23 Unmissable Things to Do in the Riviera Maya

There are so many things to do in the Riviera Maya and its surroundings, and although you are tempted to just chill out in your fancy hotel for the entire stay, it would be a shame not to explore the wonders that this area offers.

Stretching from the quaint fisher town of Puerto Morelos all the way to Tulum, the Riviera Maya is lined with spectacular beaches and refreshing cenotes, pretty towns, and wealthy marine life.

In this post, I am sharing all my favorite spots of the Riviera Maya and all the places at easy reach in a one-day tour.

Tulum Beach aerial view
Tulum Riviera Maya Beach aerial view (My picture)

How to move around the Riviera Maya

First and foremost, you must rent a car (or not!) No, it is not dangerous; you just need to keep an eye on the speed to avoid getting caught by the police, who often go out of their way to get a bribe.

I wouldn’t give in to them, preferring to pay whatever fine the ticket might incur. I really get annoyed about the corruption thing, but it’s a reality. Just do not encourage it.

Read more about my tips on driving in Mexico.

However, if you prefer to use organized tours, worry not, at the bottom of the article you will find a great selection of the best Riviera Maya tours and excursions. 

Insider tip: Among the free things you can do in the Riviera Maya, the most popular is basking on the beach and enjoying the sun and the warm Caribbean Sea. However many beaches charge a small entry fee.

But let’s start with the list of my top 23 things to do from the Riviera Maya.

Things to do in the Riviera Maya

1. Visit Puerto Morelos

Puerto Morelos (30km away from Cancun) – That’s where the Riviera Maya officially starts. It’s a quaint fishing town where you can go for lunch or dinner after a  visit to the ‘Ruta de los Cenotes,’ where you can take your pick from a number of stunning natural pools, one after another.

Puerto Morelos Aerial View
Puerto Morelos Aerial view

2. Explore the gorgeous Archaeological site of Tulum and get fancy in the funky town

 Tulum (180km away from Cancun) is the only Mayan archaeological site to be situated on the beach, with stunning postcard-like views.

Spending the rest of the day on the never-ending white-sand beach, and taking a stroll to the easy-chic downtown (pueblo) would make your day trip to Tulum a success.

It’s definitely the antithesis of Cancun, and if we are sort of like-minded, you will kick yourself for not having stayed longer, or maybe end up improvising a night in Tulum… which you will neither regret nor forget.

The archaeological site in Tulum.
Tulum Archeological site

3. Visit Playa del Carmen, for partying and shopping

 Playa del Carmen. (70km away from Cancun) – Party all night long, and do some shopping; beaches are mostly crowded, with music-friendly beach clubs, and fine, local and international dining for every taste. 

4. Swimm with the turtles in Akumal

If you are looking for adventurous things to do on the Riviera Maya, you must visit Akumal.

Akumal is one of the most visited beaches along the Riviera Maya for its friendly turtles swimming just off the public beach, with which you can swim; you don’t need a tour, just bring snorkel gear.

The turtles are free in the water and tend to come closer because people feed them.

Aerial view of Isla Mujeres and Punta Sur.
Isla Mujeres

5. Fall in love with Isla Mujeres

 To reach Isla Mujeres you can take the ferry from Cancun, rent a golf cart on the island and drive around. Stop at Playa Norte after you have seen the island (the perimeter of which is 16km) to enjoy the beautiful beach.

Alternatively, pay for a catamaran tour (make sure you ask to see the catamaran beforehand) which will stop for snorkeling in the bay.

I’m not keen on the latter option as they tend to accept loads of people on the boat and offer alcoholic drinks all day long, thus you end up like sardines in and amongst a bunch of drunken people. Not my thing. I’d rather go by myself, but… each to his/her own…

6. Visit the magnificent Coba ruins

Coba – magnificent Mayan ruins scattered around a jungle area, 30km from Tulum, with a few refreshing cenotes to be found in its surroundings.

mayan ruins in the jungle
Coba ruins

7. You cannot skip a visit to the magnificent Mayan city of Chichen- Itza’

The extraordinary Mayan city is considered one of the most important centers of the Mayan civilization. It is a bit commercial but it is definitely worth a visit.

8. Visit the remote ruins of Ek Balam

Ek Balam ruins(171km from Cancun) –  An interesting site, in the middle of the jungle and off the beaten path, on the way to Rio Lagartos. Whether you are staying on the Riviera Maya or Cancun, this is an easy place to visit. 

Ek Balam
Ek Balam

9. Marvel at the sight of the graceful pink flamingos in Rio Lagartos

 Rio Lagartos (250km from Cancun) is a biosphere close to Ek Balam. Once you get there you can find fishing boats to take you around the lagoon to see the flamingos. A beautiful spot.

10. Get lost in the remote beach resort of Mahahual

Mahahual (352 km South of Cancun) is a beach resort, very quaint, with lovely hotels and restaurants. If you love water sports and snorkeling, it’s ideal to spend a weekend here.

Rio Lagartos pink flamingos
Rio Lagarto Pink Flamingos

11. Visit the old colonial town of Valladolid, the getaway of Yucatan

Valladolid (150km from Tulum) is a lovely colonial town. Walk around and watch daily life go by, note the peculiar constructions, churches, monastery, local ‘’comida yucateca “(food from Yucatan); and all this is surrounded by cenotes and ruins. You can even rent a bike and defy the infernal heat…

12. Check out the quaint yellow town of Izamal

The city of Izamal (250km away) is my personal favorite, with its unique historical center and monastery in the middle of the town; what’s more, everything is yellow, hence the common connotation of ´the yellow town’. You can get great shots here if you are into photography.

Izamal yellow town
Izamal Yellow Town

13. Explore the white city of Merida, the capital of Yucatan

The capital city of Merida (305 km away) is an interesting colonial city, full of history and culture, and definitely worth a few day’s visit. If you happen to be there on a Sunday you can appreciate the local folklore.

Almost every day get by 10 am at the tourist office by the main square and join a free walking tour of the city. 

Merida plaza aerial view at sunset
Merida Aerial view

14. Fall in love with the spectacular views of Bacalar Lagoon

The Bacalar Lagoon  (341 km from Cancun) is also known as the ‘lagoon of seven colors’, and nothing like you can ever imagine a lagoon. It is a large lake (42 km long and 2 km wide), characterized by the 7 shades of blue throughout the clear water, thanks to its limestone bed.

A beautiful place, complete with nice eco-lodges around the shore, where you can relax and/or enjoy water sports, guaranteeing you a peaceful and reinvigorating experience. 

Kin Ha Colors Xul Ha bacalar

15. Have the ultimate jungle experience in the biosphere of Calakmul

Calakmul  (700 km from Cancun) – quite a distance, but if you take it easy and stop off in Bacalar, you can make the most of a fantastic tour of all the natural parks, as well as see the principal areas of flora and fauna.

Calakmul is one of the most important Mayan sites, protected by a huge jungle, and home to many endemic and non-endemic animal species, like monkeys, jaguars, reptiles, and an abundance of birds. It will take a whole day to enjoy this beautiful reserve.

Calakmul aerial view

16. Find peace and tranquillity in Holbox

Holbox is a 133-km drive from Cancun to the small town of Chiquilà, where ferries or fishing boats will take you across to the tranquil, laid-back island.

You can plan a few days and stay in one of the beautiful hotels to relax and get pampered or you can choose to join a one-day tour from Cancun. It’s really up to you.

But if you have time I would definitely consider spending a couple of days on the island and enjoying the spectacular white sand beach and turquoise water.

Visiting Isla Contoy is one of the amazing things you can do in the RIviera Maya
Isla Contoy

17. Enjoy the unspoiled nature of Contoy Island

Contoy Island is a protected area where until a couple of years ago you could only go with special permission from the government. I was lucky to go during an incentive tour organized by my company and it was just mind-blowing.

A totally unspoiled island where mantas would freely come close to the shore and let you play with her. She has now died but her baby manta is there in her place.

The island is also home to a bird colony and biologists live there to study and monitor them. The time spent on the boat to get there is a trip in itself, a long boat ride in the turquoise blue of the Caribbean sea.

They have now opened it to organized tours that are still controlled by the authorities. This is the tour that I wouldn’t want to miss. You can check out prices and programs on this popular site.

Swimming with whale sharks
Swimming with whale sharks

18. Get close to the giant of the sea

Swimming with whale sharks is a beautiful adventure in the sea which can be organized either from Cancun, Isla Mujeres, or Holbox.  You must not miss this encounter with friendly sharks, which happens only in the summer months.

19. Explore the remote coast in Yucatan

Drive around the Costa Esmeralda on the north coast of Yucatan, an underrated area where most locals love to vacation during the weekend. It’s not as beautiful as the Caribbean but on a sunny day, it may surprise you.

El Cuyo aerial
El Cuyo

20. Discover the new stunning beach of El Cuyo

Spend a couple of days on the deserted beach at El Cuyo, a relatively new destination, a laid-back village on the coast of Yucatan, where the water is green and blue and the wind makes it the perfect place for kite-surfers.

21. Get on the road and explore the colonial Yucatan

Drive around Yucatan through the colored colonial towns and stop for a local meal to visit the old Henequen factory or stop by to swim in a Cenote. For sure you will find a lot on this charming limestone land.

Cenote Cristalino
Cenote Cristalino – Riviera Maya

22. Jump in the refreshing cenotes

Among the highlights of the Yucatan peninsula are the ancient cenotes that were used for sacred rituals by the pre-hispanic Mayan civilizations and are nowadays still sacred in a way as it’s one of the most important tourist attractions that for most of the time has still been preserved.

You can see tons of them scattered around the peninsula or along the Riviera Maya. On the Riviera Maya, there are more open cenotes, my favorites are the cenote Azul and Cenote Cristalino, while the best cave cenote is the spectacular Cenote Taak-bi-ha.

To know more details on more cenotes and how to get there read my guide to the cenotes of the Riviera Maya.

23. Splurge in one of the beautiful Haciendas

Old factories have now been turned into spectacular resorts to offer an exclusive stay in the tranquillity of the Mayan Jungle. There are so many exceptional properties to choose from.

Here, in my detailed article on the Yucatan Haciendas, you can choose among the best that I have personally visited and selected.

Hacienda Sac Chic
Hacienda Sac Chic

24. Book a tour and share the fun

If traveling solo is not your gem, you can always book an organized tour. There are so many day tours that will pick you up from your hotel and take you out to explore, with experienced guides and comfortable vans or busses.

I hope this post gave you some ideas on what to do in the Riviera Maya. As you can see it was not strictly about the area itself but also what you can do from the Riviera Maya. As you have realized, anywhere you stay in the Mayan Riviera will always be close to anything in the Yucatan Peninsula.

So it’s a great place to use as a hub and then do brief tours around either on your own or joining groups. If you have any questions… you know what to do 😉

Before you go…

You may want to check out other helpful articles about traveling in the Yucatan Peninsula.