By Kara Williams, on May 7, 2013

Adventures in the Riviera Maya

The Riviera Maya – a scenic strip of Mexico coastline that begins just south of Cancun and stretches south to Tulum – is home to a host of exciting outdoor adventures. With underground rivers (cenotes), jungle foliage, ancient Maya temples, and, of course, crystal-clear ocean and white-sand beaches, the Riviera Maya provides an ideal playground for adventures by land and by sea.


These are just a few of my favorite outdoor activities in the tropical Riviera Maya — excursions I’ve enjoyed, usually with kids in tow, on family vacations over the last few years.


Climb a Maya temple at Coba

The Maya civilization thrived in the Yucatan Peninsula for centuries before the Spanish conquered the peninsula in the mid 16th century. Vestiges of former Maya cities — with remains of residences, recreation fields and sacred temples – can be toured by visitors today. Tulum is an extremely popular site to visit, as the ruins are not far from the main coastal highway, and their location right on the water is stunning. But I also like Coba because you can actually climb the Nohoch Mul pyramid. The stone steps are steep, but thankfully there’s a rope to hang on to if vertigo hits as you climb about 130 feet to the top.

My son looks flushed even before we climbed the steep temple!


To reach Nohoch Mul within the confines of Coba, you can walk a mostly shaded path, get driven by pedicab, or rent your own bike. When my son and I visited in July 2010, we went with the “cycle yourself” option. Thankfully, ice cold water is for sale once you’ve reached your destination! (Riviera Maya in the summer months is steamy, for sure.)


Snorkel or dive in an underground river

Cenotes are sinkholes that are created when limestone collapses, exposing groundwater. In Mexico, these “underground rivers” are popular places to swim, snorkel and even scuba dive. Descending into a cavern and dipping in the fresh water is refreshing, especially after spending time in the hot sun.


Hidden Worlds, a “cenote adventure park” located between Tulum and Playa del Carmen, is one way to access the underground rivers of this area. But I highly recommend a full day tour from Alltournative that combines a visit to Coba (see above) with a visit to a Maya village. Along the way you can experience a sacred Maya ceremony, a quick zipline across a river and, the best part, rappelling into a cenote to cool off in the damp cave.

This zipline at Xplor is super fun, since it ends in a cenote and waterfall.


Visit an ecological theme park

The three major adventure-ecological theme parks in the Riviera Maya all begin with the letter “X,” and all are worthy of a visit – for different reasons. You may not want to hit all three on a week’s vacation, since they are pricey – though if you are thinking of visiting more than one park, check for combo ticket prices. If you do choose to visit at least one while you’re in the Riviera Maya, plan to spend the entire day there to make it worth your while (and the hit to your pocketbook).


Xcaret is probably the most cultural of the three parks: you’ll find archaeological sites on its property and the impressive evening stage show traces the history of Mexico. There is a huge array of animals – manatees, flamingos, turtles, jaguars — on display (in safe enclosures!). Plus, you can snorkel amid colorful fish or swim with dolphins.


Xel-ha offers opportunities for tubing down a freshwater river, while rope swings and cliffs for jumping into the river are huge hits with tweens and teens (and adults with an adventurous spirits). You might also sample Snuba, swim with manatees, pet stingrays, or “zip bike” through the sky on an aerial tour.


Xplor is the newest park, a spot where you can go ziplining, swim and raft through cenotes, and drive an amphibious vehicle through the jungle. Once you pay the admission fee, you can take part in as many or as few activities as you like. I  recommend the ziplines, some of which end in cenotes. These rides offer a great birds-eye-view of the jungle below.


Swim with sea turtles in Akumal

The main beach in Akumal is a stellar spot to enjoy a long stretch of white sand and the turquoise, warm Caribbean Sea. It also is known for its resident sea turtles. These creatures are easy to spot as they swim around near the shore in calm Akumal Bay – you don’t even have to go too far out into the ocean to see them. If you don’t have your own snorkel equipment, rent from Akumal Dive Shop, which offers snorkeling tours, too.


Snorkel with whale sharks

Technically, this out-of-this-world adventure takes place in the ocean closer to Cancun, but since my family experienced swimming with whale sharks while we were vacationing in Playa del Carmen, I’m including it here. Truly, this was the best family adventure I’ve ever enjoyed — anywhere in the world! I cannot recommend this excursion enough.

Viewfinder Tip: Swimming with whale sharks takes place seasonally, so book your vacation accordingly if you want to experience this adventure.

For this tour, you board a small boat and head out from a Cancun marina with a knowledgeable captain and guide to find pods of whale sharks – gentle giants that can reach 40 feet long. Once you’ve spotted the animals, when your guide gives the OK you hop in with your snorkel, mask and fins, and kick like crazy to swim alongside them. The whale sharks just go about their business, swallowing huge gulps of seawater and filtering out the plankton to eat. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience can only take place seasonally, from May to September. If you are visiting the Riviera Maya or Cancun during the summer, it’s a must-do. The outfitter we went with – Cancun Whale Shark Tours – takes children as young as 5. They also provide transportation to and from Riviera Maya hotels.


What sorts of adventures do you like to enjoy on vacation?