The Mayan Riviera (sometimes called Riviera Maya) is composed of the area just south of the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. It stretches along 120 km (75 miles) of the Mexican Caribbean coastline in the southeastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. Weather is ideal, beautiful white sandy beaches, crystal clear blue waters make for a perfect vacation destination. Some marketers define the area to exclude Cancun because Cancun is more urban and has highly developed resorts that are densely clustered along the beach. Most destinations in the Mayan Rivera are smaller and sometimes more secluded. They include the seaside village of Puerto Morelos as well as places like Playa del Carmen, Puerto Aventuras, Akumal, and Tulum. The Mayan Riviera ends about midway down the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve where the Costa Maya continues south to the border of Belize.
The major cities of the Mayan Riviera are:
Along the Mayan Riviera you will find at least four Eco Theme Parks. In other countries, like the USA, parks like these are usually provided and maintained by the State. In Mexico, concessions are granted to commercial interests to develop, maintain and profit (commercial) from these enterprises. This does not make them any less attractive, and provides much needed employment. The parks are located in protected bays, usually with stone, rather than sand under the water, this is not uncomfortable and makes for very clear, blue water. These bays or inlets are somewhat shallow, but flushed on a regular basis by the tides, making for much cleaner water than you find around resorts or municipal areas. You can rent snorkel equipment, inner tubes, rafts and such. These parks are excellent places to take a break from a day of exploring or driving in this warmer climate. Fish are plentyful and can be seen all around you. Avoid being in the middle of a feeding frenzy when someone buys and throws fish food into the water. Using Cheese Whiz works well, but brings in bigger fish, who may nip at the fingers, so count that idea out.
The first three parks below (Xcaret, Zel-Ha and Xplor) belong to the same company. Expect entrance fees around $100, more if you want to include the most exciting attractions or the evening show. Discounts can be had if you buy multi-park packages.
- Xcaret. Set in a beautiful bayside location, this eco-archaeological park focuses on Mayan culture, with a restored Mayan archaeological site, traditional dance shows and a recreation of a Mayan village. The park has a host of other attractions as well, including a jaguar exhibit, a deer refuge, a regional wildlife farm, butterfly breeding facilities, a coral aquarium, a marine turtle conservation program, a wide range of flora, and opportunities for swimming and snorkeling.
- Xel-Ha is an ecological theme park or natural aquarium. Here you can swim with dolphins, see sea turtles, bicycle, snorkel, cliff-dive, and scuba. If you choose to scuba you will get to pet stingrays and see larger fish. This park is quite large, so bring good shoes to walk up river, you bag your dry belongings and they will be driven back to the main area. There is a buffet restaurant and free drinks as part of the park entry-fee, as well as snorkel equipment and rafts.
- Xplor. This nature park has a number of limestone caves, grottos and underground rivers for exploring on foot, on rafts, in amphibious vehicles, or by swimming. There are also some above-ground adventures to be had, including a 2.9-km-long adventure (1.8 mi) whizzing you through the trees on 11 ziplines.
- Aviario Xaman-Ha is a beautiful Aviary where you will find different species, not just birds, other animal species like the butterflies, iguanas, turtles and small mammals. The animals and plants that live here are in their natural habitat and they live in semi-captivity. There are endemic, threatened and endangered species.
- Tres Rios Nature Park is an ecological park in the Riviera Maya located inside the Hacienda Tres Rios Resort where three rivers converge and flow into the Caribbean Sea. The eco-friendly environment stretches across 132 ha (326 acres) of lowland jungles and subtropical mangroves. The nature park is an untainted and protected nature reserve that offers tourist the opportunity to kayak, snorkel, swim, bicycle and dive, while interacting and connecting with nature in unique and uncultivated ways.
- Tulum is the most popular Mayan site along the Mayan Riviera site with a beautiful seaside location
- Coba is the largest Mayan site in the region, it is a few miles west of Tulum
- San Gervasio is a small site on the island of Cozumel
- Muyil is a small site in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve
Due to the construction of Cancún International Airport, this has become a popular and fairly inexpensive area to visit. You can fly in, pick up a car and explore the Yucatán Peninsula very easily. Most who visit the Mayan Riviera are staying at all inclusive resorts and are transferred from the airport to the resort along this path by bus or shuttle to their accommodations. It is a wonderful place for families or single visitors to visit. Tourism is the main industry and visitors are treated very well (almost too well). If you never leave the resort, you will likely be quite happy. If you choose to explore, it is a 120-km (75-mile) road, so be home by dark.
The official language is Spanish, like in the rest of the country. In the tourist areas, many locals also speak English, and some others French, German and Italian, as this area receives tourism from those places. However, some locals trace their heritage to the Mayans who settled the area before the arrival of the Spanish. The present-day Mayans tend to live inland and speak little Spanish. Mayan languages are very much still alive and even people in the tourist industry of Mayan heritage may speak them. While trying to speak a few words of one of these languages will certainly impress people, they invariably also speak Spanish and are just as happy to converse in that language with you.
The nearest international airport to the Mayan Riviera is Cancún International Airport (CUN IATA), the second busiest airport in Mexico. The airport receives international flyers from most large Western Hemisphere airports and several major European gateways, though there are no non-stop flights to Asia or Australia.
A more convenient airport for many parts of the Mayan Riviera is the new Tulum International Airport (TQO IATA), which opened in December 2023. It is initially serving only domestic flights but international flights are expected to begin in early 2024.
Travelers to Playa del Carmen or the southern end of the Mayan Riviera may find it convenient to fly to Cozumel Intnernational Airport (CZM IATA). High-speed ferries connect the island of Cozumel to the Playa del Carmen on the mainland.
Once you arrive, you have a few options to get to your destination. There are several rental car agencies at the airport, or you get a taxi from the airport. (It's a good idea to agree upon a fare inside the airport terminal with one of the taxi providers, before heading out to an individual taxi.) There are also private transportation services that can be pre-booked directly, or that your hotel can help arrange. There is also service from the bus company ADO, which will be the cheapest option. (Check ahead of your flight to ensure bus timetables match your arrival / departure times, as they can be limited.) ADO buses serve all four terminals in the Cancun airport.
While Mexico boasts among the most comfortable buses in the world, a long distance bus ride from Mexico City to Yucatan, while possible, won't be much cheaper than a flight. However, if you are already anywhere in the Yucatan Peninsula, taking a bus becomes the vastly preferable option. ADO is the largest bus operator in the region with stations in Cancun, the Cancun Airport, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum.
Quintana Roo is a major focus area for the new Tren Maya intercity rail service. The railway's largest station is Cancún International Airport. Other stations along the Mayan Riviera will open in early 2024, these include Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Tickets and information about services are available on the official Tren Maya web site.
The major cities, such as Cancun and Playa del Carmen offer many car rental agencies. North American drivers will feel at home on the road here, despite some drivers' quirks. For example, on the main two-lane highway along the Riviera, it is common courtesy for slower drivers to pull over onto the shoulder to let faster drivers pass.
Rent a car at the Cancun airport. Playa del Carmen is roughly 45 minutes from the airport. Tulum is another 45 minutes. After passing through Playa del Carmen, the main highway (Rte 307) turns from a modern 4-lane highway into a "two and a half" lane highway. There are two regular lanes and an extra-wide shoulder to allow slower vehicles to pull over to let faster vehicles pass.
From the city of Tulum, the Boca Paiala road provides access to the beach-side hotels and areas further south, such as Punta Allen. This dirt road, if not freshly resurfaced, has massive potholes (commonly wider than a car). It is passable with a VW bug or a scooter, but the trip will be much more arduous than if travelled with a Jeep or other SUV/truck.
By collective van
Many collectivos (also called combis or peseros) run between the major cities and offer cheap transportation for local workers and budget-minded tourists. The collectivos run between the major cities like Cancun, Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. The thing to remember is that none go directly from one extreme to the other. If you are in Puerto Morelos (in the north) and you want to go to Tulum (in the south) you will go out to the southbound side of the highway and wait for the collective that will take you to Playa del Carmen and then change to another collectivo to get to Tulum (or Felipe Carillo Puerto). There are direct collectivos to go from Cancun to Playa del Carmen, or Playa del Carmen to Tulum, and of course the reverse. The collectivos stop frequently along the way to pick up and drop off passengers so a trip can take twice as long as a direct bus.
From the bus stations you can find first class bus service from bus station to bus station as well as limited bus service to the Cancun International Airport. ADO is one of the largest national providers of first class and luxury bus transportation and they are the major bus company in the Yucatan region. ADO has routes from Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, and Tulum to most major cities, including Merida, Chetumal, and Mahajual. Travel within the region is frequently on the Mayab or Oriente bus lines, which are often just as new and comfortable as the first-class ADO buses. Mayab and Oriente are owned by ADO and buses depart from ADO bus terminals.
- Mayan ruins at Tulum - right next to a beach where you can swim. While many people just go to the beach and do nothing else. A Mayan museum is in Cancun. Coba is the largest Maya site in the Mayan Riviera.
- Cenotes (Karst caves with underground rivers and lakes). There are hundreds of these in the Mayan Riviera and Puerto Morelos is the start of an official itinerary called the Ruta de Cenotes that visits several of them.
- Mesoamerican Reef is the second largest reef in the world. It lies just off shore along the entire Mayan Riviera. Dive shops offer scuba and snorkeling trips to see the reefs.
- Rio Secreto, discover one of the most incredible natural marvels found in the Riviera Maya. Rio Secreto is an underground labyrinth of endless passageways formed by ageless geological processes. Be transformed by this ancient, magical subterranean world that until now has remained unexplored for millions of years.
- Snorkeling , A popular activity and many beach-side dive shops rent equipment for US$7-10. Even though all beaches in Mexico are public, some require fees to enter and use the facilities. Beaches with a rocky limestone shoreline on the west coast are the best for snorkeling or shore dives, less sand is disturbed and so visibility and coral growth are better.
- Kitesurfing, Kitesurf the beaches of Tulum in Playa Paraiso and Puerta del Cielo, also Playa del Carmen at the Sandos Playacar and Coco Beach.
The Mayan Riviera is filled with all-inclusive hotels where the types of food varies from day to day, but you can count on a variety of international dishes from Italian, Argentine, and Continental as well as local Mexican dishes. There is nothing like getting out and tasting the local flavors, which you won't get in the all-inclusive hotel restaurants. Yucatan has a cuisine all its own and of course cities like Playa Del Carmen or Cancun enjoy a melting pot of both Mexican and International cultures who each bring their own flavors to their restaurants. You can find intimate restaurants with French or Italian cuisine dotting the city as well as Argentine steakhouses, and almost everywhere you will find typical American foods as well as Mexican food.
Beer is by far the most popular drink in the Mayan Riviera and there are several small artesanal craft breweries that can satisfy a traveler's taste for robust, full-flavored beers. New brewpubs open regularly and keeping a complete list up-to-date would be difficult, but here are a few of the local craft beers to start your beer-hunting journey:
- Cerveceria Tulum (in Tulum on MEX 307 at km 230) - mostly light-bodied ales including a golden ale, pale ale, and brown ale
- Cerveceria Akumal (in Playa del Carmen at Calle 38 y Av. 1) - hop-heads will enjoy the IPA and probably the American pale ale too, though their English robust porter is the maltiest and tastiest of the bunch
- Puerto Juarez Brewery (in Cancun at Puerto Juarez waterfront, Calle 51 #85) - Couple different IPAs, a lighter golden ale and a sour saison, seasonal offerings may vary
- Chela de Playa (in Playa del Carmen at E Nte. 17, Mundo Hábitat) - Microbrewery (not a brewpub) with hippie atmosphere and an assortment of ales, from IPA to a light poundable wheat beer
The traditional beers of the entire Yucatan peninsula are Montejo and Leon, both brewed by Modelo in the Yucatan. Montejo is a basic light lager and Leon (also known as Negra Leon or Leon Negra) is an amber colored lager that Texans will find similar to Shiner Bock. Not exactly bold, but they don't offend mainstream drinkers.
There are three liquers that you'll find along the Mayan Riviera that you may not be able to find elsewhere. All are worth trying if you run across them:
- Balche - unusual drink found only in the Yucatan, made from melipona honey and the bark of the balché tree (Lonchocarpus violaceus). Used by the Maya for ceremonial rituals.
- Xtabentun - unusual drink that is worth seeking out because it's generally not exported. Traditional Mayan liquer made from xtabentum honey and flavored with anise. The Mayans say it has hallucinogenic properties, but they're probably just trying to sell more Xtabnetun.
- Kalani - coconut and rum liquer that's typically blended in cocktails
The majority of the swimming is done at pools located at the resorts. If you venture into the water along the shore, be prepared for large waves and rip-tides. It is not uncommon for there to be no lifeguards at the beach. The eco-parks tend to have better areas for one to swim, unless you prefer a pool. They are located in sheltered bays, with clear, clean water.
You should take care when driving: you will be sharing the road with cars, trucks, cattle and people. Take care and use caution and you should be fine. Driving after dark is a bad idea. Too many ways to have problems! The Policia are friendly, treat them with respect. Plan on being stopped at state borders and your vehicle may be searched. Just go along with it. The Federal Police patrol the area and they are a serious bunch. Be polite with them and do not photograph them, any military vehicles or establishments.
Due to problems in the past, spring breakers are not the favorite visitors with law enforcement. Don't push their buttons. Behave like an adult and you will have few problems. Behave like a drunken fool, and you may regret it, for a long time. Same goes for most places.