This Coastal Destination Is Home to Some of the Most Iconic Mexico Attractions — Here's How to Plan the Perfect Trip
Just south of Cancún sits Mexico's Riviera Maya, a region full of tempting travel offerings. Here, visitors will find one of the world's largest barrier reefs lurking just off the coast, Mayan ruins touching powder-soft sand in Tulum, a buzzing nightlife scene in Playa del Carmen, and sea turtles floating majestically in the waters of Akumal. Throw in miles and miles of pristine beaches and it's easy to see why this Mexican Caribbean coastal gem draws hordes of admirers. Ready to be one of them? Pack your swimwear and bookmark our curated guide to this deservedly hyped region in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.
The Best Times to Visit the Riviera Maya
Sun-seekers will appreciate the Riviera Maya's year-round rays. However, if you're particular about your weather, there are a few things to keep in mind.
January through March visitors can expect a more temperate climate, with temperatures ranging from about 73 F to 77 F. Rainy days are rather rare during this time, with January averaging five days of rain and February and March averaging just three.
April and May bring in hotter days, with the average temperature hitting 79 to 81 F. The rain is minimal, however, there may be one unwanted guest in the spring months: the foul-smelling brown sargassum seaweed that infests beaches seasonally.
June, July, and August can feel sweltering, with average temperatures peaking at 82 F. And, though the threat is relatively low, June to October is officially hurricane season in Rivera Maya.
November and December usher in the more pleasant temperatures again, pulling back to 77 F to 75 F respectively. So really, the best time to visit is whenever feels best to you.
Things to Do in the Riviera Maya
If you're wondering where to go in the Riviera Maya for a bit of shopping and nightlife, look to the largest city in the region: Playa del Carmen.
The downtown area is remarkably pedestrian-friendly, with boutiques, restaurants, bars, and tequila museums dotted along Quinta Avenida, a.k.a. its "Fifth Avenue." In Playa, scorching days at the various beach clubs — Martina, Lido, and Zenzi — turn into balmy nights at thumping nightlife establishments, many of which are concentrated around Twelfth Street.
Travelers can also plot out a number of day trips around the Riviera Maya right from vendors in Playa del Carmen, including excursions trips to Cozumel, a bonafide snorkeling and diving mecca.
The island is located on the Mesoamerican Reef — the largest barrier reef system in the Atlantic Ocean — which dazzles all the way from Mexico's coast to Belize, Guatemala, and the Bay Islands of Honduras. To get to Cozumel, two companies (Ultramar and Winjet) operate fast ferries from the dock close to Parque Los Fundadores.
The Mayan ruins at Cobá and Chichén Itzá also make fantastic day expeditions, with the former housing a 120-step pyramid called Nohoch Mul, which offers awe-inspiring jungle views from the summit. The latter, Chichén Itzá, is further inland and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its most famous monument (El Castillo) has 365 steps for each day in the solar year (climbing them is not permitted). Chichén Itzá is also one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Beautiful Bacalar warrants a longer trip to explore the Lagoon of Seven Colors (Laguna de Los Siete Colores), named for the varying shades of blue of its crystalline waters. On a clear, sunny day, you'll do no better than kayaking, swimming, or taking a boat around the lagoon. The rest of this laid-back "Magic Town" (Pueblo Mágico) is a pleasure to discover on foot.
Enlightenment-seekers may want to spend a little extra time in Tulum. It's a destination filled with loveable contradictions. It's spiritual yet hedonistic, boho yet affluent. It's a place where Yoga studios, healing pre-Hispanic temazcal sweat lodges, and electronic music-fueled nights coexist.
Tulum is also brimming with Instagram-friendly eye candy, including the Ahau Tulum's Ven a Luz sculpture, the "Follow that dream" sign at the Lolita Lolita Tulum boutique, and the whitewashed swings at Coco Beach Club. Of course, all its beaches are equally picture-perfect, though the unmissable beach experience in Tulum is the archaeological site at Playa Ruinas. The clifftop Mayan ruin overlooking the impossibly blue waters of the Caribbean makes this a unique sandy spot.
For sand-free swimming, make your way to the plethora of cenotes between Tulum and Playa del Carmen. Ancient Mayans believed these natural pools to be gateways to the underworld, and there are thousands spread around the Mexican Caribbean in all shapes and sizes: Some are bat-filled and enclosed, others are open-air and permit diving or cliff jumping. Jardin del Eden, Cenote Azul, and Dos Ojos are extremely popular. Don't leave Riviera Maya without dipping in one of these limestone sinkholes.
Those looking for animal encounters with their swim should head to Akumal, a beach town located between Tulum and Playa del Carmen. Akumal is Maya for "place of the turtles," which means there will be plenty of flippered friends waiting for you. Come face-to-face with them on a self-guided tour by swimming out from the dreamy white sand beach at Lol-Ha restaurant.
If you feel a call to adventure, high-octane hijinks are offered at any of Xcaret Group's all-inclusive eco-parks sprinkled across the Riviera Maya. Slither down a 131-foot lighthouse slide at Xel-Há, take to the water on a floating trajinera for a culture-filled Mexican party at Xoximilco, or zipline with the wind in your hair through the jungle at XPlor.
One more must-see spot is Sian Ka'an Biosphere, the largest protected natural area in the Mexican Caribbean. Come to paddleboard, kayak, swim, and hike through 2,000 square miles of lagoons, pristine rainforests, beaches, cenotes, and fauna-filled wetlands.
Where to Stay in the Riviera Maya
Travelers to the Riviera Maya are spoiled with choice when it comes to accommodations.
Just north of Playa del Carmen, visitors can indulge in the finest with a stay at Rosewood Mayakoba, where boats usher guests to their suites via winding canals. The resort's recently unveiled bi-level wellness suites are worth booking if only for the moon-aligned aromatherapy program alone that's part of the turndown service.
Hotel Xcaret Arte is made for those looking to unplug and never, ever, leave the resort. This adults-only, all-inclusive property in Playa del Carmen offers guests the chance to participate in activities like art workshops and allows for unlimited access to each exhilarating Xcaret Group park.
For sleek rooftop pool lounging, downtown hotels Thompson Playa del Carmen and The Fives don't disappoint, but if it's a center-of-the-action beachfront experience you're after, check into Hilton Playa del Carmen.
In Tulum, Papaya Playa Project is achingly cool with thatched villas, a beach club packed with digital nomads by day and stylish clubbers at night, and a robust calendar of wellness events.
Nômade Tulum also favors the health-conscious with cacao ceremonies, spiritual talks, yoga classes complete with a live DJ soundtrack, and opportunities for nourishment by warm Caribbean winds at the hotel's treehouse lodgings.
For an art-filled getaway, book a few nights in Tulum's Casa Malca, the former summer home of Pablo Escobar that has been lovingly transformed into a boutique hotel that also boats original pieces by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Holton Rower, and a bronze sculpture by KAWS.
How to Get to the Riviera Maya
Flights to the Riviera Maya from the U.S. are plentiful with all major U.S. airlines offering direct flights from Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, Houston, Chicago, and more. Cancún International Airport (CUN), Mexico's second-largest airport, will be your gateway to adventures in the region with daily direct flights. The island of Cozumel also has a small airport (CZM), which serves both international and domestic airlines.
From the airport, travelers can hire a car with Hertz, Avis, or Europcar (and a host of others), take a taxi, or hop on the low cost and ever-reliable ADO Bus shuttle that runs directly to both Playa del Carmen and Tulum.