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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions 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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Tulum
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511 Tours and Activities
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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Mr. Sancho's Beach Club Cozumel
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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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Selvatica
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4 Tours and Activities

Close your eyes and think of Cancun; now what exactly do you see? More than likely it’s white sand beaches in front of large resorts, where cobalt waters lap the shore and palm trees sway in the breeze. For as enticing as beaches and water might be, there’s an entirely different side of Cancun that offers just as much excitement; a place where you swim in turquoise waters set miles inside of the jungle, and literally race through the jungle canopy to feel the breeze in your hair.

At the famous Selvatica Eco-Park, an hour south of Cancun, visitors can infuse their beach vacation with a shot of jungle adrenaline. Clip into a harness and race through the trees on the 12-line zipline adventure, or test your nerves on a bungee swing while staring out over the forest. If you’d prefer that a motor generate the speed—rather than regular old gravity—crank the throttle of an ATV while splashing through dirt and mud.

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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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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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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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More Things to Do in Riviera Maya & the Yucatan

Captain Hook Cancun

Captain Hook Cancun

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There are dozens of ways to see Cancun but one of the most entertaining is aboard the Captain Hook Pirate Ship. Spend an evening enjoying dinner served by salty sea men followed by dancing on the deck and an all-night open bar.

The cannon’s fire signals the departure of this famous ship. As the night progresses visitors can enjoy tales from the high sea, as well as a live enemy attack complete with swords and pistols. A ride aboard the Captain Hook Pirate Ship is the perfect way to experience life on the sea without the fear of being forced to walk the plank.

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La Isla Shopping Village

La Isla Shopping Village

30 Tours and Activities
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Paradise Reef (Paraíso Reef)

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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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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Jolly Roger Pirate Ship

Jolly Roger Pirate Ship

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Offering family entertainment that both adults and children can enjoy, the Jolly Roger Pirate Ship sets sail from the Riviera Maya and sails the Caribbean seas while dazzling passengers with swashbuckling pirate shows and hearty food. The ship is a modern replica of the Santa Maria, which Columbus is said to have journeyed on when he discovered the Americas.

The Jolly Roger features four decks and can accommodate up to 240 passengers, with plenty of space for entertainment and dining. Filet mignon, lobster, a vegetarian option, plus a special pirate kids menu are on offer, not to mention the open bar with free domestic drinks. The pirate show is a blend of comedy and adventure, interspersed by dinner, fireworks, and dancing. Expect dramatic sword fighting, exploding cannons, and amazing acrobatics, all designed to entertain, delight, and draw you in to this unique pirate adventure.

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CoCo Bongo Cancun

CoCo Bongo Cancun

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Party the night away in a disco ambiance with song and dance shows performing into the early hours of the morning at CoCo Bongo. The performances highlight music from big-name artists like Rihanna and Elvis, and you’ll also see impressive acrobatics as performers fly through the air dangling from a long rope of fabric, flip through large hoops and more. CoCo Bongo has an energetic vibe that will get you dancing along to every performance.

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Playa Mia Grand Beach Park

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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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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Palancar Reef

Palancar Reef

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15 Tours and Activities

The star attraction of the Cozumel Reefs National Park - or Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel - not to mention Jacques Cousteau's television show, which quite literally put Cozumel on the map - is Palancar Reef. Actually composed of 4 separate coral reefs, it is home to sea turtles, rays, nurse sharks, barracudas, moray eels, lobsters, crabs, and a keleidescope of colorful fish.

Boats leaving from Playa Palancar take snorkelers out to the shallowest parts of the reef, about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from shore. Scuba divers, however, have several world-famous spots to explore. The Palancar Caves are probably the most famous attraction, with huge brain corals and swim-through tunnels. Palancar Horseshoe is another massive formation of huge corals, some partially damaged in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma. Less experienced divers can visit Palancar Gardens, a shallower spot with mellow currents.

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Columbia Reef

Columbia Reef

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6 Tours and Activities
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El Cedral

El Cedral

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18 Tours and Activities

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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Cenote Chaak Tun

Cenote Chaak Tun

12 Tours and Activities

The ancient Mayans believed hidden cenotes were sacred portals to the underworld. Given the dark, eerie surroundings and stalactites dripping from above, it’s easy to see how these subterranean caves inspired the paranormal awe. At Cenote Chaak Tun outside Playa del Carmen, venture inside an enormous cave where early Mayans once roamed, and splash in the cool, almost secret waters that are hidden back in the forest. Unlike some of the larger cenotes on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Cenote Chaak Tun is still relatively unknown and has half the amount of crowds. Follow the beam of your powerful headlamp into the twisting cave, where the faint squeaks of bats on the ceiling add to the spooky soundtrack. Cool off in the refreshing waters that twist their way through the cave, and hear traditional Mayan tales of the legends, myths, and sacred beliefs towards this mysterious and powerful place.

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Mayan Museum of Cancun (Museo Maya de Cancún)

Mayan Museum of Cancun (Museo Maya de Cancún)

13 Tours and Activities

Take a break from the beaches of Cancun to explore artifacts from Mexico’s ancient past at the Maya Museum, one of the largest created by the National Institute of Anthropology and History. Inside the museum, visitors can see incredible items recovered from sites like Chichen Itza and Tulum, including the Woman of the Palms, ancient skeletal remains found submerged in a water-filled cave near Tulum. Next to the museum is an ancient archaeological site called San Miguelito, where visitors can stroll among the ruins and gardens.

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