In terms of shopping, dining, and nightlife, few Riviera Maya destinations compare to festive, colorful Playa del Carmen. However, when you’re not soaking up the Playa culture, you may wish to see a different side of the region — say, a peaceful cenote or a clifftop castle. Start with the below destinations, all of them within day-tripping distance.
Tulum Archaeological Zone
Officially designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mayan ruins of Tulum are among the area’s most important attractions. Located on a cliff facing the Caribbean Sea, it’s also one of the most photogenic sites in the region — and perhaps the whole country.
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Another favorite among Riviera Maya visitors is Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, comprising a vast network of lagoons and mangrove forests inhabited by dolphins, crocs, and turtles. Unlike some others on our list, this particular site is best toured with a seasoned guide, who can safely shuttle you to swimming holes and gathering spots for local wildlife.
Isla Mujeres / Contoy Island
A hop, skip, and a jump from Playa is Isla Mujeres, holding a charming downtown and spectacular beaches. You’ll also find its neighbor, Contoy Island, which admits just a few hundred visitors daily and holds the region’s largest sea turtle colony.
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Just a quick ferry ride away, Cozumel is one of the nearest Riviera Maya destinations to Playa del Carmen and shares Playa del Carmen’s mix of traditional and modern culture. Unlike Playa, the island houses fascinating ruins, which can be fully appreciated with a knowledgeable guide.
It’s a bit ambitious to venture all the way to Holbox in a single day — you’ll need to drive an hour and a half before transferring to the ferry — but if you have the energy, the destination itself is well worth the lengthy journey. Long considered a well-kept secret, it has only recently begun to gain the attention of non-natives, thanks to its dreamy beaches and laid-back vibe.
Cenotes and Dive Sites
For a truly idyllic day trip, sign up for a snorkeling or diving excursion, whether you immerse yourself in the waters of the Riviera Maya’s placid cenotes or in the stretch of Caribbean off Puerto Morelos. For more information on your diving and snorkeling options, check out our in-depth article.
Considered one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” the UNESCO-listed Chichen Itza is a massive archaeological site that covers two and a half square miles. The oldest ruins here date back to the 7th century, while the central area — built over the next two or three centuries — contains many of the most impressive structures. Here you’ll find the well-preserved ball game court and the spectacular Temple of Kukulca. Local guides can provide detailed information and even take you to a sacred cenote.
If you’re thinking of a trip to the Riviera Maya, browse the lovely accommodations at Mahekal Beach Resort and start planning your stay.