The Riviera Maya part of Mexico is such a great place for beginner travelers to visit. The weather is warm. There’s lots of pretty ocean and palm trees to see. There are a lot of sights to see and things do. And, despite the bad rap that Mexico gets, the tourist part feels very safe and almost everyone speaks English. I cannot recommend going to one of the U.S. border areas, but the Riviera Maya is no problem.
Unique to Riviera Maya:
- Mayan Ruins
- Visit or swim in the Cenotes
- Ecological Parks
- Playa del Carmen
Visit the Mayan Ruins – There are a lot of Mayan Ruins in Central America. We visited the two that are probably the most popular, Chichen Itza and Tulum. We booked both of our tours through Experiencias Xcaret (the company that manages Xel-Ha).
- Chichen Itza Tour – Our Chichen Itza tour was a full-day tour that included a drive through the town of Valladolid (have your camera out if you want a picture of the church, they don’t stop, so you have to be quick – I wasn’t!). From there we headed straight to Chichen Itza. At Chichen Itza we spent about a half hour with the guide and then had another hour to explore on our own. We walked all the way to the observatory with it’s spiral tower since Brian loves astronomy stuff and it was really neat. I think it’s really neat to think about how advanced this civilization really was for it’s time (You can read up on it here: Link about Mayan Astronomy). We also saw the ball court just like in the movie “Road to El Dorado”. It was really hot out (even in November), so it was just about the perfect amount of time to see everything and then we were ready to get back on the air conditioned bus. I cannot describe how much I was in awe of Chichen Itza. It’s the most amazing site that I’ve seen so far on my travels. That pyramid is impressive.
- In combination with our Chichen Itza tour, our bus stopped at the Cenote Ik-Kil for a swim and a lunch. (We booked the less expensive “Classic” tour versus the “Deluxe” tour just because we wanted to swim. It seems backwards to me, but the Deluxe tour just stops and there’s no swimming.) When we go there we headed straight for the lunch and ate quickly before it got crowded. The lunch wasn’t anything special, but we had got snacks when the bus stopped in the morning, so we were fine (If you are a picky eater, I recommend buying extra snacks when the bus stops.). After eating we headed straight for the cenote. Bring cash to rent a locker to store your stuff while you swim. The cenote is such a weird experience because you’re swimming in this giant hole that was created by nature. It’s a bit of a strange feeling, but really, really cool.
- Our Tulum tour was also a combination tour letting us spend the morning at Tulum and the afternoon at Xel-Ha. Our Tulum tour was very similar to the Chichen Itza tour. Although the ruins are a long ways from the entrance so you have to ride a trolley. We spent about 15 minutes with the guide and then had about 45 minutes to wander around by ourselves and take pictures. There are lizards everywhere! And coatis which closely resemble raccoons. Our friends headed straight to the beach, but we were happy wandering around taking pictures. Then we had a bit of a hasty walk back to the bus because we didn’t want to miss it. That being said, I think we had plenty of time at Tulum and definitely think it’s a tour that you could combine with another stop somewhere else.
Xel-Ha – After Tulum our bus took us to Xel-Ha where we had a really fun afternoon. It’s a bit expensive to get into the park, but it’s fun and it’s a lot different from waterparks in the U.S. because it’s an ecological park. We paid extra to do the SeaTrek where you put on helmets and walk along the ocean floor. I was a bit nervous, so we did the cheaper option. Looking back, I wish we would’ve done the Dolphin Sea Trek because i’m sure it was a lot neater. Ours was really fun, but at the end of the day I mostly saw the same fish and a few stingrays that I’m not a big fan of. We also paid extra for the photo package. It’s expensive ($70) but it included our SeaTrek picks, and you can run all over the site and take pictures in a bunch of different locations. We had a lot of fun hitting all of the photo stops and thought the technology of scanning your arm bands was pretty cool. My favorite thing about Xel-Ha was the lazy river which starts all the way back in the Mangroves. It rained on us during this part, but was still so fun and relaxing. We also ate dinner at Xel-Ha. They have a very large selection and it’s pretty good, probably better than the resort.
Playa del Carmen – Playa del Carmen is a nice area full of souvenir shops. We rode a taxi there from our hotel and spent a couple of hours looking at souvenirs and ate dinner at a mexican restaurant. We bought a pair of hilarious mexican wrestling costumes for Brian’s nephews.
Next time I visit Rivieria Maya:
- Try another ecological park (maybe XPLOR or XENOTES)
- Visit some of the other Cenotes
We relied on someone else to drive us. After reading horror stories on the internet about Mexican policeman pulling tourists over and asking for bribes, we decided not to risk getting our own rental car. We relied on airport shuttle to get us to and from our hotel, a taxi to get us to Playa del Carmen, and tour buses to do our excursions.
The Experiencias Xcaret tours are very organized, but they can add a bit of time to your tour. Basically, buses stop at a handful of hotels to pick up passengers. Then they bring you to the Xel-Ha parking lot where passengers are sorted on to different buses depending on the tour they signed up for. This shuffle takes a little bit of time. Then later in the day, the buses again bring you back to the Xel-Ha parking lot and you get sorted into a bus that stops at your hotel. So the good news is less hotel stops, the bad news is that you have to waste a little time going to Xel-Ha and getting sorted onto the right bus.
Dreams Puerto Aventuras – We stayed in the Dreams Puerto Aventuras. Our friends got married there under a beautiful tiki-hut overlooking the ocean and had a gorgeous reception venue in the hotel restaurant. While the wedding venue was beautiful, the overall resort was pretty comparable to other all-inclusives. The food was pretty so-so. We didn’t starve, but the food at all-inclusives just don’t compare to cruise ships. The hotel also had 2 pools which were nice. The swing bar (note, bar with swings) was also neat and made a great happy hour spot before the wedding reception.
Restaurants/ Meals & Drinks:
El Trueke (?) Playa Del Carmen – In Playa Del Carmen we ate dinner at a really fun restaurant where we ordered a sampler meal that came served on top of a ceramic pig so that it would stay warm! It was on the second story, and we had a table right on the balcony where we could watch the people on the street below. I highly recommend it.
Restaurant at Ik-Kil Cenote – Edible. If it comes with the tour it’s fine and you won’t starve. If you’re adventuring on your own, I’d find somewhere else.
Tips/ Things to Know:
- Bring special sunscreen. The coral reefs in Mexico are endangered and so tourists are encouraged to wear special sunscreen that won’t cause further damage.
My Time Spent on the Riviera Maya:
- 4 nights in November 2015, staying at the Dreams Puerto Aventuras resort
Hope you find our travel guide helpful!