12 Top-Rated Things to Do on the Mayan Riviera
Less than an hour from the Cancun International Airport begins the fabulous Mayan Riviera. Known for its sleepy beach towns, boho-chic boutique hotels, fabulous local cuisine, ancient ruins, and jungle treasures, the Mayan Riviera is still one of the best places to visit in all of Mexico.
But where to begin? The destination has no shortage of fantastic sites, so it may help to start with this list of the top things to do on the Mayan Riviera. Whether you're chasing a dose of adrenaline on a zipline; learning how to prepare a traditional meal; walking in the footsteps of the ancient Maya; or bird-watching on a pristine, palm-fringed beach, the Mayan Riviera has so many wonderful discoveries to be uncovered.
If you're looking to get to know this particular place to visit in Mexico, here are the top things to do on the Mayan Riviera.
1. Visit Tulum
When it comes to top things to do on the Mayan Riviera, Tulum is one of the activities that put it on the map. The ancient Mayan coastal city has become iconic for the destination. To miss it is to miss out on one of the signature experiences of Mexico.
Tulum town is a destination in its own right, known for the stunning boutique hotels, luxe resorts, world-renowned restaurants, and its barefoot luxury vibe. But the town was named for the eponymous ruins, which have stood here for centuries. You'll recognize its image instantly, known for the famous El Castillo stone tower that sits perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the turquoise water.
Tulum was a walled, port city that was deeply integral to the success of the Mayan empire. Today, it is one of the top archaeological sites in all of Mexico and pulls thousands of tourists every year who come to admire the city, snap iconic photos of El Castillo, and take a dip in the crystal clear water that sits at the base of the cliff.
Visitors can arrange for tours to Tulum, which often include roundtrip transportation from their hotels. But it's entirely possible to visit Tulum on your own. Make sure to stop in Tulum town afterwards to try one of the fabulous restaurants that have cropped up along the coast.
Address: Carretera Federal, Cancun - Chetumal Km 230, 307, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
2. Discover Grupo Xcaret
What makes the Mayan Riviera unique to other parts of Mexico is its tropical jungle landscape combined with rich, Mayan heritage. This means visitors to the Mayan Riviera are able to have a vacation that combines adventure with history and culture. For a deep dive into both, visit the adventure parks associated with Grupo Xcaret.
Grupo Xcaret is a Mexican-run company that has nine adventure and cultural theme parks across the Mayan Riviera. The original, Xcaret, highlights Mayan culture, as well as the history and themes of the region. Visit the Butterfly Pavilion or the Coral Reef Aquarium, sample regional dishes indigenous to the Mayan communities, and don't miss the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular performance, which combines Mayan traditional dance and music against a magnificent backdrop.
But Grupo Xcaret has many different types of parks, as well, dedicated to everything from extreme adventure to optical illusions and traditional Mexican fiestas. If you're interested in ziplining, you'll want to visit X-Plor, which is the most-visited zipline park in the world.
Address: Carretera Chetúmal Puerto Juárez Kilómetro 282, Solidaridad, 77710 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
3. Swim in the Cenotes
The jungles of the Mayan Riviera hold many mysteries, but many of these mysteries happen to be just below your feet. Believe it or not, the entire Yucatan Peninsula is built on a bedrock of porous limestone. Over the centuries, a web of underground rivers have carved a network of caves and tunnels underneath the ground. In certain places, the ground has caved in, leaving an opening to the freshwater rivers and caves underfoot. These openings, or natural sinkholes, are known as cenotes, and there are thousands of them throughout the Yucatan and Mayan Riviera.
Cenotes serve as an important part of Mayan culture, as Mayans believe the cenotes are the entrance to the underworld. Whatever you happen to believe, you are still able to swim in and explore these gorgeous natural beauties today, as hundreds of them are open to the public in Mexico.
Dive into the crystal-clear fresh water, open to the sky through a cavernous hole, through which beams of light illuminate the turquoise water and lush hanging vines. If you're looking for the ultimate in a natural adventure, swimming in a cenote is one of the most popular things to do on the Mayan Riviera.
4. Wander the Ruins of Coba
Farther inland from the ruins at Tulum is another set of impressive ruins that held a vital role in the Mayan empire. The ruins at Coba tell the story of an ancient Mayan city, home to the largest network of stone causeways (raised stone roads) in the known Mayan world. These roadways radiate out from the main site, connecting other Mayan cities around the area.
The largest structure at Coba is the Ixmoja temple, which is one of the tallest pyramids in the Yucatan peninsula, and one of the only temple structures visitors are still allowed to climb.
Coba is still a relatively new discovery, compared to the ruins at other sites like Chichen Itza or Tulum. This means visitors will be dealing with far fewer crowds compared with more well-known destinations. A must is a climb to the top of the pyramid for a glimpse at 360-degree views of lush, green jungle that seem to extend infinitely in any direction.
Address: Carretera Federal Tulum 307, Coba 77793 Mexico
5. Explore Rio Secreto
Speaking of underground caves, one of the best-kept secrets on the Mayan Riviera is just under the Earth's surface, revealing a massive underground cave system that dates back millennia. If you're interested in cave exploration, this will be an activity you won't want to miss.
Rio Secreto is a limestone cave system not far from Playa del Carmen, home to 23 miles of caves, a fraction of which are used for tourism. A tour through Rio Secreto takes travelers spelunking down the ancient passageways, swimming in waist-deep underground rivers, and marveling at the thousands upon thousands of prehistoric stalactites and stalagmites that encircle the cave.
In addition to its geological history, Rio Secreto was used by the Mayan people for centuries as part of their rituals. In fact, archaeologists have found cave paintings and religious altars scattered throughout the cave system.
Address: Carretera Federal Libre Chetumal- Puerto Juárez Ejido Sur, 77712 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
6. Sightsee in Playa del Carmen
The heartbeat of this part of Mexico is, without a doubt, Playa del Carmen, so it ought to be a must on your list of top-rated things to do in the Mayan Riviera. The main artery of Playa del Carmen (or "Playa," as the locals call it) is La Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue. Flanked on either end with restaurants and boutiques, this 24/7 street is always raring to go.
Apart from the entertainment and distractions of La Quinta Avenida, Playa has some of the most sought-after resorts in the Riviera Maya, as well as some of the top rooftop scenes, especially if you like rooftop pools and sunsets. Be sure to check out the rooftops at Thompson Playa del Carmen or The Fives Downtown, particularly if you like to relax to a DJ set with a view.
Wondering about other things to do in Playa del Carmen? Playa is also the top spot for street food, particularly tacos. You'll want to explore El Fogon or Taquerias El Nero. And don't forget the beach hangouts in Playa del Carmen, which often have pools, lounge beds for sunning, waiter service, and showers. Kool Beach Club and Lido Beach Club are two of the best to know.
7. Sail to Cozumel
While you're in Playa del Carmen, you may as well take a trip to the ferry terminal and treat yourself to the 30-minute sail across the Caribbean Sea to Cozumel. Cozumel is one of the largest of Mexico's islands, and by far its most well-known thanks to it being one of the largest cruise ports in the country.
And for good reason. Cozumel is gorgeous. The majority of the island is protected by the national government, meaning much of it remains undeveloped and shrouded in nature. A coastal road rings the island, and visitors love to rent electric bikes or scooters to zip from one pristine beach to another.
The western end of Cozumel is home to calm beaches with warm, gently lapping water - perfect for snorkeling - while the eastern side is much more rugged, raw, and wild. Cozumel sits on top of the Meosamerican Reef, one of the largest barrier reefs in the world, so Cozumel is one of the best diving spots on the planet.
Cozumel happens to have some of the top hotels and resorts in Mexico, as well, so if you're looking to make it an overnight trip you'll have more than a few options to choose from.
Accommodation: Best All-Inclusive Resorts in Cozumel
Read More: Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Cozumel
8. Road Trip to Bacalar
The Mayan Riviera has many beautiful secrets – many of which are known only to locals. Bacalar is one such secret, but it is on the verge of exploding. The small community of Bacalar is named after the lake on which it sits – Laguna de Bacalar, which is one of the most naturally stunning spots in Mexico.
The lake goes by the nickname of "The Lake of Seven Colors," thanks to the fact that the shades of the water transform through every shade of blue throughout the day. Ringing the lake are a string of eco-luxe boutique bungalow-style hotels, known for their low carbon footprints and emphasis on local food and outdoor activities.
Activities all revolve around the lake, whose smooth, glassy surface is ideal for kayaking, sailing, and sunbathing. Certain pockets of the lake are shallow enough to scoop the mineral-rich sediment and scrub onto the body for a natural spa treatment.
Laguna de Bacalar is about a four-hour drive from Playa del Carmen, so be sure to get an early start or arrange for an overnight stay. Rancho Encantado is a wonderful option, as it has its own dock with kayaks for guests to use.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bacalar
9. Journey through Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve
So much of the Mayan Riviera feels like it's worlds away - especially the farther south you go towards the border of Belize. These are the stretches of coast where you'll discover undeveloped beaches, bone-white sand, and groves of languidly swaying palm trees. But one spot stands out in particular when it comes to idyllic imagery and pristine nature: the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve.
This massive natural reserve is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site that stretches along a completely undeveloped 75 miles of Caribbean coastline. This includes a protected marine area that is home to hundreds of species of birds, as well as jaguars, pumas, ocelots, and manatees. If you didn't get enough of those cenotes, you'll find a few of them in the reserve, as well.
The best way to make the most out of the reserve (and uncover its secret spots) is to book a sightseeing tour. But if you're feeling adventurous, it is entirely possible to explore the reserve on your own.
Address: Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo, Mexico
10. Hit the Beach
Of course! For as many wonderful activities and top-rated things to do on the Riviera Maya, the beaches are among the best beaches in Mexico. From the powdery shores of Playa del Carmen, to the bleached-white, picture-perfect coast of hidden coves like Akumal, the beaches of the Riviera Maya are truly stunning.
If it's a scene you're looking for, the beaches of Tulum will never disappoint, thanks to the constant pulse of a low-key DJ beat that seems to fill the air wherever you walk in Tulum. Add to that world-class restaurants and barefoot luxe lounges, and you're sure to spot a celebrity or two.
But smaller beach towns like Akumal, for example, sport equally magnificent beaches, but at a much lower price tag. Akumal is also a wonderful beach town to explore if you like snorkeling with turtles. The beaches of Akumal are famous for sea turtles.
If you feel like splurging at one of the finer hotels in the region, spring for El Dorado Maroma or Secrets Maroma, both of which are perched on Playa Maroma, which is often named one of the best beaches in the world. Though it is important to note that all beaches in Mexico are public, so if you can make your own way to the beach, you are free to enjoy it.
11. Take a Trip to Chichen Itza
It may not be the fastest activity – the drive is about three hours one way – but a trip to the Mayan city of Chichen Itza is one of the top-rated things to do on the Mayan Riviera.
Located in the neighboring state of Yucatan, the images of Chichen Itza are among the most iconic when thinking of Mexico as a whole. El Castillo, or Temple of Kukulcan, is the image most widely recognized when talking about Chichen Itza. And as visually impressive as it is, architecturally it is even more mind-blowing, especially as the Mayans designed it to eerily align with the heavens and the calendar year.
The city thrived more than a thousand years ago for about 600 years. What remains are stunning examples of the Mayan past, from the stone carvings and ancient ball court to the Temple of the Warriors and the Wall of the Skulls. At night, El Castillo comes alive with a captivating sound and light show that lights up the structure.
It's also a spectacular place to be on both the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, as the shadow of the sun makes it appear like a snake is slithering down the steps of El Castillo.
12. Dive or Snorkel the Mesoamerican Reef
Did you know that one of the largest coral reefs in the world is located just off the coast of the Riviera Maya? Second only to the Great Barrier Reef, the Mesoamerican Barrier reef System runs for 600 miles from Isla County all the way down to Honduras. This means that some of the best diving in the world can be done right in the Riviera Maya.
The Mesoamerican Reef is a kaleidoscope of swirling colors, with more than 60 species of coral and more than 500 species of fish. It's also a prime spot to view sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, and whale sharks depending on the season.
We already mentioned Cozumel's diving (which is superb), but you don't have to sail across the sea in order to score some great diving in the Riviera Maya. Consider spots like the Sian Ka'an Biosphere or Arrecifes de Xcalak National Park. You can also arrange for dive trips right from your hotel. One of the most popular dive spots is the Underwater Museum off the coast of Cancun.
Not a diver? Snorkeling is just as beautiful in Riviera Maya, and for that it's often possible to walk right off the beach of your hotel.