So you’ve booked a trip to Cancun or Playa del Carmen… Now What?!
No doubt that as you start to plan your trip to the Riviera Maya you’re overwhelmed with the possibilities of what to do while you’re there. From cenotes (what even IS that?!) to adventure parks… Snorkeling to ruins sites… I’m sure you’ve come across many suggestions in your searches. But when every site is trying to get you to sign up for a guided tour, it’s hard to know what you can fit into your schedule AND your budget! Here is a list of 12 things that I highly recommend as some of the best Riviera Maya excursions. After living here for the better part of a year I’ve managed to do almost everything in the area, so here are my best suggestions:
The Best Riviera Maya Excursions
1. Swim in a cenote. Or 5.
A cenote is is a natural sinkhole that was created by the collapse of bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. The water in these sinkholes is typically very clear, thanks to the filtering the groundwater goes through before it reaches the pooling area.
There are 6000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula alone, so there are a TON to choose from around Playa del Carmen and Cancun! Visiting a cenote is one of our favourite Riviera Maya excursions, so it sits at the top of this list!
I recommend cenotes Azul, Cristalino and Jardin del Eden. They’re all side by side, 15 minutes south of Playa, halfway between Playa and Akumal. If you’re up for a bit more of a drive, head down to Tulum and 10 min west you’ll find Grand Cenote and Cenote Zacil-Ha. Cenote Dos Ojos is another awesome choice, especially if you’re a snorkeler.
2. Swim with turtles at Akumal.
This is a pretty ‘must-do’ activity here in terms of Riviera Maya excursions. Bring your own equipment or rent it there from the dive shop. You can also see a variety of fish, and maybe even a sting ray or sea urchin!
Caution: Do not pay for a commercial tour, and DO NOT touch the turtles. In recent months there has been an increased presence of ‘tour guides’ on shore insisting visitors need to pay for a guide and snorkel equipment in order to be allowed in the water. This is not true, and just a way for locals to swindle some money from tourists. Just ignore them and keep walking a bit down the beach! They stick right at the entrance to the public beach, so once you get past them, you’ll have no issues. Also be aware that you will be asked to move if you set up directly in front of the adult only all inclusive resorts. While all beaches in Mexico are public property, these resorts do have security keeping watch that beach-goers don’t get too close to their guests or beach beds.
3. Go to Isla Mujeres for a daytrip
Isla Mujeres is a beautiful island in the Riviera Maya, just off the coast of Cancun. You can pay for a tour that includes snorkeling, drinks and food, or you can take yourself over on the ferry. Both are amazing experiences, so it really doesn’t matter which you choose, as long as you get over there!
I will say, the sunset on the island is amazing, and Playa Norte deserves some time. So I might lean a bit more towards taking yourself there, just so you can experience these without being rushed.
HOWEVER.. The catamaran tour is an AMAZING day if you prefer a ‘done for you’ experience.
Here’s a breakdown of our experiences on Isla Mujeres, to help you decide which one of these Riviera Maya excursions suits your group best!
4. Spend an Evening at Parque las Palapas in Cancun
If you want authentic Mexican food and culture, this is the place to find it. Parque las Palapas can’t really be described. Just know you HAVE to check it out! Go hungry!
Any night of the week is great here. They are open during the day, but nighttime is when the park gets hopping.
FYI: no alcohol is served here, so if you’ll want an *adult beverage* be sure to bring a couple with you.
5. Go to Bacalar
Bacalar is 3 hours south of Playa del Carmen, in the Southern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. You’ll need at least one night there, but I recommend 2 or 3 to really get the most of the area.
Known as the Lagoon of 7 Colours, Laguna Bacalar is a fresh water lake that is absolutely worth a visit. Kayak the crystal clear waters, or hire a boat to take you around.
Visit the 120m deep Black Cenote or the giant Cenote Azul. Hang out at the pirate ship, or the cocalitos.
After an afternoon the water head into town for a delicious pizza and cheap drinks at El Meson del Pirata (the Pirate Hostel) on the square and enjoy lunch with a view at Kai Pez to take advantage of their dock for an afternoon swim.
6. Visit ruins
Probably the most well known Riviera Maya excursions would be to one of the many ruins in the area. Tulum, Chichen Itza, Ek Balam and Coba are all great daytrips within the Riviera Maya. Tulum is only an hour from Playa, the others are 1.5-2 hours away.
The pyramids at Ek Balam and Coba can be climbed, which makes for an awesome adventure. Chichen Itza and Tulum don’t allow any climbing, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting to visit.
Hop on a colectivo to see Tulum, or an ADO to see the other 3. For a small ruins site head to the El Rey ruins in the Cancun hotel zone.
Here’s a post about cheap day trips from Playa del Carmen and Cancun, where I mention a couple of these ruins.
7. Visit Valladolid
Valladolid is the oldest town in the Yucatan Peninsula. It has a wonderful charm and beautiful architecture. You can spend an hour or 2 walking Calzada de los Friales to see the colourful buildings and get a tour about chocolate production (with samples!).
Be sure to visit the square and have some snacks from street vendors and look at some wares from Mayan ladies while viewing the beautiful architecture of the San Servacio Cathedral.
Visit a Tequila distillery, or one of the surrounding cenotes. Or stop in to Cenote Zaci, just a few blocks from the town square.
8. Go to Puerto Morelos for a day
This is a beautiful little fishing village halfway between Playa del Carmen and Cancun. A nice, relaxed place to spend an afternoon, and probably the best place to snorkel the reef. You can hire a boat for around $300mx per person, and they include a mask, snorkel and flippers.
Stick around until 7:30 to see the pastry van circle the square- my favourite! Head down to the small craft market on Av Javier Rojo Gomez to see some local vendors and pick up some souvenirs!
9. Visit some beautiful Beaches
Punta Esmeralda and Xpu-ha are 2 of the nicest around Playa del Carmen. But if you need something walking distance, Playacar beach is the one to hit in town.
In Cancun, Playa Delfines is our favourite.
Bring a cooler with some drinks and snacks and make a day of it!
10. Lagoon Yal-ku
For the snorkeling nut, this is the place to go! It’s not especially cheap (around $300mx last I saw) to get in, but if you’re going to spend the day it’s a beautiful spot to do that. Bring some snacks and drinks to help offset the cost to get in.
Bring your own equipment, or rent it there.
11. Rio Lagartos & the Pink beach of Los Coloradas
This beautiful piece of the Yucatan is about 3 hours away from Playa and Cancun, so you’ll want to spend at least a night. Especially since the boat tour of Rio Lagartos is best first thing in the morning, when the Ria is just waking up. This is where you’ll get to see a flock of flamingos having breakfast!
After the tour, head 20 min east to see the pink lakes of Los Colorados.
I recommend Hotel Tabasco Rio for a cheap and comfortable stay! This was one of our absolute favourite Riviera Maya excursions in all of the time we’ve spent here, so do try to add it to your itinerary!
12. Eat in Playa
If there’s one thing I’d have to pick as my favourite thing in Playa del Carmen, it would definitely be the selection of food!! From tacos to tortas, Mexican to Middle Eastern to German. Selection is top notch here!
See my blog posts on Where to Eat in Playa to get some ideas!
I hope this list gives you some ideas for what Riviera Maya excursions to plan for your visit here! If you’ve done anything awesome that you think should be included, leave a comment and let me know!
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