The Mayan Riviera — its moniker suggests a tinge of old-world glamour and new-world mystique. In reality, you can sum it up rather prosaically: it’s the strip of heavily developed Caribbean coastline running south from the brash resort town of Cancún in the northeast corner of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, and ending just north of Tulum, a modest beach settlement.
Trimmed by low-lying Yucatán moist forest, it has warm, calm seas and beaches of floury white (though sometimes sargassum-strewn) sand. At certain times of year, several beaches host hatching turtles, and you sometimes come across their discarded eggshells when beachcombing.
Bear in mind that — aside from a few hamlets and workaday port towns — much of the coastline has been taken over by identikit all-inclusive hotels fenced off in their own compounds. That said, the Mayan Riviera does make an accessible and secluded place for relaxing at the end of a busy Mexico tour. We can recommend a handful of more elegant, exclusive properties, which are located in more peaceful pockets. And, there are plenty of places of interest lying inland from the glitzy shoreline.
Playa del Carmen, the main town on the coast after Cancún, can be fun to visit for the day but not necessarily to stay. Its ‘Quinta’ (the main street) throngs with partygoers in the evenings. It’s a former fishing village that has morphed into a beach town but kept much of its Mexican soul (unlike the entirely manufactured Cancún).
Once beloved by backpackers, it now has a slightly more upmarket sheen. You’ll see beach volleyball games, and you can dine at unfussy restaurants serving excellent seafood. It also has a scattering of much-weathered Maya temples, a site called Xaman-Ha.
Maya ruins dot the Yucatán, the most celebrated being Chichén Itzá. You’re best visiting the venerable stone remnants of this Maya ceremonial complex with an overnight stay close by. If you’re not able to do that, you can still visit in a day (even via helicopter, if you fancy it) from the Mayan Riviera.
Tulum, a cluster of ruins mounted right on the cliffs to the south of the Mayan Riviera’s strip, is a very doable site. It’s also arguably one of the most photogenic, with its squat Temple of the Wind positioned as if gazing out over the cerulean Caribbean Sea. Tulum’s structures are often slathered with sunbathing iguanas.
Then there’s Cobá, an intriguing ruin in several ways. Its showpiece, the Nohoch Mul pyramid, recalls the steeper structures of Guatemala’s Tikal rather than the stepped pyramids of Chichén Itzá.
Unlike Chichén Itzá’s El Castillo pyramid, you can still climb to the summit of Nohoch Mul and look out over the virtually unbroken forest canopy. It’s one of the few ruins in Mexico still partially ensnared by the surrounding vegetation. It’s also a rambling site, so the best way to get around is by renting a bicycle.
Cenotes (natural sinkholes) litter the porous limestone bedrock of the Yucatán, and swimming in their cool waters can be a highlight of a visit here. At the open-to-the-skies Akumal Cenote you can snorkel alongside marine turtles, which thrive here due to a successful local breeding and conservation project.
You can also swim in cenotes in one of the Riviera’s many nature parks. Some, such as cave-riddled Aktun-Chen, are less commercial than bigger offerings such as Xel-Há. They’re all well-maintained, though, and often offer guided activities, snorkeling, and zip-lining. They cater particularly well to families.
Best time to visit the Mayan Riviera
Time your visit between November and June to avoid the humidity (and busyness) of high summer and the tropical storms of August and September. Be aware that, between November and January, this destination can get very windy.
Map of the Mayan Riviera
Places & hotels on the map
Places near the Mayan Riviera
- Playa del Carmen less than 5 miles away
- Tulum 39 miles away
- Cancun 39 miles away
- Coba 45 miles away
- Isla Mujeres 47 miles away
- Isla Holbox 63 miles away
- Chichén Itzá 98 miles away
- Yucatán Peninsula 113 miles away
- Merida & Around 167 miles away
- Merida 167 miles away
- Kabah 170 miles away
- Uxmal 176 miles away
Accommodation choices for the Mayan Riviera
We’ve selected a range of accommodation options for when you visit the Mayan Riviera. Our choices usually come recommended for their character, facilities and service or location. Our specialists always aim to suggest properties that match your preferences.
Ideas for experiencing the Mayan Riviera
Our specialists seek out authentic ways to get to know the places that could feature in your trip. These activities reflect some of the experiences they've most enjoyed while visiting the Mayan Riviera, and which use the best local guides.