Mexico’s Riviera Maya is an absolute hotspot for travelers – and for good reason! It really has a little bit of everything for everyone: history, culture, food, and nature.
While it may be tempting to simply chill out all day by the beach and just let the days go by, there’s actually so many wonderful things to do and places to see… so get out there and explore Riviera Maya!
- 1 Where is Riviera Maya?
- 2 20 Best Things to Do in Riviera Maya
- 2.1 Visit Some of the Best Beaches in the World
- 2.2 Explore Cenotes in the Mexican Jungle
- 2.3 Discover Mayan History at Chichén Itzá
- 2.4 Take to the Skies by Parasailing
- 2.5 Get Up Close with Whale Sharks
- 2.6 Snorkel with Turtles at Akumal Bay
- 2.7 Snap Photos in Instagram-worthy Spots in Tulum
- 2.8 See the Tulum Ruins
- 2.9 Climb the Pyramid at the Coba Ruins
- 2.10 Marvel at the Underground Rivers and Caves of Rio Secreto
- 2.11 Check Out Cozumel
- 2.12 Chill Out at A Small Beach Town
- 2.13 Get Immersed in Mexican Food
- 2.14 Learn How to Cook Mexican Dishes in Playa del Carmen
- 2.15 Wonder at Nature at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere
- 2.16 Hop Over to Isla Mujeres
- 2.17 Discover Bacalar, the Lake of Seven Colors
- 2.18 Get to Know Tulum on a Bike Tour
- 2.19 Get Your Drink On in Playa With a Cocktail-Making Class
- 2.20 Escape to Isla Holbox
- 3 What NOT to Do in Riviera Maya
- 4 Where to Stay in Riviera Maya
Where is Riviera Maya?
Let’s begin by saying that Cancun traditionally isn’t part of the Riviera Maya… but these days, it is often considered part of the area. The Cancun airport is typically the landing point for tourists eager to explore the Riviera Maya.
Located on the Yucatan Peninsula, the Riviera Maya is an almost 100-mile stretch of coastline that begins south of Cancun in the town of Puerto Morales and winds all the way to the fishing village of Punta Allen. Beach towns like Tulum and Playa del Carmen as well as islands such as Cozumel and Isla Mujeres are all part of Riviera Maya.
There are loads to explore in this beautiful area, so here are our picks for the best things to do in Riviera Maya.
20 Best Things to Do in Riviera Maya
Visit Some of the Best Beaches in the World
Mexico is well-loved as a beach destination and for good reason! And if you’re headed to Riviera Maya, you definitely can’t miss the beaches. In fact, I’d guess that the beaches are a huge reason for your visit!
Some beaches to put on your list are Puerto Morales, Xpu-Ha, Xcacel Beach, Punta Bete, and Maroma Beach. Before you head out for some sun and sea, make sure you have everything you need with our beach packing list.
For more on Mexico’s beaches, check out this article.
Explore Cenotes in the Mexican Jungle
One unmissable experience you must have while in the Riviera Maya: visiting a cenote (or two… or more!).
This natural wonder will take your breath away, no matter which cenote you decide to go to. Whether it’s a fully open cenote, a half-open one, or even one that’s cavernous, these Mexican water holes are so spectacular. With crystal clear waters and lush greenery around you, you’ll feel like you’ve entered a mystical paradise.
There are lots of cenotes in the area, so just check which ones are the nearest to you and then decide the ones that are worth visiting.
You can DIY your cenote visit or opt for a guided tour that takes care of all the details. Check out this four-cenote adventure from Tulum (yes, four!) or this full-day excursion that includes cenotes and various activities.
Discover Mayan History at Chichén Itzá
One of the main attractions in Riviera Maya is the magnificent Mayan ruins called Chichén Itzá which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This pre-Hispanic city was built by the Mayans and there are over four square miles of it for you to explore.
The dominating structure is the step pyramid, El Castillo, but there are lots to explore including crumbling ruins, temples, and cenotes. This place is so rich in history that it’s well worth it to get a guide to get the most of your visit!
Tip: Make a day out of it with this tour of Chichén Itzá! It includes round-trip transportation, a local guide, entrance fee, lunch, and a visit to a cenote.
Take to the Skies by Parasailing
See the gorgeous coastline of Riviera Maya from a new perspective. Fly above the Caribbean Sea on a parasail and enjoy the thrill of it all!
On this parasailing adventure, you take to the skies at Playa Maroma, one of the most well-known beaches in the area. You’ll spend an exhilarating 12 minutes up in the air, so be sure to have your camera with you to capture the experience.
After your flight, you’ll get some snacks and drinks before heading back to your hotel.
Get Up Close with Whale Sharks
For a truly unforgettable experience, getting in the water with whale sharks is definitely one of the best things to do in Riviera Maya.
The waters in this area are part of the whale sharks migration route and this activity is available from May to September. You’ll be taken to the site where you’ll get the chance to jump into the water and snorkel alongside these spectacular creatures. Adult whales can measure up to 13 meters in length!
After two hours in the water with the whales, you’ll enjoy lunch at Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres before heading back. If you love marine life and being in the water, this is a must-do activity in Riviera Maya!
Snorkel with Turtles at Akumal Bay
Is the thought of swimming with whale sharks a little bit too much? How about snorkeling with sea turtles? Akumal Bay is one of the only places in the world where you can swim with turtles!
An activity that’s available all-year-round, this is an awesome way to see sea turtles in the wild. Three turtle species are commonly found here, and if you’re lucky you’ll see them all!
You can go to Akumal and do the activity on your own (there’s a dive shop where you can rent gear) but for a hassle-free day, consider taking a guided trip. This will often include transportation, snorkeling gear, and a guide. Some trips also include other activities like a visit to a cenote.
Snap Photos in Instagram-worthy Spots in Tulum
Calling all IG-addicts! You’re gonna absolutely love Tulum. This beach town is so picturesque, with its spectacular beaches, cenotes, and lush green jungle.
Make your friends and followers envious of your travels by hitting up these Instagram hotspots in Tulum:
- Follow That Dream sign: For a dose of inspo, take a snap with the popular “Follow That Dream” sign. To find it, just input “Sueños Tulum hotel” in your GoogleMaps – the sign is just opposite and you won’t miss the crowd!
- Matcha Mama: The wooden swings at this cute smoothie stall are all the rage. Pop by early in the morning to get the perfect shot without any wait time.
- Crooked Palm Tree: Head to Playa Paraiso Beach Club and look for the blue umbrellas in order to find this popular photospot. (PS: You’ll need to purchase food or drinks there to validate bike parking.)
- Casa Malca: For the ultimate bragging rights, make a beeline to Casa Malca which used to belong to Pablo Escobar. Now an upscale boutique hotel, this mansion is full of photo hotspots. Non-hotel guests have to spend a minimum of 1000 pesos/$50 USD on food and drinks to access the property.
Editor’s Note: Casa Malca is absolutely worth a stay! We were completely blown away when we were there. Read our review to learn more.
See the Tulum Ruins
For another dose of Mayan history and culture, check out the Tulum ruins. While it’s not quite as impressive as Chichén Itzá, the Mayan ruins in Tulum are still worth a visit. For one thing, it’s situated on a cliffside overlooking the ocean!
It’s a pretty popular spot so I’d suggest coming early in the morning or late afternoon before it closes to avoid the tourist hoards.
Pssst… bring your swimwear along with you! At the ruins, you can access a “secret beach” that you can swim in.
Climb the Pyramid at the Coba Ruins
Add a visit to this ancient Mayan city to your list of things to do in Riviera Maya! Located within the Mexican jungle, this Mayan ruin is a bit less popular than others, thanks to its remote location.
Here, you can actually climb the tallest pyramid on the site, Ixmoja. It’s a pretty cool experience especially since it looks like something out of a Tomb Raider movie. The view from up there is definitely worth the effort!
To explore the area, rent a bike and get lost in the winding trails.
Marvel at the Underground Rivers and Caves of Rio Secreto
There’s a marvellous underground world at Rio Secreto just waiting for you. This network of underground rivers and caves are simply amazing and well-worth a visit during your stay in the Riviera Maya area.
You can only visit this natural reserve on a tour which will take you through about a one-kilometer stretch of river and cave. Once inside, you’ll be walking as well as swimming/wading and you’ll learn all about stalactites, stalagmites, and rock formations that make up this secret world.
This is a pretty cool experience so don’t miss it!
Check Out Cozumel
A 45-minute ferry ride from Playa will have you landing on the island paradise that is Cozumel. This world-class island destination is a hot favorite with cruises and it gets a bit of a bad reputation because of that.
But really, Cozumel is still worth a visit… even if only to understand why it’s so popular.
The beaches on Cozumel are, unsurprisingly, super beautiful. Check out Playa Bonita which totally lives up to its name with white sand and stunning blue waters… plus a nearby small Mayan ruin for extra points. On the opposite side of the island, there’s Allegro Cozumel – you will be blown away by how spectacular the water looks.
Tip: For a super fun way to see Cozumel, check out this Amazing Race-style scavenger hunt!
Chill Out at A Small Beach Town
If you’re staying at one of the more popular tourist hotspots like Tulum or Playa, take some time to venture to some of the smaller towns and villages along the coast for a change of scenery and vibe.
Take the time to visit smaller places like Puerto Morales or Xpu Ha.
Puerto Morales is traditionally known as the start point of Riviera Maya. This low-key beach town not only has great beaches, it also has a more calm vibe as it doesn’t attract the same massive tourist hoard. No big-name hotels, no resorts, no nightclubs.
Another option is Xpu Ha. At this laid-back town that’s under the tourist radar, you can truly have a relaxing beach day and enjoy the town’s quaint atmosphere.
Get Immersed in Mexican Food
Learning about the food in a country is an awesome way to get to know the place so get yourself on a food tour while you’re in the Riviera Maya!
This food tour in Playa del Carmen will take you on a tacos delight and introduce you to some of the local foodie spots. Tamales, tostadas, desserts, and more… make sure you go with an empty stomach!
For a taste of local food and spirits, book a spot on this Cancun food tour. You’ll be taken to four local food spots where you’ll enjoy a total of seven dishes and three Mexican spirits. It’ll be a fun night with food, music, and culture.
Want a truly authentic food experience in a small town? Check out this Puerto Morales food tour. Part walking tour, part food tasting, you’ll visit six local spots and get different bites as you learn more about Mexico’s food culture.
Learn How to Cook Mexican Dishes in Playa del Carmen
Want to go even deeper into Mexican cuisine? Then a Mexican cooking class is for you!
Taking a cooking class is a great “souvenir” from a trip because you can then recreate all the delish stuff you had on vacation!
There are one-course cooking classes but for the brave, go for the three-course cooking class for some extra oomph. You’ll get hands-on experience and learn more about how to use ingredients typically used in Mexican cooking.
Plus, don’t forget that you’ll get to eat all that tasty food you cooked – yummy!
Wonder at Nature at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere
This UNESCO World Heritage Site will knock your socks off! This nature heaven is so ecologically diverse and is unlike any other place you’ll see in the Riviera Maya.
This nature reserve is seriously huge; it’s bigger than even Cozumel! There are two general areas in the reserve: the coastal Sian Ka’an where you can snorkel, fish, and see marine life, and the inland jungle Sian Ka’an which features mangroves, Mayan ruins, wetlands, and more.
You can do a visit to the biosphere on your own, especially if you have a rental car, but it’s just much easier to get an organized tour.
This tour will take you to the ocean side of the reserve where you’ll get on a boat to snorkel and spot marine life. On the other hand, this full-day tour will take you on an exploration of the inland part of the biosphere.
Editor’s Note: During our trip here, we saw dolphins, flamingoes, manatees, and sea turtles, all within 30 mins of our boat tour!
Hop Over to Isla Mujeres
Located just off the coast, this quaint little Mexican island will win your heart. For one, it’s less crowded and much more quiet, giving you the opportunity to unwind and soak in the island vibes.
Zip around the island and explore on a golf cart. Or simply set up shop on Playa Norte (the most popular beach on the island) and bask in the sun. Don’t forget to take in the “downtown” and get a souvenir or two!
You can easily visit Isla Mujeres on your own as a Riviera Maya day trip but there are also some fun tour options available from Cancun and other towns in the Riviera Maya.
This tour will get you more time out in the water, with a 45-minute stop at a coral reef for snorkeling and another opportunity to snorkel at Playa Norte. On the other hand, this tour includes both Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy and is a great way to see two islands in one day.
Discover Bacalar, the Lake of Seven Colors
As you can probably tell by now, this area is full of natural wonders and a visit to Bacalar isn’t amiss on a list of the best things to do in Riviera Maya.
This large freshwater lake and its clear waters will absolutely wow you (and all your Instagram followers)! The insanely blue water is reminiscent of Maldives and Fiji… but hey, you’re still in Mexico!
Lounge in the waters, swim, and take a bazillion photos… because it really is that stunning.
Get to Know Tulum on a Bike Tour
For an easy and fun way to get acquainted with Tulum, hop on a bike tour that will take you through the town’s history, nature, food, and more.
This five-hour bike tour will have you learning about Mayan history and culture with a visit to the Mayan ruins, followed by a jaunt downtown for a taste of local Tulum. You’ll end the day by cooling off with a swim in a cenote. A perfect way to spend a Mexican morning!
Get Your Drink On in Playa With a Cocktail-Making Class
What’s a holiday without a drink or two, right? Well, in this case, how about three drinks? This “cooking class” will have you learning how to prepare three cocktails and three appetizers using local ingredients and spirits.
Of course, you’ll get to taste and have everything you prepare… and meet others who also love food and drink – win!
Escape to Isla Holbox
Here’s a hidden gem in the Riviera Maya: Isla Holbox.
Just a 20-minute boat ride from the coast, you’ll be far from the hustle and bustle of tourists once you land on Holbox. No paved roads, white-sand beaches, and a laid-back vibe, this island is the place to go to escape from life (and your phone — cell signal and wifi can be spotty here).
You won’t want to miss the lagoon with flamingos, the clear blue waters, and the stunning sunset from the pier. And while you’re here, be sure to have one of the island’s unique eats: lobster pizza.
For more on Holbox, check out our guide to visiting the island.
What NOT to Do in Riviera Maya
There’s lots of beautiful nature and animal life in Riviera Maya and the best way to appreciate these animals is to see them in their natural habitat. Snorkeling and diving are awesome ways to get closer to marine life such as whale sharks and sea turtles but as always, be sure to keep your distance and be respectful when participating in such activities.
Before signing up for any nature-related activity, it’s a good idea to learn exactly what the activity entails and whether it is carried out in an ethical, responsible manner. And be sure to follow the instructions given by your guide — they’re there to keep you safe and protect nature as much as possible.
Also keep an eye out for other places that offer unethical animal encounters like swimming with dolphins or manatees that are in captivity. If you want information on WHY swimming with dolphins should be avoided, this article is worth a read.
Where to Stay in Riviera Maya
Riviera Maya is known for having some great resorts and hotels but if like us, you prefer more of a local and independent experience, we would definitely suggest staying in an Airbnb.
In places like Cancun, Tulum and Playa del Carmen, there are some super stylish and unique Airbnbs that would make for a fabulous stay. If you’re traveling in a group, an awesome villa or huge apartment can be a great option!
Check out our recommendations here:
As you can see, there are just so many awesome things to do and see in Riviera Maya! No matter what you’re interested in, there’s something here for you.
For more on Mexico, check out our Mexico travel tips!
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