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Top 12 Places in Cancun and the Mayan Riviera, Mexico

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.

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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.

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But, while the beach may 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.

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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.

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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 some nearby 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.

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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.

Chichén Itzá

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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

Cobá

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.

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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.

Cenotes

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.)

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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).

Xpu-Ha Beach

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.

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Punto Venado

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.

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Cozumel

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.

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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. Because of this, 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.

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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.

Isla Mujeres

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.

Cancun and Zona Hotelera

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.

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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.

7 Tips for Budget Travel in Cancun and the Mayan Riviera

You can smell the sea from the Cancun airport. No more stuffy airplane, no more boring job in your cold hometown. Welcome to paradise—the Mayan Riviera. Welcome to Cancun.

The Mayan Riviera is a jungle coastline of white-sand beaches, ancient ruins, enormous aquatic theme parks, traditional colonial towns, and clear-water cenotes, the crystal-clear freshwater sinkholes and caves found throughout the flat limestone sponge of the Yucatan peninsula.

The great Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, are only a few hours from Cancun on good highways. In the other direction, rocky Tulum rivals Chichen Itza with its location on cliffs overlooking the sky-blue Caribbean.

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You can stay at an all-inclusive resort right on the beach in Cancun, take guided tours to the ruins, and drink margaritas by the pool all day. You’ll have a great, relaxing vacation. But you won’t experience the real Mexico. Not even close.

How could you? Why would you venture into downtown Cancun for real tacos when you have a free buffet in your luxury hotel? Why would you travel inland to Valladolid when the beach party starts at 10 a.m. every day?

Independent budget travel in the Mayan Riviera is safe, easy, and cheap—even if you don’t speak Spanish. Here are a few tips to help you plan your trip.

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Tip 1: Getting to Cancun from the airport

If you stay in a resort, they may or may not arrange transportation from the airport. If you want to do it on your own, the cheapest way to get from the airport to downtown Cancun is on the ADO bus.

At the time of writing, it leaves every half hour until 11:30 p.m., takes about 30 minutes, and costs 66 pesos.

After you pass immigration, before you exit the airport, look for the ADO booth in the baggage claim among all the booths for rental cars and hotels. Ask for centro (downtown). Then as you leave the airport, take a right and walk toward the bus area.

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The bus takes you to the ADO station downtown, and from there you can walk to cheap hotels.

There are also direct buses from the airport to Playa del Carmen. They leave every half hour, take about one hour, and cost 162 pesos.

Tip 2: Choosing a Hotel

You can find budget hotels all around the ADO bus station in downtown Cancun or a few blocks from the beach in Playa del Carmen.

Downtown Cancun is a 20-30 minute bus ride from the Hotel Zone, which is the long thing island containing the beach and all the resorts. By staying downtown you can get better prices on everything, including hotels, restaurants, and souvenirs.

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Give yourself some time to walk around while looking for a place to stay. Many hotels have the prices posted behind the front desk. If not, you will have to ask, and don’t expect everyone to speak English here, though they should figure out what you want. Bring a pad of paper and a pencil so they can write down prices for you.

It’s a good idea to look at the room. Try out the bed. Check the water pressure. Turn on the air conditioner. Is it too weak, or too loud? Some hotels have kitchens, some have a computer for guests to use, some have tourist information. Compare.

If you want to stay more than four or five days, try asking for a discount.

Outside of high season (around Christmas and New Year’s, the week before Easter, and late July/August), you should be able to get a decent room from as low as 250 pesos to 500 pesos per night.

During high season, everything gets more expensive, and I recommend making reservations beforehand.

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Tip 3: Choosing a restaurant with authentic food

In general, you find three kinds of restaurants in the Mayan Riviera: foreign restaurants that serve burgers, pizza, or sushi; Mexican restaurants geared towards foreign tourists; and real Mexican restaurants, geared toward Mexican tourists or locals.

Beware the Mexican food in big, touristy restaurants on the beach. Mexicans tend to think that foreigners don’t like spicy food, so they dumb it down. If a tired basket of nachos sits on every table and the salsa tastes like marinara sauce, then you are in the wrong place.

Seek out real Mexican food in restaurants patronized by locals. Some tip-offs are: the menu painted on the wall or written on a dry-erase board, a big flat grill and the cook up front, bright lighting, very simple décor, plain white walls, and even a little peeling paint or exposed concrete.

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But the most important way to know if the food is authentic and clean is to look at how crowded the restaurant is. If it’s packed, it’s probably good. If it’s empty, it’s empty for a reason. The best way to avoid food poisoning is to never eat in an empty restaurant, although be aware that Mexican meal times are a little different, with lunch between 2 and 4 p.m. Therefore plenty of decent restaurants might be empty at noon or 5 p.m.

It’s good to ask for suggestions, like at the front desk of your hotel, but explain that you want something real. Otherwise you will be directed to a restaurant with the “Americanized” Mexican food they think foreigners like.

Some good places to find authentic food are Parque las Palapas in Cancun, the Bazar Municipal in Valladolid, and smaller, “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants two blocks or more from the beach in Playa del Carmen.

Tip 4: Communicating with the locals

Many people speak English in this part of Mexico, especially those who work in tourism. But once you get off the beaten path, you’ll need a little Spanish.

Whether the person speaks English or not, it’s polite to start the conversation in Spanish. Start with one of these at the right time of day:

Buenos días (good morning)

Buenas tardes (good afternoon; used until after sundown)

Buenas noches (good night; a greeting, not a goodbye)

Then say ¿Habla usted inglés? (Do you speak English?) and No hablo español (I don’t speak Spanish).

That’s easy enough, right? Just 5 phrases.

After than, learn more Spanish. Mexicans are friendly and patient, which is good for the foreigner struggling with Spanish.

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Tip 5: Visit archeological zones on your own

The two most common forms of public transportation in the Mayan Riviera are buses and colectivos, big white passenger vans.

From the ADO bus station downtown, buses go all over Mexico, including Valladolid, Chichen Itza, Merida, Chetumal, Palenque, and beyond.

Use the website (www.ado.com.mx) to get an idea of prices and routes, and then buy your tickets at the bus station. Most workers at bus stations speak English, but just in case, write down the destination and the time you want.

For example, here is the schedule from the airport to downtown Cancun:

ado cancun airport

If you are on a budget (and speak Spanish or have a helper), ask at the station for a second-class bus. They can be much cheaper than ADO and go to the same destinations. Be sure to ask how long the trip will take, and compare it to ADO, because the second-class bus could take much longer.

For points south, like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, take a colectivo. The ones for Playa del Carmen leave from just outside the ADO station. They are cheaper and faster and leave more frequently than the bus.

You can take a guided tour to Tulum and Chichen Itza, and though they will explain everything in English, they may rush you through it. Also they typically show up a few hours after the sites open with all the other tour buses. If you can arrive at 8 a.m. when they open, you’ll have a much nicer experience. And inside the archeological zone at Tulum is one of the most beautiful and iconic beaches in Mexico. If you go on your own, you can stay and swim as long as you want.

There are plenty of guides for hire at the ruins, or you can always buy a guidebook in the gift shop.

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If you have the time, I recommend staying in Valladolid before going to Chichen Itza. Valladolid is a beautiful colonial town full of local culture. By staying in Valladolid, you can have several hours at Chichen Itza in the morning before all the tour groups from Cancun arrive.

Colectivos go to Chichen Itza from several parking lots a block or two from the ADO station near the central park in Valladolid.

If you don’t stay Valladolid, however, then your best option is to rent a car, so you’ll be there early and have plenty of time to explore.

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Tip 6: Safety concerns

The good news is that the Mayan Riviera is one of the safest regions in Mexico. However, it’s a good idea to ask at your hotel what the neighborhood is like, especially if it’s safe to walk at night, and if there are any places to avoid.

Besides that, regular common sense for travel applies: Don’t wear expensive jewelry, don’t pull out large wads of cash in public, keep your wallet in your front pocket, don’t let your purse or camera bag out of your sight, and don’t look at a map in public—take it indoors.

Tip 7: Buy my guide to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera

Shameless plug: These tips and many more are explained in detail in my Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary, available on Unanchor.com and Amazon.com.

The guide is for the independent traveler who likes the beach, but also wants some culture. Besides saving a lot of money, you will:

  • Have two full days on two gorgeous beaches: Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
  • Explore two Mayan ruins: Chichén Itzá, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, and Tulum, a sunny fortress built on cliffs overlooking one of the most iconic beaches in Mexico.
  • Dip your toe into local culture in Valladolid, a small colonial town in central Yucatán.
  • Swim, snorkel, or scuba dive in the clear, freshwater Dos Ojos cenote.
  • Eat what Mexicans eat: seafood, tacos, and Yucatán specialties like panuchos and salbutes.
  • Shop, party, get tan, and learn some Spanish, history, and culture.
  • If time permits, explore more places in the region, including Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, the Cobá ruins, Xpu-Ha beach, and Mérida.

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The guide’s full appendix includes information on hotels, public transportation, restaurants, culture, and Spanish phrases. You’ll save more than its small price the first time you follow my advice on a bus, restaurant, or cenote.

This part of Mexico may be the most popular, but in some ways the least understood. I try to remedy this with my guidebook.

From Amazon:

Cancun Unanchor Travel Guide – Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary

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From Unanchor.com:

5 Days in Cancun on a budget – What to do?

The Mayan Riviera is a 130-km stretch of Caribbean coastline in southeastern Mexico. Between Cancun in the north and the Mayan ruins of Tulum in the south are countless white-sand beaches on the calm turquoise water of the Caribbean.

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Cancun is famous for all-inclusive luxury resorts, while formerly lesser-known beach hangouts like Playa del Carmen are now firmly established on the beaten path. But a budget-conscious side remains to these world-class tourist destinations. You can still get a nice hotel room for under $30 USD in downtown Cancun, and eat the best—and cheapest—local food just a few blocks from the beach in Playa del Carmen.

Although you could easily spend your entire vacation with your toes in the soft white sand and a sweating Corona in your hand, there’s a lot more to the Mayan Riviera than the beach. The thick jungle covering the entire Yucatan Peninsula contains ancient Mayan ruins, pretty colonial towns, abundant wildlife, and freshwater sinkholes and limestone caves called cenotes—fun places to swim, snorkel and scuba dive.

The great Mayan city of Chichén Itzá, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, is only three hours from Cancún on good highways. In the other direction, rocky Tulum rivals Chichén Itzá with its location on limestone cliffs overlooking the sky-blue Caribbean.

no hay bronca tulum ruins and sea

Just down the road from Chichén Itzá, Valladolid is the nearest place to get some authentic Yucatan culture. It has streets of pastel-painted colonial buildings, a colorful local market, a 16-century chapel, a cenote, and a relaxed vibe that’s worlds apart from the resorts and party scene of Cancun.

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So, with so many options, how would you organize a week-long trip to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera? Well, allow me to recommend the guidebook I wrote for the region (please click the book or the links):

Cancun Unanchor Travel Guide – Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary

In this guidebook, a five-day itinerary in Cancun, you visit the following places in the Yucatan peninsula: Cancun, Valladolid, Chichén Itzá, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, with stops at a few cenotes on the way, and enough alternatives to keep you busy for weeks.

2 The Yucatan Peninsula

Chichén Itzá is much more than the iconic, hugely impressive pyramid. While many visitors to Chichén Itzá go in a large, loud, rushed tour group, going on your own is easy. If you get there at 8 a.m. when it opens, you’ll have plenty of time to explore every jungle path at the large site.

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Staying in Valladolid the night before visiting Chichén Itzá not only puts you in a great position to get to the ruins early, but the pretty town will give you a taste of the culture of the Yucatan which you certainly wouldn’t get if you only stayed at the beach. Don’t miss its traditional market, a great place to buy fresh fruit, vegetables, and honey.

15 valladolid market yucca fixed

 

Of course, because of its international airport, your first stop will be Cancun, even if you don’t stay in a resort there. When travelers talk about Cancun, they mean the long thin island of beach and big all-inclusive resorts. If you want to stay cheap, stay in downtown Cancun on the mainland.

Cancun and Zona Hotelera

In downtown Cancun, visit Parque las Palapas to have lots of options for local food from its many food stalls. If you prefer a restaurant, they are all around the park, with better prices than the tequila-shooter-and-nacho spots in the hotel zone.

Just down the road is Mercado 28, a tourist market with the best prices for souvenirs in the region. There’s good cheap restaurants (fonditas) in there too.

Getting to the beach from downtown Cancun is easy.

cancun to beach

If you like the low prices and modest hotels of downtown Cancun, but want the beach access of the hotel zone, then look no farther than Playa del Carmen about one hour south. ADO, the bus that goes from the airport to downtown Cancun, also has a direct bus to Playa del Carmen.

6 Mayan Riviera

In Playa del Carmen, you can stay a few blocks from the beach for as cheap as $30 a night. The bustling nightclubs, restaurants, and shopping centers of Cancun can also be found in Playa del Carmen, along with many more options for local and international food. And in Playa, you can get everywhere on foot.

At night, walk down Quinta Ave. (5th Ave), the main drag in Playa del Carmen that follows the beach.

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Of course, if you have more than a week or are looking for something different, there’s much more to see and do in the Mayan Riviera.

You can take a trip to an island (Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, Holbox), explore lesser-known ruins (Coba, Ek-Balam, countless more), go snorkeling or scuba diving (Akumal, Puerto Morelos, many more), venture through an underground river, golf, go fishing, go mountain biking, have a spa day, or relax on a beach that’s much less developed than Cancun or Playa del Carmen. Tips, suggestions and directions to all these places and many more can be found in my guide.

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My Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary is for the independent traveler who likes the beach but also wants some culture. Besides saving a lot of money, you:

  • Have two full days on two gorgeous beaches: Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
  • Explore two Mayan ruins: Chichén Itzá, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, and Tulum, a sunny fortress built on cliffs overlooking one of the most iconic beaches in Mexico.
  • Dip your toe into local culture in Valladolid, a small colonial town in central Yucatán.
  • Swim, snorkel, or scuba dive in the clear, freshwater Dos Ojos cenote.
  • Eat what Mexicans eat: seafood, tacos, and Yucatán specialties like panuchos and salbutes.
  • Shop, party, get tan, and learn some Spanish, history, and culture. And, if time permits, explore more places in the region, including Puerto Morelos, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, the Cobá ruins, Xpu-Ha beach, and many more.

You’ll save its low price the first time you follow my advice on a bus, restaurant or cenote.

(BTW, if you download it and like it, then could you help me out by writing a review on Amazon? Thanks.)

This part of Mexico may be the most visited, but in some ways the least understood. I try to remedy this with my modest guide.

From Amazon:

Cancun Unanchor Travel Guide – Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary

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