Riviera Maya Itinerary: 5 days (on a budget)

It’s January. You know what that means: freezing temperatures, gray skies, and short days. When the weather’s like this, all I can think about is how badly I want to go somewhere tropical — even if it’s just for a short trip. The good news is, with super-cheap flights to places like Cancun, a long-weekend beach getaway is more accessible than ever before. So for all y’all who really need a beach holiday but can’t take too much time off, I put together this five-day Riviera Maya itinerary.

 

The Riviera Maya covers the stretch of Mexico’s Caribbean coast from Cancun to Tulum. It’s home to great beaches and world-class diving. While this region of Mexico is pricier than the rest of the country, it’s still much cheaper than Miami or the Bahamas. This five day Riviera Maya itinerary works whether you’re a backpacker or luxury traveler.

 

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you decide to book through these links, I receive a percentage of the booking at no additional cost to you, which helps me keep this site up and running.

 

Day One: Fly into Cancun and travel to Playa del Carmen

 

Take a bus from Cancun to Playa del Carmen and you can be on the beach within two hours.
The beaches are a big draw to Playa del Carmen

 

Cancun Airport is the perfect gateway to this Riviera Maya itinerary. You can reach it from most major cities in the U.S., often for outrageously cheap prices. (I paid about $150 round-trip from DC this year.)

 

There are tons of fun things to do in Cancun — it’s great for a night or two. The beaches are beautiful. And it has the best nightlife in this part of Mexico. But it’s pricey compared to the rest of the area.

 

Fortunately, there’s no need to linger. You can hop on an ADO bus straight from the airport to the more relaxed city of Playa del Carmen, about an hour down the coast. Buses leave frequently, and they’re comfortable and safe. You’ll pay 190 pesos or $12 U.S. for the bus.

 

Playa del Carmen is a mid-sized city that both aggressively caters to tourists and has an authentic Mexican side. It’s far less resort-y than Cancun, and it seems like the traveler scene is more European than American. It has a couple decent in-town beaches — a great place to relax after your flight.

 

The tourist scene centers around 5th Avenue (or “Quinta Avenida” in Spanish), a two-mile-long pedestrian street lined with shops, bars and restaurants. So spend your first evening of this Riviera Maya itinerary wandering along and window-shopping. If you want to explore the nightlife, this is your best chance to do it.

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Practicalities

 

Stay: If you’re after value for money, you can’t beat Hotel Casa Ejido (from $25). Sure, it’s 13 blocks from the beach. But the long-ish walk takes you into the more authentically Mexican side of town. Hotel Colorado is more central cheapie, but it’s often booked.

 

Eat: For good seafood directly on the beach, try Tarraya (meals from $4). The Mayan hot chocolate at Ah Cacao is amazing. Don’t miss breakfast at either Cueva del Chango for amazing chilaquiles, or Chez Celine for French classics and good coffee.

 

Day Two: Head to Cozumel for a diving or snorkeling trip

 

If you like diving, don't miss Cozumel during your trip to the Riviera Maya
From the shore, Cozumel looks like a tacky cruise ship dock. But the diving off the coast is incredible.

Just off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula lies the Mesoamerican Reef — the second largest barrier reef in the world. The island of Cozumel, a short boat ride from Playa del Carmen, is the best base to explore it. So spend Day 2 of this Riviera Maya itinerary underwater.

 

Start out early and head to the ferry dock. You don’t need to book tickets in advance or buy them for a travel agent. You can buy them right at the dock for 160 pesos, and they leave every half hour or so. Don’t be duped into buying a round-trip ticket — it costs the same as two one-way tickets, but if you stick with one-ways you won’t be stuck waiting for a ferry from the same company to return. The boat trip takes around 45 minutes.

 

Since this is only a five day Riviera Maya itinerary, and you don’t have much down time, you’re better off booking your diving on Cozumel in advance. I’m a huge fan of the shop Deep Blue Cozumel. They charge $80 for a two-tank dive (plus equipment), or $60 for a snorkel trip.

 

I wrote extensively about my experience diving on Cozumel in this post, but in short, it’s the best diving I’ve ever done. Within minutes of being in the water, I saw a huge eagle ray, several sting rays, octopi, and every variety of tropical fish and coral you can imagine. I also saw a shark and a lot of eels during a night dive. If your budget allows, try to fit in two morning dives and a night dive.

 

Practicalities

 

Stay: I really like the dorms at Amigos Hostel ($12/night). It’s out of the cruise ship center and in a quiet Mexican neighborhood. It’s super-clean and the owner is an invaluable resource for questions about the island. Best of all, you can have breakfast at the tiny restaurant operated out of her neighbor’s living room.

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Eat: Avoid the cruise ship area if you don’t want to overpay for bad tacos. Instead, head to Taqueria Diaz for great cow’s head tacos. For a more varied menu with great prices and a convenient location in between dives, check out Los Otates. If you just want a delicious burrito for $3, try Burritos Gorditos.

 

Day Three: Lounge on the beach in Tulum

 

You can spend all day on these amazing beaches on your trip to Tulum without spending much money.
One of Tulum’s utterly perfect public beaches

 

On the third day of this Riviera Maya itinerary, you can take a break from all the activity and just chill on the beach.

 

Start out early and take the ferry back to Playa del Carmen. Then pick up a bus or colectivo (minivan) another hour down the coast to Tulum.

 

If you’re on a budget, you’ll want to stay in town. So after you check into your guesthouse and grab lunch, rent a bicycle and ride to the beach for the afternoon. The best public beach is just past the restaurant Mezzanine. I go into more detail about Tulum’s beaches in this post.

 

Practicalities

 

Stay: If you want to keep costs down, book a dorm at Mama’s HomeRancho Tranquilo has cheap beach bungalows. The lovely Villa Matisse is more comfortable and has free bikes, but it’s pricey if you’re traveling alone.

 

Eat: Don’t miss breakfast at Azafran. The best seafood in town is at El Camello Junior, where you’ll rub shoulders with locals while you wait for a table. The gelato at Campanella Cremerie is to-die-for, and Ki’bok Coffee has the best java.

 

Day Four: Cenotes and Ruins

 

The Tulum ruins are some of Mexico's most beautiful.
The Mayan castle perched over the Caribbean Sea.

 

Tired of moving around each day? No worries! On the fourth day of this Riviera Maya itinerary, you can stay in Tulum.

 

Spend the morning exploring the cenotes (caves formed by underground rivers) around Tulum. You can do this on a dive trip — you have to be open water certified, but you don’t need any special training. Or you can go on your own.

 

Dos Ojos is easily reached by colectivo from Tulum and offers snorkel tours ($25) and diving. They’ll take you into a bat cave and you’ll see lots of interesting cave formations.

 

After you visit the cenotes, grab lunch in town before heading to the Tulum ruins. This small Mayan archaeological site is strikingly beautiful, with a castle on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. It even has its own private beach! It also gets uncomfortably crowded with tour groups during the middle of the day. Time your visit to around 3:30 pm to see it in the best light and with fewer crowds.

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Stay & Eat: See Day 3. More restaurant options include Don Cafeto, Antojitos la Chiapaneca, and (if you want to splurge) Cetli.

 

Day Five: Isla Mujeres

 

Spend the last night of this Riviera Maya itinerary on the beach on Isla Mujeres
Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres

 

On your final day on this Riviera Maya itinerary, get up early and hop on a bus to Cancun. Then, take either a local bus or a cheap taxi out to the ferry dock to Isla Mujeres.

 

Isla Mujeres has gorgeous beaches and a laid-back Caribbean vibe. Plus, you can get to Cancun’s airport in about an hour, so it’s the perfect staging point for your flight home.

 

There isn’t much to do on Isla Mujeres besides hanging out on the beach, visiting the sea turtle farm, and snorkeling around the “underwater museum” (a set of sculptures that have been sunk to promote coral growth). The island is extremely walkable, but you can hire a golf cart if you feel so inclined.

 

Practicalities

 

Stay: The budget crowd invariably heads for Poc Na Hostel. It’s party-focused and a little impersonal, but you can’t beat the location — steps from the island’s best beach — or the hammocks in the sand.

 

Eat: You can find good cheap ceviche and grilled seafood at the market just east of Playa Norte.

 

Extend your five-day Riviera Maya itinerary

 

One of the top Riviera Maya excursions is a day trip to Chichen Itza.
Chichen Itza is a short bus ride from Tulum and an easy extension to this Riviera Maya itinerary.

 

Not ready to head home yet? No problem! It’s easy to expand your short Mexico trip to a longer exploration of the Yucatan Peninsula.

 

Head to further-afield Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza or Coba. Explore the colonial cities of Mérida, Campeche, and Valladolid. Or snorkel with whale sharks from Isla Holbox.

 

It’s hard not to fall in love with the Riviera Maya. The beaches are gorgeous, the weather is warm, the food is good, and the people are friendly. With flight prices consistently so low, there’s no excuse not to spend a long weekend here!

 

What are your favorite spots along the Riviera Maya? Tell me in a comment!

 

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Relax on the beach, explore ancient ruins, and dive one of the longest reefs in the world with this five day Mexico Riviera Maya itinerary

 

Read more about Mexico here

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Alyson Long
4 years ago

This is really useful! We’ve been thinking about Mexico for a long time. So we need to hop on that bus from Cancun, $12 each is a lot for a family of 4. I’ve been warned many times that Mexico is expensive. Are your hotel prices for one person or a double/twin? Either way that’s not cheap, but still what the heck, we need to go 🙂

Cassie
4 years ago

Ah that’s a good and quick look at an awesome part of the world.

Indrani
Indrani
4 years ago

Well planned out itinerary for 5 days. Never heard of cenotes before, that is something new to me. That and Tulum ruins seemed most interesting to me. The Mesoamerican Reef too seems worth exploring. Hope I can make it there some day.

Vanessa
4 years ago

As a Canadian currently suffering through a miserable winter, I feel like this post is calling my name! I love that there’s so much more to do than just hanging out on the beach. I love having a mix of things to do even when I’m supposed to be relaxing.

Elaine Masters
4 years ago

Great tips. I learned how to dive in Cozumel and have returned several times for more. The area has so much to offer outside of Cancun and the all-inclusive massive resorts (expensive!!) Glad that you included Chichen Itza too. Getting there can be easiest in an air-conditioned bus. We rented a car in Playa del Carmen and were able to do several stops. The ruins and Mayan culture are amzing but the heat was hard for me to handle.

Valerie Wheatley
4 years ago

This itinerary is so detailed and really great! I’ve spent so many rainy, gloomy winters in Oregon and this trip would have been so easy for me to do on a long weekend. The diving/snorkeling in Cozumel sounds spectacular (I’d probably have to snorkel as my one and only diving experience was terrible and not something I’m ready to try again just yet). Plus my husband and I were considering getting married in a beautiful all-inclusive in Isla Mujeres so I’ve been dying to get there and see it in-person someday!

Meg Jerrard
4 years ago

Thanks for this itinerary – we loved the Riviera Maya, and found it really cheap to rent a car. We were able to hit up sites like Chichen Itza and drive around a bit without having to pay for crazy priced tours, stumble across random cenotes, it was such a fabulous trip. Didn’t take In Isla Mujeres though so will have to head back at some stage 🙂

Linda
4 years ago

It has been a few years since we were in this part of Mexico. Thanks for the walk down memory lane! We too loved the scuba diving in Cozumel. We stayed on a great resort with a great dive shop but I will keep Deep Blue Cozumel in mind if we ever go back. We scuba dived in the cenotes and it is still one of our favourite dives. I had to laugh when you called Cancun the “American Bubble”. When I see large stretches of resorts anywhere in the world, I always comment that we could be in Cancun!

Alli Blair
4 years ago

This is perfect! And so appropriate for me right now. January in Canada – UGH! So cold. So dark 🙁 I have this post bookmarked because I love how affordable this itinerary is and how perfect a time it is for me to getaway and take a break from this harsh Canadian winter!

AllGudThings
4 years ago

That is a well planned 5 days itinerary for Riviera Maya in Mexico. The Cozumel actually looks like a cruise ship dock. The Tulum beach is really nice and clean. Cenotes is something new for us and it sounds equally interesting too. We will love the Caribbean vibes of Isla Mujeres. Great post, pictures & practicalities.

Paige
4 years ago

I’ve only been to Cancun/Riveria Maya once. We were there for 10 days and stayed on a resort, but I’m dying to get back. We went to Chichen Itza and I would love to get the opportunity to explore and swim in as many cenotes as I possibly can! This is a great itinerary and I love that you’ve found you can do it on a budget!

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[…] while you’re at it, why not extend your trip to include more of the Riviera Maya? Or check out Chichen Itza? Tulum is a great base for the rest of the […]

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[…] had to, but most locals were enthusiastic to let me practice Spanish. Unlike in touristy areas in Mexico, where locals automatically switch to English for tourists, many of the Ticos I interacted with […]

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