Cancun and the surrounding area are known as resort and party destinations, but they have so much more to offer. The Riviera Maya is a great place for exploring cenotes and beaches, while also learning about Mayan civilizations. I spent a week here and decided to share the most useful itinerary.
Arriving in Cancun
After landing in the Cancun airport and collecting my bags, I walked outside to book a ticket on the ADO bus company. These buses stop at the airport and drop off in downtown Cancun or Playa del Carmen. From there, you can take a bus down to Akumal or Tulum. I recommend using this company because airport taxis and private shuttles are expensive. Cancun is known for its major tourist hotel zone, and the beaches are gorgeous.
Exploring cenotes is a must, and I recommend Cenote Zapote from Cancun. It is 63 meters deep and not quite run over with tourists. Cancun also has convenient ferry access to Isla Mujeres!
If you decide to take the ferry to Isla Mujeres, you will not leave disappointed. It is a small island off the coast of Mexico and is home to some of the most beautiful white sand and turquoise beaches in the area. The boat ride from Cancun is only 20 minutes, and there are several ferry terminals around town. There are terminals in the hotel zone, as well as Gran Puerto and Puerto Juarez. Gran Puerto is closer to the hotel zone, but Puerto Juarez offers cheaper ferry rides. The island is only 5 miles long, so I suggest renting a bike once you arrive! The northern part of the island (Playa Norte) has the best beaches, while the south side of the island contains the Garrafon National Park and the ruins of the Temple of the Goddess Ixchel. Divers also have reefs to explore, as well as the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks and two sunken ships.
Playa del Carmen
After exploring the Cancun area, Playa del Carmen was next on my itinerary. It is smaller than Cancun but still has a lot to offer. I did not find the beaches as stunning but enjoyed the nightlife and the vibe of the city. If you need money or need to convert cash, there are several ATM’s and currency stands. Make sure to find an ATM that dispenses pesos, not US dollars! USD is widely accepted, but it is always better to pay in the local currency. There are several beachfront restaurants, as well as bars and clubs. The clubs here are better than in Cancun because they are cheaper and do not charge cover fees. Not surprisingly, the restaurants on the beach are more expensive than those further inland. I recommend eating lunch or dinner away from the beach for more authentic food and better prices.
Chichén Itzá Mayan Ruins
Besides relaxing at the beach in Playa del Carmen, the Chichén Itzá Mayan ruins are also a must see. It is a former village of ancient Mayans and only an hour and a half inland. The Kukulkan pyramid is now considered one of the New 7 Wonders of the World! I not only found this pyramid breathtaking, but was also intrigued with the Great Ballcourt. The Mayans played a fascinating sport, which required hitting a ball through a suspended stone hoop with your hips. I recommend finding a tour company that charges around $45 per person for transportation and entrance. My friends and I rented a car. By the time we paid for the car, gas, tolls, parking, and entrance fees, we were better off paying for a tour bus. Contrary to popular belief though, we had no issues renting or driving the car around Mexico.
This part of Mexico gets extremely hot, so I suggest visiting the Cenote Ik Kil afterwards! This is supposedly Mexico’s most famous and stunning cenote and located only a few miles from Chichén Itzá. I thought it was beautiful, but crowded with tourists. Hey, you win some, you lose some.
Ruins and cenotes are cool and all, but what would a trip to the Caribbean be without finding a cute turtle?! I ventured down to Tulum via (you guessed it) the ADO bus to check into my hostel and then made my way up to Akumal via a colectivo. What is a colectivo, you may ask? It is a van that picks up different groups of people, like a taxi, making the ride affordable. Akumal is a well-known town because it is a turtle sanctuary! You can rent snorkeling gear (or bring your own) and swim out to the reefs to spot turtles and stingrays.
Last but certainly not least, I spent two days in Tulum. Not only is the beach breathtaking, but in good Mayan fashion, there are also ruins situated nearby. Visit the ruins in the morning before they get too crowded and spend the rest of the day relaxing at the beach! I found Tulum to be the cheapest town in the area, and highly enjoyed .87 cent beers and .50 cent tacos. Downtown Tulum has an endless number of restaurants and cute little shops. There are also several cenotes to explore here, including Dos Ojos, Gran Cenote, and Calavera. Cobá, another deserted Mayan village, is close to Tulum as well. The benefits of visiting Cobá over Chichén Itzá is that you can still climb some of the ruins!
If you have extra time…
Check out Lago Bacalar (Lake of the 7 Colors) in Bacalar, Mexico. It is near the Mexico/ Belize border and would be a good day trip from Tulum. It is called the Lake of 7 Colors because the sand on the bottom of the lake reflects several shades of blue.