What are the best things to do in the Riviera Maya?

Derrik Chinn
  • Derrik Chinn

  • Correspondent

  • Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

All the best things to see and do in the Riviera Maya involve being outside, which is certainly where you’ll want to be anyway with the glorious weather and beautiful scenery. The hard part is deciding which sites to see first. Luckily, Forbes Travel Guide’s editors can help with their recommendations for the top six things not to miss:

1. Sink into a cenote. Also known as ojos de agua (water eyes), cenotes (say-noh-tays) are sinkholes caused by collapsed limestone that connect to underground rivers and caves. Once used for sacrificial offerings by the Maya, who believed their murky depths connected to the spirit world, they now make for an otherworldly swimming experience and a memorable alternative to another day at the beach. Trek the Cenote Trail along Cancun-Tulum freeway and stop for freshwater swims at Siete Bocas, Boca del Puma, Verde Lucero or Las Mojarras — which, at 200 feet wide and 45 feet deep, is one of the route's more popular stops.

2. Beach it, but away from the crowds. Head to Tulum, about a 90-minute drive south, where you’ll find the most picturesque Mayan archaeological site in Mexico. Playa Mar Caribe or El Paraiso on the north of town are beautiful, but most any stretch of sand in the southern Zona Hotelera will set the scene for your very own Corona commercial reenactment.

3. Get in the water, and then get under it. Snorkeling and scuba opportunities abound off the shores of Quintana Roo, thanks to coral-thick waters that exceed 200 feet of visibility. For a truly unique underwater experience (albeit somewhat eerie or perhaps even apocalyptic), take the plunge off the coast of Isla Mujeres or Punta Nizuc, home of the world's first subaquatic art museum. First opened in 2009, El Museo Subacuático de Arte (or MUSA) consists of more than 450 of artist Jason deCaires Taylor's life-size sculptures frozen in various states of work and play. The collection is grouped into two separate "galleries" along the ocean floor, one of which is snorkeler-friendly.

4. Visit a living Maya community. Delve deep into the jungle with Alltournative's Coba Maya Encounter Adventure, which takes you to meet a self-sufficient indigenous Maya community. The 10-hour tour includes a visit to Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan, plus time for a little zip-lining, cenote swimming, canoeing and, best of all, a home-cooked traditional Mayan meal back in the village.

5. Experience a sweat lodge. For a spa experience incorporating the pre-Hispanic rituals and healing therapies of the Maya, you should definitely try the temazcal (traditional Mayan sweat lodge). Offered at numerous resorts in the area, temazcal translates to “house of steam” in Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs. This cultural and spiritual experience is said to relax and cleanse the nervous system while eliminating fat and toxins from the body. Traditionally, temazcal is a ceremony led by a healer or shaman, and takes place in a small brick and cement igloo. Once everyone participating is inside, the shaman sits at the entrance, effectively blocking the exit. By pouring water infused with aromatic herbs onto hot lava rocks that sit in the middle of the igloo, heat and steam are released. The ancient ceremony tests mental strength and endurance, and involves chanting and drinking herbal tea.

6. Visit Chichén Itzá. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the seven wonders of the world, Chichén Itzá is the most renowned of the Yucatan Maya archaeological sites. Take a day trip, and plan to spend the night at Hacienda Chichen so that you can leisurely walk among the ruins in each of the zones, including the central zone, where you’ll find El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulkan), a pyramid so magnificent that it belongs in an Indiana Jones movie.

  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    Is it safe to visit the Riviera Maya?

    A look at the numbers shows that Cancun, along with the entire Riviera Maya, is as safe to visit as it's always been. The violence surrounding the Mexican government's ongoing crackdown on drug cartels has led the U.S. State Department to advise against all unnecessary travel to 14 of Mexico's 31 states, including Chihuahua, Coahulia, Durango and Tamaulipas, all in the north. However, recent FBI crime statistics suggest that Americans are actually safer in Mexico than in many parts of the United States. (New Orleans' homicide rate is close to triple that of Mexico's national rate; even Orlando had a higher murder rate in 2010 than Cancun.) That said, the rule of thumb when traveling anywhere abroad: Be safe, be smart, but don't be paranoid.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    What is the best thing to bring home from the Riviera Maya?

    When sizing up potential souvenirs from the Riviera Maya, it's certainly easier to think of several contenders for the worst thing to bring home — namely gargantuan sombreros with "Mexico" stitched across the brim, so that anyone who ever sees it will know exactly where you picked it up. But the best? Forbes Travel Guide’s editors suggest going original with a bottle of Xtabentún, a Yucatecan anise liqueur made with honey that's produced by bees from the nectar of xtabentún flowers. Mix it with rum and sour for a mojito-margarita hybrid, or add it to your usual vodka martini.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    What are the five best Riviera Maya food experiences?

    Contrary to what most any Jimmy Buffet song would lead you to believe, there's more to Riviera Maya cuisine than endless tacos and margaritas. Try the five best food experiences chosen by Forbes Travel Guide’s editors to expand your Riviera Maya culinary horizons.
     
    1. Cochinita Pibil. The regional culinary star is without a doubt cochinita pibil, a Yucatecan take on pulled pork that's seasoned with annatto seeds and roasted in a banana leaf. Yaxche in Playa del Carmen serves it regularly, but for a more authentic experience, follow your nose (or a local) to any of the towns’ central market areas. There, you’ll find small eateries serving home-cooked, incomparable variations of the dish, usually served with beans, rice, fresh avocado slices and a whopping stack of warm corn tortillas.
     
    2. Pavo en Relleno Negro. Pulling in for a close second is pavo en relleno negro, roasted stuffed turkey marinated in a paste made of charred chiles. It’s such a staple that you’re likely to find it on the menu at any local restaurant that specializes in traditional Mexican dishes.
     
    3. Yucatecan pudding tamales or tamales colados. Corn paste that’s packed around a savory filling and repackaged in the cob’s original husk, pudding tamales aren’t necessarily sweet; in fact, they come in all varieties, including pork, chicken, beef and cheese. The name refers to the unique straining process that gives the paste a pudding-like texture before being cooked. Second only to burritos as far as convenient portability goes (and only because the tortilla essentially serves as an edible wrapper as far as burritos are concerned), tamales are usually sold and consumed while on the go. So keep your eyes peeled for posterboard signs tacked up outside homes or stands while roaming around town or out on the road.
     
    4. The Cancun Wine and Food Festival. This international event happens annually in March, bringing together star chefs from near and far for three days of foodie hobnobbing. It’s a fun happening that gourmet food- and wine-lovers shouldn’t miss.
     
    5. Street sweets. If you save room for anything, make it dessert from a street vendor in Parque Las Palapas, whether it’s deep-fried bananas, caramel-filled churros or marquesitas, a cross between a crepe and a flauta that's filled with your choice of cheese, caramel, peanut butter or Nutella and bananas.
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  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    Where is the best nightlife in Riviera Maya?

    If you’re looking for the best nightlife in Riviera Maya, Cancun's Zona Hotelera is famous around the globe for its monster discotecas, clubs the size of warehouses that have been outfitted with state-of-the-art light and sound systems and expansive, multilevel dance floors. Coco Bongo, famous for its elaborate shows starring Madonna, Michael Jackson and Spiderman impersonators, literally looks large enough to park a 737. The City serves as an landing pad for international DJ superstars, with its 1,000,000-watt sound system and 650 square feet of video screens. And at Dady'O, which bills itself as one of the three best nightclubs in America, you might as well be in Las Vegas or Los Angeles, with its Jersey Shore and Playmate parties. If the tourist circuit gets to be too much of a headache, Forbes Travel Guide’s editors advise kicking back Coronas and Cazadores with the townies at any of the more low-key cantinas downtown along Avenida Yaxchilán.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    What is the best way to see the Riviera Maya in one day?

    The golden rule of seeing the Riviera Maya in one day: Rent a car in Cancun. Daily rates vary but are comparable to what you'd collectively spend in time and money on all the tour buses needed to check off your entire bucket list of locations. This way not only do you see the sights at your own pace, but you avoid having to share the experience with a bunch of strangers. With a full tank and an entire day to blow, you're free to hop between pyramids, beaches and cenotes.
     
    After you have your car, Forbes Travel Guide’s editors suggest beating the heat and the lines at Chichen Itzá by being ready to roam the grounds as soon as it opens in the morning; the goose bump factor at the ancient Mayan city soars exponentially when you have the place more or less to yourself. Cool off before you head out with a short swim at nearby Ik Kil, a vine-draped cenote that drops 85 feet into the jungle floor.
     
    On your way back to the coast, pull over at any roadside eatery on highway 109 toward Tulum for tamales or comida corrida — the dish of the day (whatever it happens to be, it rarely fails to leave you wanting seconds). Doze away the rest of the afternoon on the beach in Tulum, heading back to drop off the car in Cancun just after sunset. The only downside is that car rental companies in Mexico, although American or European brands, require you to drop off at the same location where you picked up. Nevertheless, it winds up being well worth your while and your buck.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    Where is the best shopping in the Riviera Maya?

    Honing in on the best shopping in the Riviera Maya depends on what sort of goods you're after. Forbes Travel Guide’s editors suggest visiting Mercado 28 and Mercado 23, both municipal markets located in downtown Cancun, for the typical sort of souvenirs you're likely to find anywhere in Mexico: T-shirts, fútbol jerseys, cowboy boots, elaborately painted ceramics, Day of the Dead skeletons, serapes (colorful shawls), traditional huarache-style sandals and supersize sombreros. On the other hand, La Isla Shopping Village in Zona Hotelera boasts a store roster you're more likely already familiar with — Lacoste, Diesel, Benetton and even Chili's — and for that reason it may be worth skipping altogether because it's nothing you can't get back home.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    What are the best things to do with kids in the Riviera Maya?

    Yes, of course, you can (and should) take your kids to the beach in the Riviera Maya — but there are plenty of other things to keep them occupied, a surprising number of which involve a little dose of culture. Any of the five activities recommended by Forbes Travel Guide’s editors as best for kids are sure to amuse, delight and fend off boredom, at least for awhile.
     
    1. Go for a slide. Cancun's lone water park, Wet 'n Wild, has six slides that deliver quite an adrenaline rush sure to cure any restlessness junior may have worked up after a few days of laying low in the sand. There's also a lazy river, a wave pool and beach access, plus a full bar where Mom and Dad can take turns hopping on and off the Margaritaville express.
     
    2. See some pyramids. This is the stuff epic "what I did last summer" essays are made of. The pyramids of Chichén Itzá, active from 600 to 1200 A.D., are now one of Mexico's most visited archeology sites, banking more than a million visitors annually. A two-hour car ride from Cancun, it's definitely the most popular cluster in the area. Tulum is closer and, unlike the others deep in the jungle, uniquely situated on a cliff above the beach. But, with its nightly sound and light shows, Uxmal on the Puuc Route wins the Oscar.
     
    3. Visit a Mayan eco theme park. Take Disneyland and swap all the princesses and cartoon characters with Mayan warriors, Papantla Flying Men and charros (cowboys) on horseback. Then trade the rides for underground rivers, archeological ruins, replicas of Mayan villages and islands overrun with spider monkeys, jaguars and flamingos. That's Xcaret. An eco theme park that comes as a crash course in Mexican history and pre-Hispanic culture, the place culminates in a nightly stage show involving more than 300 performers.
     
    4. Take an eco-tour. The Riviera Maya sets the scene for a near overdose of natural wonders, but exploring it all is not exactly something the average tourist should or would even care to do solo. When looking to zip-line through the rainforest or swim in subterranean caves, better to hook up with one of the region's several ecotourism outfits like Indiana Joe's Aktun-chen Natural Park, Río Secreto or Selvática.
     
    5. Watch the flamingos. It's somewhat of a hike from one side of the peninsula to the other, but Celestún on the Gulf Coast is one of Mexico's best spots for bird watching, namely because of a wild flamingo reserve situated on the edge of a flooded petrified forest. Best kept for hardcore aficionados of winged fauna, tours depart daily from Mérida, about 100 miles east.
  • On September 19, 2012
    Derrik Chinn answered the question: Derrik Chinn

    What are the best things to do in the Riviera Maya?

    All the best things to see and do in the Riviera Maya involve being outside, which is certainly where you’ll want to be anyway with the glorious weather and beautiful scenery. The hard part is deciding which sites to see first; Forbes Travel Guide’s editors can help with their recommendations for the top five things not to miss:
     
    1. Sink into a cenote. Also known as ojos de agua or water eyes, cenotes (say-noh-tays) are sinkholes caused by collapsed limestone that connect to underground rivers and caves. Once used for sacrificial offerings by the Maya, who believed their murky depths connected to the spirit world, they now make for an otherworldly swimming experience and a memorable alternative to another day at the beach. Trek the Cenote Trail along Cancun-Tulum freeway and stop for freshwater swims at Siete Bocas, Boca del Puma, Verde Lucero or Las Mojarras — which at 200 feet wide and 45 feet deep is one of the route's more popular stops.
     
    2. Beach it. Forgo the spring breakers' stomping grounds of Cancun proper for its smaller, less-developed neighbor Tulum, about a 90-minute drive south. Doing so ups your chances of scoring some alone time with the Caribbean Sea. Playa Mar Caribe or El Paraiso on the north of town are beauts, but most any stretch of sand in the southern Zona Hotelera will set the scene for your very own Corona commercial reenactment.
     
    3. Get in the water, and then get under it. Snorkeling and scuba opportunities abound off the shores of Quintana Roo, thanks to coral-thick waters that exceed 200 feet of visibility. For a truly unique underwater experience (albeit somewhat eerie or perhaps even apocalyptic), take the plunge off the coast of Isla Mujeres or Punta Nizuc, home of the world's first subaquatic art museum. First opened in 2009, El Museo Subacuático de Arte or MUSA consists of more than 450 of artist Jason deCaires Taylor's life-size sculptures frozen in various states of work and play. The collection is grouped into two separate "galleries" along the ocean floor, one of which is snorkeler-friendly.
     
    4. Explore town. In a place like the Riviera Maya, time in the city understandably takes a backseat to the beach. But there's no better opportunity to absorb the overall essence of everyday living in this vacation wonderland. Grab the camera and spend an afternoon following the footsteps of locals around downtown Cancun. You'll no doubt wind up at markets, shops and cafés, not to mention carts serving up slices of street food heaven that you would have never found on your own. Park yourself at Parque Las Palapas around dusk with a cup of tejuino — fermented corn juice that's served with a scoop of lime slushy — for whatever impromptu amateur show happens to be going down on the stage. Then head over to Avenida Yaxchilán for a locals-only cantina crawl.
     
    5. Go tribal. Delve deep into the jungle with Alltournative's Coba Maya Encounter Adventure to meet a self-sufficient indigenous Maya community. The 10-hour tour includes a visit to Nohoch Muul, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan, plus time for a little zip-lining, cenote swimming, canoeing and, best of all, a home-cooked traditional Mayan meal back in the village.
  • On July 31, 2012
    Forbes Travel Guide Inspector answered the question: Forbes Travel Guide Inspector

    Where are the best places to eat in the Riviera Maya?

    The best restaurants in the Riviera Maya confidently churn out timeless local specialties that make room for the occasional dash of modern flair. Forbes Travel Guide’s editors recommend putting the following places to eat on your dining to-do list while in the Riviera Maya.
     
    1. Yaxche. This restaurant in Playa del Carmen takes the Yucatecan theme and really runs with it, almost to an amusement park extreme. It's a one-stop shop for contemporary takes on colloquial staples like cochinita pibil and Maya tamales stuffed with boiled egg and pumpkin seeds.
     
    2. El Bistro at Ziggy Beach. At this palapa dining room set on the beach in Tulum, the occasional hammock links the surrounding palms and the tuna tacos have been tastefully deconstructed and reassembled as if they were set to strut down a Tokyo runway show.
     
    3. Los Aguachiles. Off the beaten path at Calle 34 and Avenida 25 in Playa del Carmen, Los Aguachiles serves up a hip, fresh take on regional fare that’s a hit among tourists and locals alike. Not to be missed are their sashimi tacos served wrapped in lettuce in lieu of the usual corn tortilla and beer rimmed with a gooey mix of chile and chamoy (pickled fruit), the sweet and savory stars of Mexican candy.
     
    4. El Arbolito. For a more traditional take on the taco, visit this roadside stand near Playa del Carmen at kilometer 270 on Highway 307, whose options include chile relleno, chorizo and potato, chicken mole and barbecue ribs. One bite of an authentic take on Mexico’s most exported — and as a result, most often misrepresented — culinary staple, and your eyes will roll every time you drive by a Taco Bell.
     
    5. Slow Food Restaurant. We’re fans of whatever the special of the day happens to be at the literally titled Slow Food Restaurant on Isla Holbox, a carless, rockless island off the peninsula's northern coast whose lone town is no more than a few blocks deep. Pull up a swing (chairs are nowhere to be found at the beachfront hut near the pier) and pile your tostadas high with ceviche made from fish that only hours ago was — just like you, oddly enough — swimming in the sea.
  • On July 31, 2012
    Forbes Travel Guide Inspector answered the question: Forbes Travel Guide Inspector

    Where are the best places to stay in the Riviera Maya?

    Be it a beachfront palapa that’s within a stone’s throw of ancient ruins or an all-inclusive fortress resort where you needn’t step foot in the same pool twice, Riviera Maya has a home away from home for everybody. Here are our Forbes Travel Guide’s editors’ choices for the best places to stay in Riviera Maya:
     
    1. Rosewood Mayakoba. An exclusive boutique hotel in the resort of Mayakoba, Rosewood Mayakoba is arranged around a series of canals — you’ll be taken to your white-washed private casita via a charming teak-clad boat. Though the beach here is a bit of a hike from most guest rooms (and once reached, is little more than a sliver of sand), you’ll be just as happy in the full-service cabanas and chairs that surround the two pools, where you can order up a gourmet Mexican lunch, fresh-fruit cocktail or alfresco massage. The spa is one of this resort’s most stunning facilities — it’s massive and includes outdoor showers in the changing areas.
     
    2. Banyan Tree Mayakoba. Also tucked in the Mayakoba resort (which hosts an annual winter stop on the PGA tour), Banyan Tree Mayakoba is an exotic retreat with Moorish style design accents and a series of private villas arranged around pools and gardens. Its Saffron restaurant is acclaimed for its authentic Thai cuisine (the international brand Banyan Tree has its roots in Thailand).
     
    3. The Ritz-Carlton, Cancun. From the moment you step into the luxurious lobby, you’ll feel pampered at this Ritz-Carlton hotel right on the Caribbean Sea. The waterfront rooms are large and elegant, and come with a balcony so you can better enjoy the view; to get even closer to the water, rent one of the beachside cabanas for drinks or an intimate dinner. Don’t forget to try out their tennis center and sign up for a relaxing massage afterward in the spa.
     
    4. Hotel Secreto. It’s undeniably all too easy for Riviera Maya’s sprawling maze of monstrous hotels — which average around 300 rooms a piece — to leave you feeling like just another body bobbing in an overcrowded pool or waiting in the buffet line. The solution at Hotel Secreto, a Mediterranean-inspired take on cubed, modern design in Isla Mujeres, was to forgo any sort of official signage, stretch the length of the lap pool to 60 feet and cap the room count at a grand total of nine.
     
    5. Viceroy Riviera Maya. With only 41 villas, this intimate Playa del Carmen resort exudes the same laidback, chic design as its brand sisters in the U.S. (all bare the style stamp of interior designer Kelly Wearstler). The resort’s La Marea restaurant is one of the area’s most romantic, where fresh seafood is served in a room that looks out onto the ocean.