Travel

The best 10 things to do along the Riviera Maya

The Maya ruins at Tulum overlooking the sea The Maya ruins at Tulum overlooking the sea

The eastern coastline of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula hits the Caribbean Sea in one of the world’s most sought-after tropical resort destinations.

The coast from Cancun south to Tulum or thereabouts is widely known as the Riviera Maya: a place where white-sand beaches, coral banks, tropical rainforests, and pre-Columbian ruins come together in a magical, mesmerizing package.

Here are 10 of the best things to do on the Riviera Maya, with a special (but not exclusive) focus on the region’s famed outdoor activities and destinations. 

The Maya ruins at Tulum

The Maya ruins at Tulum

1. Visit the Maya ruins of Tulum

The most-visited archaeological site on the Riviera Maya is Tulum, a city that flourished in the latter stages of the Maya civilization, during its Late Postclassic Period from the 13th to the 16th centuries.

Known to the Maya as Zama, or “dawn,” Tulum functioned as a critical center of overland and maritime trade. The structures—which include the Castillo, the Temple of the Descending God (a deity of seeming great importance at this site), and the Temple of the Frescoes, plus the defensive walls—are impressive. But what’s particularly extraordinary about Tulum is its location: It's the only major Maya settlement directly on the coast. Its fortress-like profile perched on a roughly 40-foot cliff overlooking the aquamarine waters (which completed the city’s perimeter along with the walls) is unforgettable.

Tulum is open daily with guided tours available on-site. Many tour packages combine Tulum with the world-famous ruins of Chichen Itza, inland of the Riviera Maya.

Various corals in the Great Maya Reef

Corals of the Great Maya Reef

2. Dive the Great Maya Reef

The Riviera Maya’s nearshore waters include part of the splendid northern swath of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the Great Maya Reef, which stretches from Isla Contoy southward to the Bay Islands of Honduras. Perhaps the premier natural wonder of the Caribbean, the Great Maya Reef is the Western Hemisphere’s largest reef and the world's second longest, after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. The banks and walls composed of many dozens of species of coral are centerpieces, but the broader reef complex also includes underwater “lawns” of seagrass, productive mangrove swamps, sandy and coralline cays, and other tropical ecosystems. 

This is one of the world's best places to dive, and many tour companies offer guided scuba expeditions, some of which include the reef-scapes of the Isla Cozumel Biosphere Reserve in and around the island of Cozumel. The possibilities of seeing underwater life—from wrasses, groupers, spotted eagle rays, and Caribbean reef sharks to sea turtles, West Indian manatees, and several kinds of dolphin—abound.

A woman walking along the sand at Playa Akumal

Playa Akumal, one of the Riviera Maya's many beaches

3. Go beach-hopping

Soaking up the splendors of white-sand beaches and lapping Caribbean surf is a must when visiting the Riviera Maya. The Yucatan beachfront is the centerpiece draw here, with a range of busy strands with services and amenities as well as quieter, less-developed sandy seashores. 

Among the most sought-after beaches are Playa Maroma, Akumal, Xcacel, Xpu-Ha, and Playa Paraiso—not to mention Playa Ruinas, the plush and pearly sands of which lie in the shadow of the clifftop Tulum ruins.

A black-handed spider monkey climbing a tree with a baby on its back

Black-handed spider monkeys

4. Look for monkeys at Punta Laguna Nature Reserve

Managed by a local Maya village in an illustration of sustainable eco-tourism, the Punta Laguna Nature Reserve is a slightly off-the-beaten-path gem in the interior hinterland of the Riviera Maya that can be explored on a daytrip. Its tropical ecosystem hosts everything from toucans and coatis to pumas, jaguars, and crocodiles. But it’s best known for its New World monkeys, particularly the lanky and inquisitive-faced black-handed spider monkey, but also the Yucatan black howler with its booming voice. 

You can explore this sanctuary independently, but we recommend taking a hike with a local guide, who can introduce you to the native trailside plants and boost your chances of spotting those canopy-carousing monkeys. Ziplining, kayaking, and shopping the Maya community’s handicrafts are other popular activities.

A woman sitting on the edge of Cenote Azul

Cenote Azul near Puerto Aventuras

5. Snorkel in a cenote

The limestone bedrock of the Yucatan Peninsula comes replete with caves and caverns because of chemical weathering, and where their roofs have fully or partially collapsed, open sinkholes brimming with water are formed. These so-called cenotes—derived from the Mayan term dzonot, or “well”—are transfixing, with their stalagmites, stalactites, and other ornate limestone exposures, their breathtakingly clear water, and the lush surrounding jungle. 

It’s pretty safe to say that a swim or a snorkel in one of the Riviera Maya’s numerous cenotes—examples include Cenote Azul and Cenote Jardin del Eden in the Puerto Aventuras vicinity, and the Tulum area’s El Gran Cenote and Cenote Dos Ojos—will be one of the more unforgettable dips you’ve ever taken.

A serving of cochinita pibil

Cochinita pibil

6. Sample (& savor) the diverse cuisine

As one of the most coveted beachside getaways in the world, it’s little surprise the Riviera Maya boasts a rich and deep culinary character. The cuisine ranges from globe-spanning international fare to beloved Mexican and regional staples. And dining out can take the form of a white-tablecloth dinner at an upscale resort restaurant to rewarding explorations of street food, marketplace vendors, and beachside fruit stands.

Pay special attention to such Yucatecan specialties as cochinita pibil, a sumptuous dish of marinated pork slow-cooked in a wrapping of banana leaves, and sopa de lima, chicken and lime soup with fried tortilla strips—and, of course, seafood preparations taking advantage of those bountiful Caribbean waters.

Besides your own self-guided tasting safaris, serious foodies can sign up for several organized culinary tours on the Riviera Maya.

RELATED: 6 Caribbean destinations where visitors should eat like the locals

A whale shark swimming with cobia fish

A whale shark and smaller cobia fish

7. Swim with the biggest fish in the sea

The waters off the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula support one of the greatest seasonal get-togethers of whale sharks, the mightiest of all fish and bigger than any other vertebrates save for the sperm and baleen whales. Despite their titanic dimensions—big whale sharks can run north of 50 feet and weigh more than 20 tons—these graceful creatures scarf tiny prey, mainly plankton. From May to September, hundreds of whale sharks gather here to feed on fish eggs, and the Riviera Maya’s a great jumping-off point for some up-close looks.

You’ve got your pick of tour companies offering the chance to swim alongside these huge, docile beasts, particularly during the summer around Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox. 

An adult coati with a baby in a mangrove forest

A pair of coatis in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

8. Kayak in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

Just south of Tulum sprawls a crown jewel of the Yucatan Peninsula, and one of Mexico’s largest protected areas: the vast Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. A must-visit for any Tulum travelers interested in the natural world, this extraordinary place covers more than 1,000 square miles. Its mostly liquid mosaic ranges from the coral realms of the Great Maya Reef to mangrove swamps, coastal marshes, tree islands, stands of tropical forest, and cenotes. Wildlife runs the gamut from marine species to monkeys, tapirs, tayras, jaguars, and pumas—plus more than 300 documented species of birdlife.

From the offshore kays to the mangrove channels and marshy meanders, Sian Ka’an is one of the best places in the Riviera Maya for kayaking, an activity that ups your odds of seeing critters. Guided paddling tours are a good way to go.

A mixture of painted ceramic calavera skulls in bright colors

Painted ceramic calaveras

9. Shop your way around the Riviera Maya

Whether you’re hunting for breezy beachfront fashion or traditional handicrafts, the Riviera Maya has a wealth of shopping opportunities. These can take the form of shopping malls and ritzy resort boutiques to hole-in-the-wall souvenir shops and roadside stalls. Traditional Maya and more broadly Mexican crafts such as textiles, pottery, jewelry, and calaveras (ceramic or sugar skulls) are among the sought-after wares.

Prime shopping hotspots in the Riviera Maya include Playa del Carmen’s main drag, La Quinta; the Tulum Bazaar, Mercado Maya Tulum, and Beach Road in Tulum; and Cancun’s Avenida Tulum.

A green sea turtle beneath the ocean's surface

A green sea turtle in Akumal Bay

10. Marvel at nesting sea turtles (from a distance)

The Yucatan coast supports most of the world’s species of sea turtles, which are often seen by snorkelers and divers on the Great Maya Reef and even just offshore in spots such as Akumal (“Place of the Turtles”) Bay. Some of the most magical turtle-watching opportunities come between June and November, when these reptiles haul ashore to lay their eggs on their ancestral nesting beaches. Nesting turtles and their hatchlings, which make their famous mad dash to the surf, are especially vulnerable to disturbance, so visitors should abide by all regulations and give any beach-bound turtles plenty of room. 

If you follow the rules, you can often observe the nesting process in action, not least through managed viewing and volunteer experiences put on by local conservation groups.

Massage tables on the beach at a resort in Tulum, Mexico

Book your all-inclusive Riviera Maya getaway with AAA & save

Enjoy all-inclusive resorts along the Riviera Maya and in Cancun, get exclusive AAA benefits, and help from AAA travel advisors to find the right package for you.

AAA Travel alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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