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38 Best things to see & do in Mayan Riviera

  • Mexico

Last updated: 15 June, 2024
Expert travel writer: Alex Robinson
  • Xcalak, Quintana Roo, Mexico

The Mayan Riviera is one of the few places in the world where you can get close to a giant American crocodile and live to tell the tale. And as croc encounters take place in glass-clear water you’ll get some great pictures to prove it.

These are generally three day, two-night trips, leaving from the tiny southern Riviera town of Xcalak and travelling out to the remote Banco Chinchorro atoll biosphere reserve. The atoll’s eel grass-filled lagoon is home to the largest numbers of American Crocodiles on the planet. Overnight stays are in primitive fisherman’s stilt huts over the water with the crocs swimming around below.

As well as crocodiles, Banco Chinchorro offers a high chance of encounters with manatees, prolific fish life (including big tarpon) and astonishing stars. There are plenty of opportunities to snorkel over pristine reefs en-route, and you’ll catch invasive lionfish, which are used to feed the crocs. Some trips include optional scuba diving.

Swims with the reptiles are in clear water around a metre deep and a safety diver accompanies at all times armed with a big stick. According to local tour operators at least, the reptiles have too much food to bother with anything larger than a fish.

Adult price: £850

Min age 16

Good for age: 16+

Duration: 3 days

  • Piste, Yucatan, Mexico

Chichen Itza

Bucket List Experience

Chichen Itza

The UNESCO world heritage-listed Maya city of Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most iconic and spectacular attractions – a global must-see worthy of any bucket list.

The site is littered with stunning, monumental buildings – the towering and perfectly proportioned Castillo pyramid, decorated with plumed serpents, the colonnaded Temple of a Thousand Warriors, vast ball courts and exquisitely carved palaces. These formed the ceremonial heart of a far larger city – built between AD 750 and 1200 – whose ruins extend into the wild forest surrounds.

Adult price: £20

Good for age: 8+

  • Mayan Riviera, Mexico

This ancient Mayan purification ceremony is designed to cause an intense physical, emotional and mental release – and a transformative, almost mystical feeling of rebirth. It cleanses and reunites the physical, mental and spiritual forms.

The ceremony takes place in a temazcal, or ‘steam house’ – a small, circular dome made of rocks and mud. The structure has several symbolic components: the dome house (signifying a mother’s womb), the entrance, symbolising rebirth when you come out, a burner where wood is set on fire and a bonfire where the water is heated. All four basic elements – earth, wind, fire and water – are represented.

It’s led by a local shaman (X’Men, or Mayan priest). Red-hot lava rocks are placed in the center, and doused with water infused with local aromatic herbs. The searing heat generated causes profuse sweating, which combined with inhaling the therapeutic herbs, promotes detoxification. The complete darkness inside liberates the senses from distraction, enabling deep contemplation and meditation, leading to mental balance and mindfulness (presence from the mind). A group energy is generated through chanting and music. At the end, you’ll cool off in a cold river or pool, which  closes the pores and activates the immune system.

A proper ceremony usually lasts up to 3 hours (though shorter, more touristy ones can be as short as one hour). After, you’ll leave with a sense of inner harmony, enlightenment and rejuvenation. Other reputed benefits include detoxification, skin cleansing, reduced depression, and reduced risk of dementia.

Adult price: £80

Min age 13

Good for age: 18+

Duration: 3 hours

When: Daily

Freq: daily

  • Mayan Riviera, Mexico

The Yucatan Peninsula is like a giant pumice stone – riddled with tiny holes, many of which are filled with glassy clear subterranean rivers riddled with stalactite-filled caverns, which break the surface as sinkholes called cenotes. There are hundreds dotted over the peninsula – some lost in thick jungle, others surrounded by Mayan ruins. Some pour into clear-water lakes like Bacalar, or the open ocean.

Swimming in a cenote – tiny fish nibbling your feet, vines and strange rock formations all around you is wonderful. Diving is spectacular; especially for those daring enough to qualify as a cave diver and venture deep into the flooded caverns.

Good for age: 8+

Duration: 1+ hours

  • Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico

These twin cenotes are spectacular: marking the entrance to one of the longest underground rivers in the world – filled with water as clear as ocean air, passing through submerged caverns covered with spectacular cave formations and teeming with strange cave fish, crustaceans and bats. The cenotes are a premium cave-diving location and were used as locations for The Cave movie and the BBC’s Planet Earth documentary.

You don’t need to be a cave diver to visit. Some of the most beautiful caverns are accessible to snorkellers. PADI open water divers can go further and designated cave divers can explore the deeper caverns. Any diving requires advanced booking.

Adult price: £12

Good for age: 8+

  • Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Like great whites and tiger sharks, bull sharks have a fearsome reputation. Getting within metres of these apex predators on a carefully controlled dive is astonishing: and in the clear, calm waters off Playa del Carmen, it’s as safe as any such encounter can be.

While bull sharks are present along the Riviera Maya all year round, dives are possible only October through March, when the more placid females enter shallower waters right off the mainland.

To dive you will need an Advanced Open Water Certification. Choose a responsible dive shop, who don’t use bait – which can be dangerous, and who follow strict distance regulations.

Adult price: £150

Min age 16

Good for age: 16+

Duration: 6-8 hours

  • Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Between May and September, the world’s largest fish visits Riviera Maya waters to feed on the large upswells of plankton from the Gulf of Mexico. Snorkelling with them is an astonishing experience, and takes place in open sea. These giant filter feeders, which can reach over 12 metres are astonishingly well-camouflaged – almost invisible in the inky blue until they are almost next to you, then gently swaying past and back into the depths.

Numerous tour operators in Cancun and Playa del Carmen offer snorkelling and diving trips which usually include reef snorkels and lunch.

Adult price: £40

Good for age: 13+

Duration: 4-5 hours

  • Xcalak, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Swimming with captive manatees (which you can do in Xel-Ha) doesn’t have the same magic as encountering these gentle animals in their natural habitat – which is possible on the Mayan Riviera. The region has one of the largest populations of wild West Indian manatees in the world; grazing on eel grass in the sand flats of the Banco Chinchorro and the shallow waters of Chetumal Bay. Both locations are protected marine sanctuaries.

To see manatees, you’ll need to travel to the little town of Xcalak in the far south, where tour companies offer trips. Along the way you will almost certainly see turtles, dolphins, huge schools of tarpon and some of the best-preserved coral reefs on the Mayan Riviera.

Adult price: £40

Good for age: 10+

Duration: Full day

  • Mayan Riviera, Mexico

The Mayan Riviera cannot compare with Indonesia or the Barrier Reef for spectacular corals, or the Maldives for fish life, but there are few locations anywhere which offer a better variety of snorkel experiences.

Reefs lie in swimming distance of the shore, plunging coral walls are a boat ride away, there are underwater art galleries, lakes fringed with jungle and hundreds of cenotes: sink holes filled with terrapins and fish that drop into stalactite-encrusted caverns. You can even snorkel with whale sharks, manatees or crocodiles

Most snorkel excursions are easy to do alone, there are designated family-friendly water parks like Xel-Ha and myriad agencies in the main towns offer boat trips.

Good for age: 4+

Duration: 1+ hours

  • Mayan Riviera, Mexico

The Mayan Riviera offers scuba diving unmatched in variety anywhere else in the world.

The coast is fringed with a long offshore barrier reef dotted with coral islands and with one of just a handful of coral atolls in the Atlantic. The jungle-covered mainland is honeycombed with underground rivers and cenotes, with exceptionally clear water and spectacular cave diving.

You can dive with whale sharks, dolphins and crocodiles, or over underwater art galleries. Sites are rich in species and varied – ranging from spectacular drifts off Cozumel to shipwrecks wrecks galore over the Chinchorro atoll, and while the reef suffers from over-fishing, dive tourism continues to create pressure for the creation of protected areas.

Adult price: £100

Min age 13

Good for age: 13+

Duration: 2+ hours