Located just south of Cancun and bordering the Caribbean Sea, the Riviera Maya is one of Mexico’s ultimate resort stretches. If you plan to visit this scenic and historic district, you’ll want to make time for all the exciting sights and activities available to you. With beach communities spanning from Puerto Morelos to Tulum, you’ll have no shortage of unforgettable adventures at your fingertips. 

The Best Beaches in the Riviera Maya

More than anything, the Riviera Maya is known for its breathtaking white-sand beaches. The shores of the Yucatan Peninsula run the gamut from bustling resort landscapes to quiet sandy getaways, and each beach has its own charms. If you’re making your way along the Riviera, the following are your can’t-miss beaches: 

Parque Fundadores (Playa del Carmen)

1) Parque Fundadores (Playa del Carmen) 

Recognized by U.S. News as one of the top destinations in Mexico, Playa del Carmen is the quintessential Mexican resort town. The unofficial center of the Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen is home to the region’s largest abundance of beaches, restaurants, clubs, shopping districts, theme parks, and bio preserves. If you only have time to see one town in the Riviera Maya, make it Playa del Carmen. 

Perhaps the most well-known beach in Playa del Carmen is Parque Fundadores, known for its giant Playa del Carmen Arch, a towering Mayan-inspired structure featuring a man and woman embracing atop a spiral of water and a spiral of wind (pictured above). This is the widest beach in Playa del Carmen, and it’s also the most beautiful. Other worthwhile beaches include Mamitas Beach and Playacar Beach. 

There’s also a secret beach with its own cenote. To get there, just hike south from the Cozumel Ferry Pier. Keep going until you reach the rocky sands near the Paradisus Hotel. The hike should take you about an hour. 

2) Puerto Morelos Beach

Located along the northernmost section of the Riviera, Puerto Morelos beach is a gorgeous, laidback beach with crystal-blue waters and over 65 species of marine life. If you’re looking to go snorkeling or swimming in the Riviera Maya, this is the place to do it. The beach is located steps from downtown, so you’re always within easy reach of excellent dining and shopping selections. 

3) Akumal Beach 

Akumal means “place of the turtles,” and it’s the beach to visit if you want to swim with these aquatic reptiles. Akumal is among the trendier and more exciting beaches in the Riviera Maya, so it’s perfect for those seeking the Spring Break experience. Some of the Riviera’s best restaurants are located right on the sand, and the nearby Yal-ku Lagoon offers amazing swimming and snorkeling opportunities set against gorgeous surroundings. 

4) Xpu-Ha Beach (Puerto Aventuras) 

Though it’s one of the smaller beaches on this list, Xpu-Ha offers everything you could want in a resort destination: cozy coastal surroundings complete with bars and restaurants on the sand, beach clubs and resorts with watersports equipment rentals, beautiful old-world architecture that lines the shores, and plenty of excitement for visitors of all ages. Luxury cabanas are available to rent at the nearby Serenity Beach Club, and the waters are cleaner than in most areas. 

5) Playa Ruinas (Tulum) 

Located just beneath the historic Mayan ruins of Tulum (more on those later), Playa Ruinas is a semi-secluded beach with calm waters and quiet surroundings. From there, you can hike along the ruins or swim to the Boca Paila Peninsula. While there are no adjacent restaurants or resorts, you’re just a short drive from Tulum city center, one of the most picturesque commercial districts in the Riviera Maya. 

Check out our complete list of the best beaches in the Riviera Maya to learn more about these can’t-miss destinations. 

The Best Riviera Maya Cenotes

The Best Riviera Maya Cenotes

One of the biggest draws in the Riviera Maya—aside from the beaches—is the abundance of cenotes, enormous limestone sinkholes leading into underground caverns filled with natural pools. The Riviera Maya is home to more cenotes than any other place on Earth, and anyone visiting the Yucatan Peninsula should make the time to visit at least one of these amazing natural wonders. 

Cenote Dos Ojos (Tulum)

If you only have time for one cenote, head to Dos Ojos in Tulum. This massive cave system comprises 51 miles of clear-water sinkholes, and it’s great for diving, swimming, and just exploring. This compelling system of cenotes has been featured in numerous films, TV specials, and documentaries. 

For more on this and other local cenotes, check out our comprehensive guide to the best cenotes in Tulum

Cenote Jardin del Eden (Puerto Aventuras) 

Though this cenote is on the smaller side (especially when compared to Dos Ojos), it’s another premier diving and snorkeling spot. The thing that sets this one apart is the surroundings. As you swim through the crystal-clear waters, you’re surrounded by rich vegetation, towering trees, and moss-covered stones. It’s like losing yourself in a mystical Neverland lagoon. 

Cenote Santa Cruz (Akumal) 

This is a great cenote for visitors of all experience levels because guided tours are available. TripAdvisor users have rated it 5 out of 5 stars for its incredible rock formations, courteous tour guides, and minimal crowds. The cenote is almost entirely enclosed, so the experience feels like an underground cave exploration. 

The Best Food Riviera Maya Restaurants

The Best Food Riviera Maya Restaurants

When we talk about things to do in the Riviera Maya, we shouldn’t overlook the many delectable things to eat. The Yucatan Peninsula has its own style of cuisine that’s distinct from other types of Mexican food and not found anywhere else in the world. It combines traditional Mayan, Caribbean, and European influences and stresses natural, locally sourced ingredients. Popular dishes include:

  • Sopa de lima: A Mayan-inspired chicken and lime soup garnished with sizzling tortilla strips. 
  • Pollo motuleno: Chicken prepared with orange juice, achiote, and plantains.
  • Relleno negro: A turkey dish prepared with chili paste, vegetables, and a hard-boiled egg.
  • Cochinita pibil: A slow-roasted pork dish that’s prepared with an acidic citrus juice and seasoned with annatto seed.
  • Tamales: Though tamales are widely believed to have originated in the Aztec empire, they’re a popular staple of Yucatan cuisine. In this region, they’re typically prepared inside of banana or plantain leaves instead of corn husks. 

Not surprisingly, seafood is also a big hit in the Riviera Maya, and it’s always served fresh.

The following restaurants serve up the best familiar and regional foods you’ll find in your travels: 

  • El Fogon (Playa del Carmen): Known for their incredible tacos el pastor, seasoned chorizo tacos, and sizzling pollo fajitas, El Fogon is the place to eat in Playa del Carmen. Fresh meats are sliced right from the spit, and every guest is welcomed with hot chips and three types of house-made salsa. The friendly, casual atmosphere adds to the unforgettable dining experience. 
  • Sabor de Mar (Tulum): Popular among locals and tourists alike, Sabor de Mar has some of the freshest, tastiest seafood selections available at great prices. Their aguachile ceviche is a huge hit; it features fresh shrimp ceviche cooked in lemon and served with a serrano sauce. They also have tacos, burritos, and other classic favorites.
  • La Cueva del Chango (Playa del Carmen): This is the spot to try delicious Yucatan food, including the best sopa de lima in the city. Other regional flavors include fresh tuna served in a banana leaf with olive oil and lima juice. Other popular options include shrimp tacos, goat cheese salad, and an assortment of tacos, seafood entrees, and enchiladas. 
  • El Mero Mero (Puerto Aventuras): The Caribbean-inspired ambiance is as pleasing as the food. Set inside a colorful bamboo hut, this restaurant serves up an assortment of delicious tacos including fish, chicken, chorizo, and pastor. Their wide range of seafood options includes calamari, salmon filets, and an assortment of ceviches. Their fresh guacamole and pico de gallo are especially popular with visitors, as are the soups. This is also the place to get margaritas in Puerto Aventuras. 
  • Lol-Ha (Akumal): Located right on the beach, Lol-Ha offers pristine views and an amazing selection of local, regional, and international cuisine. They have Yucatan favorites like cochinita pibil as well as an assortment of steaks, burgers, sandwiches, salads, and seafood. If you have a big family and are seeking enough variety to please everyone, check out Lol-Ha! Everything on the menu is delicious, so you can’t go wrong. 

Best Riviera Maya Day Trips

If you’re exploring the Riviera, you may want to venture away from the main highway and explore one of the nearby islands. Your best day-trip destinations are Cozumel and Isla Holbox, both of which offer incredible sights and accommodations. 

Best Riviera Maya Day Trips

Day Trip to Cozumel 

Known for its ancient Mayan ruins and unsullied beaches, Cozumel (pictured above) is an excellent place to spend the day. Scuba and snorkeling excursions are popular thanks to the colorful coral reefs that surround the island, and guided tours allow you to see the ancient architecture, rich ecosystem, and native wildlife in all their splendor. The town of San Miguel Cozumel is a great place to enjoy a cocktail and a delicious meal. 

Cozumel is easy to reach from Playa del Carmen. Just access a Cozumel ferry from the beach. The ride takes about 45 minutes. There are two services offering transport from Playa del Carmen: Winjet (orange) and Ultramar (yellow). Ferries run every hour, on the hour, between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. You can expect to pay around $9 for adult tickets and $6 for child tickets. 

Day Trip to Isla Holbox 

Isla Holbox (pronounced hole-bosh) is a peaceful, laid-back island where you can walk barefoot in the sand and lose yourself among the towering palm trees, bamboo structures, and crystal-blue waters. There are few vehicles on the island, so you can freely explore on foot or rent a bike. Admire the street art, mingle with the locals, and dine at one of the family-owned eateries. There are no big resorts or chain restaurants; everything is local and authentic. Because the waters are so calm, you can swim, snorkel, or enjoy your favorite watersports. 

The journey to Isla Holbox can be a bit tricky, but it’s well worth the effort. You’ll first need to go to the Playa del Rey bus terminal and catch the bus to the town of Chiquila (about a 2- to 3-hour trip) and then take the ferry to the island. There are tour groups in Cancun and Playa del Carmen (such as Holbox Adventures) that can make your journey easier. For about $150, they’ll arrange transport to the ferry and pick you up at the end of the day. 

Best Riviera Maya Parks and Attractions

Best Riviera Maya Parks and Attractions 

People typically think of white-sand beaches when it comes to Riviera Maya attractions, but the region has so much more to offer, including theme parks, world-class shopping districts, and historic ruins. Top highlights include: 

Sian Ka’an Biosphere (Tulum)

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Sian Ka’an biosphere can be explored via a variety of guided tours. See native crocodiles and tropical birds up close, snorkel alongside dolphins and sea turtles, or take a boat ride through an ancient Mayan canal. There are bird-watching tours, fly fishing tours, and even private weddings available at Sian Ka’an. 

Xcaret Park (Playa del Carmen)

The principal theme park in the Riviera Maya, Xcaret offers an array of attractions that families can enjoy together. These include zip-lines, water rides, Mayan village explorations, and children’s slides and activities. You can float through the underground rivers, tour an authentic Mexican cemetery, or enjoy delicious regional food and music in the main plaza. 

Xel-Ha Park (Tulum)

Once an important trading port for the Mayan people, the inlet of Xel-Ha remains a natural wonder that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Swim through an underground cave, dive from a massive cliff into the ocean, brave fun obstacle courses, and explore miles of jungle trails. 

Quinta Avenida (Playa del Carmen)

This is one of the most spirited streets in Mexico for shopping, dining, and letting your hair down. The street runs parallel to the beach across the entire city and features a wealth of restaurants, bars, boutiques, souvenir shops, art galleries, and street performers. It’s like a luxury outdoor shopping plaza that spans the full length of town. It even has a full-sized aquarium you can visit. 

Tulum Ruins (Tulum)

Finally, we come to the Tulum ruins, built by the Maya civilization nearly a thousand years ago. Arrive early and walk along the Pyramid El Castillo (pictured above) and other historic sites. These are among the best-preserved Mayan ruins in Mexico, and although you can’t touch them, you can get amazingly close. When you’re done, walk to the bottom of the cliff and spend some time relaxing on the quiet beach. 

Make Time to Fully Enjoy the Riviera Maya 

Needless to say, you won’t be able to enjoy all of these amazing sights, flavors, and attractions in a single day. If you want to get the most from your experience, your best bet is to book a private luxury villa in the Riviera Maya, preferably in a central location like Playa del Carmen. From there, you can explore the Riviera at your own pace. 

Make sure you have at least a full day to spend in both Tulum and Playa del Carmen, as you’ll find most of the action in these two cities. If you have a full week to spend, you can dedicate a full day to Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Isla Holbox, and Cozumel and still have time left over to drive through the smaller towns and even Cancun. Safe travels!