11 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid in the Riviera Maya

See recent posts by Katherine Alex Beaven

Starting just south of Cancun, in Puerto Morelos, and ending at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, the Riviera Maya is famous for its beaches, though it also attracts tourists with its ruins, historic attractions (it's home to the ancient and advanced Mayan civilization, after all), and eco-adventures. To make the most of your trip to the Riviera Maya, avoid these 11 rookie mistakes.

1. Expecting to See Only Pristine White-Sand Beaches

Many visitors to the Riviera Maya complain that the beaches are covered in seaweed – sargassum to be exact. Some feel duped by resort photos that advertise white sand and beautiful clear water. The reality is that many beaches are strewn with heaps of reddish seaweed and a bad smell. This is a naturally occurring phenomenon in the area, and it has always been an issue. However, climate change and other factors have caused a spike in sargassum over the last few years. Do some research before booking, but be prepared to encounter this natural nuisance, as it’s pretty unavoidable these days.   

2. Only Visiting the Cancun Hotel Zone or Playa del Carmen

If we’re getting technical, Cancun isn’t actually a part of the Riviera Maya. Cancun may be the gateway to the Riviera Maya, but it shouldn’t be the extent of your travels (though the beaches here do see less sargassum). Meanwhile, Playa del Carmen is a popular stop in the Riviera Maya, but its busy, touristy streets and beach clubs aren’t representative of what the area has to offer. We’re not saying to skip these places, but it’s also worth exploring other spots like Coba, Akumal, and Tulum, where you’ll find everything from ruins, cenotes, and gorgeous jungles.

3. Thinking Tulum Will Be Quaint

There was a time, not so long ago, when Tulum was a small town with one dirt road and a few small businesses. About 10 years ago, it started attracting backpackers and travelers looking to get off the grid and reconnect with nature. The development has turned this quiet spot into one of the most-visited destinations in the Riviera Maya. Gone are the days of no Wi-Fi and just a few hours of electricity at Tulum’s beach resorts. Instead, the town has turned into an expensive bohemian haven. It’s still one of our favorite places to visit, but make no mistake: This hidden gem has been discovered.

4. Forgetting to Pack Sunscreen and Bug Spray

Sunscreen and bug spray are both expensive here, and that’s probably because merchants know these are two things you won’t want to live without when visiting the Riviera Maya. Mosquitos are no joke here and can carry diseases, so be sure to get a bug spray that will keep you bite-free. Be careful not to burn in the sun, too. Reapply sunscreen often (about every two hours) because sweat and swims will take the protection right off.

5. Not Bringing Eco-Friendly Toiletries for Excursions

While you’re at it, go ahead and pack some eco-friendly, reef-safe sunscreen, bug spray, and toiletries, including shampoo and conditioner, if you can. Chances are, you came to the Riviera Maya to enjoy the beautiful beach and nature, so help to protect it. Regular sunscreen, bug spray, shampoos, and body lotions can be devastating to coral reefs and other marine life as the chemicals wash off in the water. Many hotels here offer biodegradable toiletries, but to be sure, bring your own. Yes, it can be expensive, but you only need to wear it when interacting with the environment.

6. Just Sticking to the Beaches in Riviera Maya

The beaches here are big draws, but if you can peel yourself off your lounger and venture into the jungle or to some of the area’s historic sites and local towns, you’ll have a much richer experience. Plus, you’ll get more bang for your buck in these non-touristy spots. If trekking or kayaking through the jungle isn’t your style, head to one of the Xcaret parks, which offer a taste of the Riviera Maya for tourists.

7. Driving on the Main Road After Dark

Traveling through the area in your own car? Stay off Highway 307 and other main roads after dark. Not only are they usually poorly lit, but you’re also likely to encounter speedy locals and hard-to-see people crossing the road. There are also frequent speed bumps, called topas, sprinkled along the way that can definitely pop a tire — or worse.

8. Staying Inside Your All-Inclusive Resort 

We hope this is obvious by now, but we’ll say it one more time for the folks at the pool bar: Leave your resort. We know it’s gorgeous. We know it includes food and drink. We know you’re enjoying your terrace whirlpool. However, your comfy all-inclusive with the outstanding French restaurant is not representative of the entire Riviera Maya region. You’d be shorting yourself if you only stayed behind those gates. Get out and explore the area, even if it’s on an organized tour or a quick trip to the local taqueria. Plus, you’ll be supporting the local economy directly, which is always a good thing.

9. Only Eating at the Touristy Restaurants in Riviera Maya

Speaking of that local taqueria — the Riviera Maya has some fantastic food, including tangy ceviche, whole fried fish, seafood cocktails, octopus tacos, and much more. Get off the main streets and out of the touristy chain restaurants to really get a taste of the area. Many people think that deviating from the big-name restaurants or resorts might lead to a risk of food-borne illnesses, but we’d argue that the busy local joints often have fresher food, thanks to their high turnaround and demand. (Also, it’s absolutely safe to consume ice at nearly every restaurant you’ll come across in the Riviera Maya, so go ahead and order that cocktail).

10. Looking for Drugs

Beach at the Gran Caribe Real Cancun

Beach in Cancun/Oyster

It seems that paradise is not without its flaws. Drugs have become a growing issue in the Riviera Maya, leading to shootings and other violent acts in touristy areas like Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Tourist demand is part of the problem. Be smart and don’t try to score drugs while you’re in town. It’s illegal, dangerous, and promotes violence.

11. Skipping a Dip in a Cenote in Riviera Maya

The Riviera Maya is home to a remarkably high number of underground rivers, called cenotes. To the ancient Mayans, cenotes were sacred. Some believed they were a portal into the spirit world, while others said they were used as sacrificial sites to appease the rain god, Chaak, who was thought to live in their depths. Geologically, they are limestone sinkholes that have been naturally filled with water. There are hundreds of cenotes in the Riviera Maya, and taking a dip in one is a refreshing treat. They are all different, either offering a cave-, pool-, or river-like experience, though Rio Secreto, Gran Cenote, and Dos Ojos are some of the largest and most popular.

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