Cancun’s hotel district on Blvd. Kukulcan. Photo by Safa.
Where to go on the Maya Riviera
The ‘Mayan Riviera’ is the creation not of Lord Montezuma in the 16th century but of a smart marketing man at the end of the 20th century and implies tradition interspersed with sensational beaches.
Unfortunately the reality is mostly depressingly artificial, with much of the Maya culture delivered by the fun-but-fake Xcaret theme park, snorkelling in the massive natural aquarium of Xel-Ha, and wandering the cenotes and ruins around Cobá.
Still. . . the seas are warm and often genuinely azure, the coral is kaleidoscopic, the various pyramids are awesome, prices are inexpensive and local people generally relaxed and pleasant.
Furthermore, while the kids loon around in Xel-Ha dad can play golf on one of half a dozen courses or go Deep Sea Fishing while mum can go snorkelling or scuba diving with one of the many dive centers along the coast.
La Riviera Maya is on the north-east cost of the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico.
A typical Cancun beach view from a resort hotel. Photo by Shawn.
Mexico’s most famous resort on the Riviera Maya, Cancun, is appallingly overbuilt but nevertheless home to some superb beach resort hotels, fine white sand beaches, warm shallow waters, cool strong drinks and everything else a tourist might need except real ethnic colour, style or unspoilt serenity. Cancun Guide
Beware the famously boisterous US college Spring Break that happens annually, mostly during March with a handful in early April. Mexican destinations that suffer/enjoy the youthful madness are Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. Prices up, tranquility down, but if you’re young and wild then this season could be perfect.
For more quiet and local culture head 20 miles south to. . .
Puerto Morelos, Excellence Beach. Photo by Tony Hisgett.
This fishing village and beach resort sits comfortably halfway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Maya Riviera.
The town is small, with just two main streets but offers most facilities that undemanding travellers require of a beach holiday – fine sand, warm water (usually about 27C), and for a great bonus, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef just 500 meters offshore for snorkelling or diving.
Inland from Puerto Morelos, many cenotes line the road to Central Vallarta, some with excellent swimming, snorkelling or even diving in crystal water; one of the best is Boca de Puma, which has pleasant hiking trails through the forest too.
And if Puerto Morelos doesn’t suit, jump a bus down to. . .
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen. Photo by Haakon Krohn.
This once tranquil beach village is steadily becoming a mega-resort but with more care and less in-your-face concrete than Cancun. The population doubles every five years, most of those being in the service industry related to luxury all-inclusive hotels that are springing up everywhere like strangler weeds.
That being said, Playa del Carmen’s beach is astonishingly white and soft, perhaps Mexico’s finest powder (other than nose candy), the village is moderately authentic, the sea is warm and the bed shelves gently.
On land del Carmen is conveniently located within easy drive of Cancun airport, Tulum’s sights, Xel-Ha and Xcaret water parks and crucially the Mayan wonder of Chichen Itza.
A beach on Cozumel island’s east coast.
When all the tanning, drinking and wild nights on the Maya Riviera get too much head for the Playa del Carmen dock and take a ferry to Cozumel island for a dip in the deep end.
Scuba is one of Cozumel’s speciality – after catering for the vast cruise ships that barge into Port San Miguel in tiresome numbers.
Cozumel is 30 miles (48 km) long and 10 miles (16 km) wide island, very flat and just 12 miles (20 kms) from the Mexican mainland at Playa del Carmen and 36 miles (60 kms) south of Cancún.
Snorkelling and scuba diving are two of Cozumel’s main attractions due to its lively coral reefs, especially those in the south part of the island. Photo by Serge Melki.
The main town, San Miguel, and some dive operators are on the west coast but if you have wheels then the east coast is better, less developed, scenic beaches, larger waves and plenty of beach restaurants every few kilometers.
There are quite a few beach clubs that offer snorkeling over the reefs offshore and the multiple dive shops and operations are always ready to take you there.
Cozumel’s coral is hanging in there in spite of fin overload, with colorful displays and high coral spires that are a major wow factor but there’s also a mass of diverse fishy life forms to complement the coral. Scuba diving in Cozumel
San Miguel de Cozumel port
A cruise ship in Cozumel’s San Miguel port. Photo by Roger Wollstadt.
This port hosts hundreds of massive cruise ships every year, as well as ferries from Playa del Carmen.
A deep sea pier was built in the 1990s for ships to dock in Cozumel’s town of San Miguel, causing great damage to the reefs. San Miguel is now a regular stop on Caribbean cruises and the local jewellery shops are booming while the coral gets chewed by ship’s screws and attacked by varied unpleasant contaminants.
Cozumel also offers tourists a couple of unimpressive Maya sites, swimming with dolphins and the usual marine activities.
Cozumel has an international airport receiving direct flights from regional airports in USA and Canada as well flights from Mexico City but most visitors fly into Cancun and take a bus or taxi south to Playa del Carmen and the ferry across to Cozumel.
There is no public transport outside San Miguel so consider renting your own wheels to get around. The problem will be choosing your agency as visitors are inundated with car and bike hires. Use Spanish to get the best deals and negotiate like crazy.
Agents will massively reduce their charges if you are presistant. Scooters are about half the price of cars, but taxis are also avialable if you don’t want to drive.
Scooters (aka motos) are an excellent way to explore the island but also the best method of losing a lot of skin quite suddenly; statistically two-wheelers have more accidents than four. Way more, partly due to inexperience on two wheels and partly to driving with a bellyful of tequila.
The default position for PEMEX gas stations on Cozumel island is that tourists are rich and stupid so the standard practice is to try a scam. Keeping your eyes open and using a credit card is the best protection.
Akumal, 62 miles (100kms) south of Cancun on the Maya Riviera.
Between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Akumal is a much smaller beach resort area with a good selection of modest, all-inclusive hotels and totally stunning white sand beaches washed by crystal waters that make for excellent snorkelling and diving.
Sea turtles lay eggs on Akumal’s beaches at night throughout the nesting season (June to October) and swim in the main bay during the day. The hatching season runs from June to November, the hurricane season.
Tulum, Mexico, the beach and part of the old Maya temple. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.
Tulum is a ruined Maya site popular with tourists and beautifully located on a tropical clifftop beside the turquoise Caribbean Sea on the Yucatan Peninsula. There are small, soft-sand beaches below the ruins that make this place special.
It’s easy to reach from Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and other Maya Riviera beach resorts and about 90 minutes drive from Cancun airport. More Tulum photos and information
Sian Ka’an, with masses of watery jungle action to the left and marine life to the right. Photo by Ken Thomas.
South of Tulum is the last tourist attraction on the Maya Riviera, an as untamed jungle, Sian Ka’an, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to wild vegetation, beaches, mangroves, lakes, Mayan canals and Maya ruins.
Roads there are rough and mosquitoes tough, but if you’re looking for a bit of unspoilt Mexico and ready to hire a good vehicle, preferably 4WD or take a small tour package then this is literally an off-the-beaten-track paradise (if you remembered to bring the repellent).
Some of the activities you could indulge in are wildlife spotting (crocs, dolphins and turtles included), fishing, boating around ancient canals and mangroves, visiting almost lost Maya ruins, kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving and loafing on unspoilt sand (well there may be seaweed on it but definitely no mega-resorts! )
The Best Weather in Riviera Maya is December – May
This peak season experiences high temperatures around 82F (28C) with occasional rain showers.
Prices in both airfare and hotel increase dramatically at this time. Late June is very hot but cheaper, so be prepared to try the off season if you want a bargain vacation.
The worst weather is in the hottest and most humid months, July – September, with an insect problem for added bad tidings. Hurricanes can be a threat in the summer and early autumn and even if they don’t strike with force there may well be rough seas, poor water visibility, seaweed on beaches and cloudy skies.
July-August, Christmas and Easter attract huge numbers of holidaymakers from both inside and outside the country, especially at beach resorts, so book way ahead and expect to be surrounded by hordes of sun seekers.
Map of Mexico’s best beaches and ancient sites. Click on the small box top left for beach/ancient sites/cities selection. The yellow marking is for useful cities that appear in our photo galleries (apart from Tijuana which is there simply as a reference point for American travelers approaching overland).