The Top 13 Things to Do in the Riviera Maya

Cenote - turquoise water at Xel-Ha, Cancun
Australian Lifestyle Images / Getty Images

The Riviera Maya is a 100-mile stretch of coastline along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, starting just south of Cancun and continuing to Tulum and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. There are several destinations along this route, most notably Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and Tulum. Still, no matter where you choose to stay, know that there is lots to explore all along this fascinating coastline. You'll find exquisite beaches, upscale resorts, archaeological sites, ecological reserves, water parks, cenotes, and outstanding Yucatecan gastronomy. Here are a few of the things you should do on a visit to this beautiful region.

01 of 13

Take a Dip in a Cenote

Cancun, Mexico - Aerial Photographer
Jonny Snowden / Getty Images

The Yucatan Peninsula’s bedrock is mainly limestone, and this unique geological characteristic has resulted in hundreds of cenotes (sinkholes) throughout the region. Most of them have fresh water and are perfect spots for taking a refreshing dip. For the ancient Maya, these had both a religious and practical use—besides being thought of as gateways to the underworld, they were also the main source of fresh water. Some people enjoy snorkeling or scuba diving in the deeper ones, which are sometimes connected to underground rivers. There are many cenotes throughout the Riviera Maya, a few of the most popular ones for swimming are Cenote Dos Ojos and Gran Cenote.

02 of 13

Marvel at Ancient Mayan Sites

Ruinas de Cobá
Foto por Juan Cristóbal Hurtado. / Getty Images
Carretera Tulum-Cobá Estacionamiento Z, A, 77793 Cobá, Q.R., Mexico

This area was the home of the ancient Mayan civilization. Many Mayan sites in the Yucatan Peninsula are open to visitors, including Tulum, Cobá, and Ek Balam, and some smaller ones at Xcaret, Xel-Ha, and Cozumel island. Visiting these sites offers a wonderful introduction to the history and legends of the ancient Maya along with their advances in architecture, the arts, mathematics, astronomy, and calendrical calculations.

03 of 13

Go Shopping on Quinta Avenida

Tourists exploring famous shopping street in Playa Del Carmen - 5th Avenue, Mexico
anouchka / Getty Images
C.12 Nte Bis, Gonzalo Guerrero, 77720 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico

To get the full Riviera Maya experience, take a stroll along Playa del Carmen’s iconic Quinta Avenida (“Fifth Avenue”), where you’ll find restaurants, bars, boutiques, souvenir shops, drug stores, and more, all waiting to be discovered. Go in the evening to avoid the heat of the day and enjoy people-watching while you purchase some gifts for those who weren't lucky enough to take the trip with you. Stop for a drink or a meal while you enjoy the ambiance of this fashionable promenade.

04 of 13

Get an Adrenaline Rush at Xplor Park

Hammock Splash at Xplor Park Riviera Maya

Courtesy Xplor Park

Carretera Chetumal, Puerto Juarez Km 282, 77710 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
Phone +52 998 883 3143

Soar high above the jungle on the zip lines, paddle your way through an underground river, splash into a cenote on a hammock swing, or drive an amphibious vehicle along narrow roads, hanging bridges, and inside a cavern. These are just a few of the thrills you can enjoy at Xplor Adventure Park, which boasts the tallest zip lines in Cancun and the Riviera Maya—the highest one stands at 147 feet above the ground. 

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05 of 13

Sample Yucatecan Cuisine

Cochinita Pibil at Axiote Restaurant

Courtesy Axiote Restaurant

Mexican cuisine is extremely varied, with each region having its own flavors and dishes. In the Yucatan Peninsula, there's an emphasis on sour orange, peppery achiote (also known as annatto), and spicy habanero. Dishes like cochinita pibil, papadzules, and sopa de lima are some of the dishes you should try. Although international cuisine is widely available in the Riviera Maya, look for spots that serve some of these traditional dishes for an authentic flavor experience. Axiote in Playa del Carmen is a good option, or take a food tour with Eating with Carmen for a more laidback option.

06 of 13

Swim With Sea Turtles in Akumal

Green Sea Turtle feeding on sea grass
Ai Angel Gentel / Getty Images
Playa Akumal, Carretera Tulum, Yodzonot, 77776 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico

Akumal Bay has a beautiful crescent-shaped beach with white sand and turquoise water, picture-perfect like most of the Riviera Maya’s beaches. What makes this one special is that it’s a unique spot where juvenile sea turtles come to munch on the special seaweed that grows in the bay. There’s a protected sea turtle sanctuary here, but you can get in the water and swim alongside them. 

Akumal beach is located 23 miles (38 km)  south of Playa del Carmen. Go on a guided tour, drive yourself, or take public transportation. From Playa del Carmen, colectivo taxis headed for Tulum depart from the stand located on Calle 2 Norte between Avenida 15 and 20. Tell them you want to get off at Akumal. It’s a five-minute walk to the beach from the highway. Rent snorkel gear there, or bring your own. Arrive early for the best visibility and fewer crowds. Independent snorkelers are limited to the first 150 feet from the shore.

07 of 13

Encounter Nature at Sian Ka'an

Sian''Kan, Mayan rivera.
Fabian Jurado's Photography. / Getty Images
77187 Sian Ka'an, Q.R., Mexico

At the far south end of the Riviera Maya, you’ll find the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, which feels like a world away from Cancun. Its name means "Where the Sky Is Born," and this is one of the largest protected areas in Mexico with 2500 square miles of unspoiled natural beauty along its freshwater canals, mangroves, lagoons, and inlets. Keep your eyes open so you don't miss any of the amazing wildlife encounters you can have here. You may even spot some unexcavated ancient sites. Take the opportunity to learn about the reserve’s diverse wildlife and maybe participate in one of their conservation projects. You can take an ecological tour of the reserve with Visit Sian Ka’an, and they also offer fly fishing and kayak tours.

08 of 13

Go Stand Up Paddle Boarding at Sunrise

Paddle boarders at sunrise
Sergio Amiti / Getty Images
Calle 6 Norte c/o Fusion Beach, Centro, 77710 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
Phone +52 984 197 2538

You can greet the new day atop a paddleboard in the Caribbean Sea at Playa del Carmen. Aloha Paddle Club offers its sunrise sessions daily for experienced stand-up paddleboarders and those who have never tried it before. If it's new for you, they provide a brief instruction session to start, SUP is a great workout—it challenges your balance and flexibility while improving cardio fitness and working your core. And getting to enjoy the sunrise over the water while you do it seems like a perfect way to start the day.

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09 of 13

Learn How to Scuba Dive

Learn How to Scuba Dive in Cancun

Getty Images | Stefano Oppo

The Riviera Maya is one of the best spots for appreciating the underwater world: the water is a bathtub-warm 80 degrees F or more year-round, visibility is an average of about 90 feet, and you’re right next to the second-largest coral reef in the world. Whether you’re already a licensed diver or not, you can have a scuba diving experience in the Riviera Maya, but while you’re there, why not take the opportunity to get certified or brush up on your skills? Several schools offer PADI courses, such as Dressel Divers, Aqua Excursions, and Blue Dream.

10 of 13

Sweat It Out in a Temazcal

Group of people inside Mayan Temazcal- traditional steam sauna bath of Mesoamerican cultures. Diverse multiethnic people sitting around candle lights in circle in darkness and meditating
Space_Cat / Getty Images

The traditional Mexican sweat lodge is known as a temazcal (its name comes from the Nahuatl language: temaz meaning sweat and calli, house) is said to cleanse the mind, body, and soul. You may have to crouch down to step inside the dome-shaped structure, where it’s hot and dark. A shaman or temazcalero will guide you through the experience as you sweat, releasing toxins and leaving behind the concerns of everyday life. As you exit the temazcal, you are symbolically reborn.

There are several different places in the Riviera Maya where you can have a temazcal experience, including Cenote Dos Palmas Temazcal and Yäan Healing Center.

11 of 13

Enjoy a Cirque du Soleil Performance

JOYÀ Cirque du Soleil Performer

Courtesy JOYÀ Cirque du Soleil

Carretera Federal, Cancun - Chetumal Km 48, 77710 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
Phone +52 800 247 7837

Cirque du Soleil has a resident show in the Riviera Maya presented in its signature theater at Vidanta Resort. Inspired by Mexican history and heritage, JOYÀ tells the story of an alchemist and his granddaughter, who are on a quest to uncover the secrets of life. The audience’s senses are engaged in this special experience that combines the culinary and performing arts. You’ll enjoy all the acrobatics and theatrics of Cirque du Soleil in a special, intimate setting. Tickets are available through the Cirque du Soleil website.

12 of 13

Float Along a Natural Lazy River

Xel-Ha, a natural water park in the Riviera Maya

 Courtesy Xel-Ha

Carretera Chetumal Puerto Juárez Km 240, locales 1 & 2, módulo B, 77780 Q.R., Mexico
Phone +52 998 883 3143

Xel-Há Park is a natural aquarium located in an inlet where freshwater meets with seawater, creating a unique environment that’s home to a great variety of marine species. There are inlets, lagoons, mangroves, and cenotes to explore. Put on some snorkel gear (included in admission) to look at the underwater life, or grab an inner tube to enjoy the environment in a more relaxed way. Before you leave, appreciate the beauty of the Riviera Maya from the top of Xel-Há’s 130-foot high scenic lighthouse, then take the water slide down.

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13 of 13

Relax on the Beach

Tulum beach
Orbon Alija / Getty Images

The Riviera Maya has such beautiful beaches that no trip is complete if you don’t spend some time just enjoying them. So be sure to schedule some time during your stay to take a swim in the sea or get active by enjoying some snorkeling, paddle-boarding, riding a banana boat or jet ski, or any of the many incredible water activities on offer. When you’ve done that, take a walk along the beach, or find a spot in the sand to enjoy the sound of the waves while sipping a cold cocktail. The beach club at Xpu-Ha is a good choice if you're looking for a laid-back ambiance, but if sargassum on the beach is an issue during your visit, check out these seaweed-free beaches.

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The Top 13 Things to Do in the Riviera Maya