10 Best Riviera Maya Excursions, Tours and Activities

5min read

Published 20 September 2018


Looking out to the horizon from the beaches of the Riviera Maya, it's sometimes difficult to tell the sky apart from the ocean. There are few places in the world with coastal views as mesmerizing as this part of the Yucatán Peninsula. And there are even fewer places where the waters are so calm and so clear that you can see the coral reefs at the bottom year-round. But that's what you get in Mexico's Riviera Maya. Here, the shores are immaculate and run along the craggy limestone cliffs like unfurled silk. 

Of course, there's also more to the Riviera Maya than that. If you're hoping to go on spur-of-the moment day trips, seeking to dive into the depths of an underground cenote or wishing to rediscover an ancient Mayan city, these Riviera Maya excursions are for you. 

1. Explore ancient Mayan ruins

Home to scores of ancient Mayan ruins and UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Riviera Maya is a destination that attractions both casual explorers and hardcore history buffs. From tourist landmarks like Chichén Itzá to the forest-bound ruins of Coba, each site features carefully preserved limestone pyramids and impressive temples.

Whether you want to climb the highest pyramid in the region in Coba or watch the serpent-shaped shadow slither down the steps of El Castillo in Chichén Itzá, day tours are available to pretty much every archaeological site in the area.

Ancient cities like the ones in Tulum and Xel-Há are in close vicinity to beach towns and ecological parks, making them perfect for an extended day trip. Self-guided tours are also possible to more remote archaeological sites like Ek' Balam and Muyil.

2. Dive into a Cenote

The Yucatán Peninsula is peppered with thousands of cenotes. These natural subterranean cave systems are filled with crystal-clear pools and surrounded by stalactite ceilings draped with low-hanging tendrils.

There are many types of cenotes, and each one in the Yucatán is unique. The Casa Cenote by Tulum, for example, is above ground and resembles a lake. Sac Actun and Dos Ojos, on the other hand, are both underground cave systems teeming with marine wildlife (in other words: they're ideal for snorkelling and scuba diving). The Gran Cenote is a combination of both, with a series of caves winding through a lush Mayan jungle floor connected by wooden walkways.

There are so many things you can do in a cenote: swim, snorkel, scuba dive! It's also possible to kayak and raft at some open-type cenotes. No wonder this is one of the most popular activities in Riviera Maya!

3. Visit Tulum and the Tulum ruins

Step into the coastal town of Tulum, and you'll immediately recognize its iconic limestone-dotted beaches, crystalline waters and timeless Mayan temples that are often on the covers of Riviera Maya travel brochures.

Day trips in Tulum can range from wandering through its ancient walled city, seeing the pyramid El Castillo or hopping into town to try out local-style ceviche at one of its many renowned oceanside restaurants. Although some might find it hard to step away from the pearl-white sand and turquoise waters of its quiet beaches...

Tulum is also known for its thriving nightlife. From sipping cocktails at an open-air mezcal bar to knocking back a few mojitos at a whimsical watering hole, the town centre is bubbling with a constant flow of the after-hours crowd. Don't just take our word for it! Book now to discover why Tulum is one of the best excursions in Riviera Maya.

4. Road trip to Valladolid

Take a scenic drive to the historic city of Valladolid from Cancún or Chichén Itzá, and see the rich colonial history of the Yucatán embodied in the baroque-style cathedral spires and pastel-coloured townhouses.

Rich with history, art and Spanish colonial architecture, Valladolid is highly walkable and a joy to explore on foot. Spend the day wandering through the cobbled city square and plazas, or visit the city's many public and private museums.

Just outside the city, the X'kekén Cenote is a classic cave-style cenote with jagged and dramatic stalactite walls. It's open to the public for swimming and diving in the shallow depth of its glowing pools.

5. Stay in downtown Playa Del Carmen

From picking out the perfect spot to sunbathe on its pristine beaches to kite-surfing above its translucent waters, Playa del Carmen has set itself apart as an upscale resort city and a burgeoning cosmopolitan destination in Quintana Roo.  

Relax at one of the many luxury spas in Playa del Carmen, or walk down Fifth Avenue and hop from boutique shops to authentic Mexican restaurants. Catch a traditional dance performance by its seaside park, Parque Fundadores, or play a round of golf at the emerald green fairways in Playacar.

6. Explore natural theme parks

Take one-part amusement park, two parts Mayan Riviera wilderness and a dash of ancient city, and out comes ecotourism parks like Xcaret, Xel-Há, Xenses, and Xplor.

Combining amusement-park fun with outdoor educational adventures, these parks feature a host of action-packed activities, from zip-lining in rainforests and rafting across the luminous waters of cenotes to trekking across Mayan ruins. It's perfect for nature lovers and adrenaline junkies alike.

The live performances that occur at these parks are also fantastic spectacles to behold. Watch as Mayan warriors pit against each other in a high-stake ancient ballgame, or witness the ceremonial pole flyers carrying out their daring stunts at a height of 30m.

7. See the Sian Ka’an Biosphere

There's a reason the Sian Ka'an Biosphere is among the best excursions in Riviera Maya. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it comprises more than 5,000 square-kilometres of untouched wilderness and Indigenous fauna. With more than 200 conservation projects on this swath of land, Sian Ka'an's biodiverse environment is home to thousands of tropical wildlife species.

Part of the reserve is an unspoiled stretch of coral reef along the Caribbean coast and is open to snorkellers and scuba divers. It's also worth a day's hike to check out the Muyil ruins at the northern edge of the biosphere and the nearby Laguna.

8. Explore Cozumel

A bustling port of call for gleaming cruise liners, going to Cozumel is among the top activities in Riviera Maya. Why? Apart from the usual resort destination fanfare and beachside activities, Cozumel boasts many untouched natural habitats and thriving eco parks.

From Patas & Alas Butterfly Sanctuary to Faro Celerain Ecological Reserve (Punta Sur Eco Beach Park), the island is home to biodiverse landscapes and endemic species. Opportunities for outdoor adventures can be found along the coast of the island, ranging from the wetlands and mangroves near the lagoons to the north to the stunning El Mirador lookout point overlooking the radiant Caribbean Sea in the south.

9. Day trips to Cancún, Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox

Just saying the names Cancún and Isla Mujeres evoke a sense of excitement. Reaching these vibrant vacation hotspots has never been easier than on Riviera Maya excursions. Whether you are day-tripping to Cancún's energetic beaches or taking a ferry across for a longer stay at the more idyllic Isla Mujeres, these destinations are attractive detours to add to any excursion in the region.

For extended day trips, add Yum Balam Nature Reserve and Isla Holbox to the itinerary. Just north of Cancún, the Yulum Balam Nature Reserve encompasses a broad swath of protected wetlands, local wildlife and the world's largest concentration of whale sharks off-shore.

Isla Holbox can be reached by taking a short ferry ride from Yum Balam's port town, Chiquila. Here, steps away from the whimsical street arts of its quiet Bohemian town are unbroken stretches of barefoot beaches brushing against crystal-clear waters.

If you were hoping to slow down and spend the day in a hammock, Isla Holbox is your beachside refuge. There are no resorts here, no blinding lights of nightclubs or the rumblings of city traffic. There is just you, the sun-soaked powdery shoreline and the vastness of the deep blue sea. 

10. Snorkelling in Akumal

Five kilometres of tranquil beaches run along the sleepy shore of Akumal. Against the lulling tides of the Caribbean Sea, skiffs and catamarans parked motionlessly by the shoal, as if glued to the water's glassy surface.

The beach town of Akumal lives up to its Mayan name, "Land of the Turtles". Here, sea turtles and marine wildlife thrive in its warm waters and untouched coral reefs. Swimming and snorkelling with sea turtles are popular activities in Riviera Maya. A little farther out, scuba diving allows a closer view of natural underwater marine life like dolphins, tropical fishes and sharks.

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