Moses Berkson

With buzzing towns like Tulum and Playa del Carmen and appealing resorts set along the white-sand coastline, Mexico’s 100-mile-long Riviera Maya has become a travel hot spot. T+L’s highly curated guide will help you navigate the area and plan the best vacation ever.

Laura Begley Bloom

Not so long ago, Mexico’s Riviera Maya didn’t even have a name. The area—which stretches for 100 miles along the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula—was just a string of small fishing villages. Soon, resorts began popping up by the dozen, sleepy Tulum became a yoga mecca, and once-scruffy Playa del Carmen started attracting shoppers and spring breakers. Mexico’s tourism agency branded the area the Riviera Maya, and a destination was born. Now, millions of travelers regularly descend upon this beachy getaway, which officially starts just south of Cancun and reaches all the way to Punta Allen inside the Biosphere Reserve of Sian Ka’an. But with so many locations to choose from, planning a trip here is no easy task. Here’s how to make the most of a vacation along Mexico’s most happening coastline.

Easiest Flight Routes

One advantage of traveling to this area is the airline access. With all the major carriers flying into Cancun (Delta, American, United, and so on), as well as direct flights from most major U.S. cities, getting here is easy and relatively affordable.

How Far in Advance to Book Tickets

As with any vacation destination, demand will dictate flight availability. According to research from airfare tracking website Hopper.com, because Cancun is a leisure route, prices tend to be more stable and often fall until seven days before departure, though the difference between booking 35 days in advance and 10 days in advance is $8. But all that goes out the window at peak times—Christmas, spring break—when being an early bird pays off.

Visa Policies

U.S. citizens visiting for less than 180 days don’t need a visa to enter Mexico. However, you will need to have a visitor’s permit, which can be obtained by filling out a form provided by your airline, travel agency, or at the point of entry in Mexico. Since 2007, a valid passport has been required to enter Mexico, whether you’re flying, driving, or arriving by cruise ship. Mexico requires that your passport be valid for at least 90 days following your departure date, but it’s a good idea to have six months’ validity on your passport at all times (not to mention unused passport pages for necessary stamps). 

Related: Playa del Carmen Travel Guide

Transportation Logistics

Most international flights to the Riviera Maya land at Cancun’s international airport, the second largest in Mexico. From there, most parts of the Riviera Maya are accessed by a highway that skirts the coast and links Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen. It is smart to have your hotel arrange transfers, since local taxis can not pick up passengers at the airport. Another option is to fly into the island of Cozumel and take the ferry over to Playa del Carmen. Throughout the Riviera Maya, taxis are readily available and reasonably priced, with fares set by the government. For instance, it costs $32 (640 pesos) to take a taxi from Playa del Carmen’s Quinta Avenida (“Fifth Avenue”) to Tulum, approximately 43 miles away. There’s also public transportation like buses and jitney-style vans. But most visitors who want to explore rent a car from the airport, where you’ll find brands like Avis and Thrifty and rentals as cheap as $30 a day. According to the U.S. State Department, U.S. driver's licenses are valid in Mexico, and Mexican insurance is required for rental vehicles (Mexican liability insurance is also recommended).

When to Go

During the Riviera Maya’s peak season—from the Christmas holidays through the end of March, you’ll experience sunny days and temperatures in the 70s and 80s. Like much of the Caribbean region, the Riviera Maya experiences a hot and rainy season that lasts from June through October, but that’s not a reason to avoid travel during this time period. This is also when you’ll find that hotels have more availability and prices are at their lowest. And while hurricanes are rare in this region, they have been known to impact the area; so travel insurance is a good idea, especially during hurricane season, which lasts from June through November.

What to Bring

When you’re coming to the Riviera Maya, you might think there’s little more to pack than a bathing suit and flip-flops. But with its jungles to discover, ruins to climb, and underwater worlds to explore, this slice of the Yucatan Peninsula is a dream for adventurers. So depending on what activities you have planned, you might want to bring hiking shoes, diving gear, and outdoor clothing. And while it’s rare, the Yucatan can sometimes have cool nights in winter, so it’s always smart to bring a sweater, just in case.

Related: Style Essentials For Every Beach Vacation

What to Do

• You can’t visit the Riviera Maya without exploring its ancient Mayan ruins. There are a number to choose from in the Riviera Maya. Tulum, with its pristine beachfront temples set on a 40-feet-high cliff overlooking the ocean, is easily accessible. For the more adventurous traveler, check out Cobá, a less manicured site deep in the jungle with the highest Mayan temple in the Yucatan Peninsula. (A fun way to explore: on a bike, which you can rent here.) Further afield is Chichén Itzá (see Great Day Trips).

• At the southernmost tip of the Riviera Maya is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Within this jungle paradise 20 minutes south of Tulum, you can check out archaeological sites, take a boat ride through a placid lagoon, explore savannas and dunes, and visit a Mayan community that has lived here since 600 B.C. The best way to see everything is on a tour with Visit Sian Ka’an, which offers nature encounters, fly-fishing expeditions, and more.

• The Riviera Maya has as much to discover under the water as above. The Great Maya Reef—the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and the second largest coral reef in the world—extends more than 600 miles from the top of the Yucatan Peninsula all the way down to Honduras. There are amazing spots for dining and snorkeling up and down the coast, but one of the best is at Puerto Morelos, where the reef is closest to the shore. Mexidivers can organize diving and snorkeling expeditions

• One not-to-miss experience in the Riviera Maya is swimming in a cenote, a natural sinkhole filled with water. Considered sacred places by the ancient Maya (cenote means “sacred well”), they are found throughout the region. Some of the top spots include Cenote Azul (known for its fresh turquoise water), Gran Cenote (go early to avoid the crowds), and Dos Ojos (where you can snorkel amid stalactites and stalagmites).

• Families love Xcaret, an eco-park where kids can interact with butterflies and spider monkeys, check out Mayan cultural exhibits, and swim along an underground river through a cave system. At the end of a visit, mom and dad might want to check out the artisanal wines at Xcaret's wine cellar.

Great Day Trips

• The Riviera Maya is home to several significant Mayan ruins, but for history buffs it is worth the trek to see Chichén Itzá, a sprawling location that has been named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. From Playa del Carmen, it takes over two hours to get this UNESCO World Heritage site that was once a thriving Mayan city.

© Roger Cracknell 01/classic / Alamy Stock Photo

• Near Chichén Itzá is a Spanish colonial town worth checking out: Valladolid, which would seem frozen in time were it not for its burgeoning fashion scene. Former Argentinian model Nicolas Malleville and his Italian fashion designer wife Francesca Bonato have started a veritable cottage industry of cool here with the Coqui Coqui perfumería and 16th century hotel, while German designer Ariane Dutzi sells handmade accessories at her shop Dutzi.

• On the west side of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mérida merits a day trip or even spending the night. (It’s a three-hour drive from Playa del Carmen.) This perfectly preserved Spanish colonial town has been discovered by artists, foodies, and hipsters in search of affordable housing and a cool expat community. Don’t miss the morning food market—the Mercado Lucas de Gálvez—or the modern Mexican cooking at Apoala.

• Just 12 miles off the coast is the island of Cozumel, which is reached by a 45-minute ferry from Playa del Carmen. Wander around the cobblestoned downtown, then hire a Jeep to explore. At just 10 miles wide and 29 miles long, it’s easy to get around. Head to the far side of the island, where thatched reggae bars line the rugged white-sand beach.

Tours and Tour Operators

• Whatever kind of experience you want to have in the Riviera Maya, Journey Mexico can plan it for you. Founded by travel expert Zachary Rabinor—a regular fixture on T+L’s A-List—Journey Mexico offers a number of set itineraries in the region, from swimming with whale sharks to visiting haciendas to exploring archaeological sites to family weekend escapes. Or have Journey Mexico design a custom trip that combines it all.

• Dedicated to sustainable travel, Alltournative specializes in eco-archaeological expeditions and works with Mayan communities. Have a healing session with a shaman, swim in an ancient cenote, or visit a local woman’s home. For travelers who really want to immerse themselves, Alltournative also offers longer trips like a Native Boot Camp, staying in tents.

• Want to go ATV’ing, dive into cenotes, or go zip-lining through the jungle? The adventure outfitter Mayan Jungle Tours is the source for all-out fun.

Where to Stay Along the Riviera Maya

• Just north of Playa del Carmen is Mayakoba, an eco-friendly resort development built amid lush mangroves lining a white-sand beach. There are properties for every type of luxury traveler, plus an 18-hole Greg Norman-designed golf course. At the intimate Rosewood, look for modernist suites crafted from indigenous materials with private plunge pools. The all-villa Banyan Tree brings the essence of Asia to the Riviera Maya; every room has its own pool. With 401 rooms and five pools, the Fairmont is the largest of the Mayakoba properties. At the end of 2016, an outpost of Hyatt’s luxury boutique brand Andaz will open its doors and offer amenities like sunrise yoga on the beach and photo or video shoots with a local photographer.

• Grand Velas Rivieria Maya breaks the mold of the typical all-inclusive resort with private butler service, sprawling suites that start at 1,000 square feet, and unique experiences like stargazing with an astronomer from the Astronomic Society of Quintana Roo. And did we mention that there are no buffets? Instead, you’ll eat at restaurants like the Basque-inspired Cocina de Autor, which offers a nightly multi-course tasting menu. For foodies, there are plenty of new offerings, like a Mayan cooking class, a tasting experience with tequila and taco pairings, and a ceviche bar where guests can make their own ceviche.

• The Karisma hotel group runs a number of all-inclusive properties throughout the Riviera Maya that are known for gourmet dining and upscale accommodations. For families, there’s Azul Beach Hotel and the neighboring (and less expensive) Azul Sensatori, both of which offer the Nickelodeon Experience for meet-and-greets with Dora the Explorer, breakfasts with SpongeBob Squarepants, and parties with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Karisma’s new El Dorado Maroma Palafitos: With the first overwater bungalows in Mexico, the resort is making quite a splash. Each bungalow has a glass-bottom floor, a private infinity pool, and a ladder right into the water.

• Set on one of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico, Belmond Maroma Resort & Spa is great for both romantic getaways and family-friendly vacations. Have a private dinner at the top of the observation tower, with views over the sea, or create love amulets with a special ceremony at the spa’s La Botica. Kids are welcomed with pint-sized kaftans and slippers.

• For a unique experience in the Riviera Maya, check out Coqui Coqui Cobá Residence & Spa, a five-room boutique hotel overlooking ancient pyramids. The owners, former model Nicolas Malleville and his fashion designer wife Francesca Bonato, gained fame for a sleek beachfront hotel in Tulum that has since closed and also own a hotel and perfumería in Valladolid. Coqui Coqui Cobá offers stylish accommodations with plunge pools and healthy modern Mayan cooking.

What to Eat/Drink Along the Riviera Maya

• Most of the restaurants in the Riviera Maya are at resorts or in the towns of Tulum and Playa del Carmen (see below). Hands down, the best resort for dining is Mayakoba. With dozens of restaurants, a cooking school, and a farmer’s market selling local craft beers and fresh churned ice cream, Mayakoba is a foodie’s dream. Rosewood offers unique experiences like a tour of a Mayan bee farm and La Ceiba, a farm-to-table restaurant set in a garden where just a handful of guests can enjoy an exclusive dinner party. At Fairmont, acclaimed chef Richard Sandoval—known as the "father of the modern Mexican cuisine"—is the force behind four restaurants. Banyan Tree’s Saffron serves authentic Thai cuisine prepared by chefs from Thailand. And at the new Andaz, the Casa Amate restaurant is designed to feel like you’re eating in the home of a well-traveled friend.

Where to Stay in Tulum

Zamas is one of the older hotels in Tulum and still one of its best. Each of the Robinson Crusoe-inspired suites and cabañas has its own individual design: Some are set on the white-sand beach, while others are tucked into the coconut grove. No matter where you stay, you’ll want to kick off your shoes and leave the high heels at home: This is a barefoot retreat. Don’t miss the achiote shrimp tacos with jicama tortillas at Que Fresco, the hotel’s oceanfront restaurant.

• The Papaya Playa Project started as a pop-up from the Design Hotels group and proved so popular it never went away. Thatched casitas are clustered along Tulum’s gorgeous white-sand beach, and there’s tons to do: yoga, Tai-Chi, kite surfing, full-moon parties. There’s also a big focus on sustainability, organic eating, and healthy living.

• The beachfront Amansala has developed a cult-like following with its Bikini Bootcamp, which promises to whip you in shape during a short vacation. But no matter when you come, you’ll find great ways to detox, de-stress, and rejuvenate (yoga classes, beachfront meditation, bike rides to the ruins, spa menus).

• Set on the outskirts of Tulum is Hotel Esencia, a former private estate created by an Italian duchess and now owned by a media entrepreneur. His footprint can be seen in the mid-century modern style furniture and the Juice Bar. The beachfront hotel is surrounded by 50 acres of tropical gardens.

What to Eat/Drink in Tulum

• Tulum’s best-known restaurant, Hartwood, is also impossibly difficult to get into—make sure to request a reservation over e-mail. If they’re booked up, you can also go at 3 p.m. for a same-day reservation. All the food is cooked over an open flame and ingredients are sourced locally.

• If you can’t get into Hartwood, check out Arca, an open-air jungle restaurant located just yards away. Like Hartwood, the emphasis here is on fresh ingredients, served with inspired mezcal cocktails. 

• Owned by pair of Argentinian expats, Casa Banana is another hot Tulum restaurant where the steaks are prepared on an open wood-fire grill, the fish is caught just down the road, and the mixology program rivals anything you’d find in New York.

• If you’re just looking for a good cocktail, Todos Santos is the place to be. This indoor/outdoor bar is popular with locals like Zamas owner Susan Bohlken, who is a fan of the Mojito Jaguar, made with cucumber, rosemary, and sugarcane.

Where to Stay in Playa del Carmen

• Thompson Hotels got its start with a design-forward property on Thompson Street in New York’s SoHo, and it is that urban aesthetic that makes the group’s new pair of hotels in Playa del Carmen so exciting. In the center of town, Thompson Playa del Carmen has a mid-century modern aesthetic and a 30,000-square-foot roof deck with a pool, restaurant, and killer views. A couple blocks away is the oceanfront Thompson Beach House, with 27 loft-like rooms and a beach area with private cabanas.

• It’s a large resort with 314 rooms, but the waterfront Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen Resort still manages to feel intimate, thanks to a sexy design by Mexican architect Sordo Madaleno and New York-based Rockwell Group. The architecture of the spa was inspired by a cenote and has locally inspired treatments.

• Hotel La Semilla is a boho bed and breakfast with vintage flea market decorations and a terrace for panoramic jungle and ocean views. There are also free bikes for guests, a great way to get around town.

Where to Eat/Drink in Playa del Carmen

• In addition to stylish accommodations, Thompson Playa del Carmen has great places to eat. The rooftop seafood restaurant Catch is the sister to the spot by the same name in New York’s Meatpacking District, while the seaside C Grill serves wood oven-fired food from local farmers and fisherman.

• Set atop an actual cenote right in the center of Playa del Carmen, Aldea Corazón specializes in authentic local dishes like jicama tacos and camarones al mojo de allo (shrimp in garlic sauce)

• When you tire of Mexican food, head to Como Como Osteria Mediterranea, which serves Italian-inflected dishes prepared with local ingredients, including starters like snapper and artichoke mousse with salmon caviar and quinoa bread or slow-cooked veal cheek with Valpolicella wine reduction.

• Want to experience Playa del Carmen’s throbbing beach party scene? One of the oldest—and most happening—bars is the beachfront Blue Parrot, which hosts foam parties and fire shows.

• For a different spin on the Playa del Carmen nightlife, check out Beercicleta, a cocktail tour on a group bicycle that goes to an Irish pub and Mexican bars.

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