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

Answers from Our Experts (1)

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.

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