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.
If you’re looking for a guide on the best things to do in Riviera Maya, look no further, because we have you covered.
The founders of this blog actually spent over a year living in Playa del Carmen which is one of the hotspots in Riviera Maya region. This means that this post is filled with tons of helpful insider information!
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.
From the stunning ruins of Chichen Itza, all the way to the magical cenotes spread all over the region, a Riviera Maya is full of incredible sights!
- Where is Riviera Maya?
- Riviera Maya Things to Do Highlights
- Riviera Maya: Best Things to Do
- 1. Visit Some of the Best Beaches in the World
- 2. Explore Cenotes in the Mexican Jungle
- 3. Discover Mayan History at Chichen Itza
- 4. Take to the Skies by Parasailing
- 5. Get Up Close with Whale Sharks
- 6. Snorkel with Turtles at Akumal Bay
- 7. Snap Photos in Instagram-worthy Spots in Tulum
- 8. See the Tulum Ruins
- 9. Climb the Pyramid at the Coba Ruins
- 10. Marvel at the Underground Rivers and Caves of Rio Secreto
- 11. Check Out Cozumel
- 12. Chill Out in a Small Beach Town in the Riviera Maya
- 13. Get Immersed in Mexican Food
- 14. Attend a Cooking Class
- 15. Wonder at Nature at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere
- 16. Hop Over to Isla Mujeres
- 17. Visit Laguna de Bacalar (Laguna de Siete Colores)
- 18. Get to Know Tulum on a Bike Tour
- 19. Cocktail-Making Class
- 20. Escape to Isla Holbox
- What NOT to Do in Riviera Maya
- Where to Stay in Riviera Maya
- FAQ on 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 Morelos 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.
Planning to visit Cancun too? Then you need to consider the best time to visit.
Riviera Maya Things to Do Highlights
There are so many Riviera Maya excursions, given that the towns of Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Cancun are popular destinations. Here are a couple of recommended local tours within multiple destinations.
- Cenotes Tour: Cenotes are one of Mexico’s most famous features, and Riviera Maya is a great place to discover a few of these natural wonders and snap some Instagram-worthy pics.
- Cook a meal with a local family: If you want to immerse yourself in the local culture, check out this awesome foodie tour where you get to cook local delicacies with a family. Highly recommended!
- Discover the Sian Ka’an Biosphere and Muyil Ruins: If you’re looking for a unique experience, look no further. This unique tour will take you through ancient Mayan Ruins, jungles, and more.
- Ruins Day Trip: Of course, no trip to Mexico is complete without seeing the magnificent Mayan ruins, and this trip is a great way to do just that while you are exploring the Riviera Maya.
- Holbox Day Trip: If you’re tight on time and only have a day, consider booking this day tour to Holbox Island, home to one of Mexico’s most beautiful beaches.
- Turtles and Cenote Tour: This magical tour takes you through some of the best cenotes in the Riviera Maya as well as to a few snorkeling spots where you can spot some turtles.
Riviera Maya: Best Things to Do
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1. 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!
Tulum and Playa del Carmen are examples of popular beach side towns within the Riviera Maya but if you ask us, some of the best beaches are located outside these popular destinations. The Yucatan Peninsula is full of them so you should be spoilt for choice.
Some beaches to put on your list are Puerto Morelos, Punta Allen, 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 best beaches, check out our full article.
In order to get around these beaches, we recommend renting a car and visiting them independently. While there are lots of tours you can join, having the freedom to see and explore each one adds to the overall charm of these places.
We recommend Discovery Cars as they work as an aggregator, allowing you to see how much it costs to rent a car from multiple companies at once. We’ve rented cars in the Riviera Maya and found the driving to be pretty straight forward. We definitely recommend that you get insurance when renting a car in Mexico.
2. 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.
Here are a few recommended cenote tours:
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 from Cancun that includes cenotes and various activities.
Most cenote tours allow you to either swim/ snorkel in cenotes. Some cenotes also allow you to go scuba diving, catering to both beginner and certified scuba divers.
3. Discover Mayan History at Chichen Itza
One of the main attractions in Riviera Maya is the magnificent Mayan ruins called Chichen Itza which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Chichen Itza was pre-Hispanic city was built by the Mayans and there are over four square miles of it for you to explore. Chichen Itza is considered as one of the “New 7 Wonders of the World” and is believed to have been founded between 600 – 750AD.
Apart from the Chichen Itza pyramid, you also have El Castillo (Temple of Kukulcan), and dozens of other structures (including the Great Ball Court, Temple of the Warriors, and Temple of the Skulls)
This place is so rich in history that it’s well worth it to get a guide to get the most of your visit! When we were there, our guide even pointed out ancient “basketball” game courts.
Not only will you get to know the rich history of Chichen Itza but most tours also include a visit to nearby ruins or cenotes. A visit to Chichen Itza is a must when in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Tip: Make a day out of it with this tour of Chichen Itza! It includes round-trip transportation, a local guide, entrance fee, lunch, and a visit to a cenote.
4. 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.
5. 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 Mayan Riviera.
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!
This small group tour is highly rated as the guides are very safe and take proper precaution to make sure guests do not get too close to these creatures.
6. 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! A trip to Akumal is a popular thing to do in the Mayan Riviera for outdoor lovers.
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.
7. 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. Contrary to the news, Tulum is safe and is a must visit when in the Riviera Maya.
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.
8. 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 Chichen Itza, 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 in the Mayan Riviera so I’d suggest coming early in the morning or late afternoon before it closes to avoid large groups of tourists.
We recommend checking out this Tulum Ruins without the Crowds tour. Visit the famous Tulum ruins without any crowds with a knowledgeable local guide who is giving you insight into the unique Mayan culture.
Pssst… bring your swimwear along with you! At the ruins, you can access a “secret beach” that you can swim in.
9. 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!
These ancient ruins are worth the visit along aside with the popular Chichen Itza. To explore the area, rent a bike and get lost in the winding trails.
Visiting these ancient cities and ruins is a great way to understand the rich Mayan culture and is a popular day trip from Cancun.
10. 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!
11. Check Out Cozumel
A 45-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen will have you landing on the island paradise that is Cozumel. This world-class island destination is known for two things. Cruises and scuba diving.
While the popularity of cruise ships can turn off some people, in all honesty, 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.
We spent a few days in Cozumel exploring its beautiful underwater world. Trust me, if you’re a diver, the scuba diving in Cozumel is one of a kind. It boasts of stunning blue waters which belong to the Caribbean Sea.
The underwater life is unreal but what stood out for us when we were scuba diving was the unique rock and coral formations! We had a blast swimming through large cave swim throughs and coral fans.
Aside from the beaches (plus snorkeling and scuba diving), Cozumel also has a Mayan archaeological site and some artsy vibes thanks to the murals, sculptures, and street art scattered around the island.
Tip: For a super fun way to see Cozumel, check out this Amazing Race-style scavenger hunt!
12. Chill Out in a Small Beach Town in the Riviera Maya
If you’re staying at one of the more popular tourist hotspots like Tulum or Playa del Carmen, 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 Morelos or Xpu Ha.
Puerto Morelos 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.
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, you can easily visit these beachside destinations as a day trip by renting a car. Visiting these small beach towns are one of my favorite things to do in the Mayan Riviera.
13. 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! The food in Mexico is diverse and incredibly rich.
While most people think that food tours in the Riviera Maya consist of tacos and tacos alone, prepare to be surprised. Most food tours will introduce you to some of the local foodie spots where you can gorge yourself on tamales, tostadas, desserts, and more… make sure you go with an empty stomach!
Here are a few local experiences that we highly recommend:
- Authentic Downtown Food Tour– Eat your way around Cancun and discover the best street eats with this local tour.
- Learn to Cook a Mexican Meal– They say the best way to discover a place is through the food. Attend this local cooking class teaching you how to cook a few staples in Mexican cuisine.
- Best Mayan Taco Tour– Discover the best tacos and street eats in Tulum with a local guide!
- Taco and Margarita Tour of Isla Mujeres– If you’re looking for a fun night while in Isla Mujeres, check out this local foodie tour. Remember to come hungry!
- Gastronomic Experience in Playa del Carmen– If you’re in Playa del Carmen, this foodie tour is a must-do.
- Artisanal Mezcal Tasting– Mezcal is almost like a religion in Mexico and this tour is the perfect introduction!
14. Attend a Cooking Class
If you’re visiting Riviera Maya but 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!
We love taking cooking classes wherever we go as it is just the perfect introduction to their cuisine, while still providing a hands on experience.
Plus, don’t forget that you’ll get to eat all that tasty food you cooked – yummy!
If you’re in Playa del Carmen, check out this cooking class by the traveling chef. It comes highly rated and the reviews speak for themselves. An alternative activity while in Playa del Carmen is this cooking class in a chef’s house.
If you’re in Cancun, this immersive cooking class is also well recommended as it takes you to the local market as well as a local restaurant to cook your Mexican delicacies.
Related: Is Playa Del Carmen Safe?
15. 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 underwater 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. Located close to Tulum, a visit here is a must when in the Riviera Maya and is popular day trip!
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.
16. 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. Isla de Mujeres is a hidden gem and is one of our favorite spots in Mexico!
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.
If you have the time, a trip to Isla Mujeres is definitely a must-do while you’re in the Riviera Maya. It is one of our favorite places in the Yucatan Peninsula and is highly recommended.
The island itself is beyond beautiful and is laid back, offering a peaceful escape from busy beach towns like Cancun.
17. Visit Laguna de Bacalar (Laguna de Siete Colores)
As you can probably tell by now, this area is full of natural wonders and a visit to Laguna de 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.
We spent a couple of days in Bacalar and absolutely love it. It is also known as the Lake of 7 colors as the lagoon itself has multiple shades of blue ranging from dark to turquoise blue. It is an incredible sight to see and is one of the reasons why it is so popular.
If you make it Bacalar, we recommend the following experiences:
- Bacalar Sailing Tour– See the BEST of Laguna Bacalar on this incredible small group sailing tour.
- Private catamaran tour of Bacalar– Alternatively, you can also opt to rent out this private catamaran which will take you sailing around the best parts of the lagoon.
- Transparent Kayak around Bacalar Lagoon– Kayak through the crystal clear waters of Bacalar Lagoon in a transparent kayak with a local guide.
If you’re tight on time, you can visit Bacalar on a day tour.
18. 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!
This is one of the most popular Riviera Maya activities.
19. Cocktail-Making Class
What’s a holiday without a drink or two, right? Well, in this case, how about three drinks? This cocktail making class in Cancun will have you eating and tasting your way through the best Mezcals that Mexico can offer.
If you’re in Tulum, we recommend checking out this cocktail making class / Mezcal experience. It is one of the most highly rated food tours in Tulum, and for a good reason! You will start off with a Mezcal tasting before moving on to basic mixology concepts before you go off and create your own.
20. 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, white sand beaches, 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 Isla Holbox, check out our detailed guide which includes what to do, where to stay, and how to get there.
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:
For Riviera Maya hotels, we recommend checking out booking.com to get the best rates.
FAQ on Riviera Maya
Apart from visiting the main hotspots of Tulum, Playa del Carmen or Puerto Morelos, the other main attractions in the Riviera Maya is Akumal, Xpu-ha, Isla Holbox, and Isla de Mujeres.
Rainy / hurricane season in the Riviera Maya lasts from June through October so it is best to avoid those months if you can. The best time to visit Riviera Maya would be from December to March. During these months, it isn’t too hot, making your stay a lot more comfortable.
Contrary to other blogs out there, we do not recommend paying a visit to popular parks like Xcaret as they have animals kept in captivity. Instead, we recommend visiting various cenotes, historical sights, and its many pristine beaches. There are plenty of other adventure tours to enjoy without supporting this horrible practice.
Generally speaking, yes it is safe to travel around the Riviera Maya. As long as you mind your drinks and avoid anything drug related, you should be find. We have lived in the area for over and year and have gone out multiple times as a solo traveler and have never felt unsafe.
As you can see, there are just so many awesome things to do and see in Riviera Maya! You could easily spend a month or two exploring this region.
From white sand beaches, ancient ruins, low-key beach towns, adventure tours, to diverse marine life, you won’t run out of things to do. What we love the most about this part of Mexico is that no matter what you’re interested in, there’s something here for you.
Hopefully, this guide has given you a ton of ideas on the best things to do in the Riviera Maya. Enjoy!
Headed to Mexico? Check out these articles
- Things to Do in Merida
- Things to Do in Oaxaca
- Las Grutas de Tolantongo
- How to get to Holbox from Cancun