Things to Do in Riviera Maya & the Yucatan
Cenote Ik Kil is a tropical cenote located in the Yucatan region of Mexico, just a few miles away from Chichen Itza. A sinkhole filled with water, Ik Kil is one of the most popular cenotes for travelers to the eastern coast of Mexico thanks to its lush surroundings and easy accessibility. Cenote Ik Kil is not partially covered by earth like many cenotes but is instead open to the sky; sunlight streams down and hits the water, making it a bright teal color, from which it gets its nickname: Sacred Blue Cenote. Vines hang down from the rock walls, and gentle waterfalls also make their way down the sides of the encompassing circular wall, which stretches up 85 feet around the surface of the water, giving the cenote a more exotic feel.
Stairs down one side of the rock wall lead to a ledge from which you can get in the water to swim. The water stretches down 130 feet; while swimming, keep an eye out for the catfish that call the cenote home.
Intrepid travelers can test their limits—and their nerves—while navigating the channels of Sac Actun Cenote System—the longest underground river network in the world. Located in the jungles of Tulum, visitors descend into the river via an ominous looking rock well, complete with a well-worn wooden ladder. Because it’s rather remote and difficult to access, Sac Actun proves an ideal destination for travelers looking to explore the beauty and mystique of Mexico far away from the crowds.
Known by locals as the Pet Cemetery because of the large number of animal fossils, Sac Actun Cenote holds a spiritual place in Mayan tradition and offers travelers spectacular views of hidden waterfalls, dark caverns dripping with stalactites as they swim through fresh water streams. Snorkeling options are also available for those looking to check out the scene even further below the surface.
Love flamingos? Then head to Ría Lagartos, a little fishing village in the Mexican Riviera that is home to Parque Natural Ría Lagartos, a stunning park and biosphere reserve.
Ría Lagartos Park is situated alongside a long estuary, and more than 380 bird species reside here, including tens of thousands of flamingos, who treat Parque Natural Ría Lagartos as their breeding ground. In addition to the pink feathered bird, visitors can see egrets, herons, pelicans and falcons. If visiting at the right time of year, you also may get to see sea turtles coming up on shore to lay their eggs on the beach. Ría Lagartos is also a great place to do some fishing.
Mayan for "Giant Bird Cage", Nohoch Nah Chich is an accessible cenote, a series of underwater caves, popular for diving day trips from Cancun and Playa del Carmen. The Nohoch Nah Chich streches 5 miles (8 kilometers) inland, making it the world's second largest underwater cave system. Diving among the delicate white geological formations is for experienced divers only, and is assured to be the experience of a lifetime for diving enthusiasts.
Ek Balam is one of the largest Mayan ruins in Mexico and is what’s left of an ancient town. The ruins date back from 100 BC to 1,200 BC and are remarkably well preserved. Situated about 100 miles from the popular tourist destination of Chichen Itza, Ek Balam isn’t quite as popular as its massive neighbor, making it less crowded and giving you more of a chance to experience the wonder of the Mayan culture as it was thousands of years ago. The focal point of Ek Balam is the 96-foot-tall Acropolis, which served as the temple for the ancient Mayan village. Note the large monster at the entrance to the pyramid; this is said to be guarding the underworld. Climb to the top of the Acropolis for views of the surrounding jungle, and learn why Ek Balam wasn't discovered for so many centuries. Many more buildings are on the grounds and ready to be explored as well. The name Ek Balam translates to "black jaguar," and you can see motifs of the animal on the sides of some of the buildings.
The Mayan pyramids and monuments of Uxmal are particularly well preserved, and considered some of the most beautiful in the Yucatan.
Scattered across the archaeological site are stepped pyramids, palaces, ball courts and quadrangles. Perhaps the best known structures are the stepped Great Pyramid and the unusually rounded Pyramid of the Magician.
A nightly sound and light show brings the magic of Uxmal to life, focusing on the Pyramid of the Magician.
More Things to Do in Riviera Maya & the Yucatan
This minor archeological site on the Puuc Route south of Merida is worth visiting to see its Palace of the Masks, an ornate structure covered with hundreds of masks of the same figure: the rain god Chaac. This repeating motif is rare in Mayan art and perhaps illustrates the importance of water—or the lack of it some years. There are no underground cenotes in this area, so rainfall was the only source of water.
Artifacts have been found here going as far back as the third century BC, but most of what remains was built between the 7th and 11th centuries AD. It was abandoned soon after and was empty when the Spanish conquistadores arrived.
Some of the sculpted elements of the site have been whisked off to various museums, but several low stone buildings and pyramids remain. Since Kabah is in a region dotted with other ruins, it’s usually a quick stop as part of a multi-site tour.
Izamal is an aesthetically vibrant town with ancient pyramids standing tall alongside an old Spanish monastery and town buildings painted in yellow hues. These pyramids are believed to have been built between 600 AD and 800 AD and are especially important due to the fact that they were once a ceremonial center of the Mayan civilization. The most famous – and largest – of the pyramids is Kinich Kak Mo, a holy site built for the Mayan sun god.
After the Spanish settled here in the 16th century, the structure of Izamal took an interesting turn. The Spaniards simply reconstructed the existing Mayan buildings instead of tearing them down, and as a result, the famous yellow Franciscan Monastery is actually built on top of the Mayan acropolis. Many of the churches built in town also used stones from existing Mayan sites, so it is very interesting to walk around the Izamal ruins and see the two different periods of time coexisting so prominently.
El Caracol translates to “snail” in Spanish and in this case refers to the spiral staircase that winds through the interior of this ancient Mayan observatory.
Part of the Chichen Itza archaeological site, the observatory is believed to have been built as early as the ninth century. The stone ruins, built on a large square platform, once functioned as an astrological observation site. It was constructed to rise above the surrounding jungle so that Mayan astronomers could have unobstructed views of the skies and see a 360-degree panoramic of the stars.
The site has since been rebuilt and has undergone renovations to align with astrological events. Windows were built to view and track the movement of Venus, the sun, the moon and other celestial events. Venus was of particular significance in Mayan culture and was believed to be the twin of the sun.
Labna is an excellent site for archaeology lovers and architectural buffs with its Mayan building ruins that were built in the ancient Puuc style. Located in the Yucatan Peninsula by the larger Uxmal ruins, Labna is a compact structure hidden within the Puuc Hills. Though smaller than some of the other Mayan ruin compounds in Mexico, it is impressive nonetheless. Labna was once used as a ceremonial center by the Mayans during the pre-Columbian era.
Labna’s impressive Gateway Arch is still standing today, and visitors can stand under it and walk through it while marveling at its intricate construction. It is believed that this arch was used to signify the start of the area of the ancient village where the priest and the elite people of Labna lived. Relief designs are etched into the side of the arch, providing impressive details that visitors love taking pictures of.
Quintana Roo is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mexico. Also dubbed the Mexican Caribbean due to the sea it borders, Quintana Roo is home to tropical beaches, ecological islands, party-central cities and Mayan ruins.
In the gorgeous city of Cancun, spend your days lying on the soft sandy beaches and swimming in warm, clear water before changing into your dancing clothes and heading to one of the beach clubs Cancun is known for. Experience Quintana Roo’s turquoise water more in-depth with a jaunt to the island of Cozumel, which has some of the best scuba diving in all of Mexico. You’ll have the chance to see tropical fish, sea turtles, eels and – if they’re migrating through – whale sharks. Quintana Roo also provides easy access to parts of the massive Mundo Maya, of which Tulum is one of its most famous parts when it comes to Mayan ruins. Visit the impressive Tulum Observatory, an ancient ruin that borders the ocean.
Located on the Yucatan peninsula where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea, the Mexican port of Progreso is a jumping-off point for tours to the Mayan archaeological sites of Chichen Itza (100 miles/160 km away), Uxmal (70 miles/115 km) and Dzibilchaltun (18 miles/30 km). Book a shore excursion or make your own way to the site of your choice by taxi or rental car (both found at the port). If you’re looking for a more cosmopolitan day in port, head to the city of Mérida, the capital of Yucatan both politically and culturally, where you can soak up the colonial atmosphere by walking along the square, admiring the European-style architecture or stumbling upon a free concert.
Things to do near Riviera Maya & the Yucatan
- Things to do in Playa del Carmen
- Things to do in Cozumel
- Things to do in Cancun
- Things to do in Merida
- Things to do in Progreso
- Things to do in Costa Maya
- Things to do in Valladolid
- Things to do in Chichen Itza
- Things to do in Tulum
- Things to do in Isla Holbox
- Things to do in Bacalar
- Things to do in The Cayes
- Things to do in Petén
- Things to do in Central Highlands
- Things to do in Western Highlands