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There are so many things to do in the Riviera Maya and surroundings, and although you are tempted to just chill out in your fancy hotel for the entire stay, it would be a shame not to explore the wonders that this area offers
My goal with this post is to show you all the amazing things to do in the Riviera Maya and Cancun, places at an easy reach in a one day tour.
First and foremost, you must rent a car. No question! No, it is not dangerous; you just need to keep an eye on the speed to avoid getting caught by the police, who often go out of their way to get a bribe. I wouldn’t give in to them, preferring to pay whatever fine the ticket might incur. I really get annoyed about the corruption thing, but it’s a reality. Just do not encourage it.
If you want to read more about my tips on driving in Mexico this post is right for you.
However, if you prefer to use organized tours, worry not, at the bottom of the article you will find a great selection of the best Riviera Maya tours and excursions.
Insider tip: Among the free things you can do in the Riviera Maya, the most popular is basking on the beach and enjoy the sun and the warm Caribbean sea. However many beaches charge a small entry fee. Click here to read my comprehensive guide of all the beaches on the Riviera Maya.
But let’s start with the list of my top 23 things to do from the Riviera Maya.
Spend a beach day on Isla Blanca
Isla Blanca (10km from Cancun) – the last patch of land north of Cancun, a beautiful stretch of white sand, and a paradise for kite surfers.
Visit Puerto Morelos
Puerto Morelos (30km away from Cancun) – That’s where the Riviera Maya officially starts. It’s a quaint fishing town where you can go for lunch or dinner after a visit to the ‘Ruta de los Cenotes,’ where you have can take your pick from a number of stunning natural pools, one after another.
Explore the gorgeous Archaeological site of Tulum and get fancy in the funky town
Tulum (180km away from Cancun) – the only Mayan archaeological site to be situated on the beach, with stunning postcard-like views. Spending the rest of the day on the never-ending white-sand beach, and taking a stroll to the easy-chic downtown (pueblo) would make your day trip to Tulum a success. It’s definitely the antithesis of Cancun, and if we are sort of like-minded, you will kick yourself for not having stayed longer, or maybe end up improvising a night in Tulum… which you will neither regret nor forget.
If you want to know more about Tulum and surrounding you will definitely find lots of great information in this section of the site.
Visit Playa del Carmen, for party and shopping
Playa del Carmen. (70km away from Cancun) – Party all night long, do some shopping; beaches mostly crowded, with music-friendly beach clubs, fine, local and international dining for every taste.
Swimm with the turtles in Akumal
Akumal (105km away) – it’s one of the most visited resorts along the Riviera Maya for its friendly turtles swimming just off the public beach, with which you can swim; you don’t need a tour, just bring snorkel gear. The turtles are free in the water and tend to come closer because people feed them. Please don’t! Click here if you wish to know more
Fall in love with Isla Mujeres
To reach Isla Mujeres you can take the ferry from Cancun, rent a golf cart on the island and drive around. Stop at Playa Norte after you have seen the island (the perimeter of which is 16km) to enjoy the beautiful beach. Alternatively, pay for a catamaran tour (make sure you ask to see the catamaran beforehand) which will stop for snorkeling in the bay. I’m not keen on the latter option as they tend to accept loads of people on the boat and offer alcoholic drinks all day long, thus you end up like sardines in and amongst a bunch of drunken people. Not my thing. I’d rather go by myself, but… each to his/her own…
Get fit climbing the tower of Mayan ruins of Coba’
You cannot skip a visit to the magnificent Mayan city of Chichen- Itza’
The extraordinary Mayan city, considered one of the most important centers of the Mayan civilization. It is a bit commercial but it is definitely worth a visit.
Get adventurous and visit the remote ruins of Ek Balam
Ek Balam ruins(171km from Cancun) – An interesting site, in the middle of the jungle and off the beaten path, on the way to Rio Lagartos. Whether you are staying on the Riviera Maya or Cancun, this is an easy place to visit.
Marvel at the sight of the graceful pink flamingos in Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos (250km from Cancun) is a biosphere close to Ek Balam. Once you get there you can find fishing boats to take you around the lagoon to see the flamingos. A beautiful spot.
Get lost in the remote beach resort of Mahahual
Mahahual (352 km South of Cancun) is a beach resort, very quaint, with lovely hotels and restaurants. If you love water sports and snorkeling, it’s ideal to spend a weekend here.
Visit the old colonial Town of Valladolid, the getaway of Yucatan
Valladolid (150km from Tulum) is a lovely colonial town. Walk around and watch daily life go by, note the peculiar constructions, churches, monastery, local ‘’comida yucateca “(food from Yucatan); and all this surrounded by cenotes and ruins. You can even rent a bike and defy the infernal heat…
Check out the quaint yellow town of Izamal
The city of Izamal (250km away) my personal favorite, with its very unique historical center and monastery in the middle of the town; what’s more, everything is yellow, hence the common connotation as ´the yellow town’. You can get great shots here if you are into photography. Follow this link to know more about it.
Explore the white city of Merida, the capital of Yucatan
The capital city of Merida (305 km away) is an interesting colonial city, full of history and culture, definitely worth a few days visit. If you happen to be there on a Sunday you can appreciate the local folklore. Almost every day get by 10 am at the tourist office by the main square and join a free walking tour of the city.
Fall in love with the spectacular views of Bacalar Lagoon
Bacalar Lagoon – (341 km from Cancun) is also known as the ‘lagoon of seven colors’, and nothing like you can ever image of a lagoon. It is a large lake (42 km long and 2 km wide), characterized by the 7 shades of blue throughout the clear water, thanks to its limestone bed. A beautiful place, complete with nice eco-lodges around the shore, where you can relax and/or enjoy water sports, guaranteeing you a peaceful and reinvigorating experience. I have written a huge extensive guide about it. You can read it here.
Have the ultimate jungle experience in the biosphere of Calakmul
Calakmul (700 km from Cancun approximately) – quite a distance, but if you take it easy and stop off at other attractions in between, such as Akumal, Tulum, Coba, and Bacalar, you can make the most of a fantastic tour of all the natural parks, as well as see the principal areas of flora and fauna.
Calakmul is one of the most important Mayan sites, protected by a huge jungle, and home to many endemic and non-endemic animal species, like monkeys, jaguars, reptiles and an abundance of birds. It will take a whole day to enjoy this beautiful reserve.
You can also check out my self-drive itinerary in this post.
Find peace and tranquillity in Holbox
Holbox is at a 133-km drive from Cancun to the small town of Chiquilà, where ferries or fishing boats will take you across to the tranquil, laid-back island.
Enjoy the unspoiled nature of Contoy Island
Contoy Island is a protected area where until a couple of years ago you could only go with special permission from the government. I was lucky to go during an incentive tour organized by my company and it was just mind-blowing. A totally unspoiled island where mantas would freely come close to the shore and let you play with her. She has now died but her baby manta is there in her place. The island is also home of birds colony and biologists live there to study and monitor them. The time spent on the boat to get there is a trip in itself, a long boat ride in the turquoise blue of the Caribbean sea. They have now opened it to organized tours that are still controlled by the authorities. This is the tour that I wouldn’t want to miss. You can check out prices and programs by clicking here.
Get close to the giant aquatic mammals
Swimming with whale sharks is a beautiful adventure in the sea which can be organized either from Cancun, Isla Mujeres or Holbox. You must not miss this encounter with friendly sharks, which happens only in the summer months.
Relax on the infinite beaches of Cancun
Explore the remote coast in Yucatan
Drive around the Costa Esmeralda on the north coast of Yucatan.
Discover the new stunning beach of El Cuyo
Spend a couple of days on the deserted beach at El Cuyo.
Get on the road and explore the colonial Yucatan
Drive around Yucatan through the colored colonial towns and stop for a local meal or to visit the old Henequen old factory or stop by to swim in a Cenote. For sure you will find a lot on this charming limestone land.
Jump in the refreshing cenotes
Among the highlights of the Yucatan peninsula are the ancient cenotes that were used for sacred rituals by the pre-hispanic Mayan civilizations and are nowadays still sacred in a way as it’s one of the most important touristic attraction that for most of the time has still been preserved. You can see tons of them scattered around the peninsula or along the Riviera Maya. I have written a huge guide about it and you can read about them here.
Splurge in one of the beautiful Haciendas
Old factories that have now been turned into spectacular resorts to offer an exclusive stay in the tranquillity of the Mayan Jungle. There are so many exceptional properties to chose from. Here, in this article, you can choose among the best that I have personally visited and selected.
If traveling solo is not your gem, you can alway book an organized tour. There are so many day tours that will pick you up from your hotel and take you out explore, with experienced guides and comfortable vans or busses.
Book Your Trip: Practical Tips and Tricks
Book your accommodation
I use most of all Booking.com. I find it very convenient because it shows all kinds of accommodations, from hostels to villas to hotels. I love the layout of the site and the comments of the previous guests. And they always have great deals.
However, I always recommend to check out different sites and compare them. I come from the travel industry and I know for a fact that hotels agree from time to time with different tour operators to make special exclusive deals. So maybe one day you will find a great deal with Booking.com and the other day with Expedia or Hotels.com for the same hotel. So it is always worth checking them all. Of course, there are many other booking sites, but these are the ones I feel more comfortable with.
Now you have to know that Expedia and Hotels.com belong to the same company Expedia Group, together with many other sites, but they still display different rates as they have different targets. I know it sounds odd, but it is what it is.
Last but not least, always check the hotel web page because sometimes they have a better deal. Even better if you can call the hotel directly and ask if they have a special rate for those dates that you want to book. They might give you an offer in order not to lose a potential client.
I also check the reviews on TripAdvisor, both for hotels and tours. It doesn’t cost a thing and it helps a lot in choosing. You can also check their prices and compare them as well.
Book your flight
For flights, I use both Skyscanner and Expedia as well. The same rule applies: always compare. They are both good because they are aggregators which means that they compare prices from different sites and airlines. However, it’s always good to double check with the airline site directly.
Don’t forget your travel insurance
I couldn’t have one while I was traveling in Mexico because I am a resident there, but as soon as I left I did my insurance with World Nomads. After a research on the web and through friends I found World Nomads to be the most used and the most reliable when it comes not only to sickness but also missed flights, credit cards issues and so on. Whatever insurance you decide to get, that’s fine though, as long as you have one. I just can’t imagine being stuck in a place sick and miserable and not being able to get the necessary treatments because I can’t afford it, or having to ask my parents or friends to support me. That’s inconceivable to me. For me, it is super important and I can never recommend it enough.