Photo by Carlos Alberto Gómez Iñiguez/Unsplash
You know it’s a fiesta when the fireworks begin.
You don’t need an excuse to visit this beachy stretch of Mexican paradise, but we’ve gathered the best festivals, holidays, and celebrations throughout the year in Cancún, Tulum, and other towns along the coast of Quintana Roo.
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A good deal on airfare to Cancún International Airport is enough to inspire a trip to the Riviera Maya for most people, but the yearly calendar of concerts, food festivals, and fairs along the Mexican Caribbean coastline features some landmark dates that may inspire you to plan the ideal Mexican vacation.
As it is everywhere else in the world, the first day of the year is noisily celebrated here from midnight on. Fireworks are the explosive norm at most great Mexican celebrations, and you’ll see a stellar show over the towns along the Riviera Maya. The festivities will continue until the diehards witness the year’s first sunrise at the beach.
End of January, beginning of February
Every year since 2012, from the middle of the last week in January into the first week in February, Mexico’s gay community comes together for a huge six-day electronica party. Revelers arrive from all over the world to let loose. Come and explore the different EDM performances, from frenetic to chill. arenamx.electrostub.com
While this religious holiday is mostly celebrated at home, you may come upon processions outside churches with a statue of baby Jesus. One way you can join in? Order tamales for dinner, and know that that’s what Mexican families are sharing with their families, too.
Early February dates vary annually
Attendees can expect cooking demonstrations by local and international chefs, lavish VIP dinners, organized tastings of Mexican wines and spirits, parties celebrating Mexican street food, and more. This event really does bring out the stars of the culinary world. tulumfswf.com
Dates vary annually
Every Shrove Tuesday, Cozumel celebrates Mardi Gras—an event that ranks among Mexico’s most famous and eagerly awaited. The Cozumel Carnival is known for floats and the carnival king’s coronation, as well as for traditional live music, masquerades, and dance contests. All this takes place amid the island’s beauty and surrounded by its friendly locals.
Third Monday in March
Businesses close for this federal holiday, which commemorates the birth of the national hero, so expect lots of locals enjoying their day off on the beach.
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Join the crowds and head to the pyramids at Chichen Itza in the afternoon to watch the sun graze the pyramids, casting a shadow in the form of the snake, Kukulkan. The shadow only appears on the fall and spring equinox.
The week leading up to Easter
For the week that begins on Palm Sunday and continues through Easter Sunday, the holiest day of the Christian calendar, most Mexicans take vacations and many of them head to the beach. The week is very busy all along the Riviera Maya, and it’s a festive time to visit. Book early—hotels and restaurants fill up.
The first of May is celebrated throughout much of the world as a holiday honoring workers. In Mexico, it’s a public holiday and many families go to the beach to take their day of rest next to the Caribbean.
April 28 to May 8
Each year this supercharged festival celebrates two holidays at once in the Cozumel town of El Cedral. The weeklong party honors both the Feast of the Holy Cross and the arrival of 21 founding families that sought refuge in Cozumel in 1848 during the Yucatán Peninsula’s bloody “Caste Wars.” Both residents and visitors enjoy a full week of food stands, corny carnival games, dancing, shopping, and exhibitions.
This holiday—which honors the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, in which the Mexicans beat the French—is primarily celebrated in bars in Cancun (and the United States). While you won’t find processions, fireworks, or festivals, you can expect cocktail specials.
May dates vary annually
Maya pilgrims set out in canoes to paddle to Cozumel and back in this cultural excursion known as the Sacred Maya Journey. The crossing is made to recreate a slice of history and culture by reenacting a sacred ritual the Maya performed yearly in adoration of the goddess Ixchel. Devotions began days before at Polé Market (now at Xcaret), where different products destined to serve as offerings to the deity were sold. After dances, purification rituals, and other observances, the pilgrims paddled to Cozumel where they worshipped the goddess and sought her blessing for the entire indigenous nation. Stepping back in time, today’s participants bear witness to ancestral traditions.
The summer months are hot and quiet and, along with the rest of the Caribbean, it’s hurricane season on the Riviera Maya. While that means there’s a possibility of stormy weather, note that airfares and hotel rates are at their most affordable in summer.
The celebration of the Mexican victory in the War of Independence against Spain is everything that Cinco de Mayo in Mexico is not: Expect lots of fiestas in the main squares with live music and carnival rides. And, around 11 p.m., one of the best annual fireworks displays in the region commences over the water in Playa del Carmen. The festivities continue all night.
Mid-October dates vary annually
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The delicate baby sea turtles that hatch along the beaches of the Riviera Maya deserve a party, and it comes in the shape of a free, three-day-long festival at the end of the hatching season. The celebration moves each day from town to town, starting in Xcacel, then Akumal, then ending in Tulum, with food, music, and carnival games at each stop. facebook.com
October 31 to November 2
Join the rest of Mexico in celebrating the Day of the Dead—when ancestors who’ve gone on to the next world return to enjoy the food, drink, and entertainment that their living descendants bring them. This colorful festival is celebrated throughout the country; in the Riviera Maya, where the holiday is called Hanal Pixán, the biggest boundary-crossing party stretches from Halloween through November 2 and takes place at Xcaret Park. xcaret.com
This commemoration of the beginning of the overthrow of Mexico’s authoritarian president Porfirio Diaz in 1910 is a federal holiday, which means that the beaches along the Riviera Maya will be full of locals celebrating the advent of modern Mexico. A morning parade in Playa del Carmen brings out a lively crowd, too.
Late November dates vary annually
Enjoy three days of free music performed right on the beach near Mamita’s Beach Club in Playa del Carmen. Performers in years past have included the likes of Wayne Shorter, George Benson, Chick Corea, Bela Fleck, Sergio Mendes, and Earth, Wind, and Fire, so get there early and find the perfect spot to spread your beach towel. facebook.com
This is a favorite religious holiday of many locals because it honors the date when the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant in rural Mexico. In the towns along the Riviera Maya, you’ll see organized processions, lots of small celebrations—including pilgrims walking on the roads—and local fireworks. In Tulum, relay runners take turns carrying a torch with the race ending in town for a big, colorful festival and mass. The day provides a real “baptism” into Mexican culture.
Early December dates vary annually
Running is a great way to see all of Cancún up close. Happily for visitors, running in December is a lot cooler than running the rest of the year. The annual marathon’s route wends past Cancún Bay, the lagoon, and the hotel strip so even if you’re not in the competition, you’re still likely to see the spectacle. cancun-marathon.com
While resorts and hotels will be full of vacationers, Christmas on the Riviera Maya is a holiday spent at home with family after midnight Mass (and a post-Mass feast of holiday treats).
>>Next: Plan Your Trip With the AFAR Travel Guide to Cancún and the Riviera Maya
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