Last winter, I took a 10-day trip to the Riviera Maya, Mexico with my husband, John. It was our first time visiting the Riviera Maya, and also our first-ever trip to Mexico! We were really excited to experience everything this region has to offer — from the beaches and cenotes to the Mayan ruins and Yucatan culture.
When planning our trip, I quickly learned that it is completely impossible to see and do all the awesome things this area has to offer. There are simply too many picturesque beaches, too many unique cenotes, too many gorgeous snorkeling spots, too many adventure parks, too many ancient Mayan ruins, and too many towns worth a visit. There is absolutely an overabundance of things to do in the Riviera Maya!
I suppose this is a good problem to have. But it’s tricky to selectively choose the places that most interest you, and then put together a vacation itinerary around it, also considering how to get from A to B, the timing of it all, and your budget. It’s a bit like putting together a puzzle with extra pieces mixed in that you don’t need — you have to sort through them all to decide which pieces work together and which don’t.
Prior to our 10-day Riviera Maya trip, I did a ton of research and planning to craft our ideal itinerary, and everything came together really well! I’m sharing our itinerary here, with the hope that it helps you plan your travels to the Riviera Maya, especially if it’s your first time visiting. I’ll also provide some helpful tips we learned along the way.
This Riviera Maya itinerary is for those who want to explore the region independently, see many of the beautiful beaches, visit the most popular Mayan ruins, and experience a sampling of the region’s tourist towns. It’s definitely an active trip, and while there is time for chilling at the beach, this trip as a whole is not a super-relaxing vacation (you will be staying on the move!). You will, however, get a taste for a variety of places, and will be able to hone in on some favorites you might like to return to in the future.
We didn’t rent a car during our trip to Mexico, so we relied on a combination of private and public transportation. The first-class ADO bus tickets are quite cheap, and the buses are a very safe, comfortable way to get around. We used taxis or private transportation when necessary, or when we felt the cost was worth the convenience it provided. I’m including a bunch of transportation tips throughout the itinerary below. However, there’s no doubt that this itinerary would certainly be easier if you plan to rent a car.
We stayed at small hotels in Isla Mujeres, Playa Del Carmen, and Tulum. When traveling, we usually look for the cheapest hotels that still meet our general comfort level (safe, clean, decently comfortable, conveniently located, and well-reviewed online). We generally prefer to spend money on the experiences during a trip rather than on the accommodations. (However, we did splurge a bit on our accommodations in Isla Mujeres, and we are glad we did! Read more in the Isla Mujeres section below.) For this trip in particular, we knew much of our time would be spent away from the hotels exploring all that the region has to offer, including eating out at local restaurants. An all-inclusive resort just wouldn’t make much sense with this type of itinerary.
Ok, that’s enough introduction! Let’s get right down to it. Here’s my 10-day Riviera Maya itinerary, below.
Day 1: Arrival & Isla Mujeres
Try to book a flight that arrives at Cancun in the morning or early afternoon to maximize your time. Our itinerary starts out at the nearby Isla Mujeres, a beautiful, quaint island that is home to the stunning beach of Playa Norte. Isla Mujeres is less crowded than many other places in the Riviera Maya, so spend the first two days enjoying the atmosphere at a relaxed pace.
- Fly into Cancun.
- From the airport, travel by pre-booked transportation (we used Happy Shuttle) to the Puerto Juarez (Ultramar) ferry terminal. The ride from the airport to the ferry terminal takes about a half hour. [$35 USD]
- Take the ferry to Isla Mujeres. Ferries depart every 30 minutes throughout the day. The ferry ride itself only takes about 20 minutes. [100 pesos per person]
- Settle into your hotel.
- Walk around town or relax at Playa Norte (North Beach).
- OVERNIGHT: Isla Mujeres
Accommodation notes: We stayed at the Casa Sirena bed & breakfast and absolutely loved it! [Approximately $165 USD per night] The daily evening rooftop happy hour (the “sunset for the fun set”) with the other guests was a blast and one of the highlights of our time in Isla Mujeres. We love meeting and chatting with other travelers. Wherever you decide to stay, just note that for a brief two-day visit, staying at the Northern tip of the island makes the most sense. This part of Isla Mujeres is very walkable with plenty of restaurants and shops, the ferry dock, and the gorgeous Playa Norte beach.
Read more about Two Days in Isla Mujeres: Things to Do & Places to Eat
Day 2: Isla Mujeres All Day
- Rent a golf cart to explore the island. (Our hotel helped arrange our rental for us.) [Approximately 700 pesos for a day’s rental]
- Visit the Tortugranja (Turtle Sanctuary). [60 pesos per person]
- Stop at Punta Sur (the southern tip of the island) for spectacular cliffside views and a walk around the sculpture garden. [60 pesos per person]
- Spend the afternoon beachside — either at one of the many beach clubs around the island (like Zama) or at Playa Norte.
- OVERNIGHT: Isla Mujeres
Day 3: Playa Del Carmen
- Check out of your hotel in Isla Mujeres.
- Take the ferry from Isla Mujeres back to the Puerto Juarez ferry terminal in Cancun. Ferries depart every 30 minutes. [100 pesos per person]
- From Cancun, travel to Playa Del Carmen via the ADO bus (cheaper) or private transportation (easier). We pre-arranged private transportation through Happy Shuttle for simplicity’s sake [$64 USD]. The ride from Cancun to Playa Del Carmen takes about 1 hour, 15 minutes. (If you opt for the bus, note that you must first take a taxi from the ferry terminal to the ADO bus station in downtown Cancun.) [Taxi from Puerto Juarez ferry terminal to Cancun ADO bus station is approximately 100 pesos. ADO bus tickets from Cancun to Playa Del Carmen are 60 pesos per person.]
- Once you arrive in Playa Del Carmen, settle into your hotel.
- Walk up or down the pedestrian-only Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue). This is the main tourist street in Playa Del Carmen, with lots of restaurants and shops. Keep your eye out for some street performances, especially near the ferry terminal to Cozumel.
- Or, spend your afternoon enjoying Playa Del Carmen’s wide stretch of white-sand beaches.
- OVERNIGHT: Playa Del Carmen
Accommodation notes: If you plan to use the ADO bus while in Playa Del Carmen, look for a hotel within walking distance of the ADO bus station (called “ADO Terminal Turistica Playa Del Carmen”). This bus station is on the corner of Quinta Avenida and Avenida Juarez. We stayed at Los Itzaes Hotel, which was only 4½ blocks from the ADO station. [Approximately $90 USD per night]
Day 4: Day Trip to Xcaret
Xcaret is an eco-archaeological theme park near Playa Del Carmen that features cultural performances, wildlife, snorkeling, a beach, underground rivers you can swim through, and more. This is a big tourist attraction, and as such, it’s quite touristy! (Think Disney World, but much smaller, with a nature focus, and no rides). However, we still found the park to be very beautiful, a lot of fun, and very well-organized.
- Get an early start, taking the earliest ADO bus to Xcaret from the bus station at the corner of Quinta Avenida and Avenida Juarez. (The bus departed at 8:30 a.m. during our trip.) The ride to Xcaret takes about 30 minutes, with the bus stopping at a couple other parks first.
- Tip: We booked our Xcaret entrance tickets from the tourist counter in the bus station, and this ticket included our roundtrip bus fare between Playa Del Carmen and Xcaret at no extra cost! There are different Xcaret ticket options. The standard ticket is $99 USD per person. The Xcaret Plus ticket is $129 USD per person (and includes a buffet lunch from your choice of venues, a beer with lunch, snorkel gear rentals, and use of the Xcaret Plus lockers and changing rooms).
- Spend your day at Xcaret enjoying the activities that most interest you. There is too much to do at the park in one day, so you might want to do some research ahead of time to decide how you’d like to spend your time.
- After the park activities close down in the evening, stick around for the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular performance, a two-hour-long production that takes you through the story of Mexico’s history. The show begins at 7 p.m. and is no additional cost.
- Return to Playa Del Carmen via the ADO bus after the evening show. The bus pick-up area is marked outside the park entrance.
- OVERNIGHT: Playa Del Carmen
Other options: As an alternate to Xcaret park, you could also check out these other nearby parks: Xplor (which has more adventurous activities like ATV courses, zip lining, and swimming through underground rivers) or Xel-Ha (which features primarily water activities).
Day 5: Snorkeling Day Trip to Akumal
- In the morning, travel by taxi to Yal-ku Lagoon (a 30-minute ride). [Approximately 500 pesos]
- Spend a couple hours in the morning experiencing the amazing snorkeling at Yal-ku. [200 pesos per person]
- From Yal-ku, walk (15 minutes) or take a taxi to La Buena Vida Restaurant & Bar. This is a great casual place to relax by the beach for a while and grab lunch. (We also saw several people swimming out from the restaurant’s beach to snorkel in Half Moon Bay. They said they saw all kinds of beautiful fish out there!)
- From La Buena Vida, walk (15 minutes) or take a taxi to the public Akumal Beach. Snorkel here, keeping a lookout for the amazing sea turtles.
- Return to Playa Del Carmen via taxi. Many taxis wait outside the entrance to Akumal Beach. [Approximately 500 pesos]
- OVERNIGHT: Playa Del Carmen
Note: You could also do this day in reverse order – visiting Akumal Beach in the morning and Yal-ku Lagoon in the afternoon. Just know that whichever place you visit in the afternoon will probably have cloudy water from the sand getting kicked up (not so great for snorkeling). I LOVED Yal-ku and am glad we snorkeled there in the morning (though of course that meant the water in Akumal Beach was pretty cloudy during our afternoon visit).
Day 6: Day Trip to Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is probably the most popular Mayan ruin site, as it’s considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. This ancient Mayan city has several beautiful, well-preserved structures, including the famous El Castillo pyramid.
- Book a day tour to Chichen Itza through a tour company. Chichen Itza is 2.5 hours from Playa Del Carmen, so it’s hard to coordinate this on your own in one day without a rental car. (I’m not going to recommend the tour company we used, because there were some things I didn’t love about the tour.)
- Look for a tour that also stops for a swim at one of the beautiful cenotes near Chichen Itza.
- A stop in the city of Valladolid is a bonus, but not a must-see for this day trip. If your tour does stop there, it will probably be quite brief and will only allow time to step in the cathedral and see the main square.
- OVERNIGHT: Playa Del Carmen
Day 7: Tulum Beach Day
- Check out of your hotel in Playa Del Carmen.
- From the ADO bus station at the corner of Quinta Avenida and Avenida Juarez in Playa Del Carmen, take a bus to Tulum Pueblo (town). The bus ride takes about one hour. [70 pesos per person]
- If your hotel is in the Tulum beach zone (which I recommend), then take a taxi from the bus station in town to your hotel (about 20 minutes, depending on where along the beach your hotel is located). There will be taxis waiting outside the bus station. [Approximately 120 pesos depending on the location of your hotel]
- Once you are settled into your hotel, find a place to relax by the beach and grab lunch. If your hotel is right on the beach, then that’s easy! If your hotel is on the jungle side of the road and does not have beach access, then you still have many options. The whole stretch of beach is public, so you can sit out with your towel in the sand anywhere near the water. If you want a lounge chair and umbrella, then many of the hotels and restaurants along the beach will let you use theirs, as long as you meet their minimum food & drink purchase requirements.
- OVERNIGHT: Tulum
Accommodation notes: Stay in the Tulum beach zone if you want convenient access to the beach. Tulum Pueblo is much cheaper, but it’s about a 15-minute taxi ride to the beach (or a 30-minute bike ride). We wanted to stay near the beach, but still wanted to keep our hotel costs on the lower end, so we opted to stay at Las Palmas Maya, which is on the jungle side of the beach road. The hotel rooms here are quite minimal, but they do have bathrooms in the individual rooms and 24-hour electricity (which is a bonus for the Tulum beach zone!). [Approximately $130 USD per night]
Day 8: Day Trip to Coba
- Eat a large breakfast today — there won’t be many options for lunch near Coba. Pack snacks for later!
- Make arrangements for a taxi driver to stay with you for several hours during today’s itinerary (your hotel should be able to help you with this). Hiring a taxi for the day will allow you to visit a few places with the same driver, who will wait for you at each stop. (Just make sure to discuss the locations and the price up front.) [Approximately 1300 pesos]
- Ride in your taxi to Coba Ruins (a 1-hour drive). When getting dropped off, make sure to discuss where you can meet your driver when you’re done. [Coba entrance fee is 70 pesos per person]
- Once at Coba Ruins, climb to the top of Nohuch Mul pyramid for beautiful bird’s-eye views, stand in the old Mayan ball courts, and wander off the beaten path to see some of the tucked-away ruins.
- I highly recommend renting bikes to travel between the ruin sites — it’s fun! Alternatively, you can hire someone to do the peddling for you in a bike taxi. [Bike rentals are 50 pesos per person. Bike taxis are 190 pesos per taxi (a taxi seats two people).]
- Once done at the ruins, meet back up with your taxi driver and have them take you to one (or more) of the three cenotes near Coba: Tankach-Ha, Choo-Ha, and Multum-Ha. You can purchase tickets for these cenotes BEFORE you leave the Coba Ruins parking lot, at the small building near the entrance of the lot. The cenotes themselves, however, are about a 10-minute drive from the ruins. We only visited Tankach-Ha during our visit, but the other two are supposed to be beautiful (and quiet!). Tankach-Ha is the busiest of the three due to it’s high jumping platforms for leaping into the water! (Though you can still enter the water without jumping — like I did!) [Each cenote costs 55 pesos per person]
- After you visit the cenotes, your driver can take you back to Tulum.
- Spend the rest of your afternoon by the beach in Tulum.
- OVERNIGHT: Tulum
Transportation note: There is also the option of taking the ADO bus from Tulum Pueblo to Coba Ruins. However, it doesn’t run very frequently, and you will probably end up stuck at Coba for longer than you’d like. It would also make it difficult to visit the cenotes near Coba.
Day 9: Tulum Ruins & Grand Cenote
Tulum Ruins are less impressive than the ruins at Chichen Itza or Coba, but their location alongside a cliff above the ocean is spectacular. It’s definitely worth the stop for these views!
- Early in the morning, catch a taxi to Tulum Ruins (about 15 minutes). [Approximately 130 pesos]
- Get to Tulum Ruins early to beat the crowds (the ruins open at 8 a.m.). [Entrance is 70 pesos per person]
- After seeing the ruins, take a short taxi ride to the Playa Paraiso Beach Club at Hotel el Paraiso. (Or, if you’re full of energy, you can walk 25 minutes south along the beach road to get there.) Plenty of taxis will be waiting outside Tulum Ruins.
- Relax at Playa Paraiso for a few hours. This is a prime beach location in Tulum — it’s absolutely beautiful with the flat stretch of white sand and the palm trees.
- End your day with a trip to Grand Cenote. It closes at 5 p.m., so aim to head over there by 3 p.m., if not sooner. There will be many taxis waiting at Playa Paraiso that can take you to Grand Cenote (a 15-minute ride). [Approximately 170 pesos for the taxi ride]
- Grand Cenote is an open-air cenote (the roof caved in a long, long time ago). It’s beautiful with the sunlight dancing off the shimmery light green water. Swim and snorkel amidst the beauty. [Entrance fee 150 pesos per person]
- Take a taxi back to your hotel in Tulum. There will be taxis waiting outside Grand Cenote. [Approximately 200 pesos depending on the location of your hotel]
- OVERNIGHT: Tulum
Day 10: Fly Home
- Travel by pre-booked private transportation from Tulum to the Cancun airport (1 hour, 30 minutes). [Approximately $90 USD]
That’s All, For Now!
In future posts, I’m going to delve into more detail about our experience at each of the above locations!
If you are planning your travel itinerary to the Riviera Maya, I hope this helps get you started! Please let me know in the comments below if this helped you, and if there is anything else you are curious about! I’m happy to share if I know the answer. 🙂
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