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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 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 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 they may be 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.