The name has become synonymous with luxury, adventure, and beauty, as it has transformed into one of the hottest vacation spots for travelers worldwide. Known as the Riviera Maya, this hot spot is sure to impress. With white sand beaches, tropical waters, ancient ruins, and savory local cuisine, this destination offers the ideal get-a-way for visitors of all types.
So, where is Riviera Maya exactly? Starting just south of Cancun this 100 mile (160 kilometer) stretch of paradise extends all the way south to Punta Allen. If its size doesn’t impress you, perhaps its local attractions such as world-renowned dive sites, ancient Mayan ruins, pristine beaches, and five star resorts will do the trick.
With numerous locations and activities to choose from, the process of planning a trip may seem daunting. To relieve you of some of the stress that goes into organizing your vacation, we have put together the top 15 tips for exploring this Mexican gem.
1. All Aboard
One thing is for certain: there are numerous flight options. As a popular destination for travelers from around the world, most major U.S. airlines offer direct flights to Cancun, making travel easy and affordable. Airlines with direct flights include Delta, American, United, and most recently, Southwest Airlines. If you are looking for the most economic option, you may have to purchase a flight that has a short layover. As with any flight, you want to purchase your airfare as soon as possible to reduce costs. Peak seasons for the Riviera Maya are Christmas and Spring Break – during other times of the year prices will fluctuate according to demand.
2. Your Passport is Key
If you are a U.S. citizen and the visa process is what has you stressed, we have some good news – U.S. natives visiting Mexico for less than 180 days do not need a visa to enter Mexico. However, you will need to have a valid passport. Mexico generally requires that your passport be valid for at least 90 days upon your return. It is recommended that your passport be valid up to six months after returning to the U.S. One additional form you must complete prior to entry is the “visitor’s permit”. This form will be provided to you by your airline, travel agency, or by Mexican customs upon entry to Mexico. Laws and regulations that guide immigration policies are constantly changing, so be sure to review up-date-date rules and regulations prior to travel.
3. In’s and Out’s of Packing
When visiting the Riviera Maya it is inevitable that you will spend at least one full day (if not multiple) soaking up the Mexican sun. However, there are a few items to consider in addition to your bathing suit and flip flops. With its dense jungles, outdoor excursions, and underwater activities, the Riviera Maya is a utopia for thrill-seekers. Depending on what activities you have planned, you may want to consider packing the following items: hiking shoes, athletic clothing, hat, sunglasses, water-proof camera and/or phone case, insect repellant, and diving gear.
Don’t forget to pack one or two nice outfits – you’ll have the opportunity to dress to impress with numerous bars and restaurants in nearby towns and events hosted by local resorts. While rare, the region can experience cool nights during the winter months – if traveling at this time, it may be wise to pack one or two heavier clothing items, such as a sweater or long-sleeved shirt. It’s best to pack light and pack smart! Not only does packing light help to reduce travel costs, it will also leave you with the much needed space for souvenirs on the return trip home.
4. Fun in the Sun
A big draw for tourists is the Riviera Maya’s sunny and warm weather. For those visiting during the peak season – beginning around the Christmas holiday through the end of March – sunshine and warm temperatures ranging from the low 70s Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius) to the upper 80s Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) are likely. While this may not seem extreme, the sun is much stronger down south and sun rays are constantly reaching your skin – even when cloudy!
Sun screen for all tourists is recommended, especially for those visiting during the hot and rainy season that lasts from June through October. No one wants to spend the latter half of their vacation tucked away in the hotel due to severe sunburn. If needed, take a break in the shade. In any event, what’s not to like about a frequent break to the indoor spa or resort lounge? There will be plenty of indoor activities to keep you occupied.
5. Colorful Currency
Whenever you travel internationally, it’s important to remember that U.S. currency is often no longer accepted. While certain towns within the Riviera Maya – for instance, Cancun – accept U.S. currency at a number of their establishments, it ‘s best to exchange your funds into Mexican Pesos prior to arrival. Whether at your local airport or upon arrival to Mexico, there will be plenty of opportunities for you to exchange currency.
Be sure to review the current exchange rates prior to travel – this will help you to budget for your trip and plan accordingly. If you forget, don’t panic. There are numerous currency exchange sites located throughout town – usually near or at local banks, or at the local bus station, known as the “central de camiones”. When in doubt, you can always ask the hotel staff. They are there to help. And, yes – Mexican currency is quite colorful!
6. Better Safe Than Sorry
Once you arrive safely to your destination there is no need to bring along your passport and other important documents. While Mexico is safe, you want to ensure that important personal information and documentation remains protected. It is recommended to keep these items in a secure place within your hotel room. Losing your passport or other important items such as your photo I.D., debit/credit cards, and loose cash can cause much unneeded stress during your stay.
While it’s smart to have an official photo I.D. on you at all times, if you can prevent walking around town with your passport, it’s highly recommended. A single debt /credit card, photo I.D., and enough cash for the day is ideal. If need be, you can always withdraw more cash from the local ATMs or make a return trip to the hotel. If you feel the need to bring along important items or additional funds, an over-the-shoulder backpack or purse are your best options – you want to have your items in sight at all times. With such a high volume of tourists, lost or stolen items are difficult to recover.
7. The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round
Prior to your arrival, it’s important to know what local transportation options will be available to you during your stay. Upon arrival to the airport, it is best to have your hotel arrange for transportation to the resort – this is often done free of charge. Once you arrive to your destination, traveling to and from surrounding areas is quite simple. Mexico has a highly functioning public transportation system, making travel between towns and cities relatively easy and cheap. Regional “colectivos”, or mini-vans, are the most economic option, costing a slim $20-$40 MXN ($1- $2 USD) per trip depending on distance.
Local buses are also inexpensive, with tickets ranging between $50-$150 MXN ($3-$8 USD). If public transportation isn’t your style, car rentals are also available. According to the U.S. State Department, U.S. driver’s licenses are valid in Mexico. The only catch – you’ll need to purchase Mexican car rental insurance. Whichever option you choose, you should have no problem getting from one location to another, making it that much easier to explore all that the Riviera Maya has to offer.
8. Ancient Mayan Ruins
At this point, you may be questioning what to do in Riviera Maya. Simply put – you can’t visit the Riviera Maya without exploring its ancient Mayan ruins. With numerous excursions available, and easy transit routes, there is no excuse for missing out on these truly amazing structures. Sites such as Chichén Itza (home to the Kukulkan Pyramid, named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World), Tulum (an ancient Mayan city set on a 40 foot (12 meter) high cliff that towers over the Caribbean ocean), and Coba ( a less manicured site that provides a more natural experience) draw in millions of visitors each year. It’s important to not only visit these remarkable archaeological findings (the Coba ruins tour is probably the most popular), but also to leave with a greater understanding of ancient Mayan culture.
9. Sacred Mayan Cenotes
The Yucatan is home to the world’s most widespread range of underwater sinkholes and caves, locally known as “cenotes”. With over 6,000 cenotes located on the Yucatan Peninsula, there are plenty of options for those visiting the Riviera Maya. Once considered as sacred wells by the ancient Mayans – who believed cenotes were an entrance to the underworld – they were often used for sacrifices, both human and material. Nowadays, these once sacred spaces are inhabited by colorful fish and flora. For those with an adventurous spirit, cliff jumping and zip lining activities are available at a number of locations. Some of the best cenotes in Riviera Maya include Cenote Azul (known for its turquoise water), El Gran Cenote, and Dos Ojos (where you can snorkel amid stalactites and stalagmites). One thing is for certain – this is an experience you don’t want to miss!
10. Life Below the Surface
With 75 miles (138 kilometers) of Caribbean coastline, the Riviera Maya has some of the best snorkel and dive sites the world has to offer. Home to part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the Riviera Maya is every diver’s dream. Such biodiversity exposes visitors to abundant marine life with over 500 species of colorful tropical fish, turtles, sting rays, dolphins, and sharks. Did I mention shipwrecks? Be sure to check out the region’s top dive spots, which include Cozumel (island with world-renowned reefs exposing beautiful coral formations and abundant marine life), Tortuga Reef (a popular destination for those who wish to see – you guessed it – turtles!), and the MUSA Underwater Museum (home to over 500 life-size sculptures of humans, cars, and houses). One thing is clear – the Riviera Maya has as much to discover under the water as it does above the surface.
11. Enchanting, Colonial Towns
A major benefit to staying at any one location in the Riviera Maya is that you are relatively close to numerous other towns and attractions. A part from the well-known destinations of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, other equally impressive spots are worth a visit. Such locations include Valladolid (a colonial town with a burgeoning fashion scene), Merida (a perfectly preserved colonial town that is home to numerous artists, foodies, and hipsters), and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve (a UNESCO World Heritage site). Each town has its own, unique personality and fascinating history, making the Riviera Maya a perfect combination of past and present.
12. Savory Local Cuisine
Just as in any region of the Mexican Republic, the Yucatan Peninsula has its own local cuisine that will dazzle the taste buds of even the most diverse of pallets. With options such as authentic street tacos, freshly made ceviche (fresh raw fish and/or seafood cured in lime juice with chopped onions, salt, cilantro, and spicy chiles), or the regional dish Tikin-Xic (whole fish marinated with adobo de achiote and sour oranges wrapped in banana leaf and steamed), visitors are sure to left feeling satisfied. Make sure to accompany your dishes with an artisanal tequila, mezcal, cocktail, or light Mexican beer. Keep in mind – when traveling abroad, it is common to have some stomach issues due to different cooking oils and spices. Known as “Montezuma’s revenge”, and upset stomach can be a real damper on your vacation. Be sure to have over the counter stomach medicine available just in case!
13. Shop ‘Till You Drop
While it may be hard to pry yourself away from the beautiful all-inclusive resort, the streets of local towns await those who love to walk and shop. These enchanting city centers are lined with numerous street vendors selling items that range from clothing, handmade ceramics, home décor, and jewelry. In the town of Valladolid, one can even experience high-end fashion at its finest. Whether you wish to shop ‘till you drop, or simply walk the beautiful cobblestone streets, an afternoon or evening spent in town will be one to remember.
14. Your Spanish Needs Practice
Remember all those language classes you took back in high school and perhaps college? Well, it’s time to put your knowledge to the test! When traveling internationally to a country whose native language is something other than English, it’s important (and respectful) to learn at least the basics before you begin your travels. Your vacation to the Riviera Maya is the opportune moment to perfect your Spanish skills. Not to mention, the locals will love and appreciate your efforts.
Mexican culture is kind, warm, and friendly. After leaving your fears aside and practicing your Spanish with native speakers, you will return home not only feeling accomplished, but repeating phrases like “órale” (right on), “qué chido” (how cool), and “salúd” (cheers). Immersing yourself into the native language only enhances your overall experience. Not only will you leave with incredible memories and stories to tell, but with newly gained knowledge and appreciation for the local culture.
15. Live in the Moment
It’s true – photos say a thousand words. However, while it’s great to take pictures on vacation that will endure the test of time, the most critical element of maximizing your experience is to live in the moment. We so often focus on capturing the moment on screen that we forget to take in the moment as it happens right before our eyes. The best way to experience the ancient Mayan ruins, underwater adventures, and stunning Caribbean sunsets is by being fully focused on the now. Not only will this enhance your overall experience, but you will return home with renewed energy as you prepare to dive back in to the day-to-day grind.
With these 15 tips for exploring the Riviera Maya you are ready to start planning! Remember – whether you’re looking for an active vacation or a relaxing get-a-way, this destination is sure to meet your every need. With beautiful weather, stunning beaches, Mayan ruins, and underwater excursions, visitors from around the globe continue to return to this Mexican paradise and experience new Riviera Maya activities. Options here are limitless.