Guide: Explore the Riviera Maya in Mexican Caribbean

Situated at the eastern end of the Yucatan Peninsula, the Riviera Maya is a tourist destination like no other in the world. Find out why.

Guide: Explore the Riviera Maya in Mexican Caribbean
A beach scene in Playa del Carmen that forms part of the Mexican Riviera Maya. Photo by Rajiv Perera / Unsplash

Mexico, famous for its tourist, historical and cultural attractions, welcomes the world to the Riviera Maya. Located at the eastern end of the Yucatan Peninsula, the Riviera Maya is a tourist destination like no other in the world. The most beautiful sea in the world, the Caribbean, stretches to the horizon and its incredible turquoise waters caress the bright white sand of a long stretch of beach.

During the last decades, the northern part of the peninsula has been the object of intense tourist development, mainly in the city of Cancun, one of the destinations with the greatest impact around the globe. Heading south, leaving behind the luxurious hotels and shopping malls, another world opens up: the towns are small, there are fewer tourists and virgin and solitary beaches of sparkling white sand abound.

The world's second-largest barrier reef, the Great Mayan Reef, runs along the coast and lush jungle surrounds beaches and towns. In this stretch of the Mexican Caribbean, full of exotic animals flying or peeking through the branches, there are multiple sites to explore.

A complex system of subway rivers, unique in the world, flows beneath your feet and surprises you with its magical cenotes, caverns, and caves. There are also hundreds of archaeological remains of the millenary and incredible Mayan civilization and abundant and spectacular marine life.

Throughout the Riviera Maya, there are villages of different styles and sizes, each with its own particular personality.

This world is for those who seek closer contact with the natural world because here nature reigns. The Riviera Maya, from Punta Brava to Punta Allen, is a true explosion of colors and surprises. This magical place is also surrounded by sites of great interest such as Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, Holbox, Contoy, Palenque, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Guatemala, Cuba and Belize. For the convenience of visitors, there is an infinite number of travel agencies and tour operators that offer tours and facilities to visit them.

History of the Riviera Maya

What is now known as the Riviera Maya was an important commercial and religious center for the ancient Maya during the Postclassic period (1000-1550 A.D.). Tulum, a fortress on the shores of the Caribbean, is the most impressive archaeological site left by this era, although there were other important towns such as Xaman-Há (present-day Playa del Carmen), Xcaret (known as the port of Pole by the Maya) and Xel Há, the first European settlement on the peninsula. Inland is Cobá, which reached 50,000 inhabitants during the Classic period (300-1000 A.D.).

Cozumel, 45 kilometers long and 16 kilometers wide, rests silently on the horizon in front of Playa del Carmen. This island was, during the Postclassic, a pilgrimage site to worship Ixchel, goddess of fertility. There are several archaeological sites along the coast, evidence of buildings built to accommodate pilgrims.

Tulum, a fortress on the shores of the Caribbean, is the most impressive archaeological site left by this era.

The Riviera Maya was still a busy trade route when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, although the great and impressive Classic cities (Chichén Itzá and Uxmal in the state of Yucatán and Cobá in Quintana Roo) had already been abandoned, mainly due to wars and conquests. During the following three centuries, under Spanish colonial rule, the jungle, piracy, and the difficult access by sea for large European vessels prevented significant demographic growth in this region, causing a long period of abandonment.

Riviera Maya Main Attractions

Along the Riviera Maya, you can enjoy a wide variety of activities such as windsurfing, sport fishing, horseback riding, kayaking, or a secluded beach in full contact with nature. The Great Mayan Reef, a coral reef of unparalleled beauty and the second largest in the world, is famous among diving and snorkeling enthusiasts.

There are specialized dive stores that offer courses for all levels and tours, both to the reef and the so-called cenotes or subway rivers. The cenotes are "breathers" of subway rivers, formed thousands of years ago when the earth that covered them weakened and fell. They are of different sizes and depths and have crystalline, calm, and refreshing water. Considered sacred by the Maya and usually located in the middle of lush jungle, these bodies of water tend to be an ideal place for swimming and snorkeling.

The Great Mayan Reef is a coral reef of unparalleled beauty and the second largest in the world.

The entrance and exit of the river to the cenote often leads to a cavern, which, depending on its shape, resembles an immense cathedral or a tunnel, with fossils of marine animals, as well as hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites of different thickness and size ranging from less than a meter to /8 meters long. The person who ventures into this incredible world will feel as if he were flying in space: the current is almost imperceptible, there is no movement, no noise, and no sensation of weight, gravity, or resistance. Unlike diving in the sea, the visibility seems to be infinite; the water is crystal clear and with the entrance of light from the cenote, the environment acquires an intense blue color.

In this region, there is also two parks ideal for a day of adventure. Xcaret is an eco-archeological amusement park that offers an impressive variety of activities, from floating along subway rivers or swimming with dolphins, to enjoying cultural events at night. Xel-Há, further south, is a magnificent natural aquarium where the favorite sports are snorkeling and swimming. To the south is the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, which offers an opportunity to explore mangrove swamps, and ancient Mayan canals or stroll through an animal-filled and almost untouched jungle. The Riviera Maya is at the heart of the fascinating Mayan World and there is a multitude of tours to the most important cities of this millenary civilization such as Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba, Uxmal, and Tikal, among the most important.


The average annual temperature of the region is 26 C (79 F) with fluctuations of 5 to 7 degrees. In July, August, and September you can see spectacular changes in the sky, from totally cloudy to intense sunshine, in minutes. The months between November and April are characterized by clear skies and fresh northerly winds.


Temperature changes in this area are minimal, so it is recommended that visitors bring clothing for warm weather and beachwear: light clothing and a pair of sandals are ideal. For visits to archaeological sites, it is recommended to bring rubber comfort shoes and for walks in the jungle, boots, long-sleeved shirts, and pants. From November to January a sweater or light jacket is recommended for the evening,


Mexico's official currency is the peso, but most establishments in this area accept dollars. Some of the smaller businesses do not accept credit cards, so it is best to travel with some cash or traveler's checks. In Playa del Carmen there are exchange houses, banks, and ATMs, where international credit card withdrawals can be made. The other larger towns have exchange houses.


There are two main roads in the Riviera Maya. One is coastal and goes all the way to Tulum and then continues southwest and the other runs between Tulum and Coba. On the coastal road, the visitor can find many accesses to the sea or the jungle. These can range from sidewalks to paved streets and often lead to secluded beaches, beautiful cenotes, or hidden restaurants.

There are several transportation options from the airport to the Riviera Maya. Rent-a-cars, cabs, collective services, and private transportation from hotels. An economical and comfortable option is the buses that leave from the terminal in Cancun. Transportation between towns and beaches in the region is also easy. Buses run between Cancun and Tulum every hour and stop at places of interest.

There are bus terminals in Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Car rental companies, cabs, and travel agencies are also easy to find. For trips to more distant places, small planes are departing from Playa del Carmen and ferries that make regular runs to the Mexican Caribbean islands from either Playa del Carmen or Calica.


It is always advisable to make reservations in advance since the Riviera Maya can surprise us with full house reservations at different times of the year,

Food and beverages

The variety of options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the Riviera Maya is impressive. In the larger towns, you will find the possibility of tasting Mexican, Italian, German, Japanese, Argentinean, vegetarian, and Thai dishes. Tropical fruit water, such as pineapple, mango, and papaya, as well as juices of a variety of flavors, are found in almost every restaurant. Riviera Maya coffee, either espresso or Americano, is the best in Mexico and is easy to find. Bottled water, the safest option for everyone, is sold in all stores and is provided in most hotels.


International telephone service, internet, Wi-Fi, or telephone offices offering personalized service and fax service are available in all Riviera Maya towns. The international code for Mexico is (52) and for the Riviera Maya is (987). There are also international courier and express mail services in the larger towns.

Beaches of the Riviera Maya

Playa del Secreto and Playa Paraíso, which are separated by a strait of approximately 5 kilometers (3 miles), are extensive and beautiful beaches where there are small communities of private homes, and in Playa Paraíso, all-inclusive hotels with solar and wind electricity. They have basic services such as water, electricity, and telephone. These are still preferred nesting sites for sea turtles, endangered species, and crabs.

Between Punta Maroma and Punta Beté lies one of the surprises of this part of the Mexican Caribbean coast. A river of fresh, cold, and crystalline water leaves its subway path to reach the surface and flow quickly to the sea, where the current mixes with the saltwater, creating a small unique ecosystem. On both sides of the bay, there are beautiful hotels with all the amenities.

Xcalacoco or "twin coconuts", allied to Punta Beté, is a paradise for those who like camping. It has small restaurants with fresh fish, public showers, a small archaeological site, rustic lodging, and solar electric current. Palm trees offer cool shade during the day. For groceries, Playa del Carmen is only a 20-minute drive away.

Playa del Carmen

The largest city on the Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen, with approximately 305,000 inhabitants, no longer retains the air of a small fishing village. Until many years ago Playa, as it is commonly called, was known only as of the starting point for the ferry to Cozumel. Gradually, people discovered its long stretches of secluded beaches, the calm turquoise waters, protected from the current by Cozumel, and an eclectic and unique atmosphere.

Soon this community became one of the most popular tourist destinations south of Cancun. Many travelers stayed, creating a cosmopolitan and international town where you can find Mexicans, Europeans, South Americans, and North Americans, mostly young and enterprising, who have contributed to the development of the gastronomy and aesthetics of the place.

Almost all of Playa's activity revolves around 5th Avenue, one block from the beach, which, for the most part, is pedestrian-only. Here you can feel the mix of nationalities and characters that give this town its unique profile. On this street, you will find cafes, international restaurants, Mexican and international handicraft stores, travel agencies, dive stores, and just about anything a tourist could need.

Entertainers, such as musicians, traditional dancers, and mimes, are a characteristic facet of this avenue. A meeting place for both locals and tourists, the 5th is the best place to feel and know the special atmosphere of Playa, while enjoying an exotic tropical cocktail, a delicious espresso coffee, an exquisite dinner, or the simple Caribbean beat of the street.

On 5th Avenue, which is pedestrian and one block from the beach, you can feel the mix of nationalities and characters that give this city its unique profile.

In the heart of the city, you will find relatively small hotels (from 2 to 50 rooms). Some are located on the seashore, with an incredible view of the blue waters of the Caribbean, although all of them enjoy their proximity. In addition to giving their facilities characteristic touches that differentiate them from each other, such as hand-painted walls, a hammock in the garden, or beautiful handicrafts as decoration.

To the south, five minutes from 5th Avenue, there is a completely different Playa del Carmen: the exclusive resort of Playacar. This subdivision was built to provide comfort within a tropical paradise and in its cobblestone streets, we find houses, villas, and apartments for rent with all the amenities, renowned hotels, tennis courts, and an 18-hole golf course.

The attraction of Playacar is also its small archaeological remains, of which there are more than 100. For the Mayas, the site currently occupied by Playa del Carmen and its surroundings was known as Xaman-Háo "Waters of the North" and was the main meeting point for the trip to Cozumel to worship the goddess Ixchel. Pilgrims probably came from far away to rest here before setting out on their journey to the largest island in the Mexican Caribbean. To the north is another facet of Playa: long stretches of secluded beaches where visitors will find a few hotels, beach clubs, and restaurants.

As for nightlife, Playa is highly diverse. In the city's bars, you can find all kinds of music, from reggae, rock, salsa, and jazz to techno or African drums, as well as an incredible variety of characters of all nationalities. Some of the larger hotels also offer a variety of nightly shows. Although the real attraction of Playa is Playa itself, there are many places to visit both within the city and in the surrounding areas.

Xaman-Há Aviary

This aviary, within the Playacar development, has 1.8 hectares of tropical rainforest and more than 200 birds of 60 different species.

Sacbé Caverns

One of the most beautiful caverns on the peninsula, filled with stalactites and stalagmites found both in the vault and underwater. There are swimming and snorkeling facilities and a waterless cavern for meditation and yoga.


Just a five-minute drive from Playa del Carmen is Xcaret, a beautiful and fun eco-archaeological park with two rivers (one subway and one that runs on the surface), a lagoon, cenotes, one of the most beautiful bays of the Riviera Maya, and many archaeological remains, because five centuries ago, Xcaret or Pole (as it was known by the Mayas) was a port where an intense maritime trade with other Caribbean peoples took place.

A full day is required to enjoy the wide variety of activities at Xcaret, such as swimming with dolphins, where interaction with these fascinating animals is encouraged in a small lagoon very similar to their natural habitat, snorkeling in a subway river, horseback riding through the park, and diving tours in the bay or on the reef.


Xcaret's impressive aquarium is divided into six sections; each one corresponds to a different ecosystem.


This cultural center contains 19 scale models of the most important pyramids of the Mayan civilization.


There are several places to observe animals in their natural habitat: an aviary, a jaguar and puma island, a flamingo island, a spider monkey island, a bat cave, and a butterfly house.

Botanical Garden

The botanical garden is a beautiful and educational experience with over 100 types of trees and an orchid garden.

Mayan Village

In this small village, there are traditional houses with palapa roofs decorated with handicrafts, hammocks, and typical implements. You can also see the native Mayans with their traditional colorful clothing.

Xcaret By Night

Nightlife at Xcaret, with traditional dancing and singing by torchlight, is famous throughout the Riviera Maya.


Paamul is a romantic bay, very close to the reef, ideal for a quiet and relaxing time. Although it is known as a camping site, there is also a hotel with all the amenities and some private houses. It has basic facilities and services such as electricity, water, a restaurant that offers the catch of the day, Mexican food, as well as dive stores. Paamul is one of the beaches where sea turtles come to lay their eggs. This occurs mostly during the nights between May and July.


Calica is a large international dock where cruise ships dock and a car ferry leaves for Cozumel Island. It has two tourist terminals, one national and one international, both with cab service, cafeterias, restaurants, internet, and public restrooms.

Puerto Aventuras

Puerto Aventuras was the first tourist development built in the Riviera Maya. Today it is a discreet, exclusive, and beautiful development; one of the favorite places for those looking to relax in comfortable tranquility. The center of town is a marina, full of boats and surrounded by restaurants, cafes, craft stores, bakeries, and a small bookstore. In front, an islet completes this paradisiacal landscape.

Puerto Aventuras has both a well-distributed residential area and hotels with all the amenities by the sea. Despite its refined surroundings, the town has the atmosphere of a small community, with friendly and unassuming people.

The exquisite food in this beautiful beachside resort is known throughout the Riviera Maya. One of the most famous activities in Puerto Aventuras is the fishing tournament held in May. The Cultural and Polyreligious Center, unique in the Riviera Maya, is another interesting aspect of this resort. The marina is the main attraction, however, there are other sites worth visiting.

Sunken Ships Museum

In this museum, there are objects rescued from a large number of ships from different periods that sank along this coast so dangerous for navigation along the reef.


Xpu-há is a large and beautiful bay with calm waters and good visibility. The seven roads leading to this small town of hotels, restaurants, and dive stores are all in good condition. To the north of the bay you will find Cenote Manatí, one of the largest in the region, and the Xpu-há cove where, according to the story, you can still see some manatees, an endangered species, and on the opposite side of the road, you can visit two beautiful cenotes.


Kantenah is another of the region's beautiful beaches, with a quiet atmosphere, full of palm trees, and very close to the coral reef.


This small town, one of the most tranquil places in the Riviera Maya, has been visited by people from all over the world who prefer a life of seclusion and calm. Akumal or "place of the turtles" is still one of the favorite places for sea turtles and is ideal for a honeymoon or people looking for a haven full of peace and tranquility. With hotels, private homes, and condos for rent, Akumal offers visitors all the amenities, including restaurants with international specialties.

In Akumal, there is an ecological center, which has helped to strengthen ecological awareness in this village. This center is both a research site and a community center and offers various workshops such as African dance, painting, yoga, and Mayan embroidery. North of Akumal is the Yalkú Lagoon, a beautiful lagoon with crystal clear waters and an outlet to the sea. To the south of the town, is a development of condominiums for rent by the sea.

Chemuyil and Xcacel

The bays of Chemuyil and Xcacel are favorites of locals and tourists alike. Chemuyil is a beautiful bay with soft white sand bathed by the Caribbean and surrounded by lush and beautiful jungle. It has a comfortable restaurant and excellent seafood and fresh fish dishes. The waters are shallow and have excellent visibility, making it an ideal place for children. There are camping facilities and a fully equipped hotel.

Xcacel is also one of the favorite places for sea turtles and for the care and preservation of these fascinating animals a camp was established. With its bright white sand, calm waters, and tranquil atmosphere, Xcacel is the perfect place to spend a peaceful afternoon. To the south; a cenote completes and perfects the landscape of this special corner of the Caribbean. There are camping facilities and a small restaurant with excellent regional food.


Xel-Ha, or "Place where the water is born" is one of the magical places of the Riviera Maya. It is an incredible natural cove where the waters of the sea mix with the fresh currents of the springs and subway rivers forming an incredible and unique ecosystem, with numerous islets and a constant flow of small bubbles that bubble up from the subsoil.

In this spectacular creation of nature, there is a lush jungle, caves, cenotes, and archaeological sites. Along the banks of both the river and the lagoon, there is a proliferation of roots that stretch and tangle underwater forming a labyrinth of paths and hiding places where thousands of fish of 24 different species and a myriad of colors glide and play.

Archaeological sites

Xel-Ha is a site rich in history and in addition to visiting an ancient wall of this ancient Mayan port, you can find vestiges of altars to Yum Chac, the god who manifested himself in the form of water in the cenotes, lagoons, or coves.


One of the attractions that are hard to ignore is the elegant and noisy macaws. Bred in Xel-Ha, they are extremely friendly and accustomed to humans.


The archaeological site of Tulum is one of the most impressive in the Mayan World. Built on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, it was, during the Postclassic period (1000-1500 A.D.), a center where products were traded and transported from other towns in the Caribbean and central Mexico. There are more than 60 well-preserved structures within the wall surrounding the site.

The most important is the Castillo, which has on its top a temple with two rooms and serpent columns. There is a wonderful beach next to the site where one can refresh oneself after exploring the pyramids. The small town, about a kilometer to the south, surprises the visitor with its international atmosphere given by people who have come from other parts of the world in search of a quiet paradise that they have found here.

There are comfortable hotels, rooms for rent, and restaurants with varied food. The hotel zone of this site is another wonder for those seeking peace and tranquility. There are few hotels on this stretch of beach of more than 10 kilometers, usually very far apart.

Tulum hotels have electricity from a generator and some hotels have successfully incorporated solar energy systems. It is a perfect place for a romantic evening, either in a comfortable room or in a rustic wooden and palm hut. Tulum is also one of the most beautiful places to watch the sunrise over the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

Archaeological site

This is by far the main attraction of Tulum and no visitor to the Riviera Maya should miss the opportunity to visit it.


There are many cenotes near Tulum; most of them have been explored and their access is easy and safe. Among the most famous are the Calavera cenote, the Actun Há or "water cave" (popularly known as "Car Wash"), and the Gran Cenote (in Mayan SacActun or "white cave").


Cobá or "waters stirred by the wind" is one of the most important archaeological sites in the region. Built between two lakes during the Classic period (600-900 A.D.), it was once a very large city, with almost 50,000 inhabitants and an extension of more than 80 square kilometers. The main pyramid, Nohuch Mul or "big hill", at 42 meters high, is the tallest on the peninsula.

The pyramid known as the Church is second in size and from its top, there is a spectacular view of the Macanxoc Lagoon. The small town near the site offers all the amenities, such as hotels and restaurants, for visitors who want to spend the night in this interesting place. Further north is Punta Laguna, a lake famous for the abundance of spider monkeys and howler monkeys that inhabit the shores.

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, Boca Paila, and Punta Allen

Boca Paila and Punta Allen are located on a small peninsula within the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, an extensive protected area of 528,147 hectares in the center of the state of Quintana Roo, along the coast of which runs more than 100 kilometers of the Great Mayan Reef. The peninsula is the only part where there is limited tourism development, there are private homes and hotels, mainly sport fishing lodges.

Access is by road, power is provided by generators and solar panels, and drinking water is drawn from wells. The east coast of the peninsula faces the Caribbean while the west coast offers mangroves and Mayan canals. The approximately 600 inhabitants of the small town of Punta Allen, founded in the mid-20th century, depend mainly on lobster fishing. Visitors can find small family-run inns and a few rooms for rent inside the fishermen's houses.

There are also small stores, a small clinic, and a cab service. The attraction of Sian Ka'an is the natural environment. There are different ecosystems: rainforest, wetlands, savannah, and sea. In addition to numerous animals such as the jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay, jaguarundi, howler monkey, crocodiles, and more than 345 species of birds. Many hotels offer tours and there is also a civil association, which offers guided tours to limited groups of people with departures from Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen.