From ancient cenotes to beach chic enclaves, the Riviera Maya has something for everyone. History buffs, night owls, and explorers flock here for spring break or a sunny escape, high-octane adventure or low-key relaxation. We’re always adding to our long list of things to do in Riviera Maya—all that’s left to do now is book a ticket and vamos!
1. Great Mayan Reef
The Great Mayan Reef extends across the coast of four countries: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. After Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, this one is considered the world’s second largest reef at more than 600 miles long. The system stretches from Isla Contoy at the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula down to Belize, Guatemala, and the Bay Islands of Honduras. In Riviera Maya, the system passes through regions like Cozumel and Banco Chinchorro. Explore this underwater world by snorkeling or scuba diving and you’re sure to see a multitude of sea creatures in the crystal clear waters. The Great Mayan Reef system is home to the world’s largest manatee population and also the planet’s largest fish, the whale shark.
In the south of the region, you’ll find Tulum, a former Mayan ruin turned one of Mexico’s most popular tourist sites. The old beach-and-jungle town has evolved into a chic destination for those seeking barefoot luxury. From hip boutiques like Coqui Coqui to trendy restaurants like Eric Werner’s Hartwood, Tulum has reached global status. You can still visit the ancient ruins just 10 minutes to the north to discover the remains of what was originally a fortified walled city. Spend a day here at one of Mexico’s top beaches, in one of its beautiful cenotes, or doing some cave and cavern diving.
3. Mayan Ruins
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Riviera Maya, start with a visit to its ancient Mayan Ruins. Nobody knows for sure how many there are, but you’ll have no trouble finding one that’ll wow you—starting with Tulum. Coba, inland about 30 miles from Tulum, is a very popular site to see large temples and pyramids. It’s easy to get lost there—and that’s part of the fun. Further afield, Chichen Itza is one of the most grandiose ruin sites in the world and was listed on the New 7 Wonders of the World list in 2007. From Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors) to the El Caracol observatory temple, there’s lots to see at this site.
What is a cenote and why do travelers love them so much? A cenote is a natural sinkhole developed over millions of years, the result of limestone rock collapses which uncover a body of water. Today, they serve as hidden subterranean swimming pools that make for a magical feeling of being lost in another world. Their waters are so pure and clear that underwater photographers go nuts to snap them. The Yucatan Peninsula is one of the few places in the world where you can see them, so it’s no wonder that travelers flock from all over the world for the experience. The good news is no two are alike, and you can’t really go wrong whichever one you choose, but some of the finest include Gran Cenote outside of Tulum, Chaak Tun across from Playa del Carmen, and Ik Kil in Chichen Itza.
5. Spa Day
You can always make time to relax on vacation, and Riviera Maya is a great place to do it. Some of the ancient Mayan techniques are still used today at spas in the area. Try the Saka Purification Ceremony at Hacienda Chichen’s Yaxkin Spa in Chichen Itza, which includes a rubdown with the Mayans’ sacred corn paste. Or head to Maroma Spa for their Kinan Ritual, an infusion of indigenous herbs and hot sheets to release unwanted toxins, followed by a salt and honey-based exfoliation and a four-hands massage. Finally, one of our favorite ways to unwind is at Temazcal Cancun in the middle of the Mayan jungle. Here you can turn off your phone and connect with nature in a traditional sandstone steam house.
6. Sian Ka’an Biosphere
Sian Ka’an, near Tulum, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a protected jungle reserve that, at 1.3 million acres, is roughly twice the size of Rhode Island. The original Mayan inhabitants gave it the name Sian Ka’an, meaning “Origin of the Sky.” Its tropical forests are home to jaguars, pumas, and spider monkeys. There are many different ways to see the park, but one of our favorites is the Ancient Mayan Route, a scenic boat tour that follows the ancient Sian Ka’an trade route waterway. Within the reserve, there are also opportunities for fly fishing, reef snorkeling, and nature tours.
7. Xcaret Park
Playa del Carmen’s eco-theme park is one of the most popular things to do in Riviera Maya for families. The kids will love attractions like the Butterfly Pavilion, home to roughly 20 different species, and the Aviary, where they can interact with colorful toucans and pink flamingos. Pack your swim gear to take a dip in the freshwater streams and mangroves of the underground river, or to swim with dolphins and sneak a fin shake. You don’t even have to leave the park to enjoy traditional Mexican cuisine at one of Xcaret’s coffee shops, restaurants, or haciendas.
8. Underwater Exploring
Rio Secreto is a semi-sunken cave that travelers of all ages can hike, swim, or float through. As the story goes, local landowner Don Cleofás Pool discovered the caves in 2004 while hunting iguana. He chased and followed one into a hole in the ground, and discovered the incredible interconnected cave system and underground river that would come to be known as Rio Secreto. After exploration and research, they discovered that the cave’s rock formations date back roughly 2.5 million years. Only small group tours of 10 or less can pass through the area at one time, so you will have plenty of time an space to explore. Scour the cave walls for “caritas” which are drawings of little faces that date back to the ancient Mayans.
9. Xel-Há Park
Much like Xcaret Park, Xel-Há attracts families visiting Riviera Maya. An amusement park along the Caribbean coastline, Xel-Há is all about getting wet. Just eight miles from Tulum, the aquamarine park is the perfect break in a day spent touring the town under the warm Riviera Maya sun. The park has something kids of all ages, from infants to teens. Take a dip in the park’s lagoon, float down a lazy river through a mangrove forest, or nestle into a hammock on the beach. Younger kids should visit Children’s World to play on swings and seesaws, splash around in a wading pool, and snap pictures with the turtles.
10. Vacation Rentals
From contemporary villas tucked in Sian Ka’an to Mexican colonial-style haciendas in Puerto Aventuras, Riviera Maya has some of the most desired vacation rentals in Mexico. At a retreat like Casa Ikal, you’ll be hard-pressed to find reasons to leave the property. Within the confines of your villa, you can arrange for a private massage, bring in a yoga instructor, or host a Mexican wine (yes really!) and tequila tasting. For the ultimate beachfront experience, go with Villa Amara, where snorkel equipment is provided and the sea is just steps from your living room. The living is easy at these Riviera Maya villas, and each one presents its own bucket list of activities.