Mexico’s Riviera Maya is the country’s premier, tourist hot-spot. It’s a long stretch of spectacular coastline that runs for 75 miles (120 kilometres) along the Yucatan Peninsula, taking in beautiful beaches and incredible scenery. There’s nightlife, bars, restaurants, cafes, and shopping to indulge in at the many resort towns along the length of the Riviera Maya and it’s the best place in Mexico to have a truly spectacular holiday in the sun.
There’s also a range of diverse natural beauty to explore all along the way, from the coral reefs of Cozumel Island to the dense jungles of the interior of the Yucatan. Cenotes are waiting to be swum in, Mayan ruins can be explored and beach after beach of white sands and tropical palm trees are waiting to be enjoyed in the glorious weather.
Mexico’s best coastline has a lot waiting for tourists and to help you to make the most of your holiday, so here’s the top 6 must see attractions in Riviera Maya Mexico.
The Planetarium lies in the eastern part of Playa del Carmen. It is suitable for all ages, though there is an emphasis on courses and programs for children. The Sayab Planetarium has four areas to visit. The Universal Dome, the Observatory, Special Events and Exhibits section, and courses that focus on science, technology and the environment.
The Observatory is uniquely connected to the others in Cancun, Chetumal and Cozumel to further scientific research and data collection. Course and exhibitions are popular in this space, with classes running daily. These focus on science, technology, culture and Mayan history, as the Mayans were some of the greatest astronomers in the world.
This beach is near the Paradisus Hotel. There is a public access just north of the hotel with parking. Here many local families come on the weekend for its remoteness and the fact that there is a small cenote that empties into the ocean. It creates shallow, fresh water pools which are great for kids to swim in.
Most beachgoers here play in the cenote and not the ocean. The ocean floor has some rocks and seaweed in spots, but it is still reasonably hospitable for entry. This beach is partially protected from the open ocean, hidden nicely by a point jutting out in the ocean, which helps make the waves quite small as they come to shore.
Located in the heart of Playa del Carmen, Mamitas Beach is considered one of the liveliest and popular beaches for the twenty-something crowd. This is where the headquarters of the world-famous BPM music festival is situated and the glistening turquoise waters attract hundreds of thousands of awe-struck visitors each year.
For a fee, beach-goers may revel in the sun and have access to sun beds, lounge chairs and food and drink service. A variety of water sports such as kite surf, paddle board, wave runner, and catamaran rentals are available. Every week, DJs from around the world travel to spin their pulsating beats at this chic bikini heaven.
The beach itself is really nice with deep sand and no rocks to be found on the ocean floor, and the water is usually warm and calm.
It’s hard to miss Parque Fundadores beach as it’s the large sandy beach located behind Playa del Carmen’s iconic arch sculpture. This beach is located quite close to the ferry pier for those hoping to take day trips to nearby Cozumel Island.
A trip to this beach isn’t complete without getting your photo at the arch, or the iconic “Playa Del Carmen” sign located right next to it. The line up to this beach has lots of great fruit stalls, so if you fancy some fresh fruit, or even a smoothie, this is the place to be. There are also some good restaurants which serve fresh seafood and cheap margaritas.
This is typically the end point of the main stretch of beaches, so many people don’t tend to sunbathe here as such.
Coco Reef is a little off the beaten track. You’ll need to walk quite a few blocks north along 5th Avenue and then down to the beach. But don’t worry, the walk is nice and there are still lots of restaurants and bars that are a lot cheaper than those closer to the center of town.
You’ll find lots of people sunbathing in little corners of this beach, and there are quite a few fishing boats too. If you need a break from the throngs of tourists, Coco Beach is a good place to escape for a while. This is a true local’s beach.
When you strip a Caribbean vacation down to the basics, it should be about sand, sea, sun and having a super-great time. This is exactly what you’ll find at Paamul beach. You’ll have a great beach day here with snorkeling, diving or kayaking available for the whole family. You can also enjoy ceviche, tacos and deliciously barbequed meat (imported from northern Mexico) and a cerveza at the beachfront restaurant.
Snuggled along the curved stretch of shimmering Caribbean waters in a small bay north of Puerto Aventuras, Paamul beach features white sands with some exposed limestone and lots palm trees on the beach for natural shade.
However, it’s really the offshore coral reef that remains among the most breathtaking and well-preserved attraction here. Zigzagging through the crystalline waters of the Caribbean close to the shore, the reef can easily be explored.
Akumal (in Maya “Place of the Turtle”) is a wonderful eco-village located about 25 minutes south of Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya. It was originally established 50 years ago as a haven for scuba divers. It is still a thriving diving community with great access to the Caribbean reef as well as the cenotes and cave systems in the jungle close by.
Most people flock to the area to swim with turtles in Akumal, as it boasts one of the very best snorkeling spots on the coast with it’s calm waters and large population of resident sea turtles. There are also quite a few small restaurants on and just behind the beach.
The island of Cozumel is located off Mexico’s eastern coast. Cozumel sits within the Caribbean Sea, south of Cancun and near Playa del Carmen on the mainland. Part of the Mexican Mayan Riviera, tourists like to go to Cozumel primarily for the beaches and water recreation. The island experiences tropical weather and offers three cruise ship piers, including an international pier.
Cozumel holds several ancient Mayan ruins sites. San Gervasio is the largest site on the island and the shine of the goddess of fertility, Ix Chel. The island contains 24 sites discovered thus far, including El Cedral and the coastal watchtower Castillo Real – close to some of the best Cozumel snorkeling sites.
A large number of coral reefs ring the island. The reefs are a part of the Cozumel National Marine Park. Dives in the area range from 25 feet (7 meters) to 130 feet (40 meters) in depth, depending on the reef, and dives range from beginner level to advanced. Dive shops and scuba instruction are available on the island.
Cozumel’s parks offer visitors a wide variety of activities in and out of the water. At Chankanaab Park, only 3 miles from the cruise ship terminals, guests can try water recreation such as snorkeling, scuba, snuba, seatrekking, parasailing and kitesurfing. Guests also have the opportunity to swim with manatees, sea lions and dolphins. The park offers hammocks, beach chairs, huts, restrooms and showers for those who want to relax on the beach.
At Playa Mia Grand Beach Park, guests may learn to prepare Mexican cuisine; visit the shopping center for crafts, clothing, jewelry and beach supplies; snorkel, scuba dive, take a banana boat ride or enjoy an outdoor massage. The park offers beach games, a swimming pool and free parking. For kids, the park contains puzzles and giant-sized games. Craft sessions, sand castle contests and Spanish language lessons are also available.
4. Snorkel Sites
Puerto Morelos Marine Park
Although this is one of the most laid back places on the surface, under the waves, there’s a bright and bustling world of life and color. A few metres offshore is the famous Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system, the second largest reef system in the world.
Puerto Morelos is such a unique snorkel site, because here, the reef stretches closer to the shore than in any other area of the Riviera Maya. It’s your underwater dream world full of barracudas, manta rays, seahorses, bright fire coral and even lobsters.
Since it was officially named a protected marine reserve in 1998, the locals in Puerto Morelos have set up special tour companies that will take you on a guided tour of the reef, whilst protecting its important residents.
Cenote Jardín del Edén
Cenote Jardín del Edén, also known as Cenote Ponderosa, is a large natural freshwater pool and arguably one of the best cenotes in Mexico. With its massive rock formations covered in green moss, its translucent green water and its very specific aquatic life, it is a singular snorkeling spot which is well-worth exploring.
Cenote Jardín del Edén is located along the federal route 307, some 15 miles (25 kilometres) south of Playa del Carmen – close to the range of Puerto Aventuras catamaran tours on offer. The cheapest way to reach it is to ride a colectivo (collective taxi) traveling along the Federal Highway. You can also reach it with your own car (a free parking is available at the cenote), or book a tour including a visit to Cenote Jardín del Edén with a local tour operator, generally including snorkeling equipment and pick-up at your hotel.
The area to snorkel covers the whole open-water cenote, which is about 320 feet (100 metres) long and 90 feet (30 metres) wide. The underwater visibility is amazing and offers wonderful light effects. You will surely enjoy exploring the rocks covered in aquatic plants and moss, where you can spot a fair variety of freshwater fish, including mollies, platys and tetras. If you are lucky, you may also spot slider turtles.
There are some small underwater caves passages in the cenote that you can free dive through if you are an advanced snorkeler.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen, the world-famous seaside resort in Riviera Maya, is practically a must-see for visitors to the region. Its vast sandy beach and nightlife have made its reputation. Contrary to popular opinion, you can do some snorkeling from the center of Playa del Carmen on a small reef lying about 150 yards from the beach. Here you will find a nice range of fish in surprisingly well preserved coral beds.
If you visit the Yucatan peninsula, it is quite likely that Playa del Carmen will be one of the places you stay (or perhaps your main destination) during your trip.
Once you’ve arrived in the center of Playa del Carmen, head for the seafront. Walk north along the beach (to the left as you are facing the sea), until you arrive at a spot where a few dozen fishing boats are moored. This is about 0.6 mile (1 kilometre) north of the ferry pier to Cozumel, close to the Reef Coco Beach Hotel.
The spot can be divided into two distinct areas: the seagrass beds, visited by green turtles and southern stingrays, near the beach, and the barrier reef, divided at one point by a pass. The seagrass beds begin near the swimming area and extend for quite a way into the bay. The green turtles and stingrays that visit the area are the spot’s main attractions.
For a little more peace and quiet, you can leave the seagrass bed area and swim at right-angles to the beach towards the barrier reef. After crossing sandy areas that are of little interest, you will soon see the reef. This is dominated by sea fans and several species of hard coral (porites, branching acropora and salad coral). Move along in parallel with the beach and here and there you will come across shoals of grunts, Atlantic blue tang, parrotfish or butterflyfish.
The area around the pass, shown by buoys, is much deeper and the reef drop-off is spectacular. Rays (eagle rays, yellow stingrays) sometimes visit the spot. Be careful when you reach the pass as boats use it to access the beach. Stay at a distance from the pass (the current is strong in the area) and don’t try to go to the other side of the barrier (the sea is rougher).
5. Archaeological Sites
It’s hard to find a little bit of solace in Playa del Carmen’s tourist mayhem, but if you leave Quinta Avenida behind and keep walking another 15 minutes or so south-west, you’ll stumble across a small park with Mayan ruins.
The scale is of course nothing like Tulum, but the upside is that you won’t have to share the Xaman-Ha ruins with hordes of other sightseers. Just walk around and soak in a little of the ancient history. This is also a charming place to have a picnic, write a letter, or read a book.
6. Fundadores Park
This park bears its name to celebrate the founders of Playa del Carmen. Today it is a local favorite very close to a public beach of the same name, where the families meet and where the tour of Fifth Avenue begins.
Here different cultural presentations are made, including the Papantla flyers, and you can enjoy snacks as well as observe the newly created Portal Maya all to the sound of live music performed by local artists.
The Riviera Maya is a bucket list destination for many around the world. Although there are large hotels and tourist amenities throughout the area, there are many eco-tourism options that allow visitors to experience the natural resources and amazing biodiversity of this beautiful region of Mexico.
Few destinations on Earth cause as much amazement as the Riviera Maya. What makes this destination special is its privileged location on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea embrace the powdery white sand of the beaches that cover the coastline. The Riviera Maya exudes the multifaceted spirit of Mexico. Sun and sand, Mayan culture, zip lining, cenotes, diving and snorkeling, shopping and nightlife – just a few of the many exciting options this coastal highlight offers, making for a truly unique and marvelous experience.