Top things to do in the Mayan Riviera, Mexico

Over the last decade I’ve repeatedly returned to Mexico. Admittedly, it’s one of the more accessible destinations for us Canadians but what I love about Mexico is not just the resorts – this country is filled with fantastic food, friendly people, and ancient history you can actually get close to. While I haven’t had a chance to visit inland, yet, I have had opportunities to spend time across the cost of Mayan Riviera and have a confident level of familiarity with the coast. So let’s dive in:

Without a doubt visit a cenote and try out one of the more active adventures, such as zip lining through a jungle. There are a lot of options to suit your activity level, swimming skills or tolerance to cold (some cenotes are quote cold) so it’s more of a chose-your-own adventure. When it comes to cultural destinations, however, below are my favorite places, all of which you can reach from the convenience of your all-inclusive either by car or with an organized tour.

Sian Ka’an, a biosphere reserve in the region of Tulum and an official UNESCO World Heritage site. Sian Ka’an is over 5,280 km of land, uncultivated ground and Caribbean Sea, including a section of coral reef. There are also around 23 archaeological sites in the area, including Muyil, a fairly small set of ruins with a wealthy history. One of the key activities in Sian Ka’an is the canals: a small boat takes you through clear turquoise open water, through a tight man-made canal to a natural one, deeper into the swamp where you get to float with the current observing the beauty of the preserved natural habitat. It is fairly shallow, you can even walk, but the water will gently carry you forward. The plant life is amazing from deeply rooted trees to massive air plants shooting out strings over the clear water. The end of your floating tour is a boardwalk that takes the group back to the boat across the swamp, around you as far the eye can see is waist-high greenery and an occasional heron strolling through the grass.

Valladolid, a small Spanish colonial town not too far from Ek’ Balam. The interesting bit of history is that the town was built near a lagoon in 1543 by the Spanish settlers (hence the name) but the locals complained about the mosquitos so it was moved to where it is now, in place of an older town that was broken down and used as the brick foundation for what is Valladolid now. The town is colourful, with interesting architecture and surprisingly subtle attention to detail (such as doors). The center square is near a beautiful cathedral and everything around it is on a grid. There is an old library, plenty of restaurants and shopping, and a Convent of San Bernardino de Siena a bit out of the center (open only on Tuesdays).

Must try: Choco story chocolate shop, won’t lie I tried everything and left way more money behind than I’ve ever spent on chocolate. I will eat it slowly, to preserve and cherish the flavour for as long as I can. Located near the city square on the corner of Calle 39 and Calle 40, it might be called something else on the outside, just look for the word Chocolate.

Tip: if you are shopping the quality of products in Valladolid is significantly better than in tourist-heavy areas near resorts. Yalat Arte Mexicano is a neatly curated shop with a beautiful yard in the back with small huts dedicated to specific products (such as honey). A portion of their profits are donated to the community.

Ek’ Balam, one of the best-preserved archaeological sites in Yucatan. Unlike the more popular archaeological sites (such as Chichen Itza) Ek’ Balam is fairly small, very green, and very accessible. Visitors are invited to hike up the ruins (with enough warnings) to observe their beauty up close and from up top. This site was populated from roughly 1200 BC to 1000 AD – a long period of time to keep a city occupied so the history is rich. There are many theories to why the city was abandoned but it was re-discovered in 1800, actively excavated by 1980s and is still subject to ongoing preservation. There is a lot to see, a lot to climb, and a lot to wander about as you explore the many rooms of the many structures.

Xcaret, an eco-archaeological and cultural heritage park. First thing first, this place is huge! There are over 50 attractions, a beautiful beach, a butterfly pavilion, giant turtles, various birds, live entertainment, dolphins, food and drinks, I mean, the list can go on an on. You’ll need at least a day and I’d recommend staying for the evening show. [top 3 images below]

Tip: if you are staying at the Occidental Xcaret your park entrée is discounted.

Xel-Há, one of the bigger waterparks in the area. A large space your whole family can enjoy, a multitude of water activities from adventurous to lazy river kind. Great place to snorkel or layback and take a nap in a hammock. This is an all-inclusive park so your fee covers food and drinks.

Tulum Ruins, located near the town of Tulum, also a nice area to spend a few hours in. A fairly large, tightly situated complex of ruins and one of the most beautiful beaches the coast. During the post-classic period Tulum served as a seaport, trading mainly in turquoise and jade. As you explore the area you might come across an archaeologist or two working away on the ruin preservation and if you pay attention you might spot a four-legged structure that looks a bit like a horse in the center of the living area, whether or not it is a horse no one is fully sure. [first 3 images below]

Chichen Itza, one of the more popular destinations that most people visit during their vacation in the Riviera. A large and specious complex of Mayan ruins with wonderful graphic stone carvings and the best-preserved Mayan ball court, among many other structures. Definitely worth a visit and is usually paired with a cenote stop as a tour.

Tip: bring a hat, the area is very open and gets a lot of sun, like hot scorching, direct sun.

Cobá Ruins, a smaller complex but with a tall pyramid, Nohuch Mul, you can actually climb, all 130 feet of it to the tiny temple at the top. The stairs are steep and uneven, the trip down is more challenging than the hike up. At it’s peak Coba was one of the biggest and most powerful city states in the northern Yucatán area and as you walk around you will notice that glore show through. [last image below]

Playa Del Carmen, a seaport and cultural hub for those who wander off the resort. The shopping area is filled with local goods and all sorts of more common shops, from Zara to Häagen-Daz, though if you walk a bit out of the store center you will come across much more interesting and natural ice cream flavours in smaller booths. There is also a handful of bars, including Senor Frogs, a public beach and city square from which you can peacefully people watch. Easily accessible by a taxi from nearby resort areas.