Cancún and the Riviera Maya

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Yearning for sun, sand and eye-popping natural beauty? A trip to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula – and its crowning resort developments in Cancún and the Riviera Maya – offers something for just about everyone.

For bacchanalians and beach lovers, there are the devilish nightclubs and angelic sands of Cancún and Playa del Carmen. Divers and adventurers will salivate at the sight of the translucent waters and coral arrays of the Mesoamerican Reef – the second-largest barrier reef in the world. And for everybody else, there are lost Maya ruins to explore, hammocks to test, Coronas to drink, and long forgotten beaches to discover.

There's a lot of coast out there, and whether you choose to stay in frenetic downtown Cancún, laid-back Tulum, sophisticated Playa del Carmen or in a big-time all-inclusive resort along the Riviera Maya, it's probably best to focus your excursions to specific activities or attractions – less travel, more play.

Day One

Better move quick or you'll miss it. Start and end your day with some quality beach time. If you want to go snorkeling or diving, hire a boat the day before to take you out to the excellent offshore sites near Isla Mujeres and Cozumel. Cultural explorers should consider a journey to Chichén Itzá with a stop at the cenotes on the way back.

Related article: The Riviera Maya on a shoestring

Day Two

On day two, you'll have more of the same, perhaps with an early morning shopping spree in Cancún's markets, along Playa del Carmen’s Quinta Avenue or at the excellent Sunday market in Puerto Morelos. From there, rent a car and head to Tulum to check out the ruins. On the way back, you can stop for a cooling afternoon swim in Akumal’s Laguna Yal-Kú. And be sure to leave some fuel in the tank for sunset drinks at Playa del Carmen’s Fusion or high-octane fun at Cancún's Coco Bongo.

Day Three

Shake off the cobwebs with a jolting dive into a nearby cenote: in Cancún try Siete Bocas. Cristalino is the perfect distance from Playa del Carmen, while Gran Cenote is the sinkhole of choice from Tulum. Then it's time to get a bit off the tourist track. Try heading to the Maya ruin at Cobá from Tulum or you can also cruise down for a day of kayaking in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. Those stationed in Cozumel might want to rent a bike and tour the island. And from the northern portions of the state (around Cancún and Playa del Carmen), you might want to hit up an eco-park if you have kids, or you can arrange an excursion to remote Islas Contoy or Holbox.

Activities to suit your interests

Diving & Snorkeling

Divers and snorkelers must – yes, must – head to Cozumel. The Santa Rosa Wall is Cozumel's most famous dive – you'll only see one-third of the wall's amazing sights with one tank. Snorkelers and novice divers should head to the Colombia shallows for great visibility and some of the area's most spectacular coral formations.

Then cross to the mainland for a cenote dive at Angelita or Dos Ojos. And with a little more time, you can cruise down to Costa Maya for trips out to Banco Chinchorro.

Cultural Explorer

Start with a trip through the colonial city of Valladolid to the must-see UNESCO World Heritage site of Chichén Itzá. From there, journey on to the jungle-shrouded ruins at Cobá, a fascinating site that rates high on the adventure scale, stopping for the night at the coastal Maya site at Tulum.

History is a living, breathing thing here on the Yucatán Peninsula, and those interested in witnessing the rhythm of modern-day life should take time to travel through the Maya countryside, stopping in towns like Tihosuco, on their way to the modern-day cultural capital of the region in Mérida.

Bachnallian Brawl

This place knows how to party. No matter where you are, there's almost always time to stop for an afternoon cerveza or two. From there, it's on to pumping nightclubs in Cancún's Zona Hotelera like Coco Bongo and Dady'O. Those seeking a bit a blue-note cool should check out Roots downtown. The party in Playa del Carmen starts in the uber-chic lounges along the Quinta Avenida, moving down to the beachfront discos after midnight. And while Cozumel can be a real snoozefest, Isla Mujeres' scene is as cool and peaced-out as it gets.

This article was updated in February 2012.