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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.