Tips and practical information for Mexico’s biggest and busiest airport
If you fly to Mexico from abroad, there’s a good chance that you’ll arrive or transfer in Mexico City.
Benito Juarez International is by far the biggest and busiest airport in Mexico. Here you can take a connecting flight on one of Mexico’s discount airlines to practically any other part of the country. Or you can take a short subway or bus ride into Mexico City, where many great adventures begin. After exploring the city, continue onward in a bus or a rental car.
Like any major airport anywhere in the world, Benito Juarez International is big and confusing, but there’s nothing to be worried about. A little knowledge and preparation goes a long way. After a long flight, it’s no fun walking around in circles with your heavy baggage and nowhere to go, no pesos, and no Spanish skills.
At a minimum you should learn about public transportation routes and schedules, how to get money, and procedures for customs and immigration. Figuring these out for my recent trips to Russia and South Africa was enormously helpful, even though it required a lot of online research beforehand.
That research gave me some insight into what it’s like for first-time travelers to Mexico to arrive by plane in Mexico City. So, with that in mind, here’s what you need to know to successfully navigate the Benito Juarez International Airport.
Choose a good arrival time
The first step is to choose your flight carefully so you arrive while public transportation is still running. But if you don’t mind paying for a taxi to your hotel, then it really doesn’t matter what time you arrive. In this case, review the policies of your hotel for the earliest time you can check-in or if you must let them know before arriving late at night.
(I’ll write about getting hotels in Mexico in another post, but for now, if you’re still looking for a place to stay, check out all the options on websites like Booking.com)
If you want to use public transportation, don’t arrive before 6 AM or after 8 PM. Although the metro (subway) and the metrobus (local buses that run on a fixed route) do run later, usually until around 11 PM, it’s not a good idea to walk around Mexico City in the dark while dragging your baggage from the bus or metro stop to your hotel. Sure, downtown is reasonably safe (at least in the daytime), but there’s no need to tempt fate.
Also keep in mind that buses from the airport to other nearby cities stop running around 10 PM, and you may need up to an hour to get through immigration and customs, depending on how busy they are.
If you don’t mind sleeping on the plane, the best time to arrive is between 6 and 7 AM. You can take public transportation and beat Mexico City’s insane rush hour traffic, which really gets heavy after 7. Another good time to arrive is between 10 AM and 1 PM. You’ll miss rush hour when traveling into the city, and you’ll get to your hotel just in time for check-in.
If you arrive in the morning, make sure your hotel doesn’t charge for an early check-in. Check-in for most hotels is around 2 PM, but if the room is ready they’ll probably let you in early. If not, then leave your bags behind the front desk and go out for a long breakfast.
A second consideration when planning your flights is whether you’ll transfer in Mexico City for another destination in Mexico. You’ll clear immigration and also customs there before you fly to your next destination. This could take 10 minutes or an hour—or even longer on a busy Mexican holiday. Make sure you have enough time between flights.
There are two terminals at the Mexico City Airport, and depending on how busy it is, getting from one to the other could take around 30 minutes. They are too far apart to walk—you take a little train between them.
Which terminal your flight arrives at depends on which airline it is. So if both flights are on the same airline, you probably won’t have to change terminals. But if they are different airlines, include extra time when considering your layover.
Save your tourist card
Like for most countries, you’ll get the tourist/immigration and customs cards on the plane. They are in Spanish and English, so filling them out is easy. If you have any questions, ask the flight attendant.
You might find a few typos—for example, at the moment both the top and bottom parts say that it is the arrival card. The bottom part is actually the departure card, so fill in all the information except for the flight number.
Once the plane lands, all the passengers will be herded toward the immigration area, called migración in Mexico. Get in the line for foreigners, not for Mexican citizens.
You’ll give the tourist form to the immigration officer, who will stamp the bottom part, write the amount of time you are granted to be in the country (usually 180 days), and give it back to you. Save this card—you’ll need it to leave Mexico, and if you don’t have it you’ll be fined about $30 USD.
You’ll probably be asked about the purpose of your trip (tourism), how long you plan on staying, and where you’ll be staying (your hotel or other destination), but probably little else. It’s rare that they ask to see your return ticket (which can be common in other countries, like the U.S.), but regardless it’s good to have a printout of your return itinerary just in case.
The customs area is next to the baggage claim in both terminals. After getting your bags and waiting in line, you’ll hand the customs form to the officer and then push a button. Above the button you’ll see either a green or red light. The green light means that you can enter, and the red light means you’ll be searched.
The one time I pushed red I had the maximum allowable amount of liquor (three liters at the time, but this may change) in a duty-free shop bag and three more bottles in my luggage. As eager as I was to get out of the airport, I stood back patiently and answered all of the officer’s questions while she lined up the bottles on the metal counter. She got about halfway through my bag and let me go, no problem.
So take my advice—be as respectful and patient as possible. (This goes for all Mexican authorities.) DO NOT complain or tell them you’re in hurry, which will only annoy them and cause them to give you a hard time.
Terminal 1 or Terminal 2?
As I mentioned above, there are two terminals at the airport, which are far apart on opposite sides of the runways. It won’t be obvious which terminal you are in upon arrival, so if you need to make a connection, ask a flight attendant on the plane or an officer in the baggage claim.
The terminals are not divided by international and domestic; different airlines use different terminals. You can find the list here:
A train called the Autotrain travels between the terminals. Save your boarding pass to use it because they won’t let you on without one.
Exchange rates in airports are typically terrible all over the world, but not so much in Mexico City. Don’t use the ones when you are still inside the baggage claim area, but wait until you clear customs.
At each currency exchange booth you’ll see two different numbers for U.S. dollars and other major currencies: buy and sell. The smaller the difference between them, the better the rate. For example, if “buy” is at 20.54 and “sell” is at 20.40, it’s a good deal. But if “buy” is at 22.00 and “sell” is at 18.00, the rate is worse.
It’s crucial to have an idea of the exchange rate before you arrive so you can compare rates at the different booths with the official rate. Before your trip, check exchange rates online, such as at this website: http://coinmill.com
Make some notes about how much your home currency is worth in pesos, so you aren’t trying to make rushed calculations after a long flight. Make a sheet with notes like this:
- $10 USD = 200 pesos
- $20 USD = 400 pesos
- 100 pesos = $5 USD
- 200 pesos = $10 USD
(These rates are only examples.)
By the way, exchanging money in downtown Mexico City is easy, so if the rates are bad at the airport, only get what you need for transportation and a meal.
Or, for a generally better exchange rate, withdraw from a bank ATM. Many are scattered throughout both terminals, including near the exit for the metrobus in Terminal 2. Look for ATMs with international credit exchange symbols on them, like Cirrus or Interac, and match those symbols to the ones on your card:
For more about managing your money in Mexico and Latin America, please read this article.
Renting a car
Unless you’ll immediately drive to a nearby town or visit an unusual part of the city, I don’t recommend renting a car in Mexico City.
Driving around is a bad idea for three reasons: traffic, parking, and confusing road signs that make getting lost easy. Driving through the wrong neighborhood could get you carjacked or worse. Plus, you can get to all the major tourist spots by bus, metro or metrobus.
But if you want to rent a car, you can do it at the many booths near the taxi stands, although you can often get a better deal online. All the usual international companies are there, like Enterprise, Budget, etc.
If you reserve online, be aware that the insurance offered by third-party websites like expedia.com is not valid in Mexico. When you go to pick up the car, the price will double or even triple when they add insurance. To avoid this, arrange car rentals directly on company websites, and read all that boing fine print.
Picking up a car at a major airport can take a long time. First you get in line at the booth inside the airport and then take a shuttle to the car lot, where you fill out all the paperwork and wait for the car to be ready. Then, once it’s ready, you go around the car inspecting for previous damage, and finally sign the contract.
This means that you shouldn’t expect a fast process when picking up a car at the airport. Plan for the extra time. Fortunately, dropping the car off before departing usually only takes a few minutes.
Besides renting a car, there are three better options to get into downtown Mexico City: a taxi, the metrobus, and the metro (subway).
Taxis take you anywhere; the metrobus is a good option in the daylight hours to get to the zócalo (central square) or elsewhere in the centro historico or nearby neighborhoods like Condesa or Zona Rosa; and the metro goes practically everywhere and is by far the cheapest and most confusing.
Also, if you’ll travel by land to another city in Mexico, many direct buses leave from both terminals.
Using a taxi is the fastest, easiest, and most expensive option. For safety’s sake, do not flag down a taxi outside the terminals, but use a taxi stand inside the airport.
Ignore anyone who approaches you offering a taxi—go right to the stands. Many obvious ones are in both terminals and prices should be similar, if not the same. Confirm that you’ll be in a regular car (a sedan, the word in Spanish and English) and not a big passenger van, which costs more.
At the time of writing, getting downtown (the centro historico) costs about 230 pesos (about $12 USD). If you want to pay with a credit card, look for Mastercard, Visa or American Express stickers on the booth window. Or get some pesos first—don’t pay in U.S. dollars, as the exchange rate will be ridiculous.
The price is determined by neighborhood, so have the full address of your hotel ready. You’ll pay at the stand and then receive a slip of paper to give to a person by the line of taxis waiting outside. Once in the taxi, tell the driver the specific address of where you’re going—again, having it written down is essential, especially if you don’t speak Spanish.
The price of a taxi is the same no matter how many people use it, so try to share with any friends you make on your flight who are traveling to the same part of the city as you.
This is a good option if you’re going downtown and don’t mind dragging your luggage around. There’s plenty of space for it on the bus, although the buses tend to get quite crowded soon after leaving the airport.
The metrobus line for the airport is Line 4. Check out the map to find the stop closest to your hotel and if it’s within walking distance.
The metrobus leaves from the ground floor in each terminal, close to where you exit customs. It leaves from Door 7 (Puerta 7) in Terminal 1 and Door 3 (Puerta 3) in Terminal 2. Look for the MB symbol on signs hanging from the ceiling. Once outside, look for MB symbol on a sign—that’s the bus stop—and wait in line for the big red bus. (Or are they green now?)
To pay, buy a card from a machine inside each terminal near the door to the bus stop. The minimum is 40 pesos plus 10 for the card, so that’s 50. The machine accepts 20, 50 and 100 bills, but it doesn’t give change, so buy something from the convenience store OXXO if you only have big bills.
From either terminal it takes about 30 minutes to get downtown. If you don’t have hotel reservations, but plan on walking around looking for a hotel (there are many around the zócalo), get off at Bellas Artes—you can’t miss it.
Metro (the subway)
The Mexico City metro is super cheap at 5 pesos per ride, and although it’s safe enough, it definitely isn’t a good idea for anyone who has never taken a subway before or has a lot of luggage. You need to be able to read the map, be comfortable with transfers, and keep an eye on your bags at all times.
The metro leaves from Terminal 1. Walk outside, turn left, and keep walking until you see the entrance. The name of the stop is Terminal Aérea, and it’s on an out-of-the-way line, so you’ll probably have to transfer at least once. Get a copy of the metro map beforehand and plan your route. Not all stations have maps posted and they aren’t always available when you buy tickets, although you can try asking for one.
Here is a link to a map for the metro: http://mexicometro.org/wp-content/uploads/Mexico-City-Metro-Map-October-2015.pdf
As you can see, the Terminal Aérea stop is on the yellow line (on the far right on the map), which doesn’t go downtown. Only a stop or two away, however, are transfers to the major lines that cross the city, including the pink line through downtown. To look for hotels in the historic center, get off on the Pino Suarez or Isabela la Catolica stops on the pink line, and ask someone to point you in the direction of the zócalo. You’ll pass many discount hotels on the walk there.
Tip: If you plan on frequently traveling by metro during your stay in Mexico City, buy many tickets at once so you don’t have to wait in line each time.
Buses to nearby cities
Buses go from the airport to the nearby cities of Puebla, Cuernavaca, Querétaro, Toluca, and more. Most run between 6-7 AM until 10 PM.
To find the buses in either terminal, once you leave customs follow the signs for transporte foráneo (ground transportation) with a little bus icon next to it.
In Terminal 1, take a left after you leave the customs area and follow the signs. You’ll take another left, go up a motorized ramp to the second floor, pass a food court, go down a hallway, and you’ll see desks for the different destinations.
In Terminal 2, finding the bus station is easier—take a right out of customs and just follow the signs straight on. It’s on the same floor and looks more like a typical bus station than the one in Terminal 1.
Yes, you can buy tickets online beforehand, but I don’t recommend this in case your flight is late. I have never seen a bus sell out, but if this happens the worst thing would be to wait for the next one.
For a summary page of the buses that leave from the Mexico City airport, you can consult this page on the airport website, which may not be up to date. You can check schedules on the bus company websites for four major destinations:
To Puebla: Estrella Roja
To Cuernavaca: Pullman Morelos
To Toluca: Caminante
To Querétaro: Primera Plus
Once you’ve been in Mexico City for a while, you’ll know whether there’s a metrobus or metro stop near your hotel that you can take back to the airport once it’s time to leave. If you want to take a taxi, have the hotel call one for you. Waving down taxis on the street in Mexico City isn’t safe.
Make sure you know which terminal your flight departs from (see above), and follow the standard advice for international flights—arrive at least three hours early.
The good news is that you can buy a beer from a convenience store near the departure gates and drink it in the waiting area for your flight—you don’t have to get overcharged at a restaurant.
Once again, be sure that you have the departure portion of the tourist card that was stamped when you arrived, or be prepared to pay the fine.
A final tip: Don’t buy tequila or other booze (mezcal, Kahlúa, or good Central American rum like Flor de Caña) at the duty free shop. It’s cheaper at an average grocery, liquor or convenience store in the city, but definitely not at a specialty shop in a tourist area. Put the bottles in your checked luggage, and check the requirements of your home country about how much you can bring back.
The same goes for souvenirs. Don’t wait for the airport. The best place for souvenirs in Mexico City, by the way, is the Ciudadela Market.
Finally, take a moment of appreciation for an airport in a major city that’s only 30 minutes from downtown. In fact, a new airport outside the city is already being built.
It’s anyone’s guess what will happen to the prime real estate currently occupied by Benito Juarez International, but one can only hope that at least part of it will become a public park.
We all know that in today’s world, any frustrated loser can fill any comment section with insults, nastiness, and lies.
Just look at YouTube—search for any great piece of music, from classical to contemporary, and you’ll see idiotic hostility and inexplicably high numbers next to the “thumbs down” button. I mean, who the hell would give a thumbs down to Glenn Gould?
This is also true for reviews on Amazon. Look up your favorite book and you’re bound to see awful reviews by people who probably haven’t read it. “This was assigned in a class and I couldn’t get through it” seems to be a common one.
In fact, last year Amazon changed its rating system because of thousands of negative reviews left on Hillary Clinton’s book Stronger Together: A Blueprint for America’s Future, among others. Now reviews by “verified purchases” are given much more value in the total accumulated one to five stars.
Most of those people never read her book; the reviews were motivated purely by politics. And I’m not here to defend Clinton, merely point out the problem. This also applies to Trump’s Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America and Trump: The Art of the Deal.
Netflix too has changed its rating system, possibly at the request of Amy Shumer, who received loads of one-star ratings on her most recent standup special, which she claimed was because of her jokes against Trump.
So, with all this happening, let me say how nice it is to read positive reviews of my guidebooks on Amazon!
I woke up this morning to the ninth five-star review of my guide to San Cristobal and Palenque, Chiapas. Thank you, thank you very much.
And while there are a few critical reviews of my older (but recently updated, in March 2017) guidebook to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera, most are positive, thoughtful and insightful. And even some of the negative ones aren’t fully negative, but also add in a little bit of positivity.
I think it’s easy to find the motivation to write a negative review—and I’m talking about genuine reviews, not the ones written by lunatics who never bought the product. It’s understandable: You bought something, you didn’t like it, and now you can tell it to the world.
(By the way, I consider the critical reviews on my Cancun guide to be genuine reviews. If you wrote one, please understand that I’m not talking about you when I talk about “frustrated losers,” and please contact me so I can send you the updated version! I’m sure you’ll like it better.)
Similarly, why leave a positive review? When you buy something, you expect it to be good, so most people wouldn’t bother to take the time to review it.
So, just in case any of you happen to read this, thank you. Thank you so much for taking the time to write a positive review, especially in this time of so much negativity and so many platforms to express it. For an independent writer like me, positive reviews and comments are hugely important, and I appreciate them very much.
Got a hankering for some time on a tropical beach? Deep blue sky, turquoise water, gentle waves and soft sand? A styrofoam cooler by your side, packed with sweating Coronas? Yeah, that sounds about right.
You can find nice beaches all over Mexico’s 5,800 miles of seashore, but when you picture paradise, you’re probably thinking of the Mayan Riviera, the 90-mile stretch of Caribbean coastline from Cancun in the north to Tulum in the south (and beyond to Punto Allen, by some estimations).
Cancun, the unofficial capital of the Mayan Riviera, is famous for all-inclusive luxury resorts, with all-day pool parties and all-you-can eat restaurants. Similar though larger resorts are all along the coast too, like fancy communities with private beaches and activities for all ages.
Though the beach might be the big draw in the Mayan Riviera, those who venture out of the resorts (or stay elsewhere) can explore ancient Mayan cities, swim in freshwater cenotes (sinkholes and caves), run through the jungle, or visit charming colonial towns.
Most resorts arrange tours to these places, but if you don’t want to be led like cattle around mysterious pyramids in a noisy group of camera-wielders, it’s easy to use public transportation like buses or colectivos (passenger vans) for much cheaper and with the freedom to spend as much or little time as you want.
Or you could always stay on the beach all day, snorkeling and sipping margaritas. You really can’t go wrong in the Mayan Riviera—with so much to do and see, your trip may be the best long weekend, two weeks, or six months of your life.
This list contains 12 of the best, which of course is totally subjective. (I wanted Top 10, but couldn’t include less than 12. And still I’ve left things out…)
What you consider the best of the Mayan Riviera depends on what you’re into. If you can’t get enough scuba diving or snorkeling, for example, you’ll want to check out Akumal or Isla Mujeres, although you can find great dive sites everywhere. The Mesoamerican reef, the second longest in the world, follows the entire coast. Or, in Isla Mujeres, besides the reef you can check out the Underwater Museum of Art, which features more than 500 sunken sculptures.
And water sports like scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, and kite boarding are just the beginning. Landlubbers can golf, mountain bike, ride a zipline, explore an underground river, have a spa day, check out museums, go shopping in an air-conditioned mall, take a day trip to an island, explore an adventure ecopark, take the kids to a zoo, or relax on a beach that’s much less developed than Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
Here are my suggestions to help you plan your trip to one of safest and most interesting parts of Mexico—maybe the entire world.
By the way, details, directions, and extra suggestions for these places and many more are in my guidebook to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera, available here or at Amazon.com—but if you just have a quick question, I’ll be happy to answer it in the comments.
Click the book to view on Amazon.com:
Playa del Carmen
Cancun gets all the hype, and for good reason. Though heavily developed, Cancun has plenty to do for all ages, a fun atmosphere, and a big beautiful beach.
But if you’re on a budget and want to walk barefoot from your low-key hotel to the beach every day, then look no further than Playa del Carmen. ADO, the bus from the airport to downtown Cancun, also has a direct bus to Playa.
Due to erosion, the main beach isn’t quite as wide as it used to be, but unlike Cancun with its huge resorts, none of the hotels and restaurants on the beach are taller than five stories. The pedestrian-only street Quinta Avenida (Fifth Ave) follows the beach, with an enormous selection of Mexican and international restaurants, trendy bars, world-class nightclubs, and no fewer than three shopping malls.
There’s nothing like an evening stroll on Quinta Ave, with mariachi groups, smiling hustlers, Mexican families, sunburnt foreigners, and pretty girls dressed for the club all competing for your attention. Though public drinking is not allowed in Mexico, on Quinta Ave no one seems to mind. Grab a beer or two from a convenience store and wander around.
Also, Playa del Carmen’s location roughly in the center of the Mayan Riviera makes it an excellent base for exploring the other places on this list, including the island of Cozumel right offshore. Ferries to Cozumel leave from the southern end of Playa del Carmen’s main beach, a five-minute walk from the central bus station.
If you want to enjoy nature, a short walk to the south of central Playa del Carmen takes you to the Xaman-Ha Bird Sanctuary inside the Playacar gated community. Though the entrance fee is a little steep at 300 pesos (about $15 USD), you can see macaws, parrots, flamingos, iguanas, the cute jungle rodent sereque, and maybe a solitary spider monkey up in the trees.
Tip: If you find Playa’s modest beachside hotels and central location appealing, but not its shopping malls and party scene, then look into Puerto Morelos, a relaxed beach town about 30 minutes to the north, which is also a great place for snorkeling and scuba diving.
Technically not on the Mayan Riviera but in the state of Yucatán, Chichén Itzá gained international notice in 2007 when it was chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. About three hours from Cancun, this enormous ancient Mayan city with its pyramids, skull carvings, and two cenotes will give you a taste of the history of the region that you certainly wouldn’t get if you only stayed on the beach.
Chichén Itzá’s most famous structure is the Pyramid of Kukulkán, the blocky, angular pyramid built to represent the Mayan calendar (for example, 91 steps on four sides, or 364, plus the platform, 365). The time of its construction is estimated to be between 650 and 800 AD.
But there’s much more to Chichén Itzá than the main pyramid, and you need hours to get through it. Although many people visit as part of a large, loud tour group, getting there on your own is easy, and doing it yourself means that you’ll have plenty of time to explore. Especially in high season, try to get there at 8 a.m. when it opens to make the most of your day.
Doing it in a day trip from Cancun is possible, especially if you rent a car, but the best way to see Chichén Itzá is to stay the night before in the pretty small town of Valladolid 40 minutes down the road.
Valladolid’s main claim to fame may be its proximity to Chichén Itzá, but its colonial architecture, authentic Mexican market, downtown cenote, 16th-century convent, and beautiful parks make it a great place for a short visit before going to the ruins.
Like nearly every Mexican city, the exact center of Valladolid is the zócalo, or central park (parque central), which is surrounded by hotels, restaurants, bars, banks, government buildings, the cathedral, and the Bazar Municipal food court.
In all directions from the zócalo, Valladolid’s narrow streets have more parks, museums, and churches—even a Buddhist temple. The best way to experience Valladolid is to simply wander around. If you’re not up for too much walking, however, choose one direction: either toward the convent southwest of the zócalo or to the cenote and market to the northeast.
This small town is worlds apart from the beach-going glitz of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. And by staying the night in Valladolid before you go to Chichén Itzá, you can have a head start on all the tour groups swarming the archeological site.
To get to Chichén Itzá from Valladolid, take a colectivo (passenger van) from the lot one block away from the ADO bus station.
Tulum can refer to three distinct places, all near each other: the Mayan ruins, the beach, and the small highway town. The ruins are some of the most beautiful in Mexico, mainly because of their location on cliffs overlooking the sky-blue Caribbean.
Don’t miss the little beach under the tallest structure, El Castillo (the castle), also known as the lighthouse. Despite its tiny size, it’s one of the most famous beaches in Mexico, routinely appearing on “Top X Best Beaches” lists. Swimming out in the gentle waves, turning around, and looking at the ruins from the water may impress you even more than gazing up at Chichén Itzá’s iconic pyramid.
Tulum the beach (not the little one under the lighthouse) is also considered one of the best in Mexico, with little development and miles of soft sand. It’s an easy walk from the ruins, or a short taxi ride from the town (and highway).
The town is nice too, though a little far from the beach. But you can find discount hotels and fresh Mexican-style seafood, and it’s a good base for exploring places like the ruins of Coba and more cenotes farther inland, or the immense Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to the south.
If you can’t get enough Mayan Ruins, then after you’ve explored Tulum and Chichén Itzá, Cobá is the next big ruin complex to check out, where you can rent bicycles to explore the large ancient city deep in the jungle.
The ruins are an about hour inland from Tulum town, and only one ADO bus from Tulum goes to Cobá and back every day. (Confirm on the ADO website.) Second-class buses are more frequent, but you’ll have to go to the ADO bus terminal in Tulum town to ask for the schedule. Try to leave early and come back late—Cobá is big.
There are no mountains on the Yucatán Peninsula, just a long expanse of porous, sponge-like limestone covered with jungle. A vast network of underground rivers and caves holds fresh water, essential to the inhabitants of the region. Where you have access to this network—a big sinkhole or cavern—you have a cenote, a great place to swim and explore.
You’ll see visits to cenotes advertised everywhere as part of the big adventure parks with funny names like Xel-Ha and Xcaret. But you don’t need to spend all day or $100 USD to visit a cenote. Smaller, often family-run cenotes are all over the Yucatán, which by some estimates contains more than 6,000 cenotes, some expansive and some little more than a hole in the ground. (Most aren’t developed for tourism, of course.)
Just south of Playa del Carmen is a cluster of four cenote parks across the street from the Barceló resort, which include Cenote Cristiliano, Jardin del Eden Cenotes, and Cenote Azul, all within walking distance of each other with entrances on the highway.
Several good cenote parks are also near Tulum, including Dos Ojos Cenote about 10 minutes north of the ruins and Gran Cenote on the way to Cobá.
Because of their low entrance fees (usually 100-200 pesos) and natural jungle settings, these smaller cenote operations are excellent alternatives to the big adventure parks. You can swim in all of them, and most offer scuba diving as well.
Big Adventure Ecoparks
You can’t miss the names: Xel-Ha, Xcaret, Xplor. From the moment you land at the Cancun airport, you’ll see them everywhere, rivaling the nightclub Coco Bongo in ubiquitous promotion. They’re also favorites of the guide/hustlers on Quinta Avenida in Playa del Carmen.
These places are big nature parks built around cenotes and beaches that have adventure activities and include all your food and drinks. If you want to go, I’m sure you’ll have a good time, but before you agree to a tour with someone you meet on the street, at least check the prices online to compare.
Three of the most famous ecoparks are just south of Playa del Carmen: Xcaret, Xplor, and Rio Secreto. Xcaret is the largest of these and has Mayan ruins, dolphin shows, and an emphasis on culture. Xplor, owned by the same group as Xcaret, is more about adventure activities—it has an underground river and a big zipline tower that you can see from the highway.
Across the street is Rio Secreto, which is more than a cenote, but a tour through one mile of an underground river. Unlike smaller cenotes where you can just show up, for Rio Secreto you should make reservations on their website.
Xel-Ha, another ecopark owned by Xcaret that they describe as an enormous natural aquarium, is closer to Tulum. While the three major ecoparks that begin with “X” all have nature and water activities, perhaps you could say that Xplor is more about adrenaline, Xcaret is more about culture, and Xel-Ha is more family-oriented.
By the way—elsewhere in Mexico, “x” is usually pronounced like an “h”, as in México (ME-hee-co). But in the Mayan Riviera, it’s usually pronounced like “sh”, as in Xel-Ha (SHELL-ha), Xpu-Ha (SHPOO-ha), and many more. But there are exceptions—Xplor, for example, is pronounced how you’d expect (explore).
Beach after beach line the Mayan Riviera, with many occupied by big resorts. Although Mexican law states that all waterfront is public land, if there’s no public access point, then essentially the beach is private. If there’s a specific resort you want to check out, take a look at their website to see if they offer day passes.
Hidden between the resorts, the public beaches on the Mayan Riviera are much less developed and more laid-back than Playa del Carmen and of course Cancun. Good ones include Tulum, Puerto Morelos, Akumal (especially for snorkeling), Xcacal, and Maroma. Also, if you have a rental car or don’t mind paying for a taxi, just north of downtown Cancun is Isla Blanca, a long, undeveloped, isolated penninsula surrounded by beautiful clear water.
For a long beach with a central location and little development, you can’t go wrong with Xpu-Ha, south of Playa del Carmen. You can get there on public transportation—get off on the highway and walk up the sandy road. There’s a convenience store and a restaurant or two on the beach, but little else, making for a great escape from pool parties and daytime club music.
Punto Venado is a hidden spot that’s also just south of Playa del Carmen. It has a small, isolated, pretty beach in a bay with a pleasant beach club. Mexican food (especially seafood) at the club is good and with reasonable prices, even for drinks.
But the real draw—at least for me—is its mountain bike park, which has trails for beginners but is definitely for people comfortable on a mountain bike. The well-maintained yet rugged trails pass through the jungle, with one stretch following the sea. It’s full of animals like iguanas, spider monkeys, coati, and crocodiles. Highly recommended. Check their website for entrance and bike rental fees.
On a clear day you can see the hotel skyline of Cozumel from Playa del Carmen. Only 6% of Cozumel is developed—the rest is jungle and beach—and it has an interesting history too. Besides being an important Mayan population center, this was also where Cortés first landed in Mexico before traveling to Veracruz and then inland to the Valley of Mexico to conquer the Aztecs.
There are excellent dive sites all around the island, so good that Jaques Cousteau called it one of the most spectacular places for scuba diving in the world. If you only want to dive, however, you can visit a Playa del Carmen dive shop first—they arrange dives off Cozumel too.
Cozumel is an easy day trip from Playa del Carmen—just walk to the ferry terminal, buy a ticket, and hop on. Several ferry companies make the trip all day, every day.
The ferry disembarks in the town of San Miguel de Cozumel. Its pretty zócalo (center square) is a straight walk from the ferry dock. All around the zócalo are restaurants and shops, and there are a few banks with international ATMs if you need money.
As the ferry arrives, you’ll see the big cruise ship docks to the south. Because of these cruise ships and the thousands of tourists who pour out of them daily, everything in Cozumel is overpriced, especially souvenirs. So, to save money on lunch or a scooter rental, walk outside of the downtown core. Once you get off the pedestrian streets, things get a lot cheaper.
The coastline of San Miguel de Cozumel is a seawall next to the road. It’s nice for a walk, but to go to a beach you’ll need to hire a taxi or rent a car, 4-wheeler, or scooter. Again, you’ll get better prices on all of these the farther you get from the ferry and cruise ship docks—three or four blocks away should suffice.
Most beaches are on the western shore, which faces Playa del Carmen, while much of the eastern shore is a rocky, wild coastline. A fun beach trip is to first go to Playa Palancar near the southern tip of the island. From there you can get a boat to El Cielo, a remote beach with crystal-clear, shallow water.
As if the laid-back town and perfect beaches weren’t enough, there are also several Mayan sites on the island. Two of the biggest are San Gervasio and El Cedral. San Gervasio is up a bumpy dirt road, so if you want to take a rental car there, tell them at the rental office to confirm it’s ok.
For a trip to an island that’s closer to Cancun (just north of the hotel zone) and has world-class beaches within walking distance of the ferry terminal (world-class scuba-diving too), head to Isla Mujeres.
Isla Mujeres (which translates to “Ladies’ Island,” supposedly named for goddess images found there in the 16th century) has spacious beaches and a cool little village on the northern end of the island, with parks, ruins, and beach clubs farther south. It’s a fun and easy day trip from Cancun or even Playa del Carmen, and there are lots of hotels if you want to spend the night. Like Cozumel, it has great snorkeling and dive sites, including the Underwater Museum of Art off the southern point.
Take a left out of the ferry terminal to get to Playa Sol, the beach facing the mainland, or walk a little farther for Playa Norte on the (you guessed it) north shore of the island, yet another candidate for the best beach in Mexico.
Though ferries to Isla Mujeres do leave from Cancun’s hotel zone, the cheaper and more direct ones leave from Puerto Juárez just north of downtown. It’s a short ride in a taxi or a local bus from downtown Cancun.
Playa Delphines in Cancun’s hotel zone
Perhaps you have noticed that nothing on this list is actually in Cancun! Don’t get me wrong—Cancun is a wonderful place, though it’s not exactly the best spot to appreciate nature or experience culture. In fact, if you don’t stay in a resort in Cancun, then you may not even go there, except for the airport of course.
Some geography: the Cancun known to travelers is a long, thin island full of big resorts, shopping malls, marinas, restaurants, and nightclubs. Called the Zona Hotelera (hotel zone), this is what people are talking about when they talk about Cancun.
Downtown Cancun is on the mainland, and despite the tourist industry is a typical working-class Mexican city. You can find good budget hotels and restaurants there, along with some interesting markets and city parks.
If you’re not staying in a huge resort in Cancun’s hotel zone but still want to spend some time on the famous beach, go to Playa Delphines (Dolphin Beach) about halfway down the island. There’s plenty of space, good swimming, and if you get there early enough you might find a shady spot under a wood-and-palm-frond shelter.
For some exploring, just across the road is El Rey, the largest archeological site in Cancun. Although not an enormous city like inland Chichén Itzá or a stunning seaside photo opportunity like Tulum, it’s a great place for an afternoon stroll among the limestone structures and sunbathing iguanas.
And if you can’t get enough of all things Mayan, head north to Cancun’s Mayan Museum, which features the San Miguelito ruins, another small Mayan site reached by walking through the jungle.
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As I wrote above, there’s much more in the Mayan Riviera than these 12 places. But perhaps the best thing of all is to just slow down and take your time. Swim all day, spend a few hours walking Quinta Avenida in Playa del Carmen, or take a seat under a pyramid to contemplate a civilization that’s long gone, as groups of tourists hustle past, trying to get in one more photo before they are rushed away to the next preplanned destination.
After all, even though there’s so much to do in Cancun and the Mayan Riviera, remember—it’s a vacation! And it’s Mexico! Take it easy.
And for more places to see, insider tips, and hotel, restaurant, and transportation suggestions, please take a look at my guidebook. Thanks, and happy travels.