One of our favorite places for a beach vacation with teens is the Mexican state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatán Peninsula–also known as the Riviera Maya. The Riviera Maya offers gorgeous beaches, winter sunshine, fascinating historical sites, and warm and welcoming people. And the food is amazing! We were lucky enough to spend a year in various places around Quintana Roo and we look forward to returning.  

While the Riviera Maya is famous for its white sand beaches and warm turquoise water, each city has its own unique feeling.  Here are our favorites:

Cancún

Cancun

The most popular (and closest to the airport), Cancún is an excellent choice if you are looking for a classic resort experience.  The beaches are wide with gentle waves for body surfing.  Most of the resorts offer umbrella-covered chairs on the beach, with food and beverage service right to your chair.  The resorts rake the beaches so they are mostly seaweed free, so if you love to relax on a clean white sand beach then Cancún is an excellent choice.  It is our teens’ pick for best body surfing.

Playa del Carmen

Riviera-Maya7

Playa del Carmen is about 45 minutes south of Cancún. The main drag — Quinta Avenida — is known for shopping, an international food scene, and a vibrant nightlife.  The beaches are mostly public, but if you want the beach club experience they have chairs with service, or you can choose from one of several all-inclusive resorts with their own beaches.   Playacar is a gated development with a golf course, high-end hotels, restaurants, condominiums and rental homes.  We love the restaurants in Playa del Carmen and the energy is undeniable.
Just to the south of Playa, the resort, theme park and ‘eco-development’ of Xcaret offers entertainment and food, snorkeling and cave exploration, all with a Mayan theme.  Right next door is the Xplore adventure park, with zip-lining, amphibious vehicles, rafting & underground rivers.

Puerto Aventuras

Puerto Aventuras

Puerto Aventuras is a quiet master planned community just south of Playa Del Carmen.  It has some great resorts, a few quiet restaurants, a marina and a lot of condos. Dreams Puerto Aventuras is located there, as well as the Hard Rock Riviera Maya.  If you want to experience the unique freshwater pools of the Yucatán known as cenotes, you can find a well-regarded one at Cenote Chac-Mool, right nearby.  

Akumal

 
Riviera-Maya6Akumal is known for having some of the best snorkeling and sea turtle experiences in the Riviera Maya.  The turtles come right up near snorkelers, and the town has taken great care to protect them while still offering eco-friendly experiences for tourists.  In 2017, the city launched new rules to protect the turtles and ensure that they are not driven off by the increasing interest in seeing them.  Snorkeling must be done in groups of 6 or less, and only with a guide.  Certain areas are roped off for viewing, so turtles can escape the humans if they get annoyed. 
Best experienced as a day trip, we recommend calling or emailing dive shops and tour operators ahead of time to reserve your spaces.  It’s a short drive or taxi ride from Playa del Carmen, and the town has some nice restaurants for a cool one and some tacos after your snorkel run.

Tulum

Tulum

Famous for its Mayan ruins, which are the only ruins in Mexico that overlook the ocean, Tulum has a wide variety of experiences to offer, without the crowds of Cancún.  Puebló Tulum is a quiet crossroads town by comparison with its glamorous neighbor to the north, but it makes up for it with charm, and the people are relaxed and friendly.  It attracts more backpackers and families, and many visitors stay in vacation rentals or smaller hotels. 
Tulum Beach is a long and beautiful beach with fashionable beach “clubs” that offer a quiet hammock, lounge chair or beach spot for a modest fee or just for buying your food and drink from their restaurant.  Definitely worth a stop.
Just to the north of Tulum, the Xel-Ha water park offers fun in the sun for all ages.  Swinging ropes, floating tubes, snorkeling and more are available for a day of fun.
At the south end of Tulum, there are several small “eco-resorts” carved out of the shoreline, offering peace and personal service, plus some really good food and drinks.  Where that ends, the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve begins, which is one of the largest nature preserves in the Yucatán and has some of the best bird-watching, snorkeling kayaking and fly fishing.

Cozumel

Cozumel

Cozumel is a jewel of a Caribbean Island just 12 miles off the coast of Playa del Carmen.  Known for its spectacular coral reefs, Cozumel’s west coast is the perfect place for diving and snorkeling.  Cozumel’s main town has all the shopping and dining you could ask for, and the sunsets from the island are glorious, as they set over the water and the mainland of the Riviera Maya.
Condominiums, hotels and “beach clubs” are abundant on the Cozumel coast, and access is easy via regular ferry runs from downtown Playa del Carmen.  Flights from Cancún and the U.S. are also available.

Isla Mujeres

Whale Shark in Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres is a small charming island 8 miles off the coast north of Cancún.  It offers excellent diving, including snorkeling a Mayan temple and a sanctuary for sea turtles. Swimming with whale sharks is a popular attraction, during the season from mid-May to September when they are active in the area.  Check with local tour providers for specific tours and book in advance, as they tend to fill up weeks in advance.

Getting there

The Cancún Airport is small and easy to get through. Immigration will need to know where you are staying so be sure to have your hotel or Vacation Rental address convenient. After you pass through immigration you will likely be approached by people selling timeshares. Timeshares are a big thing in Mexico and it seems like people are inviting you to presentations everywhere you go. We just say “no, gracias” and keep walking.
Many hotels offer airport pickups but there are several other transportation options. You can catch a cab from the airport to any city on the peninsula, hire a private transfer or ride the ADO bus. We love the ADO bus. It’s clean, comfortable and very affordable. The downside is that it drops off in downtown Cancún and Playa del Carmen. This is fine if you are staying close to the stop, but if not you will need to catch a cab on arrival.

Renting a car

Renting a car in the Riviera Maya is a great way to see a lot of the area without being tied down to bus routes or the inability to get a cab.  We really enjoyed driving there, despite the occasional stray dog or crazy motorcyclist.  The roads are mostly well maintained in the cities and highways, and the smaller roads are in pretty good shape with the occasional pothole.  There’s a large highway from Cancún to Tulum and Bacalar, and a toll road from Cancún to Mérida that is in exceptionally good shape.

When you rent the car, be sure to get the full insurance, even though it might cost as much as the daily rate you’re paying for the rental.  You really want to be insured, as accidents in Mexico for uninsured motorists can end up with people sitting in the police lockup until they sort out who is at fault.

Getting gas is different than in the United States or Canada.  Every station is full service, and you must tell your attendant if you want a specific peso amount or if you want your tank filled up you say, “lleno, por favor.”  Watch the attendant go to the pump and make sure that it says “0.00” before they start.  We sometimes would ask “en cero?” or “at zero?” and the attendants would laugh and wink, and say “si, si, of course señor!”.  It’s a classic scam at Mexican gas stations to start the counter higher than 0 so you get less gas than you paid for.

You can find the major international rental companies in the Riviera, but we recommend our good friends at Isis Car Rental.  They’re a family-run company with 20 years serving the greater Playa and Cozumel area.  The owner would often run a car over to us at our condominium so we didn’t have to take a taxi to him, and we would do the paperwork and run my credit card right there.  His cars are reliable and his rates fair, and the insurance includes his personal cell number in case you get into an accident, so he can come out and talk with the police directly, to avoid any problems for you.  We wrote a complete review if you’re interested.

Taxis 

You can hail a taxi on the street or at a stand.  Most don’t have meters so you will need to ask the driver to give you a price right away.  Ask your hotel or search online for rate charts to give you an idea of how much you should pay.  Always ask the taxi driver how much before you get in the cab and make sure you understand if it’s in pesos or dollars (the best price is always in pesos).  If you don’t like the answer you can always walk away (they will typically call you back with a lower price).  Not all drivers speak English so it’s best to start in Spanish by saying cuanto por un viaje a (name of the place you are going). I find it helps if I write down where I want to go so I can show them when discussing the rate.  Tipping is not necessary but it is common to add 10-20 pesos for extra service like helping with bags.  You must pay in cash.

If you like the driver ask them for their card and you can call them next time you need a cab.  

Collectivos

For the more adventurous or frugal traveler, collectivos are small buses that make regular runs on a defined route, usually stopping at a major store or intersection.  Typically they carry up to 25 people and their purchases, so it can get crowded and there’s no A/C.  You pay the driver a small amount upon boarding, and we recommend telling them where you’re going to make sure you’re on the right bus.  Expect to speak Spanish only and pay close attention to where you are, so you can get off at the right spot.  It can be fun, as you can meet locals, and on some of the longer trips, it can be 1/5th the cost of a taxi.

Safety

The first thing people always ask us when talking about Mexico is safety.  We spent a year on the Yucatán Peninsula and never felt unsafe. The Riviera Maya is far from the drug cartel chaos that occurs in the border states and the local government works very hard to maintain safety for its citizens and tourists alike.  As with any major city, it is wise to use caution when traveling at night, be careful at ATMs and always secure valuables.  We recommend only using ATMs inside of a bank (card copying is a common problem on street ATMs), and don’t flash jewelry or watches.  Enjoy the nightlife but protect your drink and don’t wander around drunk, especially after dark.  Drugs are illegal, so stay away from dealers.  

Water

Restaurants in the Riviera Maya serve purified water and use purified water when making ice.  This is true at both tourist restaurants and restaurants frequented by locals.  Most tourists choose to brush their teeth with bottled water but it is not necessary.  Tap water quality varies so ask your hotel or management company about the quality of their water.  

Getting Sick

There is a common perception that if you eat and drink in Mexico you will get sick.  Montezuma’s Revenge or Traveler’s diarrhea is an intestinal infection that occurs as a result of unsanitary handling of food.  Symptoms include weakness, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.  If you think you have Traveler’s diarrhea you should visit the doctor.  The Riviera Maya has good urgent care with doctors that speak English.  Many resorts have doctors that will come to your hotel or try Hospiten General hospital in Playa del Carmen.  

While people can contract diarrhea in the Riviera Maya, a much more common cause of illness is overindulgence.  A typical day on vacation may include all you can eat buffets, platters of guacamole and chips, bottomless margaritas and 2 for 1 bottles of cerveza.  Add in heat exhaustion and you get very similar symptoms to Montezuma’s Revenge.  So our best advice to avoid getting sick in Mexico is to watch your food intake, pace yourself on alcohol and remember to take breaks from the sun.  Most importantly: stay hydrated.

Have Fun

Now that you’re all prepared for planning a good time on the Riviera Maya, get out there and have un bien viaje!

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The First-timer's Guide to Visiting Cancún and the Riviera MayaThe First-timer's Guide to Visiting Cancún and the Riviera Maya

16 Comments

  1. Cancun and the Riviera Maya have been on my bucketlist for a while now! I can’t believe you saw sea turtles AND swam with dophins. Super jealous!

  2. Cancun has always been on our list of destinations to check out!! But now… after seeing your awesome pics, we will definitely speed up the planning. I have never heard of Tulum and the Isla Mujeres! We love swimming and snorkeling with the sea giants! Thank you for the post!!!

  3. This part of Mexico is definitely high on my list for Mexico! I’m so fascinated by Tulum, with the ruins next to such beautiful water 🙂 Riviera Maya looks like a fantastic destination for a family!

  4. The cenotes here are beautiful, quiet, and interesting. Chac Mool is one of the best. We enjoyed Akumal but really liked Tulum. We visited when Tulum wasn’t on most people’s radar including a float through part of Sian Ka’an. Love your overview.

  5. Now I know why the Riviera Maya is famous. It certainly looks like a paradise! I would love to to Isla Mujeres and Akumal. It is a good thing they placed rules to protect the sea turtles!

  6. Cancun and the Riviera Maya are lovely suggestions for stunning beach side destinations. The ‘collectivos’ remind me of similar small buses that we have in India. Crowded and there’s no A/C…yes and yes 🙂

  7. I haven’t been to Cancun in many years, but have fond memories of my 2 trips there. This is a great guide that I wish I’d had those times. I didn’t get to Tulum, but did a aday trip to Chichen Itza. It was amazing. About “getting sick”, you’re so right that it’s mainly due to overindulgence – I speak from experience. 😉
    Catherine Sweeney recently posted…Good Cheer and High Spirits in ViennaMy Profile

  8. A very useful post for an Aussie like me who hasn’t made it to Mexico at all yet! I love the overindulgence problem (I suspect the same happens in our version of Mexico, Bali, where “Bali belly” is always blamed but is probably only sometimes the culprit!). Gorgeous pictures and one day I will definitely explore these places.

  9. Gorgeous pictures! I think Tulum appeals the most to me, since it seems to combine ruins with beach 🙂

  10. The Riviera Maya is one of our favorite places ever! The water is just beautiful. We haven’t gone to Isla Mujeres yet, but that will be next when we go back. It’s always hard to choose where to stay since we like all the places mentioned but good thing it’s easy to have fun no matter what part you visit. Glad you got to enjoy it #weekendwanderlust

  11. We have not been to the Mayan Riviera. This is a comprehensive post on the place and I have book marked it. The color of water is so beautiful that it can hold its own against the Mediterranean. Its good to note that many of the resorts have doctors and they speak English too.

  12. Thank you for sharing this post! We just booked a trip to Riviera Maya and so many friends are warning of the ‘dangers.’ We’ve traveled to many other countries that were deemed as ‘dangerous’ and didn’t have any issues, so I’m happy to discover it’s the same! Happy Travels!

  13. Awesome. Darcee & I are hoping to go explore the Yucatan this October and into Early November. We were planning on hitting up Oaxaca for Dia De Los Muertos and then heading over to the Yucatan Region to explore the Mayan Ruins & Cenotes.
    I was thinking Cancun but maybe after reading your post, Puerto Aventuras may be a better spot so that we can hit up the cenotes better.
    Also Isla Mujeres sounds off the hook cause I would love to swim with the whale sharks. That looks amazing!
    Eric Gamble recently posted…The Ultimate Camping Adventure Packing ChecklistMy Profile

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