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.
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Day One: Fly into Cancun and travel 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. There are a few nice beaches in Playa del Carmen and the surrounding area — 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Stay: If you want to keep costs down, book a dorm at Mama’s Home. Rancho 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
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.
Dos Ojos gets most of the tourist traffic due to its accessibility, but there are lots of cenotes near Cancun and Tulum that you can choose from if you want to head further afield.
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.
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
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.
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
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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