Mexico's Riviera Maya: Planning Your Trip

Tulum Mayan Ruins
Tulum Mayan Ruins.

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The Riviera Maya, which is also sometimes referred to as the Mayan Riviera, stretches over nearly 100 miles of coastline with beautiful white sand beaches and brilliant turquoise colored water just south of Cancun. This world-renowned paradise is home to mangroves and lagoons, ancient Mayan cities, ecological reserves and adventure parks, and the world's second largest coral reef.

The unique topography of the Riviera Maya makes it an ideal destination for adventure seekers. You can dive in cenotes, swim or raft in underground rivers, ride ATVs through the jungle and fly on ziplines. If you're planning a trip, here's what to know.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: The best time to visit the Riviera Maya is in November through February, when temperatures are warm but not too hot, and the chance of rainfall is low. March through May can be oppressively hot, and May through November will bring heavy rainfall.
  • Language: Spanish, but many natives you meet here will speak English fluently due to how dominant the tourism industry is in this area.
  • Currency: Peso
  • Getting Around: Public transportation in the Riviera Maya is low-cost and reliable. From the Cancun airport, you can easily find the local ADO bus line in front of Terminal 3. This bus will take you to downtown Cancun in 25 minutes for 68 pesos. A bus to Playa del Carmen will take about 45 minutes, while a bus to Tulum will take approximately two hours. For those traveling light, a combi, or "colectivo," is a great option. These air-conditioned vans stop right outside the bus stations and are often cheaper than bus options. Taxis in the Riviera Maya are also plentiful and affordable, but take note that most do not offer air conditioning.
  • Travel Tip: One of the most unique geological characteristics of the Yucatan Peninsula is its cenotes—or sinkholes. These photogenic spots are filled with fresh water and are the perfect place to go swimming. The most popular cenote in the Riviera Maya is Cenote Dos Ojos, but there are plenty of options throughout the region.

Where to Stay

  • Playa del Carmen: A former sleepy fishing village, this destination has grown into a cosmopolitan town, the largest in the Riviera Maya, but still small enough to get around on foot. If you're interested in shopping, nightlife and fine dining, this is the place, but the beach is also alluring. Playacar is a nearby resort area offering upscale accommodations and some all-inclusive options. A great resort option here is the rustic and glamorous Viceroy Riviera Maya which offers private and intimate access to both the beach and jungle.
  • Cozumel: The largest island in the Mexican Caribbean, Cozumel is a short ferry-ride from Playa del Carmen. It's a great spot for scuba diving and snorkeling, the clear water offering visibility of up to 200 feet. The center of the island is mostly undeveloped jungle and lagoons with many endemic species of small animals and birds. Chankanaab National Park has a botanical garden featuring tropical plants, and Chankanaab Lagoon, a natural aquarium with more than 60 species of tropical fish, crustaceans and corals. One great resort option here is The Explorean Cozumel, a laid back all-inclusive that overlooks the Caribbean Sea.
  • Tulum: Once a busy Mayan ceremonial center and trading port, the ruins here are set in a spectacular setting, on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The town of Tulum has budget options for accommodation as well as some nice cabanas to rent along the beach. One interesting option is the Nueva Vida de Ramiro eco-resort. A great option for accommodation here is La Valise, a serene seafront property with an infinity pool and two on-site eateries.

Culture and Customs

The Riviera Maya was an important commercial and religious center for the ancient Maya civilization, and there are many archaeological sites to discover in the area, such as Tulum, Cobá and Muyil, where you can learn more about their history. For hundreds of years, the area remained isolated from the rest of the country due to its lack of adequate roads. As Cancun was developed, some tourists wanted an alternative to the mega-resort area, and the Riviera Maya was discovered.

Although there are large hotels and tourist amenities throughout the area, there are many eco-tourism options that allow visitors to experience the natural resources and amazing biodiversity of this beautiful region of Mexico.

Getting There

The easiest way to get to the Riviera Maya is usually via a flight to Cancun International Airport. From there, there are a number of public transportation and driving options that can take you to Playa del Carmen or Tulum within two hours or less.

Things to Do

  • Xcaret Eco Theme Park offers an abundance of activities for all ages. A full day can be spent in Xcaret swimming in underground rivers, snorkeling, seeing a re-enactment of the pre-Hispanic ball game, visiting ancient Mayan ruins and topping off the day by watching the spectacular cultural show that is presented every evening.
  • In Xel-Ha Park, subterranean currents of fresh water combine with salt water producing a unique ecosystem with multitudes of tropical fish perfect for snorkeling. Other activities at this water theme park include floating along the river on inner tubes, swinging over cenotes and swimming with dolphins. If you get tired of being in the water you can go on an ecological walking tour through the surrounding jungle, or take a break on "Hammock Island."
  • Aktun Chen covers almost 1000 acres of rainforest and is home to 3 caves with underground rivers. An easy walking tour of the main cave lasts about an hour and allows visitors to witness spectacular geological formations. Walking through the park's jungle paths offers the chance to glimpse some of the area's wildlife.
  • The Xaman Ha Aviary is an open-air sanctuary in Playacar providing a natural habitat to over 60 species of tropical birds. Meander the sanctuary's paths and trails and see if you can spot toucans, macaws, flamingos, egrets, herons and other beautiful birds of the area.
  • The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is one of the largest protected areas in Mexico and has 2500 square miles of unspoiled natural beauty with un-excavated Mayan ruins, fresh water canals, mangroves, lagoons and inlets. Visitors can learn about its diverse wildlife and participate in conservation projects. Ecological tours of the reserve are offered, as well as kayak tours and fly fishing.

Money Saving Tips

  • The ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum, essential for any trip to the Riviera Maya, are free on Sundays.
  • Pay with cash and in Mexican pesos to avoid paying an exchange rate.
  • Eat at local spots. There are plenty of street food carts where you can find incredible eats for less.