The Perfect Weekend in Cancun and Riviera Maya

When warm weather beckons but time is short, a weekend trip to Cancun and Riviera Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula is your perfect go-to. Beautiful Mexican Caribbean beaches, inclusive resorts, and an easy trip from the United States add up to a weekend of ease. But there’s much more to the area than white sand beaches, including day trips to explore Mayan culture ruins, the caves and calm waters of Dos Ojos Cenote, and nights out dancing. Yes, spring breakers, the area is your paradise too: head straight to the clubs in the hotel zone. You can sleep when you get back to school.

Boulevard Kukulcan Km. 9.5, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
Look out Las Vegas, Coco Bongo is in town. This wild dance club, in the heart of Cancun’s hotel zone, is packed with live shows—everything from faux Queen or Madonna to bar-top conga lines and airborne acrobats. Make sure to bring your dancing shoes because salsa, trance, rave, and hip-hop bands will have you jiving amid bubbles and streamers galore. The party starts around 10:30 and there is no seating, so be prepared to stand—or dance—until the wee hours of the morning. The entrance fee includes an open bar.
Carretera Federal Cancún-Tulum. Km 124, Jacinto Pat, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
This cenote’s name, which means “Two Eyes” in Spanish, refers to its two separate pools that lead into a large cavern of incredibly clear water. At more than 40 miles long, Dos Ojos is the largest underwater cave system in the state and among the most popular and adventurous dive spots on the entire Riviera Maya. Snorkelers of all ages are welcome to take in the amazing scenery and gaze at divers as they explore far below. The cenote lies just a few minutes north of Tulum, a little over a mile off the main highway.
Carretera Cancún -Tulum Km 282, Puerto Juarez, Solidaridad, 77710 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
The Riviera Maya’s most beautifully styled adventure park begins with a reception area inside a natural cave. Tours here include Latin America’s highest zip lines over the tropical forest, amphibious vehicles you drive through caves and jungles, and swimming and rafting through underground rivers. Though Xplor is a family-friendly attraction, it may be better suited to teens and adults because of the physical activity required. If you don’t have all day, book Xplor Fuego, the nighttime admission: Temperatures are cooler, torchlight adds an exotic touch, and you soar over the trees by moonlight.
Carretera Federal Libre Chetumal- Puerto Juárez Km. 283.5 Ejido Sur, 77712 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
Thousands of years ago, the entire Yucatán Peninsula was under water, as evidenced by its massive network of rivers that flow beneath the region’s limestone surface. No place better presents the area’s captivating caverns and underground water systems than majestic Río Secreto, a nature park just south of Playa del Carmen that offers adventurous travelers wide-ranging cave tours. Extending for miles, its river system wasn’t discovered until 2006, when a local man accidentally stumbled across an entrance while chasing an iguana through the jungle. When you go, guides lead you through a maze of stalactites and stalagmites that ends with a swim in subterranean waterways that vary based on the path you choose.
Calle 10 Margaritas 25, 22, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
One of Cancún’s oldest restaurants, La Habichuela was a 1970s original whose owner wanted a place to hang out with friends. It’s become an upscale dining room featuring local Mayan recipes alongside Mexican-Caribbean fare. The now iconic restaurant borders downtown’s Las Palapas Park, and has a charming backyard garden adorned with twinkly lights and climbing vines. Start the evening with balché, an ancestral Mayan drink made from the bark and roots of the balché tree that have been soaked in honey and water. For your entrée, try the amaranth fish bathed in flavorful tamarind and mango vinaigrettes.
km 19.4, Kukulkan, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
Even though it’s right across the street from top Cancún resorts near the southern end of the Hotel Zone, the entrance to this open-air restaurant remains known only to locals plus a few in-the-know travelers. Walk down the wooden staircase to find a dirt floor, a palapa roof, and tranquil lagoon views, plus affordable Caribbean seafood dishes prepared in an outdoor kitchen. You’ll also get traditional comfort food like ceviche and garlic shrimp, along with a selection of Mexican beers, but the highlight is the hot and fresh pescadillas, shredded fish in pan-fried tortillas.
Carretera Tulum a Boca Paila Km 8.2, Ejido Pino Suarez, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
Embodying the city’s beach-chic vibe, this oceanside hotel restaurant and bar is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. La Zebra serves authentic Mexican dishes made with locally sourced ingredients, some from the Riviera Maya region and others from different parts of the country, including classic corn tamales and cochinita pibil tacos. During the daytime, try one of their popular aguas frescas: a drink combining fruit with other natural ingredients, sugar, and water that’s a refreshing way to beat the heat. After dinner on Sundays, hit the beach to dance at weekly salsa parties under the palms.
Boulevard Punta Nizuc - Cancun Km 22.5, Nizuc, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
With just a few plastic tables beneath some palapas, this hidden gem on Cancún’s more natural southern side has an incredible location right at the mouth of the river that connects the Nichupté Lagoon to the Caribbean. The tikin xic (pronounced tee-keen sheek) is a must if you want to try the region’s most iconic seafood—this local Mayan dish is typically prepared with grouper split in half, then marinated in red achiote paste, wrapped in a banana leaf, and baked in a pit. The river here has clear, calm waters suitable for swimming, even if the path down is a bit rocky.
Calle 10 Nte, Gonzalo Guerrero, 77720 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
A local favorite, Bar La Ranita (Little Frog) is attached to the Hotel Rana Cansada (Tired Frog) and has been around since 1984. The ambiance is laid back, but the prices are affordable and the margaritas pack a powerful punch.
Blvd. Kukulcan Km. 9.5, Punta Cancun, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
The beat goes on till dawn in this innovative cavern-style “hot spot” in the hotel zone. Six bars, live entertainment, laser shows and loud music from the 80s, 90s and hip-hop, combined with special effects - such as blasts of C02 - add to the revelry.
Boca de paila Km 5.5, 77766 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
Rustic luxury is the vibe at Amansala, where all accommodations are cabana-style. How rustic? Well, lights go out at 11 each night, after which time candles provide illumination. Ocean breezes do the work that is relegated to air-conditioners at less eco-conscious hotels. Rooms are decorated with locally sourced materials, including driftwood and stones. Candles and incense are in-room amenities. The idea, says owner Melissa Perlman, is for guests to feel that they’re staying at a friend’s home rather than an anonymous hotel where they’re just a room number. The hotel also hosts yoga retreats several times throughout the year, as well as detox cleanse packages and “Bikini Bootcamp” intensives for guests who want to get in shape.
Calle 38 norte Mz 4 Lote 3, Gonzalo Guerrero, 77720 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
“We hope you adapt to our bohemian philosophy,” say the staff at Hotel La Semilla, by way of explanation when guests ask why rooms have no televisions (there is, however, Wi-Fi and AC). With distressed walls and furniture, the hotel has a shabby chic feel (or, as they describe it, “rough luxe”), and owners Alexis and Angie treat all guests as friends. Part of the room rate is earmarked as a donation to the Friends of Sian Ka’an, a conservation group dedicated to the preservation of the nearby Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila Km.10, Zona Hotelera, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
Be Tulum describes itself as a resort, but with 64 rooms and a no-child-under-12 policy, the property feels considerably more intimate than its name and marketing might suggest. The hotel enjoys beachfront status, with powdered-sugar sand inviting guests to do little more than lounge around all day. For those wanting a bit more activity, bikes can be borrowed from the front desk and used to cycle out to the Maya site of Tulum. The spacious rooms—all suites and all at least 500 square feet in size—most of which have either a Jacuzzi or their own pool, as well as polished wood floors and rough, white stone walls.
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