The Riviera Maya is one of Mexico’s hottest destinations, but there are still some off-the-beaten path spots that tourists haven’t yet discovered. Step away from the all-inclusive resorts and busy nightclubs and make these stops instead.
The Riviera Maya is one of Mexico’s hottest tourism draws. Situated on the Caribbean side of the Yucatán Peninsula, this coastline is bustling with all-inclusive resorts, world-class snorkeling and scuba diving, golf, nightlife, and great dining. The top Riviera Maya attractions include cenotes (natural sinkholes), Mayan ruins, and posh places to eat. If you’re willing to venture a bit off the beaten path, however, you’ll find hidden treasures on the Mayan Riviera that will make you feel like a local. Here, listed in no particular order, are a few. Pack your bag and prepare for the getaway of a lifetime!
Quinta Palmera Hotel
Not every hotel on the Riviera Maya is an all-inclusive (AI) resort with vast grounds, pools, and unlimited room service. Some of the smaller, more tucked-away hotels are the real jewels, like Quinta Palmera. Located on the ultra-hot Playa del Carmen, on the far end of the main strip through town, this adults-only hotel is high on the romance and attention to detail. And with only six rooms, it’s free of the crowds that you’ll encounter at the AIs.
When most people think of Mayan ruins, they think of the popular Chichen Itza, but intrepid explorers will want to instead (or additionally!) visit the ruins of Ek Balam. The site dates back to 1,200 B.C., and the main temple is one of the largest structures ever uncovered on the Yucatán. The most striking temple here is the one with the “monster mouth,” which was said to depict the entryway to the underworld. Blood rituals were definitely conducted here, and it’s unknown whether human sacrifices were as well. Tourism is so low here that you can still climb the Acropolis pyramid and see stellar views of the Riviera Maya all around.
Playa del Carmen boasts numerous bars, and some are definitely flashier than others. One that might not stand out from the pack is Don Mezcal, located on 10th Street. As the name suggests, most of the (reasonably priced) drinks here are mezcal-based, but the menu includes beers, shots, and cocktails as well. There’s room for only about twenty people at the bar, making it a cozy and intimate setting, and the fact that it doesn’t play music makes it good for close conversation.
The Mayan town of Chemax is located between the Yucatán cities Coba and Valladolid. Most of the locals speak Mayan, with Spanish as their second language. Don’t look for anyone speaking English here; Chemax is not actively trying to build itself up as a tourist attraction. U.S. dollars are not accepted and most of the locals are very wary of outsiders. Still, there is a beautiful church in Chemax that is well worth the trip off the beaten path. It definitely won’t appear in any travel guides, but it’s a detour that you don’t want to miss.
Only locals (okay, and a few explorers) know about Nopalito Lagoon in Pino Suarez, located just south of Tulum, Mexico. Unlike other beaches on the Riviera Maya, it doesn't have any beachfront bars, stores, or hotels lining the shore of the lagoon—it’s just you and the sweet, clear water. The lagoon is accessible only by a rental car or private driver, but it's definitely worth the work to get to it—especially on a hot day! The swimming here is fantastic, so be sure to pack your swimsuit.
Some of the best authentic Yucatán food on the peninsula (no exaggeration!) can be found in a small, unassuming restaurant in Playa del Carmen called Rincon Yucateco. The eatery has daily lunch specials, as well as a regular menu of local specialties. Try the cochinita pibil, a traditional Yucatán pork dish, and the huevos rancheros for breakfast. The prices are so low here that you can afford a couple of meals without breaking the bank.
Cenote Dos Ojos
The cenotes, or natural sinkholes, in the Riviera Maya are all superb, but if you want to visit one that’s a bit more under the radar than the others, head to Cenote Dos Ojos, located in Tulum. You’ll take a short walk through the jungle to get to this cenote, the name of which translates to “two eyes” in English. The diving here is unparalleled, and only small groups (four people) are allowed to dive at a time, so it never gets too crowded. The waters are tranquil and the views are amazing.
One of the great local traditions of the Mayan Riviera is the bike food. If you sit on a street corner in any pueblo in the area, you’ll eventually encounter the food bikers, who sell delicious, authentic food and drinks. All of the bikers specialize in something—whether it’s agua fresca, tortas, or sweet dessert breads. They usually accept only Mexican pesos and they seldom have change, so carry a few small bills. In exchange, you’ll get some of the most delicious food that you can imagine.
Your turn, travelers. Have you been to the Riviera Maya? What hidden gems did you discover there? What essentials did you bring in your bag? Share your two cents in the comments below!
Related Links (from Eagle Creek blog):
Best Natural Swimming Pools Around the World
How to Pack for a Girls Spring Break Trip to Mexico
5 Affordable Spring Break Destinations