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While Cancun, Mexico, is known for its mega all-inclusive hotels and 24/7 energy, Mexico's Riviera Maya is its slightly more sophisticated sister. Just an hour south of Cancun International Airport sits a stretch of beautiful beaches, boutique and luxury hotels, superb dining, rich Mayan culture, and accessible adventure.

The Riviera Maya is a sugary stretch of Caribbean coastline on the northeastern corner of the Yucatan Peninsula. Its hub is the city of Playa del Carmen, which has blossomed over the last decade, becoming a veritable dining and nightlife hotspot all its own. At the southern end of Riviera Maya sits Tulum, a town heralded for its yoga retreats, farm-to-table dining, boutique shopping, and bleached beaches. And beyond Tulum? A paradise of natural beauty waiting to be discovered.

There is no shortage of adventure to be had along Mexico's Caribbean coast, and with abundant taxis, local tour operators, and car rental agencies providing safe and affordable transportation, it’s easier to access than ever before. If you're looking for Riviera Maya’s best of the best, here are some ideal places to begin.

One of the cenotes near Cancun in Riviera Maya.

Discover The Mayan Underworld

Flowing beneath the earth of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is a massive network of underground rivers. This subterranean aquatic playground was the primary source of freshwater for the Mayan communities that have inhabited this part of Mexico for centuries. Mayans believed that the rivers, and the entrances to them, known as cenotes, were spiritual places that led to the underworld. Whether or not you believe this to be true, the fact remains that these stunning natural phenomena are among the most unique sites in the world -- and it is possible to discover them for yourself.

There are more than 3,000 cenotes in Mexico. Dipping in for a dive or scuba experience, it’s easy to see why the Mayans considered these mystical places. An entire world of caves, stalactites, and rock formations wait underneath crystal-clear water. Rise out of the caves and you’ll be enveloped in a world of lush, vine-wrapped jungle teeming with wildlife.

Choosing one out of Mexico’s 3,000 cenotes can be daunting, especially since cenote snorkeling is one of the most popular activities in the Riviera Maya.

Opt for a private adventure with Journey Mexico, an expert in curated Mexico travel. Journey Mexico guides will arrange to have travelers picked up from their hotels in Playa del Carmen for a four-to-five-hour tour to visit the Gran Cenote or Dos Ojos Cenote, each renowned for its ancient formations, stalactites, and stalagmites. The water of this ancient sinkhole is so clear that visitors will be able to see deep down through it during the experience, often without having to put their heads under water. The tour includes transportation, entrance fees, equipment, water, and a light lunch. To book the experience, visit their site and fill out the Contact Us form. One of their Trip Planners will follow up to arrange.

Diving with a whale shark in the Riviera Maya.

Dive With Gentle Giants

Just off the coast of the Riviera Maya is one of the prime natural habitats for one of the largest animals in the world -- the whale shark. These underwater titans can grow to more than 40 feet, but are among the most gentle creatures on earth. Due to the fact that they swim close to the water’s surface, sightings are common. Even better? It’s entirely possible to swim beside them for a human-with-nature moment you’ll never forget.

Many companies in Riviera Maya and Cancun offer the experience as part of a tour. One of the better options is EcoColors Tours, which was the very first organization to provide the whale shark experience for travelers nearly 20 years ago. EcoColors Tours provides daily tours during whale shark season (May 26 to September 15) that last approximately seven hours. The tours cruise the waters surrounding Riviera Maya and Cancun, visiting the islands of Isla Mujeres, Contoy, and Holbox, which is where the Caribbean Sea meets the Gulf of Mexico and is prime feeding territory for whale sharks. The tours include light breakfast and lunch, soft drinks, snorkel equipment, and professional guides.

The ruins at Coba in Riviera Maya, Mexico.

Step Into The Past

Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is home to dozens upon dozens of Mayan archaeological sites. Some, including Chichen Itza and Tulum, are among the most photographed and toured in the world, while others are equally impressive but far off the beaten path.

In Riviera Maya, most adventurous visitors will make the trek to Tulum to see the cliffside towers perched over the sugar-coated sand. But a far more intimate experience can be found at the ruins of Coba.

Two hours south of Cancun, buried deep in the jungle, is this Mayan masterpiece. The ruins at Coba are among the largest examples of Mayan architecture that still exist in Mexico. While little is known about the city itself, there is no mistaking its former grandeur. At the moment, much of the site still remains shrouded in mystery as many of the ruins have yet to be excavated, but walking around the space today provides a definite "lost city" vibe.

Visitors will be enchanted by one of the tallest pyramids on the entire peninsula, plus panoramic views of the surrounding sea of jungle. Coba's most notable features are its stone roadways that vein the jungled city, 16 of which are open to the public. The pathways all converge around the main pyramid complex, Nohoch Mul, at the center of which is Ixmoja, the largest pyramid. The best part is that this structure is climbable, a rarity among still-standing Mayan ruins. The view from the top is simply breathtaking.

Journey Mexico offers a private tour of Coba, as well, which also includes Tulum. An experienced guide will lead visitors through the relics, discussing theories that aim to explain the different temples, ball courts, and other structures. The site is so large that guests with Journey Mexico will be given the choice to visit by bicycle on their own, or by tricycles driven by locals (who still speak the ancient Mayan language). Following the tour of Coba, travelers will have the opportunity to visit Tulum for a beautiful lunch on the beach and a visit to the famed ruins.

The Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve in Riviera Maya.

Take A Walk In The Wild

There are parts of the southern end of Riviera Maya that feel as if they’re another world away. Uninhabited powdery beaches are backed by lush mangrove forests, veined with rivers, and popping with brilliantly colored birds and other animals that lurk among the trees. But one place in particular stands out as the most spectacular and secluded -- the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

This sprawling natural reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the entire area has been a home for Mayan people for more than 2,000 years). It is one of the only corners of the Yucatan Peninsula that feels as if you have truly stepped back in time. Sian Ka’an is one of Mexico’s largest protected areas, with 75 miles of preserved coastline, including a marine protected area. The reserve is home to hundreds of bird species as well as manatees, jaguars, pumas, ocelots, and the Central American tapir. There are many cenotes in the reserve, as well.

The best way to experience the reserve is with a half-day tour, typically through tour operator Visit Sian Ka’an. These eco tours are intimate, with a maximum of six people on open tours and 12 on private tours. A selection of tours are available, including ones that focus predominantly on nature and others that combine Mayan cultural experiences with the spectacular natural beauty that can only be found within the reserve.

The "Lake of Seven Colors" in Bacalar, Mexico.

Swim Mexico’s Second Largest Lake

While Tulum may be the farthest south most people go when visiting Riviera Maya, it's worth it to dig a little deeper. Two hours south of Tulum, the landscape opens up to an entirely different world, and Bacalar is the entry point. The town of Bacalar, which is one of Mexico's Magic Towns (a distinction given to Mexican towns renowned for their preservation of culture and heritage) is home to the second largest lake in Mexico, a lagoon that is often referred to as the "Lake of Seven Colors." Its name comes from the electric blue color that seems to shift and shape throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky.

This sprawling, pool-like lake is often mistaken for the Caribbean Sea because of its size and jaw-dropping color. It's a popular playground for kayaking, sailing, swimming, or simply sitting on the shoreline at one of the few eco-resorts for a lovely lunch and chilled glass of wine (or a fine tequila). Certain parts of the lake are known for having limestone sediment floor, which can be used as a natural exfoliant and spa treatment. It's not uncommon to find visitors sunbathing with this natural body scrub, soaking up the benefits and rejuvenating their skin.

Bacalar still remains somewhat off of the tourist-beaten trail, but visitors looking to spend the day can easily rent a car and drive the direct road to the lake. Alternatively, hire a private guide and driver to provide round-trip transportation.

Aerial view of the Hyatt Andaz resort in Riviera Maya.

Check Into Luxury

Mexico is home to its fair share of luxurious resorts, but one of the highest concentrations can be found in the Riviera Maya. Five-star resorts pepper the coastline between Cancun and down to the Sian Ka’an Reserve, with headlining names like Banyan Tree, Fairmont, Andaz, and Viceroy, and smaller, boutique options, as well. Even if just as a splurge for one night, it is worth indulging in one of Mexico’s premiere resort experiences. Many come complete with private villas, plunge pools, butler service, exquisite dining, and customized experiences.

That said, if such a splurge is out of the budget, the Riviera Maya has plenty of equally comfortable, but more affordable options, as well.

A delicious Mexican dinner at La Perla Pixan in Riviera Maya.

Eating In Riviera Maya

Mexico’s cuisine is as diverse as its people and its landscapes. Riviera Maya has its own unique set of flavors and cooking styles that set it apart. That, combined with the international, jet-set crowd and their culinary influences, makes this part of Mexico one of the world’s premiere dining destinations. Here’s what to try, and where to eat, while you’re there.

Cochinita Pibil

This dish is most indicative of the Riviera Maya, with its roots stemming from the Mayans who have lived here for thousands of years. Cochinita pibil is a slow-cooked dish that involves hours of roasting pork wrapped in banana leaves and smothered in local spices -- underground. The result is moist, tender, juicy strips of shredded pork that are wrapped in fluffy corn tortillas and served with a series of spicy sauces and pickled onions. Cochinita pibil can be found at most taco stands, or on menus at most Mexican restaurants in the region.

Hartwood

A trip to the Riviera Maya is incomplete without a reservation at Hartwood, easily Tulum’s most famous and best restaurant. The entirely al fresco restaurant sets the mood with hundreds of candles illuminating the space. The menu changes daily based on what's available, as its chefs scour nearby markets and farms to find the best ingredients. The sustainable restaurant aims to leave zero carbon footprint, with all cooking done over open fire, and all ingredients sourced from the Riviera Maya.

La Perla Pixan

Located in Playa del Carmen, La Perla Pixan is a laid-back, casual restaurant with a supremely authentic and elevated menu. Don't be fooled by the palapa roof -- the menu is top tier. Fusing together traditional and regional Mexican cooking, plus a few mezcal cocktails, the family-style restaurant is an absolute must for the rich flavors, hearty ingredients, and absolutely local vibe.

Paseo del Carmen shopping mall in Riviera Maya.

Shopping In Riviera Maya

Shopping in the Riviera Maya is a rewarding experience, no matter what visitors are looking for. From high-end, designer brands, to artisanal, handmade crafts, and everything in between, this is a shopper's paradise. As mentioned before, there is a well-oiled taxi system in place in Riviera Maya, with clearly marked, designated taxis that are abundant all over the region. These safe modes of transportation are the best ways to get to and from shopping experiences. Similarly, many hotels and resorts along the Riviera Maya offer shuttles into Playa del Carmen. For visits to Tulum it is best to arrange a taxi service, or take the bus (another very safe option) from Playa del Carmen. The ADO bus terminal is centrally located and has daily buses to Tulum.

Playa del Carmen's 5th Avenue is where the shopping begins. This pedestrian thoroughfare is lined with restaurants, bars, and a dizzying shopping scene, where luxury brands rub elbows with souvenir shops. The Paseo del Carmen, located near the ferry pier, has the highest concentration of shops. The open-air setting has a path that winds from one designer store to the next.

For something more locally crafted, visit Vidrio Soplado Mexicano, also in Playa del Carmen, known for its hand-blown glass. Imagine rows and rows of vases, pitchers, and bowls all brightly splashed with intense greens, blues, and reds. This hidden gem is a must for lovers of Mexican handicrafts.

Farther south, Tulum provides another option for luxury shopping, with high-end, unique boutiques, like Caravana Montaecristo, sporting a completely handmade line of linen bags, leather totes, wallets, and gorgeous boho-chic fashion.

For traditional crafts visit Mixik -- you'll spot it by its brilliant red and orange colors and palapa roof. This is the best spot in town to pick up ceramic bowls, sculptures, and folk art.

Still considering where to take your Mexico vacation? Our list of seven enchanting things to do in Puerto Vallarta might have you headed to the country's Pacific Coast instead!

Photo Credit: Earth / Unsplash

Photo Credit: Simon Dannhauer / Shutterstock

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