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Riviera Maya, Mexico: Insider’s Guide

by | May 25, 2023

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Mexico: Zachary Rabinor of Journey Mexico.

Trusted Travel Expert
Zachary Rabinor

An elite guide in Mexico for more than two decades, Zach learned everything about what sophisticated travelers really want there but can’t easily find, then founded his own travel firm to deliver exactly that. Currently based in New York City, Zach spent many years living in Mexico with his wife and two sons; he still travels there regularly to cement his insider connections and keep up-to-the-minute on the country’s wide array of coastlines, Colonial cities, wildlife reserves, beach resorts, historic haciendas, rental villas, ancient monuments, award-winning kitchens, and thrilling activities (he’s a big surfer). His deep relationships with local hoteliers, communities, and fixers of all kinds translate into room upgrades, special-access visits, and off-the-beaten-path experiences that travelers wouldn’t know about otherwise. He prides himself on finding new and exciting ways to visit even the most touristy and crowded locales.

Expect trips orchestrated by Zach to start at $800 per day for two travelers in boutique 4-star accommodations with private daily excursions, and $1,000 per room per night over Christmas/New Year's.

Where to Stay and Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Etéreo is perched among protected mangroves that overlook the Caribbean Sea. It’s reachable in just under an hour from Cancún’s airport, and while nestled in nine acres of tropical beachfront, the hotel isn’t a sprawling mega-resort—this is a property that was built mindfully to integrate with its natural surroundings. No golf carts are needed to move around, as the pool and beach are just a quick walk away from any area of the resort.

Restaurants the locals love
Las Hijas de la Tostada receives rave reviews for its fresh approach to the tostada, a classic Mexican dish. Arrive early for lunch, as the best seats get taken quickly by regulars. If you are fortunate, you can get a spot at the bar to watch as the expert crew bustles around the restaurant, making you feel welcome with their warm service and house recommendations. While they mainly serve tostadas (they do a have a few other dishes, such as a tuna burger and fish and chips), the menu is large and creative, and will leave you wanting to return time and again to try it all. One of Zach’s favorites is the Camarón Roca: breaded and fried shrimp topped with red cabbage, black sesame seeds, and a chipotle mayo sauce.

Mar-bella Fish-Market Raw Bar and Grill is another great local spot for seafood. Their locations in Cancun, Puerto Morelos, and Isla Mujeres don’t offer a formal menu, but rather patrons can choose from an array of fresh seafood brought in by local fisherpeople, everything from lobster and fish, to oysters and octopus. Each dish is an original, personalized to the diner’s flavor and seasoning preferences. The atmosphere is unpretentious, simple, and family-friendly—exactly the kind of vibe you would expect from a local fishing village.

In Playa del Carmen, La Perla Pixan offers a mix of traditional recipes from all over the country, along with an extensive mezcal and pulque menu, all served in a beautifully designed space with a thatched roof and a garden setting. It’s known for high-quality, authentic Mexican dishes, great mixology, and excellent service. The tuna tiradito is one of Zach’s favorites; the slices of jalapeño give the perfect kick to an otherwise refreshing plate.

Dishes to try
Yucatecan fare such as cochinita pibil, poc chuch, lime soup, or Tikin xic-style fish. Tikin xic fish is a traditional pre-Columbian recipe featuring staple Mexican ingredients such as chilies, garlic, purple onion, tomatoes, and local sour-orange juice. The base is a piece of fresh, local fish that has been marinated in annatto (a colorful orange-red seed) and wrapped in a green banana leaf before being slow cooked.

Mexican tacos filled with cochinita pibil ( shredded meat, onion and spicy), coriander and lime.

Tacos filled with cochinita pibil, a traditional Mayan dish. Photo: Shutterstock

Meals worth the splurge
Bu’ul, at Chable Maroma hotel, is led by Jorge Vallejo, one of Mexico’s most admired and respected chefs. Bu’ul is the Mayan word for bean and the use of corn, beans, and fruit stand out in many dishes, especially in the complimentary welcome appetizer featuring simple bean, seed, and chile sauces served with warm, handmade blue tortillas. It’s one of those snacks that you can’t stop eating once you start, so uncomplicated yet delicious—but be sure to leave room for your meal!

What to See and Do

Puerto Morelos old bent lighthouse in Mayan Riviera Maya of Mexico

The old bent lighthouse leans over the laid-back beaches of Puerto Morelos. Photo: Shutterstock

Don’t miss
Every June to September, whale sharks gather in the warm, clear Caribbean waters off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. This is your chance to swim with these gentle giants, the largest fish in the sea—guaranteed to be a highlight of your trip.

Laguna de Kaan Luum is a shallow lagoon that circles a deep cenote and is located 20 minutes south of Tulum. When visiting outside rainy season, you’ll find varying, mesmerizing shades of blue and no chance of sargassum seaweed—making it the perfect Instagrammable spot, and a refreshing way to cool off on a hot day.

Though it’s slightly outside the Riviera Maya (the boundaries of which are Puerto Morelos and Tulum), the Museo Maya de Cancún is well worth the trip. Designed by Mexican architect Alberto García Lascurain, this modern white building stands in stark contrast to its contents: Mayan ceramics, jewelry, carvings, and other artifacts from the state of Quintana Roo, as well as pieces from the farther corners of that ancient empire—which once stretched to present-day Honduras. Skip the ruins outside; they’re unrestored and pale in comparison to the sites at Tulum and Coba.

Don’t bother
Skip any opportunity that invites you to have animal encounters with captured wildlife outside of their natural habitat, such as swimming with dolphins and manatees, visiting monkeys, or pictures with baby leopards or jaguars. Also avoid the region’s theme parks in favor of the natural beauty that is everywhere in the Rivera Maya: Snorkel in a secluded cove, or hike into the jungle to a hidden cenote. While the area is busy, you can get off the beaten path with a bit of creativity and insider information.

Cheap thrill
Take the ferry to Cozumel on a day when no cruise ships are in port (have your concierge call the “Capitania de Puerto” to check: 52-987-872-2409). The boat trip—about $16 for adults, $13 for kids—gives you incredible views of the coast, the Caribbean, and the reefs around Cozumel. Once ashore, head to Pescadería San Carlos for some tasty ceviche, or hire a local operator to take you snorkeling or scuba diving on the world-class reefs.

Tulum, Mexico

Tulum House. Photo courtesy Journey Mexico

Bragging rights
Walk among the archeological sites at Tulum or Coba—both once-great cities of the Mayan empire—before they are open to the public, with a professional archaeologist as your guide to help explain your surroundings. The huge numbers of visitors who flock to these famous ruins during opening hours really detract from the experience; being there with almost no one else—including pushy hawkers and even the site’s staff—allows you to imagine these mystical places as they were when inhabited by the Maya.

How to spend a Sunday
Take a cab to the beach club at Maroma Paradise (15 minutes from downtown Playa del Carmen), and pay the 400-peso (approximately $20) entrance fee for access to one of the best beaches in the Riviera Maya. Though the place can get busy with activities (everything from snorkeling to camel safaris) during the week, it’s a bit calmer on weekends, particularly Sundays.

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Best Times to Go

Starting a week after Easter Sunday through June, and then late October up until the Thanksgiving week: Rates are low throughout the Riviera Maya, resorts not too crowded, and the weather is pleasant (mid to high 80s) with little rain.

Worst Times to Go

Avoid summer for a number of reasons: It’s very hot, crowded with families, and there is always the chance of a hurricane. Hotel rates are highest during Christmas, Easter, President’s Day week, and spring break.

The Souvenir

Mexican vanilla, available both in extracts and whole beans, is among the finest in the world. One of the best brands is Usumacinta, which you can buy at Hacienda Tequila Playa del Carmen on Fifth Avenue between streets 14 and 16. (The shop also stocks tequila, should you wish to bring that back too.)

Scam Alert

Watch out for dishonest gas station attendants. Even though the stations are full-service, watch closely while the attendant fills your tank to make sure the meter is zeroed before they start pumping. Don’t pull out your pesos until the gas has been pumped, so that the attendant can’t see what denominations you have. When the attendant is finished, check the meter and pull out the appropriate amount. Hold it up, making sure the attendant knows that you know what bills you are holding. The typical scam is that the attendant takes a 200-peso bill from you, palms it, and comes up with a 20-peso bill, then claims you made a mistake. Same thing with a 500-peso bill switched for a 50. Be on guard, as there are variations; this can also happen in restaurants or small shops.

Tipping Tip

Tips are supplemental income to the low wages most workers earn. It is customary to tip anybody who provides you with a service, right down to the kid who packs your groceries. Bring one-dollar bills and use them for tips during your stay; percentages are in line with what you’d tip in the U.S.

Many luxury hotels add a 10 to 15 percent service charge to food and beverage purchases; look closely at the bill before deciding whether to add anything else.

Don’t Forget to Pack

Aqua socks or water shoes for rocky beaches and snorkeling.


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