The Riviera Maya, a tourist corridor of white-sand beaches, scenic ruins and fun-filled cenotes, was made for road-tripping. Yes, it's growing fast, too fast some will say, but despite all the development, you can still find that small fishing town or head inland to catch a glimpse of the Mexico that tourism forgot.
If it's partying you want, you'll find plenty of that in boomtown Playa del Carmen. Playa still trumps fast-growing Tulum as the Riviera's wildest city, but it's got nothing on Tulum's spectacular Maya ruins perched high above the beach.
Whether traveling by car or bus, getting from one town to the next is a breeze – after all, the Riviera is basically 135km of coastline that stretches south from Puerto Morelos to Tulum. Everything's so close that you can go diving in Puerto Morelos by day and still have time for a candlelit dinner in Tulum.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Riviera Maya.
Tulum is one of the most visited archaeological zones in Mexico and for good reason: it’s sublime. The ruins sit on seaside cliffs, high above turquoise waters that extend as far as your eye can see. True, the structures themselves are modest in comparison to other grand Maya cities. But Tulum captures your imagination like no other, perhaps conjuring visions of pre-Columbian tradesmen arriving in canoes laden with goods, and the Maya workers who received them, contemplating the same bracing views. History Inhabited as early as 564, Tulum’s heyday wasn’t until 1200–1521 when it served as an important port town, controlling maritime commerce along the Caribbean coast to Belize. When the Spanish conquistador Juan de Grijalva sailed past in 1518, he was amazed by the sight of the walled city, its buildings painted a gleaming red, blue and yellow, and a ceremonial fire burning atop its seaside watchtower. Yet, only 75 years after the Spanish conquest, the city was abandoned, its population decimated by European-borne diseases. For hundreds of years afterward, nature reclaimed the city, and it was unknown to the outside world until the mid-1800s when explorers John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood published detailed descriptions and drawings of it. Foreign travelers didn’t begin arriving in earnest for another 100-plus years, though Maya pilgrims and indigenous refugees taking shelter during the Caste War used the site intermittently. Meaning of Tulum Tulum means “wall” in Yucatec Maya, a reference to the city’s fortifications; 19th-century explorers used the name and it stuck. Originally, the city was called Zamá, or “dawn,” because it faced east. How to navigate Tulum Tulum is a compact archaeological zone, contained entirely within its enormous stone walls. The entrance is on the north side. Starting with the oceanfront structures and walking clockwise through the site, you’ll see it all in a couple hours, longer if you stay for a swim. The exit is through the south wall. Principal structures The three ramparts (walls) surrounding Tulum are 3m to 5m high, and measure between 170m to 380m long. They served to enclose and fortify the city, protecting the city’s civic-ceremonial buildings, palaces and the ruling classes who lived there. The vast majority of the residents, Tulum’s working class, lived outside the walls. The most photographed structure is Templo del Dios de Viento, a small temple perched on a rocky outcrop, the Caribbean waters perfectly framing it. The structure’s circular base is associated with the god of wind, for which it is named. It’s believed that the roof had a special opening that would whistle when hurricanes approached to warn Tulum’s residents. Templo del Dios Descendente is named after the relief figure of a descending god above the building's door. The image, perhaps the most iconic of Tulum, is associated with the highly revered god of bees. At the spring equinox, a ray of sunlight shines through the temple, aligning perfectly under the image. Sitting on a dramatic bluff, El Castillo is the tallest (7.5m) and most imposing structure in Tulum. Built in several phases, it served as a lighthouse, with a shrine at the top doubling as a beacon to lead canoes to the beach landing. Look for the plumed serpents hugging the pyramid’s corners, a reflection of regional influence of the Toltecs. Templo de las Pinturas was an observatory used to track the movements of the sun. It features some of Tulum's most elaborate décor – now quite weathered – including carved figures of the descending god, stucco masks and colorful murals on interior walls depicting various Maya gods. The beach Tulum is one of the few Maya ruins with a beach – two, in fact – the ancient structures sitting like sentinels above them. Add to that the seaside cliffs and the impossibly blue waters, and bringing your swimsuit is a no-brainer. The main beach is beneath El Castillo, at the bottom of a steep wood staircase. By late morning, it’s often crowded with visitors playing in the waves and posing on the sand. A second beach, just as lovely, is below the Templo del Dios de Viento. Reachable by a sandy trail, it’s typically cordoned off but is a good spot for selfies. Tours Tours (from M$700) are offered onsite by certified guides who hustle for customers at the visitors complex and near the ticket booth. Tours last about two hours and can offer invaluable insights into this ancient city. Tickets Tickets cost M$80 and can only be purchased onsite. The ruins are open from 9am to 5pm, but the last entry is at 3:30pm. Things you should know Arrive early. It’ll give you a shot at enjoying the ruins before the mass tour groups descend, typically by 11am. Visitors are not allowed to climb on or enter most the structures in order to protect them from erosion. Respect the barriers and “do not enter” signs. Bring a hat and plenty of water. May to September are the hottest months here, but it’s sunny and humid year-round and the ruins have very little shade. Eating and drinking Centro Artesanal Tulum, a handicrafts mini-mall in the visitors complex, has a few sit-down restaurants and fast-food joints. Prices are inflated, but they’ll do in a pinch. You can grab snacks and drinks here too. (There’s even a Starbucks.) Getting there Tulum’s visitor complex is just off Hwy 307, on the outskirts of town. From there, it’s another 1km to the ticket booth and archaeological site – a trolley (M$55) shuttles people or you can just hoof it. From town, taxis charge a fixed rate to the complex (M$100). Northbound colectivos (shuttle vans) will drop you on the highway (M$20) a couple blocks away. If you’re driving, there’s plenty of parking in the main lot (M$180). Alternatively, Tulum’s beach road becomes a pedestrian-only road to the ruins, about a 400m walk to the ticket booth. It’s a popular access point for those staying on the oceanfront (and for those who want to hit the beach after a visit to the ruins).
While floating down a canal that Mayans dug by hand centuries ago, you see tall grasses on either side and colorful birds flying overhead. You hear the haunting call of a howler monkey in the distance, like you’re a thousand miles from civilization. This is Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, and home to endangered creatures and some of the Yucatán’s most sublime landscapes. A visit here, just south of Tulum, offers a window into the world beyond all-inclusive resorts and glittery nightclubs. Ecology The name Sian Ka’an – Yucatec Maya for "where the sky is born" – perfectly captures the magnificence of this 1.3 million acre reserve. Sian Ka’an is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, composed of a delicate balance of ecosystems : tropical forests and coral reefs, mangroves and savannahs, impossibly blue lagoons and miles and miles of untouched beaches. It is also one of the few places in the world where petenes (tree islands that form in swamps) thrive and cenotes (freshwater sinkholes) are found. Sian Ka’an is home to a brilliant diversity of fauna too: spider monkeys, howler monkeys, American crocodiles, jaguars, pumas, Central American tapirs, four sea turtle species, giant land crabs, more than 330 bird species (including roseate spoonbills and flamingos), manatees, dolphins and some 400 fish species. History Sian Ka’an was inhabited by ancient Maya peoples for over 1200 years, its waterways forming an important trade route between the coastal city of Tulum and the interior. Twenty-three known archaeological sites exist in the reserve, the earliest dating to 350 BC. By the mid-1500s, the Maya abandoned Sian Ka’an for reasons unknown. The region remained largely untouched until the early 1900s when a railway line was built through the southern end of Sian Ka’an, connecting the port of Vigía Chico to present-day Felipe Carrillo Puerto. The train was initially built to support the Mexican military during the Caste War; later it was used to transport chicle harvested in the region. (It was used for just 27 years; vestiges of the original tracks can still be seen today.) Sian Ka’an was protected as a biosphere reserve in 1986, when the Mexican government recognized that uncontrolled development – mostly land clearing for cattle pastures and timber extraction – would have a devastating effect on the region. A year later, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its exceptional biodiversity and its vast wetlands. Today, more than half of Sian Ka’an is off limits except for scientific research. The rest is reserved for sustainable development and low-impact activities like ecotourism. Only 2000 people live in Sian Ka’an, mostly in fishing villages. Excursions Sian Ka’an is best explored with a guide, as there are few trails and navigating the waterways on your own can be difficult. Several regional tour operators offer excursions into the reserve including birdwatching tours and kayaking through lagoons, visiting Maya ruins, swimming in ancient canals and snorkeling along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Full-service excursions typically include door-to-door transportation and snacks but can be pricey, running around $85-$165 per person for a half-day trip from Tulum. Maya-run Community Tours Sian Ka'an is a good option that directly benefits the local community. If you’re on a budget, local boatmen offer lagoon and canal tours from Laguna Muyil near Hwy 307. Tours (8am-4pm daily) last 2½ hours and cost $35-$50 per person, depending on the number of people in the boat. The dock is at the end of a short dirt road, just south of the Muyil Ruins (aka Chunyaxché Ruins). Alternatively, visit the ruins (M$45 or about $2) and take a 500-meter boardwalk trail (M$50 or about $2.50) from the east side of the site to the lagoon. If you have a rental car, you also can make the trek to Punta Allen – a fishing village at the end of Sian Ka’an’s coastal road. From here, Cooperativa Punta Allen runs various excursions ($150 per boat) including dolphin- and turtle-watching tours and snorkeling. Fly-fishing tours ($300 per boat) also offered. While possible to do as a day trip, an overnight stay makes the trip easier and more enjoyable. Eating and lodging Most people visit Sian Ka’an as a day trip from Tulum, which has a variety of accommodations and restaurants. Inside the reserve, Punta Allen has a handful of simple hotels and restaurants (note: there’s no cell service, and electricity runs only a few hours each day); a few higher-end fishing lodges and rental homes also are along the coastal road. Getting there and other practicalities There are two main entrances to Sian Ka’an. The most popular follows the coastline, south from Tulum’s beach road. A huge arch marks the reserve’s entrance where admission (M$37 or about $1.80) is collected and registration required. From the arch, a rutted dirt road runs through the reserve, occasional openings in the palm forest leading to gloriously empty beaches and peeks of turquoise lagoons. The road ends at the village of Punta Allen – a bumpy 35-mile ride that takes about 2 to 3 hours, longer after a heavy rain. Public transportation along this road is sporadic, so joining a tour or driving a rental (four-wheel drive is helpful) are your best options. A second, lesser known, entrance to Sian Ka’an is next to Muyil Ruins (aka Chunyaxché Ruins). Several buses (M$28 or about $1.40) make the 20-minute trip from Tulum to Muyil each day. From there, you can either enter the reserve via the archaeological site or walk down a short dirt road less than a quarter mile (250m) south of the ruins (look for it near an Oxxo minimart). Both lead to Muyil lagoon where you can take boat trips through the northwestern tip of the reserve.
Wandering barefoot through the contemporary art museum at Azulik hotel, you feel like you’re in a giant cocoon. Nature surrounds you, inside and out: Curving walkways and bridges made of the vine-like bejuco wood guide you past mind-bending artwork, while the undulating cement walls open here and there to bright skies and dense tropical forest. Dreamlike and surreal, SFER IK Museion was conceived so viewers could experience world-class art alongside Tulum's natural elements; it does just that, heightening your experience of both the art and the space. Utterly unique and completely unexpected, a visit here is unmissable. Design The award-winning SFER IK Museion was designed by Jorge Eduardo Neira Sterkel, better known as ‘Roth,’ who also founded Azulik, the luxurious eco-hotel where the museum is located. An Argentinean ex-pat, former visual artist and self-taught architect, Roth created the space as a natural extension of Azulik. And like the hotel, with its treehouse-like villas and restaurant, the museum manages to integrate a boho-chic vibe with a reverence for the land and the ancestral people who have inhabited it for centuries. Walking through SFER IK you can’t help but be impressed by its 12-meter-high dome structure with curving ferrocement walls and swirling bejuco-lined walkways; trees growing out of the floor reach for openings in the ceiling, while giant circular windows look out onto the tropical forest just beyond the glass. Almost more remarkable is that all of it was built without using heavy machinery or even a blueprint, and it employed Maya craftsmen using traditional building techniques. Notably, visitors must be barefoot to enter the museum – a detail designed to force you to interact physically with the spectacular structure and, in turn, to heighten your awareness of all that surrounds you. Thick, round, monochromatic cushions are set out on the gallery floor too, inviting you to sit and take it all in – the building, the works of art and yourself as an integral part of it all. History SFER IK Museion was inaugurated in April 2018. Originally called IK Lab, Roth completed the structure in 2017, but had not decided on its use. That same year, Santiago Rumney Guggenheim, the great-grandson of art collector Peggy Guggenheim, visited the unoccupied space and proposed a joint venture to transform it into a gallery. The two had never met but within hours of receiving the proposal, Roth agreed. Since then, SFER IK has showcased several prominent international artists and attracted countless visitors (and Instagram posts). It also periodically hosts creative conferences and community workshops. Meaning of SFER IK Museion Pronounced ‘spheric,’ the name SFER IK refers to the curving structure of its design – there are no right angles, flat walls or straight lines in it. Also, the word ‘Ik’ is Yucatec Maya for ‘wind,’ which is associated with dreamers, the imagination and the creative; and no doubt, it is a reference to ‘Azulik.’ Finally, ‘Museion’ is the ancient Greek word for ‘temple of the muses’ – an appropriate name for a place that seeks to inspire. Exhibits and Programming SFER IK presents ever-changing exhibits throughout the year. The vast majority are site-specific installations, meant to join and interact with the museum’s striking design – there’s artwork hanging from ceilings, attached to the walls, sitting on the cement floor; some are created to be touched, others to be smelled, many just to be contemplated from a cushion a few feet away. The goal: to encourage visitors to be present to the art by making them move around, above and under the pieces. The hope is to inspire visitors to reflect on the interconnectedness of the works of art with the museum, Tulum’s natural environment and the viewer themselves. Beyond the temporary art installations, SFER IK is home to a small permanent collection that includes works by such celebrated artists as Ernesto Neto and Artur Lescher. The museum also hosts a variety of conferences and workshops each year, ranging from symposia on new uses for the sargassum seaweed to ceramics classes for local kids. Note: A second cultural complex, SFER IK – Uh May, opened in November 2018. (Construction had already begun when SFER IK Museion in Tulum was inaugurated.) Located along the road to Cobá Ruins, it’s similar in design and philosophy to SFER IK, but it’s much larger, integrating an artist-in-residence program. Tickets Admission costs US$10 and can be purchased onsite or online. Kids under 12 enter for free but must be accompanied by an adult (one child per adult). The museum is open daily, year-round. Things you should know Visitors must remove their shoes to enter the museum – it’s an integral part of the experience. Cell phone photography is free. Any other camera use (i.e. DSLR, GoPro, etc.) costs US$100 per visit. Selfie sticks and tripods are prohibited. Leave your big beach bags at home – anything larger than 40cm x 40cm isn’t permitted in the museum. Getting there SFER IK is located on the grounds of Azulik, an eco-chic hotel on the southern end of Tulum’s beach road. It’s accessible by bike, a ‘Cabañas’ route colectivo (shared van, M$15) or taxi. If you drive, there’s valet parking (US$5) or you can try your luck finding a spot along the road.
At the end of a sand road is the hamlet of Tankah Tres (aka Tankah Bay), a seaside community of vacation homes and small hotels in Mexico, all facing a picturesque cove. Behind the village, a dense mangrove forest conceals Tankah Tres’ star attraction: Cenote Manatí (aka Casa Cenote). Named after the gentle “sea cows” that once frequented it, this open-air cenote is like none other in the region. While most cenotes are roughly in the form of swimming holes, Cenote Manatí’s clear waters wind like a river through the mangrove forest, the exposed tree roots extending like dark knobby fingers into the water below. At one end, its emerald waters feed Sac Aktun, one of the longest underground cave systems in the world, while at the other, a rocky 500m tunnel connects the cenote to the Caribbean. This meeting of the waters – the cool freshwater and the warm salty sea – creates a “halocline effect,” a blurring of the water that makes for remarkable underwater views. It also attracts a diversity of marine life that’s otherwise rare in cenotes. You’ll see everything from green moray eels and tarpon to blue swimming crabs and guppies. And, occasionally, small crocodiles sun themselves on the muddy banks too. Activities at Tankah Tres Snorkel Most people come here for DIY snorkeling. The cenote’s waters are so clear – visibility is often 20m – it’s almost as if the schools of fish are swimming through air. Snorkel gear can be rented onsite (M$400), but you could buy a set from a local supermarket (the megastore Chedraui, found in Tulum and beyond, is a good bet) . Even with no gear, swimming the cenote can be quite enjoyable, with treeline views, egrets walking along the edges and tiny fish visible just beneath the surface. Guided snorkeling tours (M$600 including gear) are offered onsite too but really not worth the cost since Cenote Manatí is only 250m long and losing your way is, well, impossible. Diving For divers, the shallow profile (8m) is favored by newbies completing their open water certification. More experienced divers enjoy swimming through the mangrove tunnels and under rocky overhangs; those interested in passing through the cenote’s tunnel to the Caribbean – a surreal experience – must be certified in cave diving. Dive trips are easily arranged through Tankah Divers Tulum, located just down the road from the cenote. Alternatively, you can book through a dive shop in Tulum, which provides transportation. Kayaking Kayaks also can be rented here (2-person kayak per hr M$300) but with the cenote often busy with swimmers and snorkelers, there’s not much room to paddle. If you’re set on it, try coming early or late in the day when there are typically fewer visitors. Beach combing If you have time, Tankah Tres’ oceanfront is just across the road from Cenote Manatí. The vacation homes and hotels have effectively blocked off the beach, but buying a drink at one of the restaurants will win you access. The narrow band of tawny sand is pleasant for beachcombing and checking out tide pools. DIY snorkelers will enjoy the water here too; the tranquil bay is protected by a healthy coral reef with schools of colorful fish and the occasional sea turtle – the bay’s southern end is especially close to the reef. What you should bring Tankah Tres’ amenities are limited so be sure to bring a towel and snorkel gear, if you have it. If you sunburn easily, wear a rash guard or a t-shirt to cover up – sunscreen, even biodegradable ones, are not permitted in Cenote Manatí. For ocean snorkeling, consider bringing water shoes – there are lots of rocks as you enter the water. Finally, be sure to have enough cash to pay your cenote admission as well as for your taxi- or colectivo-ride home. Tickets and practicalities The entrance to Cenote Manatí (open 9am-5pm) is on the beach road. Admission is M$150 including a life jacket – a safety measure but also helpful if you’ll be floating or snorkeling. Parking is free and lockers are available for M$50. Come early for a more peaceful experience, and later (on sunny days) for the best underwater photos. Where to eat Tankah Tres has a handful of restaurants, all associated with small hotels. The most popular is the Casa Cenote restaurant, directly across from Cenote Manatí. A simple thatch-roof affair on the beach, the restaurant serves up sandwiches and Mexican classics plus good ol’ Texas barbecue on Sundays, which is popular with expats. For something a bit more upscale (you’ll need a shirt), try the ceviche or wood oven pizza next door at Hotel Mereva ’s open-air dining room. There’s no ocean view, but the meals more than make up for it. If you just need a snack or a drink, there’s a basic market near the cenote. Getting to Tanka Tres Tankah Tres is 10km north of Tulum, off Hwy 307. Colectivos (shuttle vans, M$28) headed to Playa del Carmen drop off passengers at the turn-off; from there, it’s about 0.5km to the beach road, and another 1km from there to Cenote Manatí. All told, it’s about a 20 to 30 minute walk. If you’re driving, turn east at the “Casa Cenote” road sign, between kilometer markers 237 and 238. A guard is typically posted at the start of the beach road – simply state your reason for visiting, and you’ll be waved in. Note: There are several other “Tankahs” in the area (Tankah Caleta, Cenotes Tankah, Parque Tankah) – be sure you’re headed to the right one!
Cobá's ruins include the tallest pyramid in Quintana Roo (the second tallest in all the Yucatán) and the thick jungle setting makes you feel like you’re in an Indiana Jones flick. Many of the ruins are yet to be excavated; for now they are mysterious piles of root- and vine-covered rubble. Walk along ancient sacbés (ceremonial limestone avenues or paths between great Maya cities), climb up ancient mounds and ascend Nohoch Mul for a spectacular view of the surrounding jungle.
Nohoch Mul (Big Mound) is also known as the Great Pyramid (which sounds a lot better than Big Mound). It reaches a height of 42m, making it the second-tallest Maya structure on the Yucatán Peninsula (Calakmul's Estructura II, at 45m, is the tallest). Climbing the old steps can be scary for some. Two diving gods are carved over the doorway of the temple at the top (built in the post-Classic period, AD 1100–1450), similar to sculptures at Tulum.
Conveniently located right off the main highway, Cenote Azul is one of the easiest Riviera Maya cenotes to visit. It’s also one of the region’s most spectacularly beautiful natural attractions. Leap off the small cliff into the clear waters at the deep end of the cenote, or spend the afternoon snorkeling among the rocks on the shallow side. Cash only.
The most prominent structure in the Grupo Cobá is La Iglesia (the Church). It's an enormous pyramid; if you were allowed to climb it, you could see the surrounding lakes (which look lovely on a clear day) and the Nohoch Mul pyramid. To reach it walk just under 100m along the main path from the entrance and turn right.
Between the Chemuyil and Xel-Há exits is a tiny sign on the east side of the highway marking the short dirt road that leads to the two arching bays Xcacel and Xcacelito. This is one of the loveliest and cleanest beaches along the Riviera Maya. You'll find good snorkeling here (bring your own gear) and, most notably, Quintana Roo’s most important loggerhead and white sea-turtle nesting site.