What to Do on the Riviera Maya
Leaving an impossibly perfect beach may not sound like a wise idea, but the Riviera Maya offers so much: Climb 13th-century Maya pyramids, swim in freshwater cenotes, and shop for locally made crafts. See as much as you can of this charming region.
Blvd Kukuklcan Km 9, Zona Hotelera Cancun, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Benito Juarez, Q.R., Mexico
Also called the Party Zone, this block along Cancún’s main boulevard pulsates with lights, music, and gaudy signs inviting partyers into nightclubs lining the street. From smaller open-air clubs like La Vaquita and Congo, to internationally renowned nightspots such as Dady’O and Coco Bongo, this strip was once just for spring breakers but now features shopping centers, restaurants, and markets that draw in locals and low-key tourists for walks on the not-so-wild side, too. For late-night snacks before or after the clubs, peek into El Callejón de los Milagros, an alley behind Dady’O, once seedy, now replete with souvenir shops and restaurants serving up authentic tacos and other Mexican favorites.
77500, Tulipanes LB, 22, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
Hidden in the center of a quiet neighborhood between the main thoroughfares of Avenida Tulum and Avenida Yaxchilán, this area has been a top gathering spot for Cancún families for decades, especially after sunset on weekends. Despite the “Parque” nomenclature, Las Palapas is really more of a plaza than a park, with a playground, cartloads of artisan-made souvenirs, and weekly entertainment on its palapa-roofed outdoor stage. At the perimeter lie cheap street-food options aglow in neon, such as esquites (corn kernels doused with mayonnaise, lime, and sauces), churros, and marquesitas (crispy crêpe-like rolls). For a full meal, there’s also a small outdoor food court selling classic Yucatecan dishes such as panuchos (a tortilla piled with black beans and toppings) and salbutes (a puffy tortilla topped with pulled chicken, lettuce, avocado, and other toppings).
km 1, Blvd. Kukulcan, Puerto Juarez, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
This sleek outdoor mall sits in the lavish neighborhood of Puerto Cancún, known for its marinas, golf course, and luxury homes. The shopping center features international brands like Zara and Sephora, along with a stylish, upscale food court featuring its own bar, views of the marina, and cuisine from all over the globe (think Thai fusion, raw bar, gourmet burgers, French bistro, sushi). For entertainment, the expansive Cinépolis movie theater has a VIP section with cozy recliners and table service right to your theater seat. Though designed for tourists, the theater is popular with local crowds, as well, thanks to its convenient location between the Hotel Zone and downtown. On weekends you can catch performances throughout the mall, including live music and acrobatic shows.
Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
This extensive white-sand beach is the one Cancún locals love the most, and it’s still largely unknown to tourists. Bisected by a lengthy pier, Playa Langosta has calm, shallow, crystal-clear waters like most other beaches on the Cancún Hotel Zone’s northern side, making it an ideal escape for families with small kids as well as those who just want to lounge beside the sea. Restrooms and a playground are on-site, but beach chairs are not always available for rent, so consider bringing your own.
Cancún - Punta Cancún
Locals absolutely love Playa Tortugas, and it fills up on weekends, especially Sundays. Equipped with several ferry piers, this stretch has calm, clear, shallow water; it’s no surprise it’s a top family-style hangout. You’ll also find seafood restaurants, laid-back Bar del Mar and its scrumptious Bloody Caesars, and convenience stores in case you want to cater your own snacks and drinks. In the busy season, you might even see daredevil tourists take a plunge from the bungee platform.
Boulevard Kukulcan, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
A massive stretch of soft white sand calls you to the Caribbean at Cancún’s largest public beach, a quiet spot amid Hotel Zone resorts. The waves can be a bit rougher than elsewhere, so it may not be great for swimming, but the strand is one of the city’s few surfing spots. Playa Delfines also goes by the name El Mirador, thanks to its spacious hilltop deck overlooking the ocean and hotel skyline and its large, colorful “Cancún” sign that’s perfect for photo ops. Among the other welcome amenities: restrooms, a playground, small shady palapas, and an outdoor gym.
Carlos J. Nader, Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
The quiet street known as Avenida Nader, where several pioneers lived during the city’s 1970s genesis, ranks among the most “historic” neighborhoods in this all-but-brand-new city. With City Hall’s rear garden to the west and an upscale neighborhood of winding streets to the east, the avenue has transformed in recent years, going from quaint and residential to an eclectic mix of hipster bars, lantern-lit outdoor restaurants, and hidden street art. The strip embraces its historic roots while also providing a bit of vie de bohème you might not expect at a beach resort.
Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
If you’ve dreamed of climbing an ancient Mayan ruin yet remaining free from the madding crowd, Cancún has a little secret: the El Rey Ruins, an archaeological treasure tucked into the Hotel Zone and just a 10-minute bus ride from most city resorts. As recently as 1200 C.E., the site was a center for maritime trade. While thousands of tourists pack into other ruins hours away, hardly anyone knows about El Rey, which is relatively small in comparison, and you’ll probably see only a handful of other visitors. Perhaps best of all: You can still climb the pyramids.
Boulevard Kukulcan KM 13 , LOCAL 410 y 411A, Benito Juárez, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
Beginning right at the entrance to downtown Cancún (kilometer 0, where the median is also home to a spacious outdoor gym) and tracing the Hotel Zone’s entire northern stretch, this wide, red-paved path is a favorite for runners, in-line skaters, and cyclists in search of outdoor exercise with a merciful bit of shade (the path along Boulevard Kukulcan is lined with jungle flora, palm trees, tropical plants, and a smattering of hotel entrances). Locals especially love working out on the Ciclopista early in the morning and in the evening, when temperatures are cooler.
Blvd. Kukulcan km 12.5, La Isla, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico
Cancún’s best-known mall offers travelers an easy-to-reach location in the heart of the Hotel Zone. Known to locals simply as Plaza La Isla, this outdoor shopping center is a lovely spot to beat the heat thanks to its Venetian frippery (think winding canals), playful fountains, and ice cream parlors. The Marina area, with a restaurant row overlooking Nichupté Lagoon, is a top photo op. Reached via the designer shops in the Fashion Harbor section, it faces west and is ideal for catching the sun setting over the water.
Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo, Mexico
About half an hour south of Cancún stands the rickety wooden entrance sign to La Ruta de los Cenotes, a small highway leading into the jungle, populated only by the occasional souvenir stand or rental cabins. But the real attraction here is the cenotes: natural springs connected to the Yucatán Peninsula’s extraordinary underground river system. Ideal for swimming and snorkeling, the pools often feature diving cliffs, picnic grills, and maybe even a small zip line. Most forbid sunscreen and bug repellant to protect the water’s pristine quality. Top options include Las Mojarras, Verde Lucero, Boca del Puma, and Siete Bocas.
Calle Quinta Avenida, Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
Playa del Carmen’s winning charm emerges all along this wide pedestrian avenue, which runs parallel to the beach. Eateries here include everything from cheap fast food like Pizza Renzo to upscale restaurants and cafes; the best people-watching is from outdoor seating at the sports bar Tequila Barrel or Chez Céline bakery. The shopping scene offers international luxury brands side by side souvenir shops, but the most interesting Mexican handicrafts await at boutiques like Sin Pecado and Sol Jaguar. Since this part of town has little shade, it’s best to avoid the midday sun; instead, try an early-morning visit with some streetside coffee in hand, then revisit at sunset to kick off an evening of dining, shopping, and bar-hopping.
Playa del Carmen’s 10th Avenue runs parallel to the city’s famous 5th Avenue but has a more low-key vibe, a relief when you tire of crowds, malls, and big-name brands. This bustling one-way street does allow cars, but it’s also lined by a sidewalk and a nice restricted-lane bike path. And despite the central location just a block from the town’s most touristy area, the storefronts here are largely locally owned restaurants, ranging from cheap taco joints and Mexican bars to eclectic gourmet cuisine and smoothie stands, as well as various convenience stores, pharmacies, banks, and small hotels.
This unassuming two-story plaza has become a popular Friday- and Saturday-night hangout for 20- and 30-something locals. In addition to its shops, Plaza Paseo Cobá is home to several restaurants and bars with a trendy, bohemian vibe that’s far removed from the beach area’s bump and grind. Feast on artisanal Italian at indoor-outdoor Casa Sofia, or dance to live music at the Public Place.
152 Calle 38 Norte
Situated at the eastern end of Playa del Carmen’s quiet, charming Calle 38, Shangri-La Beach is named after a small hotel that used to sit right there but has since been renamed and renovated. This stretch of the city’s coastline has a more tranquil atmosphere thanks to its location several blocks away from jammed beach clubs downtown as well as from 5th Avenue’s hustle and bustle. At Shangri-La, going to the beach is less of a scene and more about guests from nearby hotels plus a few locals catching some rays on a lunch break. Best of all, you’ll find soft white sand, turquoise seas, and blissfully calm waves here.
The bars along 5th Avenue start hopping as early as sunset, but Calle 12 doesn’t pick up until well after dark. Pronounced kah-yeh doh-say, the lane is Ground Zero for Playa del Carmen’s wilder nightlife, with nightclubs and bars on both sides of the street between 10th and 1st avenues. The hottest venue depends on when you go—which night, week, or even season—but the most popular spots include Coco Bongo, La Vaquita, Coco Maya Beach Bar, and Mandala. (Note: Things don’t start till 11 p.m. at the earliest on Friday and Saturday nights.)
Carretera Chetúmal-Puerto Juárez Kilómetro 282, Solidaridad, 77710 Playa del Carmen, Q.R., Mexico
The massive nature park called Xcaret may be the Riviera Maya’s most touristy attraction, but there’s a reason it’s popular: It’s the only place in the area where you can do it all—snorkel, visit animal habitats, swim through an underground river, try different Mexican delicacies, play with dolphins, learn about Mayan culture, and take in traditional regional dances at an extravagant nightly show—all in a single day. What’s more, it’s remarkably baby- and toddler-friendly. The so-called Plus pass is a smart option that includes lunch, lockers, and snorkel gear for a price equal to general admission and a meal. Best day of the week to visit: Tuesdays, for smaller crowds. Best season: early November, for Day of the Dead.
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.
Carretera Federal, Cancun - Chetumal Km 230, 307, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
While not as large as other ancient Mayan cities in the region, Tulum draws in visitors for its stunning setting of centuries-old temples perched on a cliff by the Caribbean Sea. You’ll pass a large market with souvenirs, a casual Mexican restaurant, and even a Starbucks before reaching the entrance, where a train can take you to the site if you’re not up for the 10-minute walk. It’s advisable to hire a guide to fully understand each structure’s significance and the history behind the ruins; informative signage is all but nonexistent. Don’t forget to bring your swimsuit, as the site encompasses a white-sand beach with soothing waves and beautiful rock formations that’s reached by a long wooden staircase.
Running three miles along the Tulum coastline, this massive beach has some of the Riviera Maya’s best conditions: soft white sand, waves tame enough for a calm swim, plus incredible shades of turquoise water. The stretch is chockablock with restaurants and beach clubs offering on-the-sand food and drinks. Along the main coastal road that runs parallel to the shore, you’ll find rustic cabins and luxurious hippie-style hotels with plenty of amenities, whether you’re looking for a bed for the night or just somewhere to grab lunch. After dark, Tulum Beach has some of the region’s best stargazing due to its secluded location and absence of city lights.
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 Tulum- Cancun Km 1266, Riviera Maya, Q.R., Mexico
Thanks to its easy-to-reach location on the main highway just fifteen minutes south of Playa del Carmen, this open cenote ranks among the most popular with locals. One half of the clear spring is shallow, with areas for climbing adjacent rocks; other spots are just deep enough for snorkeling. Elsewhere, there are still deeper waters for swimming and cooling off, complete with a sundeck and a small cliff for jumping.
Isla Blanca, Q.R., Mexico
Isla Blanca is in fact a narrow peninsula some 30 minutes north of Cancún, with the lagoon to the west and the Caribbean to the east. Seemingly no one except the locals come to this untouched, isolated beach, dotted with tiny seafood restaurants, the occasional vacation cabin, intermittent lounge-chair rentals, and a growing camp of kite surfers. You’ll need to arrive by car via coastal highway that quickly turns to rough dirt path, but the experience transcends the rusticity once you hit the Caribbean’s pristine white sands and cool turquoise surf; the lagoon’s shallow, brackish waters, just steps from the ocean, provide ideal fly-fishing and kite-surfing conditions.
Ruta de los cenotes Km 18, Carretera Puerto Morelos - Leona Vicario, 77580 Puerto Morelos, Q.R., Mexico
Set deep in the jungle—about an hour from Cancún and far from the usual beaches and resorts—this adventure park boasts the region’s most impressive ziplines, designed for daredevil travelers in search of real adrenaline rush. Fun-loving guides glide heels-over-head through exuberant foliage along each circuit, from canopy-rope courses and traditional ziplines to a bungee swing and Superman-style flying above the tree line. You can even book packages that include a swim in a nearby cenote, complete with high-dive platform, or a (be forewarned, very dusty) ATV ride.
Solidaridad, Q.R., Mexico
Just off the main Riviera Maya highway, this cenote is easy to reach by car or colectivo vans that serve as small public buses up and down the route. The cenote is completely open and has no caves, but it’s a stunning spot for snorkeling in crystal-clear water, with jungle scenery all around. There are shallow areas for snorkelers plus a deeper side with a twelve-foot cliff, perfect for jumping. Snorkel gear is available for rental.
Quintana Roo, Mexico
A few minutes north of Tulum, Xcacel (pronounced “ish-kah-sel”) is one of the region’s more unspoiled coastal areas. The beach has long been a local favorite, especially on Sundays, and in-the-know tourists are showing up now, too. Natural vegetation lines the shore and while there are no restaurants or beach clubs, there is a building with restrooms and showers. The best snorkeling is along the coral reef at the north end, and a small, swimmable cenote lies nearby. Sea turtles lay eggs here, in spring and summer, so take care not to trample nests; local conservation projects collect modest entrance fees to support their efforts.
Pronounced “ish-pu-ha,” this ranks among the most beautiful beaches anywhere on the Riviera Maya. With calm, very clear waters, it’s a popular spot for local families as well as travelers in search of a quiet afternoon. Despite the secluded location, south of Playa del Carmen, there are plenty of amenities for a comfortable day, like lounge chairs for rent, restrooms, snorkel-gear loan-outs, and a handful of excursions. You’ll also find restaurants and beach clubs famed for fresh seafood.
Carretera Xul-Ha - Bacalar,, La Adelita-Santa Rosa, 77930 Bacalar, Q.R., Mexico
The river rapids known as the Rápidos de Bacalar lie between a town of the same name and Quintana Roo’s state capital, Chetumal. Here, crystal waters and infinite shades of blue attract happy travelers from all over the world. Chill over a delicious seafood meal at the on-site restaurant, rent a stand-up paddleboard, or kayak down the rapids. Nature-lovers must not miss the stromatolites, i.e., “living rocks,” that populate this diverse ecosystem. An early arrival is recommended for a day in paradise, replete with relaxation or activity, you decide. Don’t forget water shoes for exploring rocky shores. (A fifty-peso entry fee; parking available).
Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila Km 3.5, Tulum Beach, Zona Hotelera, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
Fashionistas will be quick to snap up this new home-grown line that works to support creative and social development for the women of highland Chiapas. Each garment—often a combination of chiffon and linen—is hand-sewn; styles range from crisp and professional to blissfully free, empowering all women whatever their day-to-day activities. Locations throughout Mexico, but there’s something exciting about buying next to the beach from their sliver of a boutique in the Hotel María del Mar.
QROO 15, Tulum Beach, Q.R., Mexico
The more we know about the dark side of “fast fashion,” the more we love fair trade; do your part to support and spread the word. Tulum’s finest examples include La Troupe, a showcase for handcrafted fashions and home décor that reflect the imagination of their unique creators. Look for gorgeous textiles, often embroidered, now applied to extraordinary fashion and design. Everything is produced in local Maya communities. Feminine and stunning, these are treasures at a fair price for fair trade.