The best things to do in the Riviera Maya are often related to natural wonders that you won’t find elsewhere in the world. Gorgeous beaches, tropical jungles, ancient ruins, and otherworldly sinkholes or ‘cenotes’ are all found here in this region of the Yucatán Peninsula.

    As the Riviera Maya fronts the Caribbean Sea, there are also plenty of adventures in the water. Seasoned divers are treated to a wealth of underwater playgrounds, where they can explore the expansive Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Of course, no trip to Mexico is complete without visiting at least 1 Mayan archeological site. Read on for our guide to the Riviera Maya’s most popular spots. 

    What are the best things to do in the Riviera Maya?

    1

    Riviera Maya beaches

    Pristine stretches of sand and sea along the Yucatan Peninsula

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    Riviera Maya beaches are among the most beautiful coastlines on the Yucatan Peninsula. Whether you’re staying in Tulum, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel or Cabo San Lucas, there’s at least a couple of gorgeous beaches to explore. Some are well-developed with all sorts of amenities, while others are so pristine, it’s possible to spot rare animals in the surrounding water.

    Medano Beach is a busy stretch in Cabo San Lucas, where you can enjoy bathing, snorkeling, jet-skiing, parasailing and beach volleyball, as well as lots of bars and cafes. If you prefer seclusion, Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres and Playa Holbox on Isla Holbox are excellent choices.

    2

    Cenotes

    Natural sinkholes with bright turquoise freshwater pools

    Cenotes are some of the most unique natural wonders in the Riviera Maya. These sinkholes or semi-open caves contain underwater passageways and freshwater pools, which are great for bathing and snorkeling. Towering cliffs serve as diving platforms for adventurous divers.

    There are more than 6,000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula, with around 400 near Tulum. Cenote Calavera and Gran Cenote are just 5 km north of the town center, while Jardin del Eden Cenote and Cenote Azul are within a 30-minute drive away.

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    Mayan ruins

    Explore remnants of this mysterious Mesoamerican civilization

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    Mayan ruins can be found throughout Mexico, with the most well-preserved sites concentrated around the Riviera Maya. The Mesoamerican civilization was one of the greatest North American societies, having developed a sophisticated calendar, writing, art, architecture, mathematics, and astronomical systems.

    One of the most recognized Mayan ruins is Chichén Itzá, accessible within a 2.5-hour drive from Playa del Carmen. You can see a massive, complete ziggurat pyramid with graphic stone carvings that illustrate the daily lives of the Mayans. Just 23 km south of Tulum is the Archeological Zone of Muyil, which features artifacts dating back to 350 BCE.

    4

    Rio Secreto, Playa del Carmen

    A system of ancient caverns and underground rivers

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    Rio Secreto is a series of semi-sunken, ancient caverns interconnected with the longest underground river in Quintana Roo. This unique system appeals to swimmers and snorkelers, thanks to its bright turquoise waters. While there are many tours to the cenote, it’s large enough to feel as if you have the place to yourself.

    Rio Secreto has thousands of low-hanging stalactites and stalagmites. You’ll have an incredible view of these natural formations, especially while bathing in its 600-metre-long river. The site is within a 20-minute drive from Playa del Carmen – you can get there on your own or join a guided tour.

    Location: Carretera Federal Libre Chetumal- Puerto Juárez Km. 283.5 Ejido Sur, 77712 Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico

    Open: Daily from 9 am to 2 pm

    Phone: +52 984 242 0074

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    photo by Río Secreto (CC BY-SA 4.0) modified

    5

    National Reef Park of Puerto Morelos

    One of the largest coral reef systems in the world

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    The National Reef Park of Puerto Morelos is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, one of the world’s largest reef systems. It’s home to a variety of colorful coral, tropical fish, sharks, turtles, and eagle rays.

    The National Reef Park of Puerto Morelos is largely oceanic, so the best way to get there is by boat. The main pier has experienced guides providing transportation and proper equipment, as well as ensuring the safety of the corals. Tours vary from relaxing snorkeling for beginners to shipwreck dives for adventurous visitors.

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    6

    Sian Ka’an Biosphere, Tulum

    UNESCO-listed nature park in the Mexican Caribbean

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    The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve covers a total space of 2,797 sq km, making it one of the largest protected neighborhoods in Mexico. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, the nature park preserves tropical forests, winding canals, and mangrove marshes.

    This natural site is a great place to experience the region’s fragile ecosystem. Crocodiles, dolphins, and turtles reside in its murky mangrove swamps, while over 400 bird species flock through the trees above. The Sian Ka’an Biosphere is around 63 km south of Tulum.

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    Location: Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo, Mexico

    Phone: +52 984 145 6696

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    7

    Laguna de Kaan Luum, Tulum

    A shallow lake with a deep cenote

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    Laguna de Kaan Luum is a picturesque lagoon just 11 km southwest of Tulum. It’s a unique site due to the color of its water, which alternates from a deep blue in the middle to a turquoise green around its edges. The center is a deep cenote, estimated to be about 80 meters deep.

    The area surrounding Laguna de Kaan Luum has several thatched huts, which are great for enjoying picnics with views of the water. It’s recommended to bring your own food and drink, as you will not find any places selling food around the lagoon.

    Location: Daily from 9 am to 4 pm

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    8

    Isla Holbox

    A peaceful island with bioluminescent beaches

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    Isla Holbox is a car-free island, where locals enjoy a very laidback and traditional lifestyle. It’s a great starting point for island-hopping but there’s also plenty of things to do on the island itself. A must-visit is the Yum Balam Nature Reserve, where it’s possible to spot endangered wildcats such as jaguars and pumas.

    The Yalahau Lagoon lets you swim among whale sharks, dolphins, rays, and turtles. The beaches – especially Punta Cocos – along the southern coast are best visited at night when you can see the sand and water glow with bioluminescence. Buses departing from Playa del Carmen can take you to Isla Holbox within 2.5 hours.

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    9

    Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park

    Prominent dive site off the coast of Cozumel

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    The Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park protects the Cozumel reef system, which is part of the massive Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. Located just off the southern coast of Cozumel, the 120-sq-km marine reserve has some of the best diving sites in the Mexican Caribbean.

    Prominent neighborhoods for snorkeling and diving include the Felipe Xicoténcatl shipwreck, Paso del Cedral, Columbia Reef, and Paradise Reef. You can observe over 1,000 marine species, including a variety of corals, tropical fish, sharks, and turtles.

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    10

    Isla Mujeres

    Tropical island off the coast of Cancun

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    Isla Mujeres is a small tropical island that sits between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. This popular day-trip destination has plenty of beautiful white-sand beaches, family-friendly activities, and even the remains of an ancient Mayan temple.

    The Garrafon Reef Park on Isla Mujeres offers all inclusive packages with meals and activities like kayaking, snorkeling, and bathing. Daily ferry service is available to and from Cancun’s mainland – trips typically take less than 30 minutes from shore to shore. Thanks to the island’s small size, many popular destinations are within walking distance of each other.

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    Penny Wong | Compulsive Traveler

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    Attractions and experiences recommended in our guides may be affected. Please check local guidance before you travel.

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