Stretching from the quaint fisher town of Puerto Morelos all the way to Tulum, the Riviera Maya is lined with spectacular beaches and refreshing cenotes, pretty towns, and wealthy marine life. There are so many things to do on the Mayan Riviera 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. In this post, I am sharing all m y favorite spots of the Riviera Maya and all the 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.
Read more about my tips on driving in Mexico
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.
In my comprehensive guide of the 7 best beaches on the Riviera Maya I explain it in detail.
But let’s start with the list of my top 23 things to do from the Riviera Maya.
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) is 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 on my Tulum Page
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
If you are looking for adventurous things to do on the Riviera Maya, you must visit Akumal.
Akumal is one of the most visited beaches 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
The 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.
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.
You can plan a few days and stay in one of the beautiful hotels to relax and get pampered or you can choose to join a one day tour from where you are vacationing. It’s really up to you. But if you have time I would definitely consider spending a couple of days on the island and enjoy the spectacular white sand beach and turquoise water.
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 to bird 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 of the sea
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.
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, a relatively new destination, a laid-back village on the coast of Yucatan, where the water is green and blue and the wind makes it the perfect place for kite-surfers.
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 attractions 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. On the Riviera Maya, there are more open cenotes, my favorites are the cenote Azul and Cenote Cristalino, while the best cave cenote is the spectacular Cenote Taak-bi-ha.
To know more details on more cenotes and how to get there a Read my guide to the cenotes of the Riviera Maya
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.
Book a tour and share the fun
If traveling solo is not your gem, you can always book an organized tour. There are so many day tours that will pick you up from your hotel and take you out to explore, with experienced guides and comfortable vans or busses.
I hope this post gave you some ideas on what to do in the Riviera Maya. As you could see it was not strictly about the area itself but also what you can do from the Riviera Maya. As you have realized, anywhere you stay in the Mayan Riviera would always be close to anything in the Yucatan Peninsula. So it’s a great place to use as a hub and then do brief tours around either on your own or joining groups. If you have any questions… you know what to do 😉
- Store your bags in the main cities and walk around freely hands and weight free with Bounce
- Check if you need a visa and get help processing it with iVisa
- Never ever leave without
travel insurance. Get complete coverage from World Nomads or long term insurance from Safety Wing
- I find all of my flights on Skyscanner, Kiwi.com, Google flights, Scott’s Cheap Flights, and always remember to compare
- Book your daily tours locally to support local businesses, or if you don’t find any reliable company, or you prefer to book in advance, check out GetYourGuide or Viator. Some of their tours are refundable up to 24h in advance.
- I rent my long and mid-term apartments on VRBO
- Book hotels with Booking.com or Hotels.com
- Compare car rental prices at Discover Car Rentals
- Check out my travel planning guide if you are planning your trip and feeling overwhelmed