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7 must-visit attractions on Mexico's Riviera Maya

7 must-visit attractions on Mexico's Riviera Maya

Posted by Alejandra Romo on July 10, 2014

Located along a scenic stretch of coastline from Cancun to Tulum, Mexico's "Riviera Maya" is a Pre-Columbian wonderland brimming with wild jungles, colorful sea life and ancient ruins.

This Yucatan treasure is one of the hottest travel destinations at the moment, which means it's best to go now, before more mega-resorts sprout up and the last Mayan monuments are off limits for hands-on exploration.

Take a look at's guide to the Riviera Maya to discover must-see historic sites and natural landmarks, including awe-inspiring pyramids and the world's second biggest barrier reef.
1. Akumal

Akumal means “place of the turtles,” and these large creatures are one of the main attractions in this protected bay. Snorkeling here is the draw, as the waters are usually glassy and calm and you are almost guaranteed to spot a giant 500-pound turtle munching sea grass and popping up for air. A bit farther out beckons the reef, teeming with gorgeous tropical fish of all colors. Snorkel gear can be obtained at the Akumal Dive Center. Akumal also has one of our favorite restaurants for fresh seafood and margaritas, La Cueva del Pescador. If you catch something while fishing, they’ll even cook it for you.

2. Cenotes

There are an estimated 7,000 cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula. Depending on their particular formations, these natural sinkholes can be explored via wading, swimming, snorkeling and cave diving. Be prepared for a magical water world of bizarre rock formations, stalactites, stalagmites and other gorgeous natural features. These subterranean caves range from cheap and small family-run operations at the side of the road to more extravagant situations with snack bars, showers and gardens. The agony of choice is daunting as each one offers its very own kind of beauty. Our favorites, as recommended by locals, are Dos Ojos and the Gran Cenote.

3. Chichen Itza

A trip to Chichen Itza is a must. Avoid guided tours with their crowded buses that leave you stuck there all day in the baking heat, and instead rent a car and shop for unique gifts like Mayan dream catchers on the way. The Yucatan’s grandest archaeological site gets hot and overrun every day, but do not let that deter you. The famous El Castillo Pyramid alone is worth the trek. Unfortunately, it can no longer be climbed, but just standing in the shadow of this massive miracle (as of 2007 it is one of the new seven wonders of the world) is an experience. Take your time with the rest of this ancient Mayan city with fantastic ruins and reliefs at every turn, including many temples and the Juego de Pelota. Lots of vendors here sell cool stuff like handmade Mayan masks, so bring cash.

4. Coba

More Mayan ruins? Yes, this time in the middle of the jungle and featuring a rugged climbable pyramid to boot. A lot of structures at this marvelous site are not excavated yet, but the ones that have been are incredible. You will find smaller pyramids, a ball court and stelae (stone shafts), as well as a shaded jungle setting boasting cannibal and incense trees. Walking the area in the cooler morning hours is very doable, but we prefer renting a tricycle and whizzing through the jungle with a local guide sharing Mayan secrets, then being dropped off at the picture-perfect Nohuch Mul pyramid at Coba, the tallest Mayan structure in the Yucatan. Scaling it is no piece of flan; the steps are large and uneven and there’s merely a wobbly rope for assistance. But the views on top are priceless.

5. Mesoamerican Reef

This 600-mile-long barrier reef is the second longest coral reef in the world. Also known as the Belize Reef or Great Mayan Reef, it is a dream for snorkelers and scuba divers. Its incredible biodiversity features over 60 types of coral and more than 500 species of fish. There are around 100 dive sites at your disposal including Puerto Morelos, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen. Find a dive center and get ready to explore conch, gorgeous coral, sea turtles, sea horses and more amid a reef only second to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

6. Tulum Ruins

Thousands of travelers flock to this ancient walled Mayan city perched on the Caribbean coast. And so should you. These well-preserved ancient structures dating from between 1200 and 1500 A.D. are a stunning stone testament built by an incredible culture. Go early in the cooler morning hours, as there’s hardly any shade, and meander amid the silent, stoic monuments, columns and temples dotted by sunbathing iguanas. The most impressive and photographed ruin is the Castillo hovering on the limestone cliff. Just below lies the most idyllic sandy beach for swimming and immaculate Instagram opportunities.

7. Valladolid

Beach siestas, ancient ruins, Caribbean water play and endless margaritas could keep you occupied forever, but you’d miss out on an important piece of history in this authentic colonial city. Dubbed Sultaness of the East, it offers a true glimpse into Yucatan life with locals still dressed in traditional garb such as embroidered white peasant dresses. Park your rental, stroll the bustling zocalo, Calzada de los Frailes, and the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena, and explore the colorful façades and beautiful colonial-style architecture. An absolute must is a stop at the luxe Coqui Coqui perfumery. Our favorite bottle: dry rose. All your Vogue-reading, jet-setting friends will envy you. It can only be purchased in Mexico.

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