I went on an adventure with one of my best Friends to Riviera Maya on the Caribbean coastline of Mexico in December three years ago. After doing our research, we realised that there was an abundance of beautiful places to visit in the region and that we didn’t want to tie ourselves down to just one place so we only booked our first night stay on Isla Mujeres.
A week before leaving, I had a bike accident and fractured by elbow which was obviously a little inconvenient, especially as I wanted to go scuba diving and paddle boarding. Despite the fractured elbow, we still managed to do a lot of things– my adventurous side cannot be taken away that easily…
Best time to visit & getting around
Weather is good all year round but the best time to go is from February to October as temperatures are warmer and the sea is generally calmer.
I found the local people very warm and friendly and at no time did we feel any danger just travelling two girls by ourselves. Of course, speaking Spanish helps but I honestly believe they welcome everyone to their beautiful country.
We tried all forms of transport: a taxi from Cancun airport to the dock of ferries going to Isla Mujeres, a golf cart to get around Isla Mujeres, a Colectivo (local pick-up and drop-off vans) from Cancun to Playa del Carmen, and we even rented a car for two days when we went to Tulum. They all worked out well so I would leave sorting out your transport for once you're in Mexico in line with on your itineraries. Most organised tours include transport making things a lot more convenient for you to get around without having to worry about anything in advance. If possible though, I would advise arranging a taxi service directly with your hotel for your airport pickup, especially if you don't speak Spanish and it's your first time as it gets very chaotic and you may get ripped off...
Places to visit
This island is full of charm, with its white sandy beaches, turquoise sea and colourful houses. Very irresistible indeed. I recommend avoiding the chaos of Cancun and instead discovering this beautiful island only 20 minutes away on a ferry.
The main means of transport is either a red local taxi, a bike or a golf cart. Renting a golf cart is obviously much more fun plus it allows you to drive around the whole island to discover its different sides by stooping wherever you wish. (Prices are almost the same in each rental place).
We stayed at the Hotel Playa La Media Luna - A beach hotel with a view, located on the northern side of Isla Mujeres which in my opinion is the nicest side – The room was basic but in good condition. The best part was the pool which overlooks the beach.
From Isla Mujeres, you can also visit MUSA - an underwater art museum - either by a glass bottom boat or snorkeling.
This is a must day time trip to go on. Remember to book in advance as only a certain number of people are allowed to visit the island each day as it is a protected area. I can assure you that you will not want to miss out on this experience.
You can arrange departure from either Isla Mujeres or Cancun. My tip is to find out which boat you will be travelling on and try to take the smaller one to avoid being in a large group.
As this is a natural/protected island, the beach side is calm and the water is crystal clear. All tours offer a snorkelling activity along the barrier reef, a guided visit through the lush green side of the island and then lovely fresh fish for lunch. The Great Mayan Reef is the second largest barrier reef in the world which stretches over 1,000 kilometres from Isla Contoy to the Bay Islands of Honduras. An ideal spot for scuba diving.
The Maya Temples are another iconic aspect of Mexico and you must visit at least one on your stay. There are so many temples to explore and they are all special in their own way – especially when you think of all of the history behind each and every one of them. I’m not a fan of guided tour groups but on this occasion I found it very interesting. There are so many temples that we are actually not aware of as the Mayans prefer to keep them a secret…
The most renowned temple is Chichen Itza and it is one of the Seven World Wonders. It is very impressive however it gets extremely busy so you should try to go early in the morning. It is very hot and dry so make sure to carry a hat or something to cover your head and lots of water. Unfortunately you can no longer climb the main temple due to conservation reasons.
Coba is probably one of the least common temples. We went on the 1st of January and there was hardly anyone there – it felt as though we had the temple to ourselves. It is a very big area so do rent a bike or take a tour on pedaled bike to be driven around so that you can explore every part and be explained some of the history. The highlight is that you can climb one of the temples to the top (88 m high) to enjoy an impressive view from the top. Climbing up is easy but going down is more frightening as it is very steep so not sure if it’s the best thing to do if you are afraid of heights…
Tulum, located on the Eastern coast, is one of my personal preferences as the beach is kilometers long and is made up of fine white sand. Hotels are hidden behind palm trees and all kept in the same style to avoid a concrete layout such as Cancun. This is the hippie-chic area of the Yucatan peninsula and has become a hotspot in the past few years.
A visit to the beautiful Mayan ruins of Tulum by the sea is an absolute must. Palm trees, sea, greenery – a lot more enjoyable then Chichen Itza. Plus not as hectic. Spectacular views of turquoise sea and white sandy beach.
We stayed at the Papaya Project Project - A nature-friendly hotel hidden between palm trees. After strolling down the beach of Tulum in search of a last minute room reservation, we were happy to have walked all the way to this wonderful hotel. We stayed in a beautiful wooden hut and slept with the ocean breeze. Everyone here respects the environment and loves nature. We had our best breakfast in Mexico here full of fresh fruits, juices, yoghurts, homemade bread and granola. I would recommend the Papaya Playa Project to anyone staying in Tulum.
Another cool adventure is a day trip to the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, also known as the ‘Origin of the Sky’ by the Mayans. It is one of the largest protected areas in the country and it’s renowned for its vast tropical rainforest and endless species of birds. Tours from Tulum take you on a jeep all the way to Punta Allen along a bumpy dirt track and from there you go on a small fisherman’s boat along the mangrove canals where you will see alligators. After a lovely lunch on the beach you are then taken on a speedboat to go dolphin watching. I found this trip into pure nature absolutely breathtaking.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is very lively and is a good place to be based in as most tours depart from there. Full of restaurants and bars. I wasn’t a big fan of the main beach as it is full of sunbeds and hotels. However, you should go down to Playa Xpuha or to Akkumal as these beaches are a lot nicer – long, wide beaches so that you don't feel as cramped. You can also go over to Cozumel island for some scuba diving and to explore extensive the coral reefs or to the Parque Xel-Ha for an all inclusive day in a natural water park.
Cenotes are exceptional underground water caves that are unique in the world so you cannot leave Riviera Maya without visiting at least one of them. There are many different types of cenotes depending on the size and whether they're underground or open air.
I personally recommend the Cenote Multum Ha, the Gran Cenote, and the Cenote Dos Ojos (ideal for scuba diving) which are all close to Tulum and which are less crowded than the popular ones. I know my photos don't show the best of them but this was all I had from my phone after losing our camera with many of photos from our trip...
Food & Drink
When it comes to food, I would recommend you follow your instinct once you're there.
There are so many wonderful fish restaurants on the beaches. You choose your fish and they cook it for you on the spot, either fried or grilled. It’s never ending ceviche and guacamole in Mexico, two of my favourite dishes.
Tulum and Playa del Carmen have no shortage of bars where you can enjoy a lovely Margarita or a good old Mexican Tequila. Playa del Carmen is more crowded and flashy whereas Tulum has more of a laidback hippy-chic atmosphere so there is always something to please everyone’s taste.
I absolutely loved our escape to Mexico and cannot wait to return to explore more of this wonderful country. We stayed for 10 days in total and made the most of every day but I would probably recommend going for a bit longer as there were still places that we didn't have time to see such as Rio Secreto, a secret underground river. My next visit will probably be to Cabo San Lucas on the west coastline so please share any tips and recommendations in the comments section below.
Have you already been to Riviera Maya? If so, what did you like the most?
English and French wanderer. Based in Paris. Tasting the world through one escape to another...