An unforgettable itinerary of the best things to do in Mexico’s Mayan Riviera, from otherworldly cenotes and yacht excursions to hidden lagoons and uninhabited island hopping, immersive art experiences to ancient Maya archeological sites. Plus, adrenaline-pumping jungle adventures.
Last updated: August 2022 / Feature image, photo credit @travelinglamas
When visiting Mexico’s Riviera Maya – the stunning stretch of Mexican-Caribbean coastline running from famed Cancun all the way through bohemian Tulum – you could easily spend an entire getaway doing nothing but beach bumming, pool hopping and eating your fair share of tacos (washed down with a cold beer or tequila, naturally). And while catching up on tropical R&R in such a fashion sounds glorious enough, look further and you’ll find that this beautiful region is home to so much more.
Whether you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun, a boutique hotel in Tulum or anywhere in between (like stunning Isla Mujeres or under-the-radar Puerto Morelos), you’re just steps away from a myriad of mind-blowing adventures. With seemingly limitless options of incredible things to do in this region, which to choose?
Here, we’ve curated our edit of the best, most unique and absolutely unforgettable things to do in the Riviera Maya. Whether you prefer to stay seaside, head into the jungle or even go airborne, these epic activities offer something for everyone – and are sure to earn a spot on your Mexican-Caribbean bucket list.
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Visit an Otherworldly Cenote
If you’re headed to the Riviera Maya, you’ve probably heard of cenotes. But what exactly are they? Pronounced “say-no-tays,” these natural, water-filled sinkholes can be found all across Mexico’s sprawling Yucatán peninsula. The ancient Maya believed cenotes were sacred portals to the underworld, and it’s easy to see why as you gaze through crystal clear water that seems to stretch endlessly underground. These incredible sites are formed over hundreds of thousands of years by the gradual erosion, and eventual collapse of, limestone bedrock. There are literally thousands in the region and no two are exactly alike. Some cenotes are cavernous, some open to the sky and some completely subterranean. Depending on which cenote you visit you’ll have the opportunity to swim, snorkel or even cave dive, not to mention make a splash off jumping platforms or zip lines.
If you prefer to DIY it, we recommend driving or taking a taxi to Cenote Taak Bi Ha or Cenotes Sac-Actún in Tulum, Cenote Cristalino near Playa Del Carmen, Cenotes Kin-Ha or Cenote La Noria by Puerto Morelos (both are located along the Ruta de los Cenotes) or Cenote Zazil Tunich or Cenote Ik Kil in Yucatán (tie this one in with a visit to Chichen Itzá).
Or, you can book a guided tour. Skip the overwhelming Google search and go with any of our top picks:
Cenote Trail: In this half-day bicycle excursion from Tulum you’ll cycle through a quiet jungle path to reach three different cenotes. The small group adventure maxes out at 10 participants per tour.
Private Cenote Tour: Experience three different cenotes – cavernous to open – with this private, half day tour offering roundtrip transport from anywhere along the coast (Cancun through Tulum).
Cenote, Coral Reef & Tulum Ruins Tour: This full day tour not only takes you to an otherworldly cavernous cenote, but includes a guided visit to Tulum’s famed Maya ruins and a snorkel stop in the Caribbean Sea. Plus, lunch and roundtrip transport from anywhere along the coast (Cancun through Tulum).
Want to truly capture your cenote experience? You can even book this private, 3-hour underwater photoshoot yielding stunning, ethereal photos. The experience is offered at various cenotes located throughout the region.
Get Mystified at Mystika
Fine art photography from famed Mexican artist Pepe Soho comes to life at this experiential art gallery in Tulum. The immersive experience takes guests on a one-of-a-kind sensorial journey through Maya cosmology, enchanting nature sanctuaries and the spiritual power of horses via a series of evocative – and at times mind-bending – installations. The entire experience can be enjoyed in around an hour and, as the gallery is located at the entrance to Tulum’s cliffside Maya ruins, is a perfect tie-in pre or post archaeological site. Even better, skip the lines and grab your Mystika ticket plus Tulum Ruins admission with this streamlined combined pass.
Explore Ancient Maya Ruins
No matter where you’re based in the Riviera Maya, you’re not far from at least one of these ancient archeological wonders built by the region’s native Maya inhabitants. Perhaps the most famous of them all is Chichén Itzá, a sprawling former metropolis covering roughly 4 square miles (10 square kilometers) dating all the way back to the mid-6th century. The site is considered one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, in large part due to its remarkable central pyramid El Castillo. Whether you DIY your visit or book a tour, we highly recommend arriving as close to opening time (8am) as possible to beat the inevitable mass of crowds. DIYers – you can also skip the ticket line with this expedited entrance ticket.
A 2-3 hour drive from anywhere on the coast, Chichén Itzá can indeed be visited on a day trip – albeit a long one. If you’ve got the time your best bet is to turn your visit into an overnight, or longer, in nearby Valladolid. This charming pueblo mágico (magical town) is just a 45-minute drive from Chichén Itzá and boasts its own bevy of amazing things to do in the heart of Yucatán.
Day trippers – no need for FOMO. You can visit Chichén Itzá, Valladolid and an otherworldly cenote with this epic, full day adventure including hotel pick up & drop-off from nearly anywhere in the Riviera Maya. Even better, set your alarm to embark on this early access day trip boasting a near-empty Chichén experience. For serious early risers, you can even book this private sunrise tour offering a truly magical morning just as the ancient Maya experienced it.
Chichén Itzá aside, there’s another famed ancient Maya archaeological site in the region that you’ve probably already heard of: Tulum’s spectacular oceanfront ruins. Perched dramatically on a cliff with sweeping views of the ocean below – plus access to its own private beach – it’s no wonder this stunning site is so popular. Beat the crowds (and overwhelmingly long ticket lines) by arriving as close to opening time as possible – 8am. Or, bypass the ticket line altogether with this skip-the-line pass that includes access to Mystika, a one-of-a-kind immersive art experience also earning a spot on our list (see above). You can even tie-in your Tulum ruins visit with snorkeling and a cenote swim on this full day tour, or this one that includes swimming with sea turtles. Both include hotel pickup and drop-off from nearly anywhere in the Riviera Maya.
Why stop at one site? Archaeology buffs, you can visit two of the region’s major Maya archaeological sites – Tulum and nearby Cobá – in one day with this 2-in-1 guided adventure. At barely an hour’s drive from Tulum, Cobá boasts a series of beautiful, shaded pyramids that you can explore on foot, bicycle or pedi-taxi. Everything’s pretty spread out so we recommend opting for either of the latter – totally worth the additional fee. Our optimal way to visit Cobá, DIY style? Arrive at, you guessed it, opening time (8am). After, continue your beat-the-crowds streak by going for a dip in the nearby, subterranean Cenote Multum-Ha. Then, head to Coqui Coqui Cobá for lunch followed by lush poolside lounging.
While Chichén Itzá, Tulum and Cobá are easily among the most popular Maya archaeological sites in the region, these ancient wonders are just part of a vast network of historic cities and ceremonial sites stretching throughout the region. A mere 20-minute drive south of Tulum brings you to Muyil, an under-the-radar archaeological gem dating all the way back to 300 BC. It’s one of the earliest and longest inhabited sites in the region and while small, is no less significant – or beautiful. After wandering through jungle-shaded temples, you can follow an elevated boardwalk to a climbable observation deck for 360 degree jungle views, then emerge into a lagoon where you can float down protected mangroves (lazy river style) in the Sian Ka’an biosphere. This guided half-day Muyil adventure combines the entire experience out of Tulum, while this private Muyil tour offers the same from Cancun and Playa Del Carmen.
Island hopping? (More below!) You can explore the San Gervasio Maya Ruins on Cozumel, or pay a visit to the small, ancient temple of Ixchel, Maya Goddess of Fertility, in Punta Sur Park on Isla Mujeres.
Headed inland into Yucatán? Don’t miss Ek Balam just 30 minutes north of Valladolid, where our minds were seriously blown by this preserved royal tomb lined with giant jaguar teeth. Plus, a temple you can still climb (as evidenced in the above photo). From the coast, this full day trip takes you to Ek Balam plus a stunning cenote.
Saving the best for last, those willing to really go the extra mile can visit our favorite Maya archaeological site in the entire Yucatán peninsula: Uxmal. At 4+ hours from the coast you won’t be able to day trip this, but you can absolutely tie-in with a visit to Mérida. We’ve got your full intel on the vibrant Yucatán capital, plus everything you need to know about Uxmal, here.
Island Hop: Developed to Uninhabited
If you’re not already staying on an island in the Riviera Maya, you’re just a hop, skip and a quick ferry ride away from one. Take a DIY day trip, spend the night (or longer) or book a guided excursion to any of these stunning island sanctuaries:
Isla Mujeres: A literal slice of paradise tucked into the sparkling waters of the Mexican Caribbean. This tiny island gem stretches just 4.3 miles (7 kilometers) long and barely 1/2 mile (650 meters) wide, filled with swaying palm trees, white sand beaches, stunning coastal views and laid back island vibes. Located a 20-minute ferry ride from Cancun, Isla Mujeres is a popular day trip and for good reason! Best traversed via golf cart, you can literally zip around the entire island in under 2 hours. We have your ultimate travel guide to Isla Mujeres here.
Prefer a guided adventure? This full day catamaran tour from Cancun –> Isla Mujeres includes snorkeling, toes-in-the-sand time at Playa Mujeres (the island’s most beautiful beach) and open bar. Or, make it VIP with this private catamaran tour for just you and your crew.
Cozumel: Located about 12 miles (19 kilometers) off the coast of Playa Del Carmen, the island of Cozumel beckons with glistening turquoise waters, fascinating Maya ruins set in the jungle, hotels & beach clubs in abundance, and the world’s second largest barrier reef system waiting to be explored by snorkelers and divers alike. At 30 miles (48 kilometers) long and 9.9 miles (16 kilometers) wide Cozumel is larger than Isla Mujeres, but can still be explored in just a single day. We have your perfect day trip to this beautiful island here.
Want to take advantage of Cozumel’s worldwide-famed snorkeling? Once on the island, you can embark on this guided sailing excursion combining a snorkel stop at Palancar Reef with swimming with starfish in the stunning, crystal clear waters of El Cielo – plus open bar and fresh ceviche. Or, you can hop on this glass bottom boat tour including 3 snorkel stops. Looking to stay land-bound? Choose your own adventure with this customizable, private Jeep tour around the island or ride ATVs through the jungle to a hidden cenote.
Isla Holbox: Situated unassumingly off the northeast coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula lies Isla Holbox (Mayan for “black hole” and pronounced “hol-bosh”): a laid back island paradise awaiting in-the-know travelers looking for a truly authentic, barefoot and beautiful beach escape. Just a 15-minute ferry ride from the mainland of Chiquilá takes you to the car-free island, part of the region’s sprawling Yum Balam Nature Reserve. After traveling just about everywhere throughout this region we have to say, Holbox is really special. Endless stretches of white sand surrounded by calm, shimmering ocean, sandy roads accessible on foot, bike or golf cart only, jaw dropping sunsets, limited wifi capabilities (for better or worse) and a seriously chilled out vibe make this place still feel like a secret – even though the secret’s out. Holbox is a bit of a trek from the Riviera Maya coastline and while technically doable on a day trip, we highly recommend spending at least 1 or 2 nights in this island paradise. We have everything you need to know for an unforgettable trip to Holbox here.
Pressed for time? Consider this full day excursion from Cancun and Playa Del Carmen your Holbox crash course. A guided tour of the island, stops in famed Punta Mosquito and stunning Isla Pasión are all included, plus lunch and beverages.
Isla Contoy: If visions of virgin beaches, swaying palms and nary a person in sight come to mind when picturing paradise, than you won’t want to miss Isla Contoy. Located about 18.5 miles (30 kilometers) north of Isla Mujeres, this uninhabited oasis is filled with nothing but natural beauty and biodiversity – plus a small lighthouse. In 1988, the island was officially declared a protected paradise when the Mexican Conservation Authority designated the site a National Marine Park. How to visit? With licensed tour operators only, who will take you on an unforgettable full-day adventure complete with sailing, a guided tour of the island, free time to enjoy, plus snorkeling at Ixlaché Reef: the gateway to the Great Mesoamerican Reef (a.k.a. the 2nd largest coral reef system in the world).
Sometimes you just want to get yourself on a boat, and there’s really no better time than when visiting the Riviera Maya. There are two primary marinas along the coast from which you can board a yacht, catamaran or even a Spanish galleon: Cancun and Puerto Aventuras (located in between Tulum and Playa Del Carmen). Both offer a dizzying number of sailing adventures from snorkel tours and booze cruises to private yacht charters and romantic sunset sails, even swimming with whale sharks. Here, our top picks to satisfy your sea legs:
From Cancun, tick off a bucket list item by swimming with majestic whale sharks (up to 39 feet/12 meters long!) on this thrilling small group adventure available May – September. Year round, this boat trip from Cancun will take you on a snorkel tour of MUSA: an underwater contemporary art museum boasting 500+ sculptures permanently affixed to the seabed – all consciously designed to encourage reef growth by acting as a habitat for marine life to colonize. For an unforgettable alternative to your standard dinner, you can even board a Spanish galleon for this romantic, sunset dinner cruise. Feeling VIP? Charter this 46-foot private yacht for an exclusive 2 – 6 hour sail through Cancun Bay and/or to Isla Mujeres.
From Puerto Aventuras, you can embark on a daytime sailing and snorkel excursion aboard this fun catamaran complete with open bar, freshly grilled lunch and even a water slide. Make it private with this premium half-day catamaran cruise exclusively for groups up to 10. Perfect for couples, this romantic sunset sailing cruise offers open bar, appetizers and breathtaking views of endless ocean and tropical coastline. Prefer to roll VIP? Private yacht charters abound in Puerto Aventuras, like this 37-footer for up to 5 people, this 48-foot yacht for up to 12 people or this 60-foot floating oasis for up to 15 people.
See Wild Dolphins & Float Through Mangroves in a Protected Nature Reserve
Watch this video on YouTube here!
Head just south of Tulum and you’ll end up in the UNESCO-protected Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Renowned for its stunning natural beauty and abundant wildlife, the Maya name “Sian Ka’an” translates to “Gate of Heaven” or “a place where heaven begins.” How beautiful is that? The site remains the largest coastal protected area in all of Mexico, covering a whopping 1.3 million acres (that’s twice the size of Rhode Island). We took a DIY day trip to this magical refuge and were beyond wowed by Sian Kaan’s shimmering lagoons and bays, endless mangroves and incredible marine life ranging from wild manatees, dolphins and turtles to the stunning Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Not to mention the friendly and welcoming locals of Punta Allen – the tiny, charming and only beach town located within the reserve.
There are two primary ways that you can enter and experience Sian Ka’an. One we already mentioned! By visiting the ancient archaeological site of Muyil. After exploring the site’s preserved Maya temples, simply keep going and you’ll find an elevated wooden path leading through the jungle. Follow this and you’ll soon emerge into Muyil lagoon (although not before passing a watchtower which you should absolutely climb for bird’s eye jungle views). Here, you’ll find a plethora of boats waiting to take you on an immersive 2-hour boat tour through Sian Ka’an’s lagoons and endless mangroves. You’ll even spend a surreal 30 minutes floating down the mangroves, lazy river-style. You can DIY it by showing up and jumping in a boat, or book this guided half-day Muyil adventure which combines the entire experience out of Tulum. This private Muyil tour has you covered from Cancun and Playa Del Carmen.
The second way is by driving all the way to the end of Tulum’s beach road. Pass the Maya arch and you’ve entered Sian Ka’an. After driving along a bumpy dirt road for at least an hour, you’ll arrive to the tiny fishing village of Punta Allen. Make your way to the wooden dock where you can hire a guide to take you on an unforgettable 3-4 hour boat tour. A completely different experience from Muyil, you’ll first glide through lagoons until you reach the open ocean. Here you’ll spot wild dolphins, sea turtles and even manatees before snorkeling the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef – second only to the Great Barrier Reef in size. Later you’ll stop for a swim in a crystalline, natural “swimming pool” that literally made our jaws drop. You can DIY it or, if driving through pot hole-riddled roads isn’t your thing, you can experience the same boat tour with this guided Sian Ka’an day trip from Tulum. Not in Tulum? No need for FOMO. From Cancun and elsewhere in the Riviera Maya, you can embark on this full day adventure combining the Sian Ka’an ocean tour with a Jeep expedition.
Visit an Award-Winning Adventure Park
If you’re staying at Hotel Xcaret, Xcaret Arte or La Playa de la Casa, than you already have gratis access to all eight of the luxury hospitality group’s immersive theme and adventure parks. If not, you can pick up tickets to experience a range of extraordinary adventures for the whole family.
At award-winning Xcaret Park, enter an eco-archaeological wonderland immersing visitors in Mexico’s biodiversity and cultural heritage. 40+ experiential activities encompass everything from swimming and snorkeling in the Caribbean Sea to underground river exploration, lush jungle trails to tropical wildlife sanctuaries, even replicas of a traditional Mexican hacienda, a colorful, Coco-evoking cemetery and a fascinating ancient Maya ball court. Plus, access to the nighttime Xcaret Espectacular Show, where 300+ on-stage performers take you on a whirlwind journey through the storied history of Mexico.
Experience the Venice of Mexico at Xoximilco, where floating trajineras (gondolas), lively mariachis and traditional Mexican cuisine amount to a fun, family-friendly fiesta, emulating the original Xoximilco located outside of Mexico City.
Enter a curious world where nothing is at it seems at Xenses, a mind-bending sensorial experience where imagination has no limits.
At Xplor get ready to go above, and below. This jungle adventure park boasts the highest zip lines in the region, hanging bridges, ATVs and when you’re done going airborne, mesmerizing underground cenotes you can walk, swim or raft through. Visit during the day or opt to go at night, when things really get lit at Xplor Fuego.
The true adrenaline junkie however will want to head to Xavage. Here, you can navigate through suspended ropes courses, fly through the air like superman (literally!), get behind the wheel of a Monster Truck, feel the wind in your hair on a Jet Boat and even embark on a whitewater rafting experience.
Check out all of Xcaret’s immersive adventure parks, here!
Indulge in a Unique Culinary Experience
Even at their most basic, dining options along Mexico’s glistening Caribbean coastline are arguably above par: breakfast with an oceanfront view, freshly caught onboard lunch and candle-lit, beachfront dinners to name a few. But a rising crop of unique dining experiences are raising the bar even higher (some, literally!) in Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Tulum and everywhere in between.
We’ve compiled the top 10 best and most unique dining experiences you can have right now in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, from subterranean cave dining to cocktails in the sky to sunset dinner in the treetops. See them all, here!
Swim in a Hidden Lagoon
There are plenty of places to find paradise in Tulum, the boho beach destination located on the southern end of Mexico’s Riviera Maya. But how about an off-the-beaten-path paradise with little to no crowds? Head out of the Tulum hotel zone and a 20-minute drive southwest will bring you to Laguna Kaan Luum: a magical oasis tucked into the jungle. This hidden treasure is a must-visit for anyone heading to the area, especially since it somehow still manages to fly relatively under the radar.
From the wooden docks sprinkled with shaded palapas, you can wade into the shallow, waist-deep water dotted with in-lagoon swings and hammocks. Similar to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, you can even slather the lagoon’s soft, silted mud-sand mixture on your face and body for beauty benefits. Although be prepared – it does smell like sulfur (a.k.a. stingy eggs). A bulls eye cenote located smack in the middle of the lagoon adds further beauty – and intrigue – to this under-the-radar oasis. Plummeting a whopping 262 feet (80 meters) into the abyss, swimming in the cenote is off-limits. But you can certainly appreciate it while wading in the sparkling emerald waters of the outer lagoon or lounging about on the docks. Speaking of – if you find yourself dockside, be sure to dip your feet in the water for a free nibbling fish-pedi. Take note that sunscreen (even organic, biodegradable brands) and mosquito repellents are strictly prohibited in order to preserve the beauty and ecosystem of the lagoon.
DIY your visit by driving or taking a taxi, or take the plunge with this guided full day adventure including Kaan Luum Lagoon, 3 crystal clear cenotes and one of Tulum’s most famous white sand beaches. Plus, roundtrip transport from anywhere on the coast (Cancun through Tulum). This private, customizable excursion combines Kaan Luum with cenotes plus Maya ruins. For a unique and active way to explore Kaan Luum, you can even join this lagoon stand-up paddleboarding tour with transport out of Tulum.
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