Your beach chair is positioned just so under a palm tree to take in the cerulean sea. The margaritas are stiff and cold. Life is perfect at your luxury resort in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, thank you very much.
But there’s an incredible variety of fun things to do in Riviera Maya.
So if you can tear yourself away from your little piece of tropical paradise, even just for a day or two, you won’t regret it.
The Riviera Maya refers to the 100-mile stretch of coastline on the Yucatan Peninsula, running just south of Cancun to Tulum and beyond.
You’ll discover cenotes – natural limestone sinkholes filled with tequila-clear freshwater – where you can snorkel among amazing stalactites and stalagmites. Adventure ecoparks (ziplining above the forest anyone?). Ancient Mayan ruins (some you can even climb). A UNESCO biosphere reserve for immersing yourself in nature – that’s Sian Ka’an.
And a whole lot more…
Travel writers working hard at their job…
We write a lot about Mexico. Late last year, we were asked by Interval World magazine to curate itineraries for five dreamy days, to suit different traveling styles, for a Riviera Maya cover feature. How could we say no?
So we jetted off to the fabled Caribbean coastline and set to work to experience for ourselves the things to do in Riviera Maya.
Snorkeling with green sea turtles in Akumal for families with kids. Dining at the tiny-but-perfect Oh LaLa (top-rated on TripAdvisor). Searching out a yoga studio and a Temazcal (Mayan sweat lodge) in Tulum for serenity seekers. Checking out Xplor’s ziplining for adventure junkies. Climbing the Yucatan’s tallest pyramid at Coba and hunting down mezcal bars in Playa del Carmen for culture buffs.
Tough job, right?
Anyway, you can read our Interval World story on “5 Perfect Days on the Riviera Maya” below (scroll to the end of this post).
5 best things to do in Riviera Maya, Mexico
In this post, we highlight 5 of the top things to do in Riviera Maya that every visitor should put on their list – no matter whether you dig nature, culture or adventure.
1. Take a dip in a cenote
The Riviera Maya is peppered with more than 300 cenotes – cave pools fed by underground freshwater rivers, with openings to the sky where the roof has collapsed.
The ancient Mayan people who lived in the Yucatan believed cenotes were gateways to the underworld (they sometimes threw sacrificial victims and buried their dead in cenotes).
When you see the fantastic stalactites and stalagmites inside some cenotes, you’ll think they’re other-worldly too!
One subterranean grotto system we explored was at the Jungle Maya ecopark (run by Alltournative Ecological Adventures), where we rapelled down into Sac-Actun. Sac-Actun is the world’s longest underground river and cenote system, mapped by National Geographic cave divers. Mayan artifacts have been found here, along with 12,000-year-old human bones.
A Maya shaman blessed us first, then we snorkeled in the dark (underwater flashlights in hand) behind our guide through astonishingly beautiful freshwater caves.
Of all the things to do in Riviera Maya, snorkeling or floating in a cenote (or two!) would be our top pick.
2. Chill out in Tulum
Spend a day in chilled-out Tulum, where eco-chic boutique hotels are strung along a sugar-white, seven-mile beach. Maybe rent bicycles (like we did) and go for an exploratory ride.
Hopefully you won’t encounter any seaweed problems on that gorgeous beach.
When we visited, a brown seaweed called “sargassum” had invaded many of the Riviera Maya’s shores, making swimming unpleasant along several beaches. Not so good for tourists who like pristine beaches, but great for the coral reefs and marine life, which thrive on the seaweed! (Hotel workers would bury the seaweed in the sand to make the beaches prettier to look at.) We understand the seaweed comes and goes, and there are many years when it doesn’t appear at all. It didn’t bother us though, as we could still enjoy lounging by the beach and swim in our hotel pool instead of the sea.
One beach we noticed that didn’t have any seaweed issues was at the base below Tulum’s Mayan ruins. Built by the sea, Tulum was the most beautiful of the ancient Mayan cities – you’ll definitely want to visit!
Bring your swimsuit, then you can cool off with a swim here afterward.
You can also practice your down-dogs and sun salutations at a yoga class in Tulum. Sanara, a lovely new hotel, has a glass-walled, beachfront yoga studio with full-on views of the blue surf. Offered three times a day, its 90-minute yoga classes are open to outside guests.
Be sure to also stop in at The Real Coconut, Sanara’s beachfront eatery. It serves up delicious organic meals (nacho chips are made from coconut) and the freshest smoothies.
3. Experience the magic of Joya
For a special evening, book a champage dinner show of Joya.
This Cirque du Soleil performance is only held in the Riviera Maya, nowhere else in the world – at a magical venue purpose-built for Joya.
A wooden walkway leads around a lagoon into the whimsical theater, designed to look like a giant blue cenote. Seated at your table by your lovely flower-costumed hostess, you’ll delight at the colorful chandeliers, pearly blue plates and breadsticks shaped like trees.
And what’s this? Why, an edible menu!
The three-course dinner starts one hour before Joya begins.
Sip Moet & Chandon (Cirque has the exclusive licence to supply Moet & Chandon in Mexico, so in Mexico you can only drink this bubbly at Joya). Nibble on smoked salmon appetizers and choose from a braised rib or salmon main course.
Just be sure to save room for the quartet of desserts – from a coconut jam pudding to a sinful chocolate confection, served in a surprising dish.
And then… Be mesmerized as you watch trapeze artists swinging on vines, a mermaid contortionist, jugglers, an Olympic gold-medal gymnast, masked wrestlers and other artists perform incredible feats.
It was our first Cirque du Soleil – and we were utterly enchanted.
4. Swim with sea turtles at Akumal
Akumal – which means “place of the turtles” in Mayan – is a nesting and feeding site for green and loggerhead turtles which graze on the sea grasses found off the Yucatan coast. It’s also where you can snorkel with sea turtles in the wild.
Snorkeling at Akumal Bay is one of the most popular things to do in Riviera Maya – especially in the morning. So go in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. To get there, you can catch the public colectivo bus from Playa del Carmen (the area’s thriving beach town and shopping and restaurant hub).
Check in first at the small Akumal Ecological Center to watch a short video about how to snorkel with the turtles responsibly. They can also refer you to a guide and equipment rentals.
5. Explore the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage site, located south of Tulum – a 1.3 million-acre nature preserve. As a biosphere, all living habitat is protected, including local Maya people who live in buffer zones on the edges. Most of the reserve’s wetlands, tropical forest and mangrove lagoons are untouched and inaccessible. But a section is open for sustainable tourism exploration.
We booked a daytrip with Sian Ka’an Community Tours (based in Tulum).
First up was a visit to the archaeological site of Muyil and a tromp across rocky paths, slippery with green moss.
“Muyil” means “pile of rocks.” Most of the buildings have indeed been reduced to piles of rocks by banyan tree roots. But a few steep-walled pyramids remain, entangled by vines.
Because of its relatively remote location, buried in the humid rainforest, Muyil is visited by far fewer people than Tulum. It feels wilder, more raw. It almost felt like we had time-traveled back to the movie set of Raiders of the Lost Ark!
In the rainforest, we learned about native trees. The black poisonwood trees are the ones to be wary of.
Stand under a black poisonwood tree in the rain, and the dripping sap will burn your skin.
The antidote comes from the sap of the “tourist tree” – so named for its red peeling bark.
Eventually our walk took us to a dock where a small panga ferried us across two lagoons to a gently flowing river.
Slipping into the water and using our life jackets as flotation devices, we floated down the river, pushed by the current.
Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any (harmless) baby crocodiles or manatees (you’re more likely to encounter them if you go earlier in the day).
But we saw many eagles, ibises, pelicans, herons and other birds in the mangroves, and the natural lazy river experience was novel – and fun!
Back at the Sian Ka’an visitor center, we tucked into a very late Mayan lunch of pibil chicken (made with red achiote seeds, in tomato paste), cooked in banana leaf.
Sian Ka’an is a far cry from the big adventure theme parks like Xcaret and Xplor in the Riviera Maya. If you’re a nature lover – or just want to get away from the main tourist attractions – put Sian Ka’an on your list of things to do in Riviera Maya.
Where to stay in the Riviera Maya
Read our magazine article
“Five Perfect Days in the Riviera Maya” was published in the Spring, 2016 issue of Interval World magazine. Click on either image below to read a PDF of our story.