Every year, Riviera Maya excursions get boxed, packaged, branded, and sold by the bushel. If you’re looking to take a bus tour from an all-inclusive resort, this isn’t the article for you. If you want to discover the best things to do in Riviera Maya, how to beat the crowds in Riviera Maya, and the best alternatives to all the popular Riviera Maya trips, keep reading. It is still possible to find an authentic experience in the Yucatan; you just need to know where to look.
How Do You Avoid the Crowds at Chichen Itza?
When I first went to Chichen Itza as a little girl, we flew into the Chichen Itza airstrip from Cancun on a small propeller plane. I climbed inside El Castillo and witnessed the jade cat sculpture that’s now only shown in pictures. Chichen Itza back then was spectacular, and then the whole world found out about it. Now busloads of tourists are carted in on the daily. It’s a classic example of over-tourism, but I went in 2019 and had an even more magical experience than I had back in the day. I’ll let you in on my secret.
First, you have to stay at one of the attached properties, like the Mayaland Hotel. The grounds are stunning and perfect for hanging out at the pool or mountain bike through the outer ruins of Chichen Itza. Whatever you do, don’t bake inside the main ruins in the midday sun with all the bus people (doesn’t that sound like a horror movie to you?).
Chichen Itza Sound and Light Show
Your first ‘good’ chance to visit the Chichen Itza Mayan ruins comes after sunset at the Chichen Itza sound and light show. People might think it’s a little cheesy, but you know… if the Mayan priests could have done it, they would have. The lights make the temples pop, and the heat and crowds are so much better.
The laser light show finale on El Castillo is legit good, visually stunning, and educational too. Just remember that they have a simulcast available on your phone in English if you don’t speak Spanish. It’s worth it to get the audio because they do a great job describing the history of Chichen Itza. A couple of more tips you should know for the Chichen Itza sound and light show are:
- You will probably find a parking spot in one of the free spaces, so I wouldn’t necessarily worry about parking fees
- Dinner at the Oxtun Restaurant just outside the ticket booth is downright delicious.
Sunrise Tour of Chichen Itza
As incredible as the sound and light show was, the sunrise tour of Chichen Itza was even better. You have to book a private guide in advance through your hotel, and it is a bit expensive, but it’s absolutely worth it! Our guide met us in the Mayaland lobby at 0-dark-thirty something. He walked us by flashlight to the Mayaland private entrance to Chichen Itza (it’s a real thing). We greeted the night guard and entered the grounds right behind the Cenote de Xtoloc (Well of Sacrifice, aka Chichen Itza Cenote).
There were only about 50 people on the entire grounds that morning. The only reason there were that many was that it was the Christmas holidays, and the entire Mexican National Soccer team came to visit. (lo siento, fútbol). I heard on a typical morning that you would practically have the place to yourself.
Our guide illuminated the great pyramid with a powerful flashlight and told the stories of the ruins we were passing. Worship of Kukulkan and the powerful Mayan civilization came to life with his well educated and articulate words. We learned all the Chichen Itza facts as we slowly walked the grounds, pacing our arrival to watch the sunrise over El Castillo. Afterward, we concluded the tour with our superb guide and no crowds. We concluded our Chichen Itza tour before the first bus even arrived. Let me tell you, the sound echo trick works better without the chatter of a thousand voices.
Other Mayan Ruins Besides Chichen Itza
There are Mayan ruins all over the Yucatan. Two stand out as the alternatives to Chichen Itza: Ek Balam and Coba.
Ek Balam is about as far north from the city of Valladolid as Chichen Itza is west. It’s famous as the Palace of the Black Jaguar and a seat of a Mayan kingdom in its own right. The reasons to go to Ek Balam are that it’s a compact site, and you can still climb the main pyramid. There are also some excellent cenotes in the area, which we’ll get to in a little bit.
Coba is about the same distance from Cancun as Chichen Itza, but it’s on a back route into Tulum. It’s less than an hour outside of Tulum. It’s a sprawling complex, so there is lots to explore, and you might consider renting a bike or getting a pedicab to see it all. It features the large Nohoch Mul Pyramid that you can still climb as well as several ball courts and other temples.
Ek Balam and Coba are less trafficked with cool stuff in their own right. They are definitely worth a visit, but it’s hard to miss out on the magnificence that is Chichen Itza. I would take the time and spend the money to do a specialty tour of Chichen Itza without the crowds.
How do you Avoid the Crowds at Ik Kil Cenote?
Cenote Ik Kil is open to the sky with a 200′ diameter opening and with the water level about 85′ down. A carved stairway leads to the swimming platform, and picturesque vines and waterfalls come down into the water. It looks beautiful in the early morning pictures before the shadows form, and crowds arrive.
Ik Kil is well developed, and right on the road between Valladolid and Chichen Itza. Day tours will often package all three together, and there’s a non-stop train of guests once the first bus arrives from Cancun. Between the harsh shadows of the sun shining down the entrance and the shouts of kids echoing off the walls, it will not be the experience you imagined from the pictures, but you have choices.
Secret Cenotes in the Yucatan
If you are doing the sunrise tour of Chichen Itza, you’ll be up in plenty of time to go to Ik Kil before the first bus arrives. Make sure you arrive before it opens, and you make a beeline to the pool for photographs. Between the reflections of the still water and gentle, morning light, you’ll have a moment to remember and pictures to wow your friends.
Ik Kil isn’t the only cenote in the area. In fact, there is an entire ring of cenotes in the Yucatan that surrounds the impact crater from the dinosaur-killing meteor. Cenote Xcanahaltun and the Agua Dulce / Palomita cenotes are my two top choices for nearby cenotes that are even more beautiful than Ik Kil. Xcanahaltun is a magnificent cave cenote with a small opening where a beam of light enters. Agua Dulce has multiple cenotes on the property, but the two best ones are the namesake Agua Dulce and Palomita. The light streams through small entrances in the ceiling, creating a beautiful interplay between sun and water that just incredible.
Don’t believe the hype for Ik Kil. It is nice, bordering on fantastic early in the morning, but you’ll find other cenotes that are more beautiful, less expensive and a lot less crowded. We spent an entire day visiting these cenotes over Christmas and had them to ourselves 80% of the time. You could easily combine these cenotes with Ek Balam and specialty tours of Chichen Itza to create a 2-day self-guided adventure to Chichen Itza. If you’re doing this, make sure you stop for a meal in Valladolid and explore the town square.
Where Should You Stay in the Cancun Hotel Zone?
There are over 32,000 hotel rooms in the Cancun Hotel Zone. How do you pick which one is right for you? Our general answer to such questions is to choose your level of luxury. Ask questions like, are you going to enjoy the food, or is this a family resort. Don’t just settle for the cheapest option and hope for the best. You will be disappointed. If you are cost-conscious (and even if you’re not), the most important question is if you really want to be in the Hotel Zone at all?
There is a premium for everything in the Hotel Zone. Cab rides cost double from anywhere else in the city, and there’s no convenient bus route from the airport. You tend to stay isolated on the property, and if you do venture out, every amenity is at gringo pricing.
Best Alternatives to Cancun Hotel Zone
Our top two alternatives to Cancun Hotel Zone are to base out Playa Del Carmen or stay on Isla Mujeres. The Ado bus company runs a direct “tourist” bus route from Cancun Airport to Playa that has air conditioning, wi-fi, and in-route movies. It was a bit surreal watching Warren Miller films in Spanish as we headed down to Playa, but the ride was super comfortable and straight forward. The Ado bus/taxi/ferry trip to Isla Mujeres is also super easy and costs less than a taxi to the Hotel Zone. We have lots of Playa del Carmen suggestions coming up, so we’ll focus on Isla Mujeres over Cancun Hotel Zone.
The same hotel room will cost you a lot less on Isla Mujeres than in Cancun, and there are a lot more budget options. The beaches are more beautiful, and you can still access the MUSA dive site. The difference is that you can find your own magic moments from beautiful sunsets to happy hour specials to early morning tranquility before the town wakes up. Unless you have a specific property that you want to stay at in Cancun, you should seriously consider going to Isla Mujeres instead.
General Hotel Recommendations in Riviera Maya
There are so many Riviera Maya hotels all up and down the Yucatan Peninsula. We picked out some of our favorites from each area mentioned in this article to recommend to you divided by price-point. If you liked this article, and want to send a little love our way, consider booking from the links below. We compiled it from multiple sources, including first-hand visits, trusted recommendations, and online research. We take our recommendations seriously! If you have any feedback (good or bad) on our suggestions or hidden gems of your own to share, please let us know in the comments at the end of the post.
Chichen Itza Hotels
- Budget (Under $50 per Night)- Hotel Chichen Itza
- Mid-Range ($50-$200)- Mayaland Hotel & Bungalows
- Luxury ($200+)- The Lodge at Chichen Itza
- Budget (Under $50 per Night)- Bed and Breakfast Pecarí
- Mid-Range ($50-$200)- Casa Tortugas Boutique Hotel
- Luxury ($200+)- TRS Coral Hotel
Isla Mujeres Hotels
- Budget (Under $50 per Night)- Villas Coco Resort (slightly over $50)
- Mid-Range ($50-$200)- Izla Beach Front Hotel
- Luxury ($200+)- The World Famous Seashell House
Playa Del Carmen Hotels
- Budget (Under $50 per Night)- Villa Coba
- Mid-Range ($50-$200)- El Taj Oceanfront and Beachside Condo Hotel
- Luxury ($200+)- Banyan Tree Mayakoba
How go You Get the Most out of Xcaret?
Xcaret is like Disney World for active adults. Our site collaborators, Spencer and Christina, swear by it. They wrote our Havasu Hiking Guide, so they’re not chopped liver as far out adventure travelers go. They chartered an entire vacation to Xcaret and let them take care of everything, including airport transportation. Come to think of it, Xcaret pretty good alternative to Cancun Hotel Zone if your level of luxury on the higher end and your favorite amenity is adrenaline adventure. Xcaret is part of the of a group of eco-adventure parks that includes:
- Xel-Há (snorkeling)
- Xplor (jungle adventures above and below ground)
- Xplor Fuego (those same adventures at night with a lot of fire added)
- Xavage (unique high adventure activities)
- Xenses (sensory theme park)
- Xoximilco (nighttime floating fiesta)
At Xcaret, you can swim in underground rivers, explore trails in the middle of the jungle and tour the mysterious caves. The is a butterfly pavilion, coral reef aquarium, and a myriad of animals like dike deer, Jaguars, flamingos, and exotic birds.
Spencer and Christina have a great way to beat the crowds at Xcaret too – stay the night. You can make the all-inclusive price work for you if you come early in the morning and stay late the next day. With more than 40 attractions, you’ll find a way to keep busy. Plus, you can schedule the busiest attractions early in the morning to avoid the day-trippers. If you’re there at night, be sure to check out Xplor Fuego, Riviera Maya’s most intense night time adventure. Imagine all the zip-lines, with fire elements added.
Rio Secreto as an Alternative to Xcaret
The knocks on Xcaret is that it’s a lot like Disney World, where the unofficial motto is more is more. It’s hard to pick just one alternative since they offer so much stuff, but one of their offerings that interests me the most is the caves and underground rivers you can explore. They are mostly natural but have been modified for accessibility. If you want a more authentic, wild caving experience, check into Rio Secreto just south of Playa Del Carmen.
Rio Secreto has five different cave trips they lead, each with wet passages and beautiful limestone formations. You’ll go on a guided expedition wearing a wetsuit, helmet, and headlight. You’ll feel connected with the Mayan Underworld in a unique way and leave transformed. For some people, taking a moment to sit in complete darkness and listen to stalactites drip moves them more than Disney. We absolutely enjoyed our trip to Rio Secreto, but we would have loved Xcaret too. It just depends on how much time you have and how many people you want to be around.
Book your Rio Secreto Excursion Here
Where’s The Best Food on Calle Quinta Avenida?
If you’re in Playa del Carmen, chances are you’re going to be spending some time Calle Quinta Avenida, Playa’s Calle Famosa. There’s eating, street art, eating, shopping, eating, musicians, and eating. Our Calle Quinta Avenida suggested restaurants are:
Avoiding the Crowds at El Fogón
There’s a lot of eating going on, but every hip traveler will tell you about the hidden gem El Fogón. It is an open-air taquéria that tempts your taste buds without busting your wallet. Only, with over 4,000 google reviews, it’s not hidden anymore. If you’re going to go, arrive at about 6:00 to beat the lines and then start exploring. The best way to see Calle Quinta Avenida is with a full stomach of street tacos.
Best Restaurants Off Calle Quinta Avenida
There’s really no way to avoid Calle Quinta Avenida in Playa Del Carmen, and you shouldn’t try. It’s pure eye candy and a lot of fun. Only, you don’t have to see it all (the shopping and cigar stands all start to look alike) and you certainly don’t have to eat dinner there. A novel alternative to eating at Calle Quinta Avenida is Alux.
Alux is a truly unique restaurant in Playa Del Carmen because it’s constructed in a cenote. You walk into a cave for white linen dining. It’s a tad expensive if all you want to do is explore the ambiance, but we have a secret. Go for a happy hour drink from 5:30 – 7:00. For happy hour pricing, you can take a self-guided tour of the grotto.
Another highly regarded restaurant just outside of Playa is Pavo Real by the Sea. It’s an upscale seafood restaurant adjacent to the Belmond Maroma Resort and Spa. The food, location, and ocean views are simply perfection.
Have we done our due diligence getting you off Calle Quinta Avenida? Maybe? It’s kind of like the Las Vegas Strip; you have to go if you’re there. Just like Vegas, some people like to pop in for a gander, and other people stay all night consumed in the energy.
What is it Like Shark Diving in Playa Del Carmen?
If you’re a diver in the Yucatan, the subject of shark diving in Playa Del Carmen will come up. There are some big dive shops in Playa that specialize in shark diving, so much so that we call it the alpha male shark diving show.
You descend into the depths to witness the spectacle. The show starts with a chainmail clad DM walking around on the ocean floor, shaking a rattle filled with chum and calling the sharks for dinner. As you burrow down into the sand (knocking up all kinds of sand and silt), the DM feeds fish bits to his hungry friends. It’s a way to see a lot of sharks for sure, but it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Luckily you have options.
The Best Shark Dive in Playa Del Carmen
We had a fantastic experience because we did our research to find the best (and most ethical) shark dive in Playa Del Carmen. We looked for a company that offered small groups with no chumming, low diver to DM ratios, and enriched air (you’re at 90′ down!). We found Blue Life. Our dive trip featured extended bottom time and a serene encounter with these magnificent animals, not a chum show. They also run trips to the cenotes of Tulum, which is a logistic blessing if you took the bus to Playa and want to dive cenotes.
I don’t know about the chum show, but I thoroughly enjoyed my shark diving experience with Blue Life.
Is it Worth Snorkeling Dos Ojos Cenote?
You’ve seen the pictures of divers in cenotes with columns of sunlight streaming down through turquoise water. A quick internet search reveals that Dos Ojos is open to divers and snorkelers. Maybe you aren’t certified, or you’re afraid of caves, or just a little cheap. Whatever reason you have to go snorkeling at Dos Ojos, don’t do it. It’s just not worth it. Dive Dos Ojos or do something else. If you’re snorkeling, you’re just going to be bobbing around on the surface of a relatively unimpressive cenote. All the good stuff is in the cave passages, which you need to be diving to access. Look carefully at the picture from my dive trip below. You can see the snorkeler’s legs, but they can’t see this beautiful passage.
Alternative Tulum Cenotes
If you’re diving, there a several Tulum cenote dives to choose from. You should go to Dos Ojos first, and if you like the trip and trust your guide, go to more. It’s a truly remarkable experience.
If you aren’t a certified diver, you still have options. I stand by our suggestions for Cenote Agua Dulce and Cenote Xcanahaltun, but they are a little far away from Tulum and only offer swimming (no snorkeling). Casa Cenote in Tulum has combination snorkeling / SUP trips that let you see and do more than you would bobbing around at Dos Ojos. You can also snorkel through the caves at Xcaret. Any of these options would be more fun than Dos Ojos as a snorkeler.
Snorkeling Chankanaab on Cozumel
Staying on the subject of snorkeling in Riviera Maya, there are some brilliant snorkel routes on Cozumel. Cozumel is just a short ferry ride over from Playa Del Carmen, but the ocean there is entirely different. The tropical currents bring clear water and feed massive coral formations. Cozumel has world-class dive sites (and dive companies like Scuba Life Cozumel), but what about snorkeling Cozumel?
The strong current keeps snorkel trips close to land, but Hurricane Wilma heavily damaged a lot of the nearshore reefs. That being said, there are still some great Cozumel snorkeling tours you can take in some of the lagoons. You’ll see snorkeling Chankanaab all over the internet, signs on the ferry, and basically, everywhere you look.
Chankanaab snorkeling is decent. They have done some reef restoration and added a modest underwater statue garden. They also have sea lion, dolphin, and manatee encounters, which may entice you to come… or convince you to avoid the place like the plague. We have an alternative with fewer people and a lot more nature.
Snorkeling El Cielo / Columbia Reef on Cozumel
Snorkeling El Cielo is an alternative Cozumel snorkeling tour to Chankanaab that is unequivocally awesome. You will be giving up the questionable sea life enclosures and homogenized amenities. Instead, you will experience a large lagoon of waist-deep water filled with starfish that is the dreamiest color of aquamarine. Would I rather go diving in Cozumel? Absolutely, but El Cielo is a beautiful way to spend the day if you can’t dive for whatever reason.
Snorkeling options are easier to understand when you learn a little about Cozumel’s geography. El Cielo is a beach, near the Columbia Reef, that’s within the Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park (Reefs of Cozumel). You’ll see tours that use some combinations of all of these names, so be specific on where you want to go and ask questions to be sure. It’s all worth it when you see the blue lagoon of your wildest aquatic dreams.
Book a day trip snorkeling El Cielo and Palancar Reefs
Snorkeling with Turtles at Akumal Bay
Akumal Bay, about halfway between Playa Del Carmen and Tulum, is famous for its turtle swims. Over forty sea turtles live there year-round. There’s a lot of debate about should you get a guide or not, we’ve concluded that you should absolutely get a guide when you go to Akumal Beach. Trying to subvert the system increases your stress and impacts the turtle management plan.
Even with a guide, it can still be a bit of a zoo out there. The turtle trail goes close to the breakers, and you’re not allowed to wear fins. Plus, there’s an economic incentive and social incentive for the guide to keep you moving through the route. The best way to avoid this is to arrive at about 3:00 in the afternoon. You’ll be the last tour heading out, so the guide will be trying to maximize his tip vs. getting one more group in since there will not be other tours heading out. That’s how we saw over twenty turtles on our swim at Akumal Beach.
The opportunity to snorkel with resident turtles at Akumal Bay is a unique opportunity. Make sure you follow the conservation rules (which means get a guide yo!) and go either first thing in the morning or late in the day.
What’s the Best Way to See the Tulum Ruins?
Speaking of Tulum, how can you not mention the Tulum Ruins? They are the only Mayan ruins in the Yucatan built along the ocean. They are so close to town that they’re almost a must-see Tulum attraction, so head in early to beat the crowds. We saw so many examples of tourists behaving badly, crossing ropes, and generally making an ass of themselves! In fact, for the first time, ever, we felt and acted on the urge to post an Instagram story about respecting other counties, cultures, and ropes when traveling on our Instagram stories.
Muyil / Sian Ka’an Biosphere Tours as an Alternative to Tulum Ruins
A worthy alternative to the trip to the Tulum Ruins is a tour to Muyil Ruins and Sian Ka’an Biosphere. Muyil is a fascinating site for history buffs because it was the first Mayan city founded in the Yucatan and the last one habituated. They have restored several of the larger structures, but it’s the smallest structures that interested me the most, the Alux houses in the central plaza (just like that restaurant in Playa Del Carmen). Aluxes are little people, and the Mayan believe that building them homes would win their favor, much like spirit houses in Thailand.
Adjacent (but not visible) to Muyil is a series of large lagoons, which is why the city was built here. Three bays connect to the ocean through a series of hand-dug canals. This water-world is called the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. Tours cross the bay and take you on a snorkel route along a Mayan canal. It’s the most picturesque lazy river trip you could ever imagine. We did a combination Muyil / Sian Ka’an / Cenote trip with Agua Clara Dive Center in Tulum that was top notch.
Between the yahoos and parking fees, I left the Tulum Ruins feeling a little conflicted. If we came first thing in the morning or later in the evening, I might have felt differently. If you rent a bike along the beach road, there’s a pretty nice ride to the entrance of the ruins. Our alternative of Muyil / Sian Ka’an left us with no conflictions. It was utterly awesome.
Riviera Maya Packing List
Riviera Maya is where the jungle meets the sea. You’ll be spending a lot of time in the water, but the heat and bugs of the jungle are waiting for you when you get out. Here’s our Riviera Maya packing list adventure that much more enjoyable.
- Reef-safe sunscreen– It is actually mandated that in many of the cenotes you have to have bi-degradable sunscreen. Beyond that, it works just as well and is better for the environment, so why not?
- Bug repellent– Bugs are to the jungle like bees are to honey. If you are like me, they also think you are about as sweet! I love this Picaridin lotion because it is less stinky and sticky than the usual bug repellent, and works super well.
- Water purifying device– You can’t drink the water, ever! I would not even recommend using it to brush your teeth. Montezuma’s revenge is real, and wicked…do not tempt Montezuma. We like our water purifying water bottle and Steri-pen
- Reusable water bottle– It’s just straight-up hot in the Yucatan Peninsula. That and adventuring is thirsty work, so do the planet a favor and use a reusable water bottle instead of single-use plastic.
Pro-Tip- Must use in conjunction with steri-pin, Montezuma is not to be toyed with. Be wary of ‘purified water refills,’ they might not be as pure as you’re hoping for.
- Travel towel– This one is great because it not only dries you and dries quickly, but sand does not stick to it.
- Sarong– There is no end to the uses for one of these… beach towel, coverup, scarf, cute skirt or dress … Oh, the possibilities.
- Chacos– These are the ultimate adventure sandal with a super sturdy and grippy Vibram sole. Comfortable and stylish for both sexes, and they even make flip flops!
- Swimsuit– This goes without saying…unless you are at one of the adults-only adult-themed hotels on the outskirts of hotel row…but that’s for a different article on a different site (wink-wink…lol!)
- Cover-up– A cute cover-up is a must to go from beach or pool to happy hour seamlessly.
- Collapsiable day pack– You will want to have a daypack for all of your adventures. This little baby packs small, but expands to carry a lot and had multiple pockets for the overly organized such as myself.
- Scuba/ snorkel mask– If your planning on spending much time with your face under the water, it is so much better to have your own mask. It will be more comfortable and will substantially decrease the likelihood of spending an afternoon suffering from a foggy mask. On that note, get this defog spray too, it is legit the best we have ever tried!
- Sunglasses– It’s sunny! Protect your peepers, make sure your sunnies are UV protected, and wear them!
- Clothes– As we mentioned above… it’s not that kind of vacation.
- Toiletries– Again, obvious, but it’s worth mentioning.
- Prescription meds– It can be challenging (and a bit pricey) to source medication in-country. Who wants to spend a vacation day sitting in a Mexican Urgent Care? I highly recommend asking your doctor to provide you with antibiotics for travelers’ diarrhea just in case. You will be glad you did! I also like to bring something for potential sinusitis/bronchitis, which tends to befall me after international flights, long bus rides, or renting lots of regulators for diving excursions.
Along with prescription medication, I always make sure I bring a small arsenal of over the counter meds:
- Imodium (to fight Montezuma)
- Benadryl (just in case)
- Ibuprofen (always good to have on hand)
- Neosporin (take it from me, it is incredibly challenging to find at the Farmacia)
Interactive Riviera Maya Activity Map
I know. I know. We mentioned a lot of places without giving detailed driving directions. In our defense, this article is already over 4,000 words long, so I could claim we did it for you. Besides, if you’re seriously considering swimming with bull sharks, I would have to hope you can read a map, specifically, our interactive Riviera Maya activity map. If you do not see map below be sure to refresh your browser 😉
Wrapping up our Guide to Unbelievable Riviera Maya Excursions
People might tell you that Riviera Maya lacks authenticity. We just don’t think that’s true. It’s a remarkable confluence of natural beauty and world history. You can adventure in the air on ziplines, on or under the water in the jungles, and even under the ground. There are plenty of ways to beat the crowds, find authentic experiences, and have genuine adventures on the Riviera Maya. You just need to know where to look.
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