A Guide To The Magnificent Mayan Riviera
When describing the Mayan Riviera, the word ‘magnificent’ is often used. What is the Mayan Riviera and what makes it so magnificent? Well, for starters, this stretch of over one hundred kilometers of powdery-soft, alabaster shoreline borders the sublime, turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. Spanning from the fishing town of Puerto Morelos to the artsy and chic town of Tulum, this heavenly part of the Yucatan Peninsula consists of cenotes, lagoons, and mangroves amidst lush jungle.
Tour companies abound in the region and offer first-time visitors the opportunity to explore the vast, natural beauty in the area. However, it is very safe and recommended to take to the open road on your own. To forge your own path can often lead to unexpected adventure and very memorable encounters.
Palms, hammocks and thatched-roofed beach clubs line one of the most scenic stretches of white sand coastline on the globe! Discover hidden gems that are local favorites, secluded points in the Mexican Caribbean with nothing but sand, surf, a couple of beach chairs and maybe a cooler of cold Coronas! Other hotspots running along the captivating shores offer lounge chairs and palapa umbrellas, delicious beachside eats (try ceviche, fresh white fish cured in lime served with tortilla chips), ice- cold buckets of beer and cool Caribbean cocktails.
From lively beach clubs like Mamitas, which presents posh beach beds and the countries best DJs, to family-friendly spots, to rustic locations with undeveloped shores and nothing but turquoise views as far as the eye can see, the Mayan Riviera has the perfect beach to suit all types of traveler.
Beach Tip ~ Pack biodegradable sunscreen for the environment, and a paintbrush in your beach bag to remove sticky sand after a day of fun in the sun!
Beneath the Yucatan Peninsula flows the planet’s longest underground river system. Due the porous limestone bed of the peninsula, the river has carved out thousands of sinkholes, known as cenotes. These natural pools are shrouded in green foliage and the waters are crystal clear. There are several of these striking swimming holes in and around Playa del Carmen to explore.
Of the nearly ten thousand uncovered in the region, seven thousand are suitable for swimming. Most have cliffs of varying heights off of which visitors can jump into the refreshing waters. Some have barbecue pits and picnic tables or a snack shop selling cold fresh, coconut water. There are a few hidden within caves showcasing incredible stalactite and stalagmite formations, while others are open and better for snorkeling.
If you are planning an upcoming trip to the Mayan Riviera, cenotes are a must see and most cost less than $100 pesos ($6USD) which includes the entrance fee and a life jacket. For our top choices of nearby cenotes, tips and pricing, read more here.
Cenote Tip ~ Pack some drinks and snacks, but leave the cervesas at home. Alcoholic beverages are not permitted in the cenote areas.
The World-Class Diving and Water Sports
Just off the pristine beaches lies the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest barrier reef system in the world. This underwater marvel is teeming with marine life and attracts experienced and novice divers from around the world. Within one hour of Playa del Carmen by boat, is Cozumel, another dive site renowned for its shipwrecks and crystal clear waters.
Near the city center of Playa del Carmen, scuba enthusiasts can dive with Bull sharks during the months of November to March. From the end of May to mid September is the chance to swim with Whale Sharks, the gentle giants of the sea. Tours are offered from Cancun to Isla Mujeres or from the magical island of Holbox (1.5 hours from Playa del Carmen).
If diving is not your thing, there are dozens of alluring spots along the picturesque coastline to head to, snorkel gear in tow, to observe sea turtles and an array of vibrant tropical fish. Akumal, meaning ‘The place of the turtle’ in Mayan, is where one is almost guaranteed to see a turtle only a couple of hundred yards from the tranquil bay’s public beach area.
Eco-parks like Xel-ha and Xcaret offer the opportunity to view many species of multi-colored fish, rays and turtles. Xcaret also has an interactive aquarium where a natural reef habitat has been created so that visitors can view and learn about over 500 Caribbean marine organisms. One of features even allows you to touch a starfish, sea cucumber and get a close look at a jellyfish.
Along with the seemingly endless subaquatic adventures, water enthusiasts can take to turquoise sea by sailboat, paddleboard, fishing charter, catamaran, kite board, wave runner or parasail. With over 300 days of sunshine, the water remains warm, the flip-flop wearing population stays cheerful, and the blue-green horizon is always speckled with scuba boats and white sails.
Memorable Water Activity ~ Swimming with the sea turtles in Akumal Bay is a highly recommended activity for ages 7 and up. Bring your own snorkel gear for a free underwater adventure or rent gear on the beach for approximately $200 pesos ($13USD).
The Mayan History and Culture
Throughout the jungle and overlooking seaside cliffs are preserved remnants of an ancient Mayan civilization which once worshiped, traded and flourished in the area. Towering pyramids, stone huts once used as supply posts, and engraved stadiums dating back to the early 1200s still stand erected, showcasing astounding precision and craftsmanship. Notable ruin sites (easy daytrips from Playa) include Tulum, Chichen Itza and Coba.
When spending time in Playa del Carmen, you can learn about the history of this fascinating culture by visiting nearby Mayan villages just off the main highways on your own or as part of a guided tour (Ojos Mayas). In Parque Fundadores, there is the opportunity to view regular performances of cultural dances (warriors dance under the Portal Maya sculpture or the “Danza de los Voladores”) on the south end of the city’s main avenue (5th Avenue). As well, there is a riveting, two-hour nightly spectacle in Xcaret Park, located just 5 minutes south of Playa del Carmen.
Mayan Ruin Day Trip ~ Make a day of it! Renting a car or taking a colectivo (van taxi) from Playa del Carmen is an economical way to see the sites in the Mayan Riviera! The Tulum Ruins are only a 40 minute drive from Playa and there are some great cenotes along the way (20 minutes before Tulum on Highway 307).
Immaculate greens looking out towards arresting views of the turquoise sea, fairways bordered by palm trees, and a year-round, summer climate attract avid golfers from around the world.
Several championship courses such as the Hard Rock Golf Club in Playacar and Mayakoba, not only offer top-notch services and amenities, but also natural settings that are sure to leave a lasting impression as one of your most unforgettable days on the links!
Golf Tip ~ For a list of the top 5 golf courses within 30 minutes of Playa del Carmen, visit our golf guide here.
For a relatively low populated area, the plethora of dining options in the Mayan Riviera is astounding. With such an interesting fusion of cultures culminating in this paradisaical haven, Playa del Carmen presents succulent authentic favorites, delightful international cuisine, and sophisticated gourmet offerings as part of its impressive gastronomy scene.
Award-winning chefs are responsible for designing elaborate menus at prominent restaurants such as Catch in the Thompson, bistros like Oh La La in Playa’s vibrant downtown core, and Hartwood in Tulum. Foodies will love the options available for dining out. An abundance of fresh seafood, Italian, Thai, Indian, Asian, Mediterranean, Argentinian, and Middle Eastern eateries are scattered throughout the small cities that make up the Mayan Riviera. Of course, you’ll also come across some of the tastiest tacos, enchiladas, arrachera (tender grilled flank steak), and other traditional Mexican dishes!
Dining Out Tips ~ Try authentic Mexican dishes besides guacamole! El Fagon is the most popular taco place in Playa del Carmen with three locations. The tacos al pastor (shaved pork marinated and roasted on a spit) are a classic late night treat. Micheladas and Ojos Rojos (beer with spices and lime served with or without clamato juice) go well with beachside eats like coktel de Cameron (shrimp cocktail) and tacos de pescado (fish tacos).
Joining the remaining members of the Mayan families who first settled here, are nationals from every state in Mexico and a large, colorful expat community. Although we come from different parts of the world, we are like-minded in many ways. Most of us arrived with dreams of living the ultimate beach life. For the most part, we are an easy-going, nature-loving, and sociable bunch (you have to be to leave your friends and family behind for tropical bliss!) This sun-seeking bond shared between locals and visitors alike creates a peaceful and fun-loving environment whether you are here for a week or a decade.
Some popular hangouts where you can chat with locals and expats in Playa del Carmen are Wah Wah Beach Bar and Zenzi Beach Club. Most of the serving staff at the hundreds of restaurants that line the pedestrian-only street, 5th Avenue (Playa’s dining, shopping and entertainment district) speak English, as do many of the taxi drivers. They are friendly and give helpful advice when it comes to finding the best of the best within the Mayan Riviera. Furthermore, you can stop by the Bric Vacation Rental offices on Calle 38, one block from the beach. Our representatives have lived here for a long time and are happy to give suggestions and answer any questions you might have.
Tips For Meeting Locals ~ Bric Vacation Rentals hosts a ‘happy hour’ most Friday afternoons at their office in downtown Playa del Carmen. Join locals, vacationing clients and staff from 4:30-6:00p.m. for drinks, snacks and good conversation!
Perhaps not as vibrant as some of the human characters that have traipsed along 5th Avenue, is the diverse population of native wildlife that reside within sanctuaries, reserves and eco-parks in the region. This area is home to a multi-colored array of tropical birds, fish, coral, insects and reptiles.
The Aviario in Playacar, on the south end of town, is where visitors have the opportunity to witness parrots, toucans, egrets and flamingos interacting in their natural habitat.
Near Puerto Morelos is a botanical garden, Jardin Botanico. It was established as a conservation and research site with an aim to preserve the Mayan culture and heritage. There are 4km of walking trails taking guests through the forest paths and over suspension bridges. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a monkey or two on your informative expedition!
Just south of Tulum is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. Some of the species that live within this enormous reserve include howler monkeys, jaguars, pumas, crocodiles, iguanas, over three hundred types of migratory birds and a collection of fascinating marine life. Approximately an hour and a half from Tulum is the small fishing village of Sian Ka’an. Just before this village, boat and fishing tours are available which take travelers down the network of canals and serene waterways, as well as over the clear blue waters of the Caribbean. Here you can observe turtles, dolphins and other native marine life swimming in the wild.
Even if you’re not the Tarzan or Jane type, and jungle living doesn’t exactly appeal to you, you’re still bound to see an agouti or coati at some point on your Mayan Riviera vacation. You might even be fortunate enough to snap a picture to take home as a memento of your walk on the wild side in Mexico!