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Mayan Riviera, Mexico

Great Destination:

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Personality Types that Like it Best

Did You Know … ?

  • The Maya built their pyramids and palaces without metal tools, pack animals or the wheel.
  • Buildings on the Riviera Maya cannot be more than three stories tall.
  • Whale sharks, up to 40 feet long, are the world’s largest fish.
  • Tulum is the only known Mayan site right on the Caribbean coast.
  • The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef  extends roughly 600 miles along the coasts of four countries.

Of ruins, reefs and caves

The Mayan Riviera, or Riviera Maya, is much more than nice sandy beaches with matching nice (or very, very nice) sun ‘n’ fun resorts.

Extending more than 75 miles along the east coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, it offers a series of rocky bluffs and white beaches that frame Caribbean waters filled with wonders.

The sea harbors the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the world’s second-longest reef system. In addition, the world’s two longest underwater caves (each extending more than 100 miles) are accessible here.

As a result, the Mayan Riviera promises fun for travelers across the personality spectrum. It is a diver’s paradise, but also meets the needs of travelers seeking quiet on a beach or activities like boating excursions, fishing, snorkeling, windsurfing or swimming with dolphins. The swim-with-critters programs also include whale sharks for companions.

For travelers who look inland, the region (in the state of Quintana Roo) is characterized by pristine jungle, remnants of a long-gone Mayan culture — and the modern iterations of the Mayan past.

Because Mexico protects so much of the state’s land-based and marine ecosystems, visitors have access to several parks including the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO site.

Mayan ruins, both minor and major, sit within short distances of the coastline. The two best known are Tulum (also the name of its associated village), which actually overlooks the sea, and Coba, once the biggest and most powerful Mayan city in northeastern Yucatan Peninsula.

Independently or via organized day trips, tourists may use their time for cave walks, riding a zipline, boat tours among the mangroves, playing golf, hiking, rappelling into sinkholes, touring key Mayan sites or visiting 21st century Mayan communities.

To complement all that activity — or a day of inactivity on the beach — the area’s resorts offer various spa treatments, dining styles and other on-premises diversions. For in-town nightlife, Playa del Carmen, the Mayan Riviera’s main town, is the place to go for the funky or the glitzy.

Visitors may go farther afield, to the ruins at Chichen Itza for more on the Mayan story, by ferry to Cozumel for watery fun or north to Cancun for its nightlife.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Swim and dive with bull sharks at Playa del Carmen between November and February. Or, in mid-May to mid-September, swim or dive with the gentle (yes, gentle) whale sharks. Attend the midsummer Whale Shark Festival on Isla Mujeres, northeast of Cancun.
  • At Hidden Worlds, an adventure park near Tulum, try any of several options, such as ziplining the traditional way or the SkyCycle, which allows visitors to pedal across the treetops on a recumbent-style bicycle. Alternatively, rappel or dive into the park’s cenotes (sinkholes).
  • Here’s another rappelling alternative: into the cenotes at Pac Chen, where the holes have names like Sinkhole of Life and Sinkhole of the Jaguar.
  • Head into the jungle aboard a Mercedes-Benz Unimog, a 4X4 off-road vehicle. Participate in a traditional Mayan purification ceremony.
  • Go windsurfing on the calm waters of Puerto Morelos.
  • Dive in one of the world’s longest underwater caves, the Sistema Sac Actun, last measured at 137 miles. It alternates with the area’s Sistema Ox Bel Ha as the world’s longest; they change positions as more of each cave’s length is surveyed.

Things to do for Centrics

  • It’s a natural. Go diving to see marine life around the Great Mayan Reef, the Mesoamerican reef system that is the world’s second longest.
  • Or snorkel at Xel-Ha, a freshwater bay. Or participate in the dolphin swim program at Xcaret, the Riviera Maya’s largest ecological park.
  • For true nature lovers, take a boat tour through the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, following a Mayan trade route used 1,200 years ago. This offers the chance to spot mammals, unique birds and plant life, as well as Mayan ruins. Bird-watching, fly-fishing, kayaking and snorkeling tours are also available here.
  • Departing from the island of Holbox, between June and September, take a boat excursion to watch migrating whale sharks. On the island, see the watchtowers built centuries ago by the Maya.
  • At the Coba Mayan archaeological site, climb the 138-foot Nohoch Mul pyramid for fine views of the jungle landscape below. The pyramid is the tallest on the Yucatan Peninsula.
  • Sign on for a tour focused on the Mayan culture, past and present. Enjoy a Mayan feast in a traditional village.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Head to a sandy beach for sunbathing and a swim. Or, find one of the area’s world class golf courses for a day of play.
  • Choose a spa treatment that relies on the temazcal, or traditional Mayan sweat lodge. Several area resorts offer the option.
  • Tour the Mayan ruins of Tulum, then swim at Tulum’s Boca Paila beach.
  • Tour the crocodile farm at Puerto Morelos.
  • Do your shopping on La Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) in Playa del Carmen.
  • Take a guided walk into the 5 million-year-old cave at Aktun Chen’s eco park. Also, see animals such as deer, peccaries and spider monkeys in the park’s zoo.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Mexico Tourism Board at