The Riviera Maya is a glorious stretch of sparkling white sand and turquoise-green Caribbean waters, bathed in balmy tropical sunshine. Beginning in Cancún at the northeast tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, and running about 80 miles south along Mexico’s Caribbean coast, this spectacular stretch of palm-studded beach draws about five million vacationers from across the globe, each year, making it the Caribbean’s number one vacation destination.
The beaches of Mexico’s Riviera Maya are world-class and attract eager vacationers as well as expats seeking an affordable, tropical lifestyle on the Caribbean. But besides the beach, what is there to do on the Riviera Maya? Well, the answer is, there’s plenty!
1. Discover Cenotes
Rivers course beneath the surface of the Riviera Maya, producing sinkholes and underground caves filled with crystal-clear water, known as cenotes. Many are found in caves close to the surface, surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites that are tens of thousands of years old, while others are out in the open. There are thousands of these cenotes on the Yucatán Peninsula and many are accessible by car. Most are on private property, where owners charge a small fee for access. Others are large commercial tourist operations. We like the lesser known ones, usually found by following a hand-scrawled sign leading down a rutted trail leading into the jungle.
2. Explore Maya Ruins
The Yucatán Peninsula is the land of the Mayas. This powerful and dominant civilization developed across a broad territory including much of Mexico and there are many archeological sites in the area available to the public for only a small fee, including the famous Chichen Itza. Of all that we’ve seen, my favorite is Ek’ Balam, although Coba and Tulúm are also both worth the trip. For a little extra money, you can get an English-speaking tour guide that will be able to tell you about all aspects of the Maya civilization and the particular site you are visiting.
3. Take a Jungle Tour
Operators along the Riviera Maya offer a variety of guided jungle tours. These can vary from a bumpy trip in a rugged truck-type rig outfitted with bench seats in the rear and covered by a canopy; a quad-cycle where you drive your own quad bike, following your guide; or a more leisurely nature hike.
Most of these tours will include a zip line ride and a visit to one or more cenotes for swimming and snorkeling, as well as permitting plenty of time in the jungle where your guide will point out various interesting plants, insects, and stunning, colorful birds. Guides are usually bi-lingual and all are well versed in the natural flora and fauna of the region.
4. Go on an Urban Hike
Nothing beats a leisurely walk for seeing, hearing, and smelling your surroundings (not to mention making savings on transportation). When in Cancún, get out of the Hotel Zone tourist area and spend time walking among the shops, markets, and local stores of the downtown. Here you’ll find a rich mixture of Maya, Spanish, and Mexican people. Visit Mercado 28 and Mercado 23 for the best deals and eat in tiny, family owned restaurants. Inhale the aromas of the street food and hear the sounds of Tejano music wafting through the air. Practice your Spanish with people on the street and snap some photos of locals going about their day-to-day lives.
5. Experience the Nightlife
Cancún and Playa del Carmen have plenty of nightlife to keep you entertained. Most night time hubs don’t get rolling until about 10 p.m., so a siesta in the afternoon will allow you to enjoy an incredible experience at places like Coco Bongo in Cancún, or the newly constructed Cirque du Soleil theater.
For those considering an expat life on the Riviera Maya, don’t assume the beach is your only source of entertainment. There is plenty to explore and do in this area, meaning the Yucatán Peninsula can provide a plethora of activities to last a lifetime.
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