Best Things to do in Riviera Maya Yucatan
The best things to do in the Riviera Maya? Not surprisingly, immersing yourself in Mayan heritage is the highlight of a visit to this stretch of the Yucatan Peninsula. With this guide, we recommend an itinerary of the best cultural experiences in the Riviera Maya and nearby, including Mayan temples, dare-devil performances, spectacular cenotes, as well as a stunning colonial city.
Best Things to do in Riviera Maya | The Lay of the Land
The Riviera Maya is the nickname for 100 miles of coastline of the Yucatan Peninsula. It extends from Playa del Carmen to the Mayan site of Tulum. The Riviera Maya is the eastern part of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, and we cover some of its inland attractions that are easy day trips. Those excursions include the ancient Maya temple of Coba, and the small colonial city of Valladolid. We also give you a glimpse of UNESCO World Heritage Site Chichen Itza in the neighboring state of Yucatan, which is about two hours from Playa del Carmen.
Things to do in Riviera Maya | Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is a small city on the Caribbean coast in the northeast of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Originally a tiny fishing town, “Playa” as it is casually called by locals, is the center of the Riviera Maya, which runs from south of Cancún to the Maya ruin of Tulum. The village was named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who is the patron saint of Cancún. Playa is growing rapidly and is now the third largest city in Quintana Roo, after Cancún and Chetumal. I stayed in an all-inclusive resort in the Playacar area, which is a private development on the southeastern end of Playa del Carmen that is centered around tourists. Playacar is safe, new, tidy and what I would call a Disneyfied version of a typical Mexican neighborhood. While the beaches are beautiful and amenities are plentiful, it is not the type of environment for those looking for quaint and historic charm. That will come later in your trip!
Best Things to do in Riviera Maya | Explore Playa del Carmen 5th Avenue
A stroll down Playa del Carmen’s Fifth Avenue is an invigorating way to acclimate to the Yucatan Peninsula lifestyle. The street is highly commercial, with salespeople hawking wares or beseeching you to visit their shop, but the vibe is friendly, and there is a lot of eye candy to enjoy: ceramics, hammocks, Mexican hats, religious folk art, fruit vendors, to name but a few of the myriad goods for sale. A vibrant, splashy mural of colorful characters and many moods unfolded before me and my own mood lifted in response. To shouts of “Hey, Paparazzi” I pirouetted, snapped and shutter-bugged my way along Quinta Avenida, becoming happily absorbed in the rich tableau. As an avid people-watcher, I was in heaven observing myriad vignettes of daily life in Playa. A mountain of a man precisely cut a cigar and lit it for a well-heeled customer, clouds of smoke billowing around their lowered heads. A trio of white-garbed musicians, complete with white cowboy hats, strummed a forlorn ballad and looked like they understood sadness. A tuxedoed-waiter stood between two man-size placards that advertised his restaurant, rhythmically folding napkins while he rocked on his heels, his eyes scanning the street for potential customers. A young woman sat outside a dress shop, holding her embroidery hoop up close to her face as she plied her needle. On opposing benches, an angry couple snarled at each other and the legs of a happy pair were intertwined I knew what it was like to be part of each equation.
Parque Los Fundadores and Dance of Flyers
At the southeastern end of Playa del Carmen, near the ferry to Cozumel, at the intersection of 5th Avenue and Avenue Juarez is Parque Los Fundadores. This beachside plaza is lined with steps where tourists and locals alike gather to relax, enjoy an ice cream cone, and often take in an exhilarating cultural performance: Danza de los Voladores.
Known in English as “Dance of the Flyers”, this ancient Mesoamerican tradition is still performed today. According to one myth, the ritual was created to ask the gods to end a severe drought. Danza de Los Voladores was named an item of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2009. Papantla in the state of Veracruz is considered the epicenter of this ancient art form; given that is a 20-hour drive away from Playa del Carmen, I hadn’t actually harbored any hopes of actually seeing this high-flying acrobatic performance. In fact, the troupe performing the ritual were indeed from Veracruz and members of the Totonac indigenous community there. The six men who shared this exhilarating tradition ranged in age from roughly mid-forties to the early twenties, and perform hourly at Parque Los Fundadores, serving as both cultural ambassadors and fundraisers for their community. In distinctive costumes of white shirts and red pants colorfully adorned with vibrantly-hued apron, chaps and headdresses, the men begin by circling a 98-foot tall pole, with one playing a rhythmic melody on a reed pipe and the others banging out a steady beat on small hand-held drums. Then, while one member continued to beat a drum, one after another, five of the six men nimbly climbed the pole in shiny black boots no less! I later learned that the four voladores, or flyers, symbolize the cardinal directions and elements. The climbers each took their place on a square frame at its top, with the group’s caporal perched above them at the very tip of the pole, continuing the mesmerising score with his flute. The performers tied heavy ropes around their waists and then, propelled with the caporal’s boots, the wooden platform began to turn and, as it rotated, the four men sitting of each side of the square rigging simply fell backwards. Hanging upside down, the men spun around the pole in wide circles, descending ever earthward as the rope line unwound. As someone terrified of heights and not able to easily “let go” this sight was both electrifying and giddy.
Things to do in Riviera Maya | Majestic Tulum
Playa is a fun entry point to the Yucatan but one day of honky-tonk is enough for me. The next day, I headed south to the ancient Mayan city of Tulum. How ancient, you ask? A stelae found on the site is dated 564 A.D., although it’s speculated that the area was a fishing village as early as 300 B.C. Playa del Carmen to Tulum is a very manageable day trip. The distance is about 40 miles and will take roughly an hour, depending on the mode of transportation you use. Options include taxi (about 650 pesos); the ADO bus (70 pesos each way) or via a colectivo (a shared van that costs about 40 pesos each way). I took the bus down and a colectivo back. The bus is big, comfortable, air-conditioned and the trip is direct; the colectivo was cramped, had no AC and made numerous stops. Note that the little town of Tulum is actually about 2.5 miles inland from the archaeological park you might enjoy poking around a bit here but there are restaurants at the mini mall outside the archaeological park. The settlement’s location is unique in the Mayan civilization; Tulum was the only Mayan city built on the coast. The site is built atop 39-foot ocean cliffs and is surrounded on three sides by limestone walls seven yards thick. The name Tulúm translates as the Mayan word for “fence”. The extent of the defensive measures befitted the only port for the extensive Mayan trading empire, believed to have stretched as far away as Costa Rica. It’s said that the goods traded included turquoise, jade and obsidian, as well as honey, animal skins, salt and wax. From the site’s entrance, where a hodgepodge of vendors sold trinkets and tired tourists sipped soft drinks at a cluster of casual cafes, I walked along a dusty path to a small triangular archway within a stone wall. Once through it, I felt as though I had wandered into another, timeless world. Although a popular destination for visitors, the site was largely empty during my visit. With the silhouettes of gray stone temples back-lit by a lavender sky, amid palm trees rustling in the breeze, the other-worldly atmosphere was so vivid it was easy to imagine being one among its earliest settlers, part of another civilization.
Crossing the compact grounds, which are much smaller than many of the other sprawling Mayan metropolis, I saw what looked like bloody handprints emblazoned on the façade of one of the ancient structures. I learned that it was customary to paint over the exteriors of the buildings with bright colors that the Maya associated with the cardinal directions. Other themes reflected in the murals that adorned the buildings were everyday rituals and natural surroundings. Some believe that the murals were repainted to mark the beginning of each new Katun, which is a Mayan measurement unit of time, equal to 7,200 days, and part of the civilization’s intricate Long Count calendar. I reached the complex’s outer edges, perched on the sea above brilliant turquoise waters. Looking down, I realized where all the tourists were playing on the sandy beach and in the foaming waves. The sight actually enhanced the effect of being amidst an inhabited community, creating a sense of the site being enjoyed and alive.
Best Things to do in Riviera Maya | Grand Cenote
In addition to white-sand beaches and a host of historical sites from both Mayan and Spanish Colonial periods, Quintana Roo and Yucatan offer visitors a unique and distinctive cultural landscape to explore that is like no other. The Yucatan Peninsula is a flat plain of limestone with thousands of miles of below-ground water-filled caves interconnected by subterranean rivers. When the roof of one of these underground caverns collapses, the result is a deep, water-filled sinkhole known as a cenote. Cenote is a Spanish word derived from the Mayan word dzonot, meaning “well.” There are more than 3,000 Mayan cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula, and they are a fascinating and fun feature of the landscape to explore! From the outskirts of Tulum, I headed inland and after a short drive north on Route 180, I soon saw the sign for Grand Cenote. After paying for my ticket, I followed a boardwalk to the edge of a precipice, eager to get my first glimpse of this curious feature of the Yucatan landscape. About twenty feet below, I saw a ring of rippling teal water encircling a small island, from which sprouted mounds of prehistoric-looking plant life. Chalky limestone walls rose from and encircled this vivid scene, resembling white waves of soft stone. The curling lip of the cliff face extended out several yards, through which the long roots of above-ground trees dangled all the way down to the water far below. I later learned that the waters of cenotes closer to the sea tend to be at land level, like a lake or pond, while the pools of the craters further inland are generally at the bottom of deep open-air shafts in the ground. Descending stairs to the floor of the abyss, I walked to the right side of the little islet, where a handful of middle-aged friends were donning snorkeling gear. Goggles and flippers in place, they swam off down a low-ceilinged passage that extended from the lagoon. I watched them paddle toward a luminous glow created by sunlight filtering through another opening in the earth. Their exclamations echoed back to me after they were out of sight, squeals that sounded alternately anxious and delighted.
On the other side of the cenote, it was all business as a commercial television crew readied to tape an ad for Mexican beer. Pony-tailed technicians tinkered with a giant camera lens and an aggravated-looking man with a goatee and a clipboard paced around and snarled into his cell phone, apparently waiting for the “talent.” Two stories below ground, I peered through man-size ferns at a pool of translucent cobalt water and wondered what the Mayan high priests would have thought of a Corona commercial being filmed in their portal to the afterlife. Their jaded nonchalance about the extraordinary surroundings gave me pause, prompting me to consider how often I can take for granted the beauty that is in my own backyard. Yet I am certainly not alone in finding the cenote experience, celluloid and otherwise, awe-inspiring. “I remember watching films of people cenote diving and wondering why on earth people submerged themselves into these dark holes through choice not knowing what gruesome monster was going to be waiting for them around the corner!” exclaimed Corrie Watkins, a dive instructor with Abyss Dive Center in Tulum. “I have since executed a number of cenote dives within the Mayan Riviera. The only way to describe it to someone who has never been is that it is like you are diving on the set of a Star Wars film. They are decorated with stalagmites and stalactites with the most amazingly perfect visibility.”
“There are a few cenotes where you can comfortably surface halfway through the dive, such as Dos Ojos,” she explained. “There, you are surrounded by an overhead cavern, where bats hug the ceiling and spiders balance within their crystal webs. If you look carefully you may see ancient fossils on the floor, walls and ceiling. Also, look out for the haloclines in some of the deeper areas this is where the freshwater meets the salt-water and there is a mirror-like effect.”
Things to do in Riviera Maya | Coba
From Grand Cenote, my next stop was the ancient Mayan city of Coba. My guide suggested this historic site, which I had not even heard of, despite the fact that in its heyday from 200 – 600 A.D., it was home to more than 50,000 people. Once more, I had the occasion to appreciate that local knowledge always trumped my research, which is why I always prefer to use the services of local guides. As we parked and headed toward a group of temples known as Nohoch Mul, my companion explained that the name Coba means “waters stirred by wind”; the site is situated around two lakes, Coba and Macanxoc.
We made a short walk along a wide dusty road that cut through dense jungle vegetation, with an occasional tuk-tuk whizzing by us, transporting tuckered-out tourists. These bicycle-propelled open-air carriages originated in Thailand and have been widely adopted throughout many touristic areas of Mexico. I would soon find out why people were so exhausted but for the time being, I enjoyed taking a slow stroll and being able to appreciate the stelae exhibited along the path. After a brief trek accompanied by the songs of various darting and swooping birds and the chatter of unseen monkeys, the path opened up into a clearing dominated by a towering gray stone structure, surrounded by a halo of verdant trees. Now I immediately understood why all those fellow tourists required an ambulatory exit from Coba. The Nohoch Mul temple is Coba’s tallest and immense monument stands a majestic 138 feet in height that’s ten stories high. Carved into its facade are steep shallow steps and climbing up the vertical incline were scores of visitors who from a distance resembled swarming ants, their bodies tiny compared to the scale of the temple. A confession: I am afraid of heights. Watching much younger, more able-bodied people than me make the climb in such a tentative crawl told me it wasn’t going to be easy. Giving myself a silent running pep talk, I approached the monolith and as I got closer to it, I felt a palpable sense of relief. I realized that at least half of the people mounting Nohoch Mul were doing so in a way that was not terribly dignified but certainly made scaling its heights less scary for me. They were ascending one step at a time on their butts, scooching ever upward on the temple’s 120 steps. Once at the top, I dared to look down and was flabbergasted at how far and high I could go on a very awkward basis. While I still cringe at the sense that my inelegant approach was somehow offending the Mayan creators of this sacred site, in an odd way, the laborious, time-consuming schelp afforded me an elevated perspective: any undertaking done slowly and with humility makes its successful conclusion rather-awe-inspiring. Even more inspiring was the look outward, where across a green expanse of treetops, I saw the tip of another temple peeking above the canopy. This view reminded me of the power of time; no matter how much effort, energy and intention, the significance of our human plans and toil is always eclipsed by the grander design of the Universe. Rather than be bummed out by that notion, it was a comfort. It was another kind of reminder about humility: I can seek to achieve my aspirations but I don’t need to regard my goals as life or death; my accomplishments or failures, for that matter are far from eternal.
I visited Coba in 2010. In the ensuing decade, my perspective has evolved considerably. Today, while it’s still permissible. I would probably not climb Nohoch Mul. I no longer have the drive or inner drillmaster commanding me to always rise to every challenge simply because it presents itself. I also have had my consciousness raised about the appropriateness of summiting a historic site of spiritual significance to a culture not my own.
Opening hours: 9:00am to 3:00pm, everyday
Admission fees: 80 pesos
Motoring west, I headed toward the picturesque provincial city of Vallodolid. Getting outside the main tourist areas and into the countryside always fascinates me. I feel like I learn something about the cultural landscape and traditions by simply making the time and space to observe everyday life. Across the Yucatan, and elsewhere in Mexico, there are four elements of community consistently evident on the main road through small towns that speak to the universal cycle of life as well as a robust faith not necessarily found elsewhere: energetic and smiling kids playing in schoolyards; colorful roadside shrines; beautifully decaying old churches with haunting patinas; and humble cemeteries with headstones hand-painted in the colors of the natural world: sky blue, golden yellow, rosy pink. In Valladolid, the pastel shades of the colonial buildings seemed to glow in the late afternoon light. Like many Mexican towns, Valladolid is laid out as a grid, and at its nexus is a park. Parque Francisco Canton Rosado is at the heart of the centro historico, flanked by Cathedral of San Gervasio on the south side, and colonnaded buildings lining the other sides, home to restaurants and shops, with neighborhoods radiating outward. The green space not only affords welcome relief from the rather oppressive heat of inland Yucatan, it offers a window into a pace of life very different than my own world. While I know a lack of economic opportunity makes life is hard for many in the Yucatan, there is a timelessness, a relaxed rhythm, a gentle congeniality that certainly isn’t part of Boston’s vibe. From my bench, I watched two elderly women who looked like sisters greet each other, put down their shopping bags and settle in for a chat. A father with two young boys and an adolescent daughter sat on the base of the elaborate fence that encloses the park, occasionally looking expectantly down the street; in due course, mom appeared and the family trundled off. In the midst of a busy city block at the intersection of Calles 39 and 36, I found Cenote Zaci, which means “white hawk” in Mayan. With a diameter of 150 feet, Zaci was hard to miss. Descending a series of steep steps carved in the rock, I reached water level at the bottom of the deep underground chamber, 260 feet down. I looked up just as a gang of teenagers leaped from a two-story ledge above, drenching me with spray from the terrific splash they made as they hit the water. Their exuberance as they surfaced from the crystal clear water was contagious, and I laughed out loud from my perch on the cenote’s perimeter.
Things to do in Riviera Maya | Cenote Ik Kil
Deeper inland, not far from the town of Piste’ and the Mayan ruin of Chichén Itzá, is Cenote Ik Kil. Lush greenery wreaths its 196-foot wide circular opening and then spills down the interior of its 130-foot sides. From beneath the canopy of plants, waterfalls gush, jungle vines hang and beams of sunlight fall, creating a verdant and vibrant underground world. The eco-park is also known as the “Sacred Blue Cenote”, my visit was indeed mystical in an unexpected way. Watching the excited teenagers lined up on the precipitous stairs, chattering and fidgeting while waiting their turn to take the plunge, I was reminded of my own poolside antics as a youngster and felt anew that ability to experience the utter joy of the moment. Ik Kil’s facilities include a restaurant and palapas oval Mayan bungalows for overnight stays. I was told that the owner had continually made improvements to the property and judging by the crowds streaming in, he was making good on his investment. A short drive away, eighteen Mayan women have improved the fortunes of their families and village by turning their local watering hole into the Yokdzonot Ecological Cenote Park. The women spent a year clearing the surrounding land, and then designed, and now operate, the community enterprise, which also includes a small restaurant.
Chichen Itza and Cenote Sagrada
Just ten minutes drive from Cenote Ik Kil is the famous Mayan site Chichén Itzá, built around 600 A.D. The Mayan name “Chich’en Itza” translates as “at the mouth of the well of the Itza”. Early settlements in the area sprung up around these natural wells because the cenotes are among the only perennial sources of quality potable water in the area. My guide at the site, Julian, told me he was from the neighboring town of Piste, where two of the seven cenotes are used for drinking water but are only safe for locals, who have built up immunization to its impurities.
Julian and I toured the architectural wonders of El Castillo and the Temple of Warriors, and stood on the Great Ball Court, the largest in ancient Mesoamerica. We then headed toward Cenote Sagrado on Sacbe Number One. The term sacbe is Mayan for “white road” these routes were originally coated with limestone stucco, making them visible at night. It was easy to see why the cenote here was sacred to the ancient Maya, inspiring pilgrimages and human offerings. Two hundred feet in diameter, the “Well of Sacrifice,” as it is also known, is a perfectly round circle of jade waters from which flaky cream-colored walls rise, their crest enclosed with a ring of luxuriant plants in emerald hues.
Julian told me that virgins both boys and girls were sacrificed here as offerings to the rain gods, or chaacs, during times of drought. These youngsters were chosen for this honor from birth, based on the day of the year they were born. Parents actually tried to bring their children into the world on the five specific days of the year important in this regard in the Mayan calendar August 6 – 10. Julian said the sacrifice needed to occur before the children reached the age of 13, when they became adults in the eyes of the community. When a sacrifice was required, priests would test the children to see which ones were “ready,” with successful memorization of a certain song or lesson indicating their time had come. While it seems certain cenotes played an important role in Mayan rites; exactly what that role seemed less clear. I was later told by another Mayan guide that only the civilization’s elite could be laid to rest in a cenote, and was bound in a fetal position. He said the belief was that the cenote represented a “womb” to reincarnation. Read: Learn about Mayan culture and healing practices from a Mayan healer! Then again, I knew the azure waters of the Cenotes in Yucatan, Mexico had been a battleground for the sacred and the profane before. In fact, a controversy over rights to one of these otherworldly holes in the ground had roots reaching to Boston. What is known for sure is that Chichen Itza’s Cenote Sagrado yielded a veritable goldmine of artifacts for Massachusetts native Edward H. Thompson at the turn of the twentieth century.
In 1879, Thompson wrote an article for Popular Science Monthly on ancient Mayan monuments that attracted the attention of a wealthy patron of the American Antiquarian Society, who persuaded Thompson to move to Yucatán to explore the ruins on his behalf. A Massachusetts senator helped subsidize Thompson’s efforts by recommending him for the post of United States consul to Yucatan. Thompson arrived in the Yucatán in 1885 and nine years later, he purchased a plantation that included the site of Chichen Itza. Over a six-year period beginning in 1904, he dredged Cenote Sagrado, finding the skeletons of men and children as well as gold, copper, carved jade and the first examples of what were believed to be pre-Columbian Mayan cloth and wooden weapons. Thompson shipped the bulk of the artifacts to Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. In 1926, the Mexican government seized Thompson’s plantation, charging he had removed the artifacts illegally. The Mexican Supreme Court in 1944 ruled in Thompson’s favor. New wonders and sources of debate continue to bubble to the surface along the Yucatan’s cenote circuit. Adding to an already long list of possible reasons the Mayan cities were abandoned is a fresh theory now making the rounds. This conjecture centers on the cenotes being responsible for the civilization’s 9th century decline with the cumulative effect of eons of human sacrifice having contaminated the water supply. From the Cenote Sagrado, Julian and I headed to a complex on the other side of the site, nicknamed Las Monjas, or “The Nunnery,” by the Spanish, although in fact the structure was actually a governmental palace. In the heat of the afternoon, we paused to sit under the shade of one of the few trees. The conversation faltered, with an awkward pause between two strangers whose lives had randomly intersected briefly for the span of a couple of hours. In one of those small acts of courage required to stretch beyond polite chit-chat, Julian shared something personal about himself. I ventured to do the same and in an extraordinary coincidence, as the conversation gently unfolded, we discovered that we shared a similar stretch of painful personal history. The striking similarities of what had ultimately been a powerfully transforming experience for each of us produced a profound connection. Despite the thick, humid air, I felt goosebumps and tears sprang to my eyes and his too. It was hard to know which was more incredible, the likelihood of he and I having had such a common past, or that we came to speak of it. As we parted company on a stretch of sacbe, Julian and I exchanged a heartfelt hug, and he said to me “Now it is time for joy.” Soaking up the history and culture of the Riviera Maya and other nearby attractions is indeed a joy! If you’ve visited the area, we invite you to share your take-aways in the comments section below! More on the Yucatan Peninsula
Opening hours: 8:00am to 4:00pm, everyday
Admission fees: 80 pesos for the federal ticket fee, plus a state of Yucatan ticket fee. For foreigners, this totals to 486 pesos.
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Where To Stay in Riviera Maya
Playa del Carmen
Hotel 52 is located right beside to the famous 5th Avenue bang in the centre of Playa del Carmen. It has a rooftop pool where you can enjoy sea views. All rooms have air conditioning and fan. Click here for the latest prices and more information. Holiday Inn Express and Posada Mariposa Boutique Hotel are two other very good options to consider when booking for your stay in Playa del Carmen. Posada Maripos Hotel is located on Tulum
Itour México Túlum Hotel offers free parking & free Wi-Fi and right next to Tulum National Park. It’s just 500 meters to the town’s centre. It features a café, garden and individually decorated rooms. The décor is inspired by Mexican culture and each room features bright colours. All air-conditioned rooms have satellite TV and a private bathroom. Click here for the latest prices and more information. Jungle House Tulum Hotel & Hostal and Casa Almendro are two other very good options to consider when booking for your stay in Tulum. Both these also get very good reviews. Coba
Hotel Maya has a restaurant, outdoor swimming pool, a bar and a shared lounge. It’s only a short walk from the hotel to the Coba Ruins. The accommodation features a shared kitchen, room service and currency exchange for guests. Click here for the latest prices and more information. Hotel Sac Be is another very good option to consider when booking for your stay in Coba. It also gets very good reviews.
Hotel Fundadores offers air-conditioned rooms in Valladolid. Among the various facilities are a garden and a terrace. There is an outdoor pool and guests can make use of free private parking. At the hotel, all rooms are equipped with a patio with a pool view. Click here for the latest prices and more information. Le Muuch Hotel and Hostal Tunich Naj are two other very good options to consider when booking your stay in Valladolid.
We recommend GetYourGuide for Tours. They offer highly unique tours with Local Guides. Recommended Excursions in Yucatan
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