Mexico's Riviera Maya is located just south of Cancun, along the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula. It's a beautiful stretch of coast that has warm waters, a top-notch reef system, and soft sand beaches that host large tangles of seaweed. Thanks to the straight shot along Highway 307 and its close proximity to Cancun International Airport, Riviera Maya is one of the more easily accessible dreamlands in the country. Highlights include shopping, jungles, ancient ruins, frozen drinks, underwater river systems, sustainable restaurants, nightclubs, and plenty of beaches. There are also a few things that you absolutely shouldn't miss during your visit. So, if you aren't quite sure how fill your days, here are a few of the best things -- in no particular order -- that you should do while visiting one of Mexico's magical areas. And don't worry if you can't do them all, as it just gives you a reason to come back.
1. Splash around and swim through a cenote.
The word cenote translates into English as sinkhole, though we feel it's an unjust term for these beautiful underwater wells. Nonetheless, the Mayan Riviera has an astounding number of cenotes (we're talking thousands), so tourists are spoiled for choice when it comes to picking one to explore. As such, it would be impossible to list them all, so here are a few of our top picks that range from unmarked, hidden spots to full-on tourist attractions. A few of the more touristy (but still beautiful) spots include Rio Secreto and Cenote Azul, just south of Playa del Carmen; the cave cenotes of Dos Ojos, between Akumal and Tulum; and Gran Cenote, which is probably the most-visited cenote in the area and located just outside of Tulum. Smaller spots include Jardin del Eden, where fish will come and clean your feet; the casual and barely marked Cenote Manatee, located near Tulum; and La Noria, where you can also swing above the water.
2. Visit an eco-adventure park.
It may seem odd to visit an adventure park with so much natural adventure lurking around, but the theme parks in Riviera Maya aren't your average Disney or Universal lot. Most parks, like Xel-Ha, Xplor, and Xcaret, have an eco-friendly aspect that make them unique. These parks use their natural surroundings to create activities that are specific to the area. For example, Xcaret blends modern attractions like shopping and performance with archeological sites, introductions to Mayan culture, and water-based activities like snorkeling, swimming in cenotes, and river cruises. Xplor, on the other hand, will allow you to zipline above thick jungle and float through cenotes.
3. Swim with turtles.
Akumal was kept somewhat of a secret between locals and in-the-know tourists, but in recent years -- for better or worse -- that has all changed. Now, the once sleepy beach town is a hot spot for tourism. While some may come for the relatively undiscovered feel of the area, most are drawn here for the chance to spot (and even swim with) sea turtles in the warm, blue waters. Just be sure to be kind to these delicate animals: wear biodegradable sunscreen, don't pick up any eggs you find on the beach, and never touch a turtle.
4. Kayak through Sian Ka'an.
Riviera Maya's gorgeous ruins, cenotes, and underwater world get a lot of attention, but we are also big fans of the biosphere located on the southern edge of Tulum. In fact, Tulum's narrow beach road leads right into the lush jungle of Sian Ka'an. There are tons of things to do here, including snorkeling, diving, and nature walks, but we highly recommend exploring this UNESCO World Heritage site with a kayak. If you book through Cesiak, you can expect a portion of your money to go towards conservation efforts in the reserve, a knowledgeable guide, and a delicious grilled fish meal. That's a win-win-win in our book.
5. Spend the day at a beach club in Playa del Carmen.
Riviera Maya has no shortage of places to plop down on the sand and enjoy a day at the beach, but not all spots are created equal. Many places are unequipped, meaning you won't find anything more than a stretch of sand when you arrive. When you arrive at some of the more touristy areas, much of the beach space is for hotel guests only. What's a beach bum to do? Head over to Playa del Carmen and throw down your towel (and a few cocktails) at one of the many beach clubs. This way, you'll have a well-kept beach, cocktails on hand, music, snacks, and bathrooms. Plus, you'll have the option of setting up shop under some shade, which can be priceless during the hottest months. Entry usually requires a minimum purchase, though some spots may charge an entry fee.
6. Visit the beachside ruins of Tulum.
The ruins of Tulum have become a real hot spot over the last decade, thanks to their insanely picturesque cliff-top setting that drops down onto a small beach. This small and well-preserved ancient port village holds significance as being one of the last spots built and inhabited by the ancient Mayans. It's also one of the easiest ruin compounds to access since it's right off the main highway. Its manageable size makes it a great stopover, especially if you are only in the Tulum area for the day. While you are here, you might as well have a fresh sugarcane cocktail at Batey.
7. Explore the second-largest reef system in the world.
Riviera Maya is home to a section of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the second-largest reef system in the world. This tropical barrier reef runs about 620 miles down the coast, stretching from the top of the Yucatan Peninsula all the way down to Honduras. The warm waters off Riviera Maya make for comfortable swimming temperatures, while close to a 1,000 different marine life species -- curvy coral, bright fish, gliding turtles, and magnificent whale sharks (the largest fish on the planet) -- offer up a more than memorable glimpse of their underwater world. Whether you're a novice or a seasoned diver, the underwater action off the Riviera Maya's coast can't be missed.
8. Take an easy day trip.
One of the best things about Riviera Maya is its location. It's a quick drive from Cancun International Airport, plus it's easy to take day trips that dive further into Mexican history and culture, or that put you in the center of a nonstop party. A straight shot up Highway 307 will bring you to Cancun's buzzing party scene in about 30 minutes. Cancun is also the jumping off point to reach popular spots like Isla Mujeres and the island of Cozumel, home to fantastic diving. The famous ruin complex of Chichen Itza and the historically significant ruins at Coba (where you can also climb an ancient pyramid) are both about a two- to two-and-a-half-hour drive from any given spot in the Mayan Riviera.
NOW WATCH: A Cheat Sheet to the Top Destinations in the Riviera Maya
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