Our latest travel expert, Canadian-American expat Janine, from the travel blog “Janine in the World” would like to challenge us to expand our horizons beyond the resort vacation typical to the region. Here’s her take on the perfect 4-day itinerary in the Mayan Riviera, which is also, coincidentally, her new home.
The Mayan Riviera is a wonderful vacation destination. Located along the north-eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, it offers perfect weather, incredible beaches, and a huge range of activities to indulge in. From stunning coral reefs to ancient Mayan temples, to jaw-dropping turquoise water and authentic Mexican cuisine, this area has it all! Here are my recommendations for how to make the most of the Mayan Riviera in 4 days.
When you arrive at the airport in Cancún I recommend heading straight to Playa del Carmen. It is located centrally on the coast making it the perfect basecamp for exploring the region. Plus the layout of the town makes it easy to secure accommodation within walking distance of the beach, rendering rental cars an unnecessary expense for the budget travelers among us.
Spend your first day getting acquainted with Playa del Carmen (Playa, if you want to sound like a local). Take a walk along La Quinta Avenida, a lovely pedestrian street a block from the beach. It is full of restaurants, bars and boutiques selling just about anything you can imagine. Stop and grab an ice cream at Parque Fundadores, and watch the Danza de los Voladores de Papantla (which has nothing to do with Mayan culture, but is a beautiful ritual from another ancient Mexican culture).
Next visit the beach. Rent loungers and an umbrella at Mamitas Beach Club if you want a luxurious experience. If you want to rough it, pack a picnic and use your towel to stake your claim to any free patch of sand. The water temperature averages about 80 degrees and it is divine for swimming! Make sure to keep a few extra pesos handy in case you come across someone selling irresistible Mexican candy.
In the evening, head back near La Quinta for a delicious, high-end meal in one of the countless restaurants, or take a taxi to El Fogón on Avenida Constituyentes and 20th for the best tacos you’ve ever tasted.
You can’t come all the way to the Yucatán peninsula without visiting the world renowned pyramids of Chichén Itzá. It just wouldn’t be right. Chichén Itzá is a Mayan ruin that dates back to 600 A.D. and to see it up close is absolutely breathtaking.
There are countless ways to visit to Chichén Itzá but I recommend renting a car. This will give you the flexibility to arrive earlier in the day and to stop for breakfast along the way in a true Mexican pueblo! It is an easy 2.5 hour drive from Playa. Spend a few hours exploring the ruins and make sure to get some good photos of El Castillo; measuring almost 100 feet high this pyramid is bound to blow your mind!
After exploring the site head back down the road to the town of Valladolid. This is the perfect spot to stop for an authentic Mexican lunch. The town square is beautiful and has a number of great restaurants to choose from. After lunch take a walk and explore a little. There are many scenic streets for photos and little shops to stop in for souvenirs!
That evening, back in Playa grab a drink and/or a meal at a beach bar. The ocean breeze will be welcome after spending the afternoon in the car. My favourites are Fusion if you want to sit under a palapa with your toes in the sand, or INTI Beach if you’re looking for a little luxury.
One of the most magical experiences you can have in the Mayan Riviera, in my opinion, is snorkelling. Rent a car or take a “collectivo” van (an inexpensive local shuttle, perfect for budget travelers) from Playa del Carmen to the nearby beach community of Akumal. This is a lovely, tranquil beach where sea turtles come to eat seagrass that grows on the bottom of the bay.
It can get very crowded (and hot!) so go early in the day. Head straight to the Akumal Dive Shop and rent a snorkel, a life jacket and a locker for your valuables, then head out the door to the beach. Don’t listen to locals telling you it’s illegal to swim without a guide, it’s a racket. There are buoys clearly marking the snorkelling route, follow that and you’re sure to see turtles and colorful tropical fish.
In the afternoon, take a walk down the beach and enjoy the majestic tranquility of Akumal. Have lunch at Lol-Ha, overlooking the other happy snorkelers in the bay!
That evening, back in Playa, visit Kitxen on La Quinta between Constituyentes and 20. This is the perfect spot to have dinner and see live music!
No trip to the Mayan Riviera would be complete without visiting a cenote. For those unfamiliar, a cenote is a sinkhole that forms when limestone bedrock gives way, revealing an underground river system. There are hundreds of cenotes all over the Yucatán peninsula. In fact, Mayans saw cenotes as the temples of underworld Gods!
There are many cenotes to visit within minutes of Playa del Carmen. I recommend Cenote Dos Ojos (spanish for “two eyes). This cenote is about 30 minutes south of Playa. The “dos ojos” refers to TWO cenotes that are connected by an underwater cave. You can rent snorkel gear and explore the cenotes on your own, or you can pay for a diving tour and see the underwater rock formations up close! Snorkelling in the cenote is truly impressive. The water is ultra-clear and a beautiful shade of blue. There are tiny fish swimming with you and bats flying above you!
After a day of cenote exploration be sure to treat yourself to a delicious dinner. Choose somewhere with a view to soak up your final glimpses of that turquoise ocean before you head home the next day.
The Mayan Riviera has endless choices for adventure- this itinerary is just the beginning. From the scenery, to the food, to the culture, it is truly a tropical paradise!
Janine’s living her best life down in Mexico these days and she’s sharing her unique perspective and infectious enthusiasm on Janine in the World, her personal travel blog. You can also follow along with Janine’s adventures on Instagram.