Visiting the Riviera Maya in Mexico is a dream destination for many people. And why not when there are a ton of epic things to do in the Riviera Maya from exploring the oceans, history and beautiful landscapes.
Growing up in Texas and living much of my adult life in California it was a shock to most people that I had never made it to our next door neighbor Mexico. I had always wanted to go, but more distant places always won me over. With a long weekend on the horizon and credit card miles to burn, we finally made the plunge and headed to the Riviera Maya region of Mexico for a quick visit. That first visit led to several more. The area is alluring!
Where is the Riviera Maya?
The Riviera Maya stretches along the eastern coast of Mexico starting in Cancun, extending through Playa del Carmen to Tulum in the south. Growing up, for me, this region of Mexico was synonymous with spring break partying (think Senor Frogs in Cancun!), but what I didn’t realize is that just down the coast is an abundance of culture, historic sights and beautiful clear water to explore.
Whether your family’s idea of a perfect vacation involves lazy days at the beach, active days exploring every nook and cranny of the local culture or a combination, think about Mexico’s Riviera Maya for your next getaway. With miles and miles of soft sand to play in and clear, warm Caribbean water to swim in, the Riviera Maya offers endless things to do for families, couples and solo travelers. From lazing on the beach to swimming with turtles in Akumal and climbing Mayan ruins, there is something for everyone. Read on for our picks for the most epic things to do in the Riviera Maya.
7 Epic Things to Do in the Riviera Maya
Climb on History at the Coba Ruins
Get off the beaten path with a visit to one of the regions most delightful Mayan ruins, especially for families. While the ruins at Tulum are “look but don’t touch”, the ruins at Coba are all about experiencing, touching and climbing! Take your time to wander through the trees and jungle and up/on many of the structures. For a vision of what nature has done to these temples, take a step off the path and venture around the corner to see rocks strewn around as tree roots reclaim this land as their own.
Save the big pyramid (Nohoch Mul) until last – not because it is a hike but rather because scaling it is a highlight. The view from the top isn’t spectacular, you mostly just see dense jungle with only one other structure peaking through, but it’s the exhilaration of the climb that makes it all worth it!
If your kids can ride bikes, think about hiring them to explore the park at your leisure. Otherwise, hire a “driver” to cruise you around on their own bike. It is worth it in the oppressive humidity that seems to be always present here. Exploring Coba Ruins is one of the best things to do in the Riviera Maya region, so don’t miss it!
Swim with Turtles at Akumal Beach
One of the greatest (and free!) activities we came across during our time in the Riviera Maya was swimming with turtles at Akumal. The crystal clear water was perfect, even for our then 3 year old who couldn’t snorkel. It was even better for us with our snorkel masks on. Seeing the massive, beautiful turtles swimming below us was amazing. Our son was a bit nervous at first, but once he saw that they weren’t bothered with us as long as we didn’t touch them, he was fine to float on top peering down below.
The beach at Akumal is well equipped with food, bathrooms and stalls where you can rent your snorkel equipment if you didn’t bring your own. My main recommendation would be to bring life jackets for small kids who might get tired of treading water! This is a perfect day out and a must not miss thing to do in the Riviera Maya with kids or without.
Enjoy Life in the Bohemian Town of Tulum
Tulum is an amazing place to visit and stay during your time on the coast. If you only have a short amount of time to explore, find a spot on the beach and relax! The white powdery sand and crystal blue water will cure you of all your ills.
While in the area, make sure to try some of the best (albeit overpriced!) fish tacos at the tourist favorite Mateos. Potter around exploring the shops, cafe’s and beachside restaurants in between sand castle building and swimming. Want to check out where the locals eat? Head to El Camellos in the village for tasty, cheap fish tacos cooked to perfection.
If you don’t think you will have time to make it to Coba, but want to check out some ruins, head to the ruins in Tulum. Be aware, the walk down can be a bit scary for little kids. Enjoy checking out the ruins while overlooking the beautiful blue water below. If you brought your swim gear, head down to the beach for a cool down.
Tulum is a elegant hippy center with fancy eco-resorts, yoga and all that your inner hippy requires. Take time to enjoy it all!
Experience Culture & Adventure at Mexico’s Theme Parks
Not usually one for theme parks while traveling, we had an extra day with no real plans, so we decided to give in to the many advertisements and check out Xcaret. I have to say, it ended up being one of our favorite activities during the trip. I feared it was an eco-Disneyland, but really it provided a condensed and easy to see version of Mayan culture, the abundant nature found in Mexico as well as providing fun outlets for the entire family. Read more about our favorites on our review of Xcaret.
There are several different version now that cater to different ages. I would say that Xcaret caters to all ages, but definitely families, while the Xel Ha caters to those looking for a bit more hair raising adventure! Xel Ha includes floating down a river in a tube, cave explorations, cliff jumping and zip-lining all for one all inclusive price.
Lastly, Xplore offers things like zip-lines, amphibious vehicles, rafts, swimming in underground rivers, spelunking and hammock splash. There is definitely something for everyone at these parks, so read up and find out which is the best for you.
Dive into a Cool Blue Cenote
Snorkeling in a Cenote (a natural cave filled with fresh water) is a fun and unique way to see underwater life. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of these spectacular underwater sinkholes in the Yucatan region, which makes it difficult to chose just one to visit! Narrowing down which of the many cenotes near Cancun will be your biggest quest.
Have fun exploring Cenotes all day on a tour (check out Rio Secreto) or map out some to visit on your own. Prices vary from $5-10 per person. Some are massively developed and include changing areas, food options, hammocks and more, while some are literally just limestone collapsed caves in the middle of the jungle.
The water is typically very chilly, which is refreshing on a hot day, but can be too much for some children. Bring plenty of towels, dry clothes and snacks to refuel.
Need a recommendation? Check out Gran Cenote which has shallow areas for small kids and is a great introduction to cenotes.
Snorkel or Dive in Cozumel
One of the best places to explore the world under the sea is in and around Cozumel. Cozumel is a small island off the coast from Playa del Carmen. It is most known as a stop over for cruise ships, but don’t let that deter you.
The island lies just off the second largest barrier reef system in the world. With 25+ dive sites, this is the place for diving. If you aren’t a diver, never fear as this is also a great place to head out snorkeling. The turquoise water is the perfect backdrop to see beautiful reefs and marine life.
Swim with Whale Sharks in Isla Holbox
One of the world’s most majestic animals migrates along the coast of the Riviera Maya from May to September, offering a once in a livetime experience for visitors who want to see these sea giants up close. For those who are brave enough, you can book a tour to swim with whale sharks in Isla Holbox. The name sounds scary, but these gentle giants are breathtakingly beautiful and super mellow.
Holbox Island is a 2 hour ferry ride from Valladolid. If you have a rental car, you will leave it in Chiquila while you are at Isla Holbox. The ride is only 25 minutes long and departs hourly. Even if you don’t swim with whale sharks, Isla Holbox is one of the last few gems that are not too touristy, but are well worth the effort.
Best Time to Visit the Riviera Maya
The Riviera Maya is mostly sunny and warm year round. The two seasons are wet and dry. from July to October the area is more likely to experience rain from nearby hurricanes.
Apart from the wet season, the best months to visit tend to be between December and March, however it is also peak season which means higher prices and more tourists.
How to Get to the Riviera Maya
The Riviera Maya region of Mexico is well connected internationally through their airport in Cancun. Most visitors to the Riviera Maya arrive by flight to this airport in Cancun. However there is an airport in Cozumel and some visitors even arrive by cruise ship to Cozumel Island.
Assuming that you fly into Cancun, my recommendation would be to rent a car so you have maximum flexibility in getting around the different areas of the Riviera Maya. If you prefer not to drive, you can easily take shuttles, taxi’s and opt for organized tours as needed. From Cancun, there are regular buses running south along the length of the Riviera Maya, and it’s easy to travel to all the major towns along the coast as far as Tulum.
If you have a reservation at one of the many resorts in the region, it is likely that they will pick you up from the airport and take you to the hotel.
For reference, Playa del Carmen is about 45 minutes from the airport with Tulum taking around 1.5 hours to reach.
Places to Stay in the Riviera Maya
One of the most overwhelming aspects of planning a trip to the Riviera Maya region is deciding where to stay. There are an abundance of amazing properties up and down the region. The Riviera Maya is known for it’s all inclusive and high end hotels, however there are options catering to all kinds of budgets.
You can consider moving around during your visit or staying in one place and doing day trips. The most popular areas for visitors to stay in tend to be the bigger towns like Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Cancun itself. However, if you have a car and plan to be cruising around the area, you can also base yourself anywhere along the coast.
On our first trip we stayed at the Bel Air Resort in Xpuha. Akumal is another great place to situate yourself in order to be centrally located to explore the entire area.
Some options to look into depending on your budget and where you want to stay:
- Dreams Riviera Resort & Spa situated outside of Puerto Morelos is a beautiful all inclusive property that is a dream destination! (There is also a Dreams outside of Akumal and Tulum that are also well worth exploring)
- Barcelo Maya Colonial is one of many Barcelo properties in the Riviera Maya, again an all inclusive 5 star worth looking at.
- For a more local feel, check out the options on VRBO and Airbnb as there are some beautiful properties all along the shore.
Check the map below by moving it up and down and zooming in and out to see what properties are available during your time frame.
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