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Things to Do in Riviera Maya & the Yucatan

Bursting with color, culture, and variety, the Yucatan Peninsula and Riviera Maya bring together the best that Mexico has to offer: welcoming waters and white-sand beaches, colonial towns, jungle-shrouded cenotes, and UNESCO-listed archaeological sites. The region's best known—and most visited—Maya ruin is Chichen Itza, which features a massive step-pyramid known as El Castillo (The Castle), along with numerous, well-preserved carvings. Consider opting for a VIP-access tour to avoid the equally famous lines. Most international visitors fly into Cancun, famous for its luxury resorts and laid-back party vibes, or Merida, the region's largest city and cultural capital. In addition to nightlife, Cancun offers easy access to the entire Caribbean coast. Isla Mujeres is an ideal jumping-off point for snorkeling tours and at the right time of year, you can see whale sharks feeding nearby. The Maya ruins of Tulum are well worth a visit, as are Coba and Ek Balak. Check out Xel-ha or Xplor Adventure Park for high-energy, outdoor activities, such as ziplining over the rain forest canopy and cave rafting. The beach is never far away, and on the coral reefs around Cozumel and Isla Contoy, world-class snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities abound. Farther inland, Merida and colonial Valladolid offer myriad historical sites, pleasant streets lined with gardens and bright pastel buildings, artisans' shops, and a thriving restaurant scene. Be sure to sample some authentic Yucatecan dishes, like the distinctive black mole that takes hours to prepare, and tacos made with slow-roasted Yucatan turkey.
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Mr. Sancho's Beach Club Cozumel
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4 Tours and Activities

Find everything you need for a relaxing and fun day at the beach with an all-inclusive day pass to Mr. Sanchos Beach Club Cozumel. Situated on a private, 1,500-foot-long stretch of white-sand beach, Mr. Sanchos has all the usual beach amenities like umbrellas and lounge chairs, as well as an infinity pool and an Aqua Park with inflatable climbing structures and water trampolines. Day passes include all you can eat and drink from the restaurant and bar, and there are abundant activities available for an additional fee, including parasiling, ATV tours, massages and horseback riding.

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Tulum
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One of the best preserved Mayan sites, Tulum is a must-see attraction on the coast of the Yucatan. Tulum, the Walled City, is mounted high on the edge of a cliff, towering above the Caribbean Sea and a beautiful white sandy beach. It was only inhabited by the nobles, high priests and esteemed citizens, whereas the lower classes lived in simple wood and thatch huts beyond. The ruins here are truly spectacular, especially Tulum's main temple, dedicated to the Diving God.
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Paradise Reef (Paraíso Reef)
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One of the most popular dives in all of Cozumel, Paradise Reef proudly lives up to its name by offering numerous coral heads, teeming schools of colorful fish, and some of the best visibility anywhere in the world. Divers that look closely will spot numerous species of larger sea life such as eels, rays and nurse shark in addition to smaller creatures such as seahorses, boxfish and the delicate pipefish. A great dive for those who are just entering into the world of scuba as well as advanced divers who want to add a little color to their dives, Paradise Reef is one of the best dive spots in Cozumel.

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Rio Secreto Nature Reserve
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Kept hidden from the public until 2007 and strictly adhering to its sustainable tourism model, the evocatively named Rio Secreto, or “Secret River,” is deserved of its reputation as the best kept secret of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. A dramatic series of caves carved out by the flow of an ancient underground river, the Rio Secreto is most famous for its large half-sunken cavern, one of few in the world that is accessible to non-professional divers.

Venturing underground, visitors can explore the eerie passageways that once formed part of the mysterious, yet much talked about Mayan underworld; swim in the fabled underground river; and admire the unique natural caves, dripping with stalactites, stalagmites and strikingly colored mineral formations.

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Xoximilco Cancun
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Cancun’s best, most festive and most authentic fiesta tradition, Xoximilco, is an eponymous throwback and homage to the floating gardens and canals of Mexico City’s famous neighbor-hood Xochimilco. Xochimilco means “field of flowers,”and this Cancun attraction brings all the beauty and splendor of the floating gardens of Mexico City to the tropical paradise of Cancun. Today, a visit to Xoximilco entices guests with Central American traditions like floating flower-strung boats, live music serenades and some of the best food in Cancun.

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Playa Uvas Beach Club
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Playa Uvas is one of the newer private beach clubs in Cozumel, and it is the closest to downtown and the piers. Facing the white sands and the turquoise waters, the club sits directly on the coastline and offers a variety of beach activities to its visitors. For the adventurous, there are snorkel tours, parasailing and kayaks, while those who would rather relax in the sun and feel the tropical breeze can opt for the lounge chairs, a beachside massage or the pool facilities. There is also a full bar and restaurant, as well as a small shop with souvenirs.

From Playa Uvas it is easy to admire the reefs of nearby Chankanaab National Marine Park. Options range from a day on the water in a catamaran to a day in the water scuba diving.

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Punta Sur Eco Beach Park (Faro Celerain Ecological Reserve)
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Part of the Cozumel Reefs National Park (or Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel) Faro de Punta Celerain, also known as Punta Sur, Ecological Park offers some of the best diving and snorkeling around Cozumel. If you want to dive, go through one of the island's many dive operators. If you'd just like to snorkel, however, you can rent equipment and guides right here.

In addition to the undersea attractions, Punta Sur has broad, beautiful beaches (the reef is well offshore, so you can splash around safely), great seafood, and shady hammocks. If you're up for a some terrestrial exploration, you could climb the Faro de Punta Celerain (Celerain Point Lighthouse), with great views, or visit the tiny Mayan shrine to Ixcel, the fertility goddess, known as Tumba de Caracol. Punta Sur also has interesting wetlands, a magnet for migratory birds in April and May, and home to lots of crocodiles year-round.

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Playa Mia Grand Beach Park
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This beachfront park has seemingly endless options for activities on the Caribbean Sea. From swimming in the warm ocean and playing in the sand to splashing around the water park or floating in one of the many pools, there are a variety of ways to enjoy a day in and on the water.

Day passes offer access to the many facilities, including beachfront lounge chairs and hammocks, reef tours and snorkeling, and options for massage, photos and scuba diving. Get there early to grab a chair closest to the water. There are dozens of beach games and water toys, themed pools and slides and even an underwater Mayan city to explore.

When you get tired from all the splashing, there is a buffet and full bar to keep you going, as well as a Mexican cooking workshop and shopping center with handicrafts, clothes and jewelry to take home with you.

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More Things to Do in Riviera Maya & the Yucatan

San Gervasio Mayan Ruins

San Gervasio Mayan Ruins

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The Island of Cozumel was first incorporated into the Mayan Empire around 0 AD, and was apparently a thinly populated backwater, primarily important as a ceremonial island for women from the mainland. Although 24 archaeological sites have been identified, most are small and as yet unexcavated. The San Gervasio Ruins, dating to around 300 AD, are by far the largest and best developed for tourism, but still won't impress tourists hoping for the grand pyramids of the Mayan Imperial Cities. Adjust your expectations, however, and the sacred gardens of Ixcel, the Goddess of Fertility and Rainbows, are a serene escape. Most of the low, stone structures cluster around a central plaza, which archaeologists suspect was enhanced with wood and adobe building. The main temple, however, was probably the large Ka'na Na building, located close to the cenotes, or natural wells. There are several other intriguing ruins scattered throughout the jungle, all awaiting your personal interpretation.

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Playa Palancar

Playa Palancar

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El Cedral

El Cedral

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El Cedral is a small village on the southwestern side of Cozumel and also the site of the oldest Mayan ruins on the island. Spanish explorers first discovered the site in 1518, when it was a center of Mayan life and commerce. It later became the island’s first official city in 1847, andtoday it is home to a small community of quaint houses and farms. Visitors can view the ruins alongside a small church and the village of El Cedral as it stands today.

Most of the Mayan temple was torn down, but a small archway remains. Though it is just a fraction of the structure’s former glory, it is enough to visualize what daily life may have been like at the time of Mayan civilization. In late April, you can catch the annual Festival de El Cedral, celebrating local artists, music and traditions. Year-round there are vendors selling embroidered handicrafts and refreshments.

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El Mirador Lookout

El Mirador Lookout

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While the tranquil waters, white beaches, and endless stucco strips of bars and shops that line Cozumel's touristy West Coast provide most vacationers with everything they need, the wild east may be calling to you. The rugged East Coast, facing the waves of the wide-open Caribbean, is much less accessible and developed, which is precisely its appeal. There are many of gorgeous deserted beaches lining the coastal road, but none like El Mirador. This is - emphatically - not a swimming beach. El Mirador lookout rocky point sculpted into an amazing seascape of natural bridges, blowholes, tide pools, and spires, with an astounding sapphire backdrop you'll never forget. Climb the tower for magnificent views.

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Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park

Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park

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Less than 1% of the Earth is covered in coral—yet these reefs are home to over 25% of the world’s total marine species. Unfortunately, despite their abundance of biodiversity, coral reefs across the globe are in a serious state of decline. That said, in places like the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park off the island’s southern coast, the establishment of a protected coral reserve is helping the reef to thrive.

In the warm waters off Cozumel’s coast, 26 different species of coral house 300 species of fish. Some fish, like the Splendid Toadfish, are endemic to the reefs of Cozumel—which means that the fish are only found here in these colorful castles in the sand. Hawksbill and green sea turtles are frequently spotted in the marine park’s 29,000 acres, which also encompasses mangrove forests and sandy sections of shoreline.

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Dolphin Beach (Playa Delfines)

Dolphin Beach (Playa Delfines)

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Playa Delfines is a welcome respite from the crowded beaches and bustling nightclubs that make Cancun a popular Spring Break destination. One of the highest points in the city, this beach lies just beyond the “Hotel Zone” strip and offers breathtaking views perfect for tropical vacation photo ops. The quiet stretch of sand is ideal for a leisurely stroll or a relaxing lounge and the untouched nature of Playa Delfines makes it a favorite among travelers eager to get off the beaten path. Be advised, its rustic feel means there are few places to purchase food or drink, so it’s best to pack your own. And while the shores are calm, the undercurrent can be rough and waves impressive, so proceed with caution when dipping your toes in the ocean here.

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Cancun Hotel Zone (Avenida Kukulkan)

Cancun Hotel Zone (Avenida Kukulkan)

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Love it or hate it, Avenida Kukulkan is a Cancun strip where nearly all visitors will end up. If you’re staying at one of the oceanfront resorts across from Nichupte Lagoon, Avenida Kukulkan is the pulsing thoroughfare that leads to all of the resorts. Lined with shops, restaurants, cafés, and thumping late nightclubs, it’s also home to what many visitors consider as Cancun’s best shopping. And, while brand name stores and high end labels aren’t very difficult to find, there are still pockets of local boutiques selling traditional, handmade Yuacatan crafts for those who take the time to explore.

The stores and restaurants and shopping malls aside, one of the best activities on Avenida Kukulkan is simply going for walk. Along the length of this long, flat strip, visitors can marvel at the manicured resorts and their ornately designed entranceways, or get views looking out at Nichupte Lagoon and people watch by the shops.

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Chankanaab Adventure Beach Park

Chankanaab Adventure Beach Park

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Relaxed Chankanaab Park - or Parque Chankanaab - is a lovely and laid-back "eco archaeological park," just south of the town of Cozumel. There are several attractions on dry land, including faux Mayan ruins, pleasant gardens, dolphin and sea lion shows, and good seafood.

The main attraction, however, is the wildlife rich undersea park, which you can explore with rented snorkel equipment. They also offer regular diving (you must have PADI certification) and the Sea Trek Adventure, like a resort dive with a breathing helmet but no certification necessary. You could also swim in a tank with dolphins, manatees and sea lions for an extra fee.

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Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida)

Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida)

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It’s hard to miss Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida) in Playa del Carmen as it is the city’s main street running through the downtown area. Fifth Avenue stretches parallel to the ocean and serves as both a street for cars and a pedestrian walkway for visitors exploring the city. Fifth Avenue is a popular place to rest your head while in Playa del Carmen as the hotels on the street boast an ideal location that provides easy access to the beach as well as being easy walking distance to shops, clubs and restaurants. The shops that line Fifth Avenue are aplenty and visitors can find local artisan crafts, clothing and other fashion accessories, fine jewelry and cigar shops (you can find Cubans here). It’s also not uncommon to see street performers entertaining the masses on Fifth Avenue.

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Mandala Nightclub

Mandala Nightclub

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Cancun is full of places to party, but the young and energetic late-night set knows the exclusive Mandala Night Club is the best place to sip strong drinks, dance to loud beats and mingle with a truly cosmopolitan crowd. Guests love the wide-open dance floor, glittery lights and impressive entryway. Fifty dollars gets partygoers through the door and keeps drinks in their hands, too, with access to an all-night open bar.

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Cenote Dos Ojos

Cenote Dos Ojos

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The Mayans called this breathtaking underwater destination a sacred well. Today, travelers call it a once-in-a-lifetime SCUBA diving experience. That’s because open water certified divers can explore the incredible caves and underground rivers that have been around for nearly 7,000 years. Some 300 miles of connected underwater passageways create what can only be described as a truly natural wonder. Visitors can get an up close look at the remarkable ecosystems that exist only here and float through clear blue waters in a landscape filled with rocky stalactites and stalagmites.

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Casa Cenote

Casa Cenote

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Beautiful, underwater sinkholes flooded with light, the cenotes of Riviera Maya, Mexico are a natural wonder and a sight to behold. Though there are many throughout the region, Casa Cenote is uniquely located in a mangrove forest close to the sea. It can be thought of as almost an underwater jungle with its algae-covered mangrove forest and soft sands.

As it is mostly open to the sky, it is less enclosed than neighboring cenotes and often has more aquatic life to see. The cenote connects one of the world’s largest underwater river systems to the ocean. Because of this, it is possible to see both fresh and saltwater fish. The unique combination of clear freshwater conditions and underwater caverns and formations make this an interesting spot for scuba divers and snorkelers. Streams of light penetrating the water from the surface add to the beauty and intrigue visible from both above and below.

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