The Yucatan Peninsula is a magical place in Mexico that you definitely have to visit at least once in your lifetime and in this article you will find 9 unforgettable things to do in Riviera Maya!
Mexico had been on my bucket list since at least 2008, when I worked as a server in some restaurants in California, USA. Many of my colleagues were Mexicans and I simply fell in love with their attitude towards life and with their sincere, sunny smiles!
When the chance finally arose, I flew all the way from Europe to discover the beautiful Yucatan Peninsula for 2 weeks!
The peninsula is located in south eastern Mexico and this is what it looks like on a map:
So, I spent 2 weeks touring Yucatan with a rented car. I mostly visited Riviera Maya, which is located on the eastern side of the peninsula.
What is there do in Riviera Maya? If you want to visit beaches, freshen up in crystal clear waters, swim with sea turtles, see one of the New Wonders of the World and just have the time of your life, then keep reading; you will find tons of useful tips for your Mexican dream vacation!
Here is my list of the top 9 things to do in Riviera Maya:
And here are all the places on the map:
1. Chichen Itza, Mexico – A new wonder of the world
You did not see this one coming, did you?
Chichen Itza is by far the most well-known attraction in Yucatan and maybe in the whole country!
Chichen Itza is a huge complex of Mayan ruins shaped like pyramids built by the Maya people approximately 1200 years ago.
The famous Mayan ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Even if you choose an all-inclusive, relaxing vacation, a day trip to Chichen Itza is totally worth it – it is such an impressive place!
By the way, here is a fact I learned in Chichen Itza – The Mayan calendar consists of periods and the periods change every 2,880,000 days. On December 21st in 2012, at 11:11 UTC it was supposed to be the year when those periods change, not the end of the world, as many people thought.
NOTE: Please keep in mind that the area is pretty large and it is not only made of just that one pyramid you see in all the pictures. It is an ensemble of many greatly preserved ruins. You need at least 1.5 hours to discover everything with rushing through it.
TIP: After exploring the site, you might want to get a traditional Mayan spa treatment at Hacienda Chichen’s Yaxkin Spa. This is one of the best Mayan spas, hidden away in a jungle garden close to Chichen Itza, where they practice natural Mayan cleansing and healing rituals. You can choose to have a massage, get a face mask or algae body wrap and more! You will feel like a new person!
Chichen Itza entrance fee
Visiting Chichen Itza requires an entrance fee of 242 pesos (~US $14.50 ) or 453 pesos (~US $25) if you want to see the night show.
NOTE: Basically, the entrance to Chichen Itza requires two tickets – one for 70 pesos and one for 172 pesos. Together, the entrance fee is 242 as I said earlier, but the thing is that you will have to buy them from different windows. But no need to panic! The staff will tell you where to go.
What is this night show I mentioned above, you might ask? Well, it is basically a light show projected on the main Chichen Itza pyramid. You can come at 6 PM, see Chichen Itza during daylight and then stay for the night show as well, which starts at 8 PM when it is darker. The show lasts for about 30 minutes. During that time, you can explore the site with an audio guide included.
LIFEHACK: Get cash! It is 10% more expensive if you pay with a credit card. 😉
If you want to take a guided tour in Chichen Itza, it is about 500 (US $28) pesos for a guided tour of 1 hour, or 900 pesos (US $50) for 2 hours.
I visited Chichen Itza on a Saturday morning (visiting in the morning or evening is better, as it can get really hot at mid-day) and I was surprised to see that there were not so many people, compared with another Wonder of the World – Petra in Jordan.
If you want to visit Chichen Itza before the crowds arrive, I recommend a private early morning tour with an archeologist that you can book here. A good alternative would be this full-day guided tour of Chichen Itza with cenote swimming in Cancun.
How to get to Chichen Itza
In my opinion, getting there with a rented car is the best option! Chichen Itza is located 2 hours and 20 mins from Cancun and 2 hours from both Playa Del Carmen and Tulum. You can check and compare the prices for rental cars in Mexico using this link!
If you don’t feel like renting a car, there are tons of Chichen Itza tours in Riviera Maya available out there. Here are Chichen Itza tours from Cancun, from Playa del Carmen and from Tulum. The prices are anywhere between US $50 to $150 per person, depending on whether you would like a Chichen Itza private tour and if you want to stop by some cenote or visit the city of Valladolid on the way, if lunch is included etc.
Chichen Itza Hotels
If you are going to continue your Yucatan road trip, I recommend staying in Valladolid overnight. It is a small colonial town near Chichen Itza, and there are tons of reasonably priced hotels there.
Luxury (US $100 and above): Hotel Meson del Marques is a great 5-star hotel with spacious and nicely decorated rooms and an awesome outdoor pool. The hotel is actually a Colonial 17-century house and it also has an on-site restaurant! Hotel Posada San Juan is another great option – this 4-star hotel has amazing reviews, tasteful decor and an outdoor pool and sun terrace.
Middle-priced (from US $50 to $100): Hotel Catedral Valladolid is a very nice 3-star hotel in the center of Valladolid with a 24-hour front desk manager, free Wi-Fi and clean, cozy, air-conditioned rooms. Hotel Fundadores is another great option with a very good value for the money. If you want to have an outdoor pool at your accommodation, as well as a garden, a terrace and free Wi-Fi, this is the perfect place!
Budget (up to US $50): Hostel Candelaria is a great option for any budget traveler that wants to be close to Chichen Itza. This is a very colorful hostel with a terrace and free parking, as well as two shared kitchens where you can have a free breakfast. Tunich Beh is a convenient B&B with an outdoor pool, a garden and even bicycle rental on-site!
By the way, Ik Kil, a very famous cenote is very close to Chichen Itza-you can stop by it as well if you have more time! If you would like to visit the Chichen Itza cenote and ruins, as well as Valladolid on an amazing full-day tour, this is the perfect option for you. You can depart from Cancun or Riviera Maya, which is extremely convenient!
Cancun is a bustling tourist city and you will probably land here if your Mexican trip starts in Yucatan. You will find Cancun in many articles recommending things to do in Mexico, Riviera Maya. I only recommend stopping in Cancun if you stay in a nice all-inclusive hotel (such as mine – you can read more about it below). Otherwise, you can get that beautiful turquoise water anywhere else on the coast, in places with more cultural heritage and definitely fewer tourists! Just my 2 cents. 🙂
Here are some Cancun money saver tips:
Tips about Cancun
There is UBER in Cancun! It is a great transportation option if you want to take a taxi and not get ripped off. Use my promo code (YULIAS777UE) to get your first ride for free! A normal price for a taxi ride to/from the airport to the hotel zone is 400 pesos (around US $20) by taxi and 250 – 300 by Uber (which is US $12-15).Simply ask the driver for the stop near the name of the place you are going.
- Souvenirs are waaaay too overpriced. You can try Mercado 28 in downtown Cancun for more affordable, local prices. Almost everything is negotiable and it is good to compare the prices with 2-3 other sellers before buying.
- Avoid Spring Break as this is the busiest (and most expensive) time of the year to be in the city.
Things to do in Cancun, Mexico
The most famous Cancun attractions include shopping and clubbing in Coco Bongo and other hot nightclubs.
While I did not do any of those (I will explain why below), there are some other cool and popular activities in Cancun, Mexico, that I am going to tell you about:
Looking for some unique things to do in Cancun? How about snorkeling/diving around underwater statues?
This half day tour will take you to the museum on a fast boat. If you have a diving certificate, I highly recommend taking the diving tour. It is just US $10 more expensive, but you will get to see the statues closer. I didn’t have the certificate at the moment, so I was given only snorkeling equipment and was only able to dive for a couple of seconds. Still a lot of fun!
After the museum, you will stop at 2 more picturesque spots where you will see rich, underwater sea life including sea turtles in the wild!
And the best part? It is just for you and your boat mates, nobody else is around!
Another great thing to do in Cancun is swimming with whale sharks on the coast – definitely an unforgettable experience!
Looking for something more extreme? This full-day adventure tour will have you swimming in a cenote, flying down a zip-line and exploring the jungle with an ATV (all equipment included!).
Oh, and in case you want to do many activities while you are in Cancun, you can buy a Go Cancun Card! It is a multi-attraction pass which will help you save money on more than 30 activities in Cancun!
Where to stay in Cancun
I honestly did not understand why people liked all-inclusive hotels before.
I had been to one in Egypt, and I did not like it at all – I ate way too much, the quality of the drinks was horrible and I ended up traveling by myself, leaving my hotel room empty in the end.
I guess I hadn’t stayed in the right all-inclusive hotel, yet.
Grand Fiesta Americana is a 5-star Cancun all-inclusive resort that has FANTASTIC service, the food is a-la-carte and the view from my room was to-die-for. So no more buffets and no more eating way too much of that bad quality food for me!
Here are some of the things I loved the most about the Grand Fiesta Americana and why I think it is one of the best Cancun resorts:
- A glass of champagne waiting for you at check-in. How is that for the start of a great vacation?
- A double shower, so that you can take a shower together and not fight over it!
- The live piano music in the lobby that I heard every day from my room was amazing
The room design and the outstanding quality of service go without saying. After all, it is a 5-star hotel!
And I mean, who would be gloomy if your day starts with this view?
Call me old and boring, but when we walked outside to check out all those noisy bars that are just 2 minutes away from the hotel, I wanted to come back to my personal paradise right away!
is an EP (European Package) hotel, so you do not need to commit to the all-inclusive food. They have 5 resort restaurants that you can choose from and you can order from them a-la-carte.
I loved ordering my food right by the pool! Aaand it was delicious too!
NOTE: Even if the hotel is big, it is constantly sold out, so make sure to book it in advance for your Cancun holidays if you want to stay there!
Oh, and by the way, the hotel is located right in front of the pier for Isla Mujeres, so there will be no need to walk for long or take a taxi!
What is Isla Mujeres? That leads me to no. 3 on my list!
Other great hotels in Cancun
UPDATE: We have a new post on Best Places to Stay in Cancun, make sure you check it out!
Luxury (US $100 and above): Secrets The Vine Cancun All Inclusive – Adults Only is a gorgeous 5-star hotel that awaits with no less than 6 restaurants, 3 outdoor swimming pools, a spa, a hair salon, and a gym! Plus, it has amazing views over the Caribbean Sea! My second recommendation is Casa Tortugas Boutique Hotel, which is an amazing 4-star hotel with friendly staff, an outdoor swimming pool, and free Wi-Fi!
Middle-priced (from US $50 to $100): Nomads Hotel Hostel & Bar offers accommodations in double rooms with a private bathroom, but shared rooms as well. It also has a great outdoor swimming pool where you can refresh and splash around together with friends! Casa Kin33 is a great, colorful B&B with lovely staff, an outdoor pool, a beautiful garden and, of course, free Wi-Fi!
Budget (up to US $50): Hostel Morenita Linda is a great budget option with cozy rooms, a gorgeous garden, free Wi-FI and a nice shared lounge where you can hang around and meet other travelers! You can choose from staying in a double room or a bed in a dormitory. Another option is Beato’s Home – a nice homestay with free Wi-Fi, garden access, a continental breakfast, and great prices!
3. Isla Mujeres
La Isla Mujeres is an island located only 13 kilometers off the coast of Cancún.
The island can be visited on a day trip, which I highly recommend as this is one of the not-to-miss Riviera Maya attractions!
To get to Isla Mujeres, please buy your ferry tickets online at least one day in advance (choose Playa Carasol if you are staying at the Grand Fiesta Americana). For some reason, we couldn’t buy the tickets to Isla Mujeres online even if there were plenty of spots left, so we did it at the cash register.
The price is US $24 at the cash register or US $17 online (US $14 + $3 ferry tax that you will still need to pay in cash when boarding the boat). It takes about 30 min to get the island.
Alternatively, you can take an organized all-inclusive catamaran tour from Cancun and visit Isla Mujeres in one day!
TIP: If you are only staying on Isla Mujeres for 1 day like us, you can rent a motorbike to discover the island. It is 140 pesos per hour (US $7), 380 pesos (US $21) per day (which means until 5 PM) or 480 pesos (US $28 ) per 24 hours. We forgot our driver’s license at the hotel, so we couldn’t do it, unfortunately 🙁
Or why not rent a golf cart instead? The regular one for a maximum of 4 people is US $75 total per day and the large one (fits 4 people + cargo bin) is US $80 total per day. You can check the updated rates here.
Once on the island, the taxi was 100 MXN (US $5.50) to Punta Sur. I guess we could have bargained, but as usual, we forgot to do it. 🙂
While you are on Isla Mujeres, make sure to visit Punta Sur, one of the most fantastic and powerful places I have been to! The entrance is US $3, and that was one of the best spent $3 for me! So worth it!
What are cenotes anyway? That is a good question!
A cenote is a giant sinkhole that is formed as a result of a bedrock collapse that brings the fresh groundwater under it to the surface.
As the underwater life is really beautiful in many of the cenotes, I recommend getting a snorkel mask in advance. Otherwise, you will need to rent it numerous times, and thinking about how many people used it before me makes me shiver.
Remember that it will be quite cold because the water is fresh and there is no sun. But once you get inside and move around, you will be fine!
IMPORTANT: PLEASE do not use any sunblock before swimming in cenotes! The water there is crystal clear and all the rich underwater life will be affected because the lotion stays in the water and poisons the fish.
There are many cenotes in Riviera Maya that are spread all over the area. Below you will find a list of the most well-known ones, together with the updated entrance prices for each of them:
- Cenote Cristalino – 150 pesos (~US $8)
- Cenote Azul – This one is probably my favorite and one of the best cenotes in Mexico, I’d say! The water is crystal clear and the colors are out of this world. You can do cliff jumping and the underwater life is amazingly rich. 100 pesos (~US $5.50)
- Cenote Jardin del Eden – Closed on Saturdays. Located just a 2-minute walk from Cenote Azul. 100 pesos (~US $5.50)
- Cenote Yal-ku – 280 pesos (~US $15)
- Casa Cenote – 120 pesos (~US $6)
- Cenote Zacil-Ha – 80 pesos (~US $4.50)
- Gran Cenote – 180 pesos (~US $9)
- Cenote Dos Ojos – 350 pesos (~US $19) Note: You will have to walk for 3 km if you don’t have a car.
There are many more cenotes, so I advise you to visit some of them for an unforgettable diving or snorkeling experience! If you decide to choose only one fun thing to do in Mexico, let it be swimming and snorkeling in cenotes!
All the cenotes usually close around 5:30 – 6:00 PM. The sun goes down at that time any way, so you will not want to stay for longer. The kids’ ticket (4 – 8 years old) is usually half the price.
5. Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is another coastal city located south from Cancun and one of the top things to do in Riviera Maya, Mexico! It is also less hectic and less touristy than Cancun, but it still has lots of restaurants and clubs to offer. I definitely recommend checking it out!
In fact, many independent travelers just skip Cancun (if you do not stay in a nice resort there, there is not much to do in Cancun IMHO) and go down to Playa right away.
I felt like the city was safe and very alive, and it definitely has its own vibe. It is, in fact, one of the fastest growing cities in North America!
If you are not staying in the center, which is basically Playa del Carmen’s version of 5th Avenue called La Quinta, you can take taxis. Taxis to anywhere inside the city should cost 35 pesos (~US $2), but it might be 50 (~US $3), as you are a tourist. Bargain and try to practice your Spanish! 🙂
Unique things to do in Playa del Carmen and the surrounding area
Are you wondering what to do in Playa del Carmen? Here is a list of must-see things to do there and some cool Playa del Carmen excursions:
- Cenote Jardin del Eden
- Cenote Cristalino
- Cenote Azul – this one was my favorite!
- Visit the eco-archeological amusement parks Xcaret, Xel-Ha, and Xplor (definitely one of the fun things to do in Playa del Carmen!)
- Swimming with dolphins
- Enjoy a Cirque du Soleil Joya show based on a Mexican story
- Go to the underwater caves of Rio Secreto
Please see the description of each cenote (and what they are) above where I mention the open hours and the prices.
Nice places to eat in Playa del Carmen
Of course, no Mexican trip is complete without trying some traditional cuisine, right? Besides exploring the wonderful surroundings, eating delicious food is one of the best things to do in Mexico, so here are some Playa del Carmen restaurants that I loved a lot!
Where to stay in Playa del Carmen
I stayed in El Taj Oceanfront and Beachside Condo Hotel, and it was one of those rare hotels that pays incredible attention to details. This was definitely one of the best hotels in Playa del Carmen and one of the greatest where I have ever stayed, and here is why:
The hotel is located in the center but at the same time it is very secluded, so you won’t see crowds of tourists there.
This is not your typical hotel building – you will stay in a condo with a living room, a fully equipped kitchen and a bedroom.
The managers of the property thought about every single little detail: there is an Internet router for each condo, so your Wi-Fi will be fast and a washing machine and a dryer (and even detergent!) are there waiting to be used – a blessing for a traveler like me! Big scenic windows, a comfy mattress, a water cooler, a dishwashing machine that you probably won’t touch as the room service is fantastic and…
Wait for it… A private Jacuzzi!
My personal private Jacuzzi! Say what?
The Jacuzzi is outside your condo, and it is placed in a way that people can’t really see you. So yes, you can relax in bubbly water enjoying the view of the ocean while drinking your beer and not being bothered by anybody. Hell yes, you deserved it!
Oh, and there is a little fridge that is near the Jacuzzi in case you want some drinks and don’t want to go all the way back to the living room. Attention to details, I told you!
Breakfast is included in your stay. El Taj has two restaurants for you to choose from – El Taj Restaurant and Indigo Restaurant- that are located only 2 blocks away. I personally liked El Taj more because it is right on the beach and they have a buffet, too!
Some other free perks that come with staying at the hotel – free usage of a gym nearby (I visited once and I can say it is a great, fully equipped gym!), discounts at many restaurants etc. Also, a shuttle to another beautiful beach located a 15-minute drive away is provided free of charge. So, I can say that all in all, this is one of the best Playa del Carmen all-inclusive resorts!
Other good hotels in Playa del Carmen
Luxury (US $100 and above): KLR IT Residences By Sercotel is a luxury 5-star hotel with an amazing design, an outdoor pool, a great restaurant, and 24-hour front desk service. A delicious American breakfast is served each morning and the hotel is one of the guests’ favorites in Playa del Carmen! Condohotel Fabiola is a 4-star hotel located only a 5-minute walk from Playa del Carmen beach. The rooms are clean, cozy and bright!
Middle-priced (from US $50 to $100): Vidas de los Mares offers accommodation in 2-person apartments. The rooms have a nice balcony, flat-screen TV and, of course, free Wi-Fi! Casa Pili offers different rooms – for 2 people, for a family or for a big group of friends as well! You will also have access to an outdoor pool, a private beach area, a BBQ area and more!
Budget (up to US $50): Vainilla Bed and Breakfast Mexico is a super colorful and cozy B&B located only 1km from the beach. If you choose to stay here, you will have access to a shared kitchen, free Wi-Fi, a delicious breakfast and more! Departamentos K&B is a great budget option for couples or groups of friends. It has a classic design, a garden, free Wi-Fi and clean rooms!
In Tulum the sky is under the sea!
Seriously, the water has such a beautiful turquoise blue color in Tulum – I have never seen anything like it!
Tulum used to be a little fishing village just about 15 years ago. Now it is a new popular destination for tourists with nice (not all-inclusive giants like in Cancun) bungalow-lined beaches.
Things to do in Tulum and around
Except for relaxing on those paradise beaches, here are the must-dos when in Tulum:
- Tulum ruins – 70 pesos (around US $4) for the entrance fee, free parking, you can come with your own bicycle. 600 pesos (around US $30) for the guided tour. This is definitely one of the top Tulum attractions! If you want to take a tour to visit the ruins as a day trip, this 6-hour tour that also includes swimming with turtles is a great option!
- Grand Cenote – It is a cenote inside a cave. Don’t forget your snorkeling equipment. Entrance fee is 180 pesos (~US $9), a locker is 30 (US $1.50)
- Carwash cenote – If you are searching for some cenotes near Tulum or for something less known, you should go to this cenote. The entrance is just 50 pesos (around US $3) and it is just around the corner from the Grand Cenote.
- Experience a very special dinner at The Dining Experience in Tulum! The price is US $79 and it includes all the food courses and drinks. This is a tasting menu with traditional food and cocktails where you will get to experience and learn about some of the best dishes and flavors the Mexican cuisine has to offer and even make your own salsas! The dinner takes 3 hours and there are 21 spots available for each dinner. The best part? You can make new traveler friends and you can even take the recipe for each dish home if you want to!
- Practice yoga
If you want to go to Tulum on a day trip only, you can visit it together with Dos Ojos Cenote if you book this tour (you can choose your departing location – Cancun, Playa del Carmen, etc.).
As I mentioned, the main activity to do in Tulum is enjoying the crystal blue water and the white sand beaches which are among the best beaches on the Mexican Riviera. Here I have seen some of the most beautiful beaches in my life that I can only compare to some parts or Langkawi in Malaysia.
Where to stay in Tulum
You can stay in the actual city of Tulum and it will be much cheaper, but keep in mind that it is about 15 mins away to the beach by car.
The second option is to stay on a Tulum beach and wake up to the sound of the waves. It is a bit more expensive, but I’d say: if you are not traveling on a tight budget, it is totally worth it!
I had to wash my legs each time before entering my bungalow because we were staying literally on the beach and my legs were all sandy!
The hotel where I stayed is called Shambala Petit Hotel. It is funny, but at first, I couldn’t even find the door of the hotel as there was no visible sign. You see, the hotel specializes in yoga retreats and they care about the privacy and comfort of their clients so much that only the person who knows about it can enter, no passersby.
“You were not ready to enter yet” – the owner of the hotel said when we finally found the bell to ring.
When you enter the hotel, you get into a different world, all calm and spiritual. The beach is marvelous, and the bungalows you will be staying in are simple and clean.
I recommend staying in this place if you feel like immersing yourself in natural surroundings, relaxing after a stressful period at work, and if staying in a bungalow is ok for you.
You will have a private shower and AC, but they care about the environment a lot in Shambala and the AC only works during specific hours (because they use solar energy). Shambala is not a 5-star all-inclusive hotel, but it is something more simple and natural, just what I needed to relax my mind and spend all those countless hours in a hammock reading a book!
Oh, and I saw a turtle laying eggs, for real!!
Well, it was dark, so I saw a shadow, but it was still a magical experience, trust me!
You might also see them if you come between May and November, which is the season when turtles lay eggs.