, incredible Mayan ruins and culture, eco-adventures, and delectable cuisine, this jungle paradise provides one unforgettable vacation experience. So much so that one visit here is never quite enough.
Mexico’s Caribbean coast is so full of fascinating treasures that visitors almost need a treasure map to find them all. With nine of our favorite things to do and explore here listed below, you’ll get a great start on your magnificent visit to the Riviera Maya:
Perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the waters of the Caribbean Sea, the former walled city of Tulum was one of the last to be built by the Mayans and its archaeological sites are still very much intact.
Each Mayan city had a specific purpose, and Tulum was no exception. This bustling seaport, trading heavily in turquoise and jade, was the only Mayan city located on the coast. Tulum is one of the best-preserved historic sites in Mexico and rumored to have some of the world’s best magical energy.
The main temple, El Castillo, was designed and engineered by astronomers to be in alignment with the sun on the summer solstice. Sunrise on the solstice shines directly through a series of windows in this magnificent structure. An expansive walkway extends out around the ruins while a wooden staircase leads down to a beach for swimming or sunbathing.
2. Akumal Bay
Akumal is a natural refuge for sea turtles laying their eggs on Half Moon Bay Beach between May and November. A wide expanse of its stunning white beaches encompasses a series of five bays. The protected offshore reefs make the area ideal for swimming, kayaking, snorkeling, and diving in its crystal-clear waters or exploring underground rivers.
The peaceful beachfront and palapas (thatched stands) were perfect for chilling out with a cold sangria and Mexican beer after our snorkeling adventure.
3. Dos Ojos Cenotes
Sacred to the ancient Mayans, cenotes (sacred well) are rare freshwater sinkholes formed thousands of years ago when limestone caved in and created underwater reservoirs. These cenotes (pronounced sen-o-tay) were vital to Mayan society as they provided a critical source of water during times of drought. They were also of religious significance as the Mayans believed them to be secret entrances to the underworld.
Dos Ojos (Two Eyes) was one of our favorites. Located on a nature preserve, two cenotes connect into a large cavern to form one of the longest underwater cave systems in the world. The azure waters are refreshingly cold and pure, providing a welcome respite from the heat of the day—and a spectacular setting for cave diving, snorkeling, and exploring.
4. Chichén Itzá
One of the main reasons visitors come to this region is to experience the most spectacular of ancient Mayan ruins, Chichén Itzá, Mexico’s second most-visited archeological site.
The massive, impressive ruins of Chichén Itzá reveal what was once a dazzling ancient city and major metropolis of the post-classic Mayan era from 750 AD to 1200 AD. Pyramided temples, royal houses, and other enormous stone structures sacred to the Maya are scattered throughout this expansive historic site. The most recognizable and breathtaking is the magnificent Temple of Kukulkan. This huge and towering stepped pyramid looms over the central plaza and demonstrates the astounding accuracy and importance of Maya astronomy.
During the spring or autumnal equinox, the play of late afternoon light and shadows creates a moving serpent that slithers down the 365 steps of the temple (built to represent each day of the year) before disappearing into the earth.
5. Puerto Morelos
While many visitors flock to the bustling coastal city of Playa del Carmen, we love the quaint, quieter, laid-back fishing village of Puerto Morelos, located between Cancún and Playa del Carmen with a genuine Yucatán flavor.
This charming bohemian town has only two principal streets and is one of the oldest communities on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Known for its iconic leaning lighthouse and colorful fishing boats, Puerto Morelos is also home to the National Marine Park, part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, and the second largest reef system in the world.
It also has fun shopping and great restaurants. It is the perfect place to enjoy a margarita.
6. Sail to a Secret Sandbar
There’s something about getting a different perspective of a destination, like seeing it from the water.
Our four-hour small-group Puerto Morelos catamaran cruise sailed through the tranquil waters of the lagoon giving us unobstructed views of the Caribbean coastline. We headed to offshore shallow beaches and sand bars inaccessible by traditional tour vehicles. Waters here were calm and accompanied by the whitest sand we’ve ever seen in the Caribbean.
It was the perfect place for swimming and learning stand-up paddle boarding. After a few initial tumbles, I finally got the hang of it! Lunch, snacks, and unlimited beverages were included in the excursion; we later agreed it was one of our most enjoyable and relaxing sails.
7. Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, Sian Ka’an, a place where heaven begins, is located near Tulum and represents sustainable tourism at its best. Renowned for its natural beauty, the spectacular reserve with jungles, marshes, coastal wetlands, shimmering lagoons, spectacular wildlife, and 23 Mayan archeological sites remains one of the largest protected areas in the Mexican Caribbean.
This best-kept secret near Tulum is so committed to the minimization of human environmental impact that its tours must be booked in advance and are limited to six people. Tours include nature encounters, boat excursions, reef snorkeling, mangrove treks (one of our favorites), and time to float in the refreshing waters of the mangrove channel.
8. Xcaret Adventure Park
With more than 50 natural and cultural attractions, the Riviera Maya theme park Xcaret (pronounced esh-ka-ret) is a magical Mexican coastal paradise.
Surrounded by jungle, underground rivers, and the Caribbean Sea, the park features tropical trails as well as access to the beach, inlets, and natural pools. One of our favorite activities was snorkeling with the sea turtles. In addition, Xcaret houses a coral reef aquarium, butterfly pavilion, and an aviary. We loved the main plaza with authentic Mayan food, handicrafts, and Mexican music along with its historic chapels, cemetery, and magnificent wine cellar. Paths in Xcaret traverse not only the jungle but also meander through caves leading to their Mayan village. The rich aroma of incense, the sound of ancestral drums, and hypnotic pre-Hispanic dances added to the magic of the moment.
At nightfall, The México Espectacular presentation is an amazing tribute to Mexico with 300 actors, live musicians, singers, and dancers showcasing traditional dances, Mexican history, and legends and cultures from the different regions of the country. It’s an unforgettable experience!
9. Dine in a Cave
The Riviera Maya takes great pride in its magnificent Mexican cuisine, a delightful mix of ancient and modern Spanish and Native American influences. While we’ve never had anything but top-notch meals here, one dining experience stands out among the rest for its food and fascinating setting.
The Alux Restaurant (pronounced a-loosh), located in the heart of Playa del Carmen, takes its name from the Alux, sprite-like mythical Mayan entities said to appear at night seeking places to hide and play. Located within the candlelit depths of a 10,000-year-old, naturally-formed cavern, the restaurant rambles through a grand spectacle of natural formations.
Surrounded by stalagmites, stalactites, and other fascinating rocks, Alux offers lavish and tantalizing, yet affordable offerings from both the land and sea with a Mayan twist.
The Riviera Maya encompasses all the elements of an ideal vacation. This exotic Mexican coast infused with Mayan and Caribbean influences provides something for everyone, whether it be relaxation, fascinating history, or adventure.
Hasta que nos encontremos de nuevo, Riviera Maya—until we meet again.
Last Updated on November 6, 2020