Playa del Carmen, a city that made its appearance almost overnight, is today one of the most sought-after destinations on the Yucatan Peninsula. This coast of the Mexican Caribbean is known as Riviera Maya.
In addition to having world-class white sand beaches and all the Caribbean marine life, the Riviera benefits from natural phenomena known as cenotes. They are wells or sinkholes, some flooded and some dry.
Many are open to the public, shining with limpid filtered limestone water and their special stalactites.
Mayan archaeological sites such as Chichen Itza World Heritage are within easy reach, and amusement parks like Xcaret and Xenses are closer to home.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Playa del Carmen:
1. Xplor Park
A unique adventure park, Xplor Park offers action-packed activities in a safe natural setting.
There is a zip line trail more than three kilometers long, striking a tower of nearly 50 meters.
You can also drive an amphibious vehicle through five kilometers of the jungle in two trails, crossing rivers like a pro.
Xplor Park has its own cenote and you can navigate two underground rivers on a raft by paddling with your hands along well-lit tunnels.
And to complete the adventure, swim under the stalactites and go on a guided hike through the cenote.
2. Río Secreto
A recent discovery, the Río Secreto is the largest cenote on the peninsula, with more than 12 kilometers of tunnels.
And one of the reasons this is such a good thing is that there are 15 different entrances so you’ll never bump into other groups during your guided trip through the caves.
Once you’re equipped with wetsuits, lamps, neoprene shoes and helmets you’ll take part in a Mayan smoke ceremony, a prerequisite to enter this sacred site.
Most of the tour you’ll be wading through waist-high water, awed by the supernatural stalactite concretions that have only been seen by human eyes in this last decade.
Suggested tour: Playa del Carmen: Tickets to Rio Secreto and Lunch
3. Cenote Chaak Tun
The moments of the center of the seaside resort are among the most fun and safest on the peninsula of Yucatán.
This flooded pit has clear water for swimming, and on arrival you will be provided with a wetsuit, a lifejacket (if necessary) and a snorkel.
After that, you will embark on a guided adventure through tunnels with masses of stalactites suspended from the ceiling.
Your guide will show you the bats hidden among these formations and explain the importance of the cenotes for the Maya culture.
The largest room is an amazing cathedral space, illuminated by a skylight through the ceiling hole.
4. Xcaret Park
A theme park about the Mayans, the nature of the Riviera Maya and Mexican culture in general, Xcaret Park must be in your plans if you are with your family.
Many attractions can be found on jungle trails and include the true Mayan ruins of Xcaret (whose park takes its name), a river that meanders through a Mayan village, water park-style slides and a beach.
You can enter in the middle of a traditional Fiesta Charra celebration and discover Mexican history at Hacienda Henequenera.
Xcaret is also an animal park, with jaguars, sea cows and a thrilling butterfly house.
After dark, you can stay for the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular, a dazzling show with 300 artists recounting the great moments of the past
5. Chichén Itzá
At Playa del Carmen you’re in range for a trip to one of the world’s great archaeological sites.
Chichén Itzá is two hours on the road, but it’s a journey that history buffs won’t think twice about making.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been ranked as one of the New Seven Wonders of The World.
Apart from its breathtaking scale, one of the things that enthrals people about Chichén Itzá is the fusion of Maya-Puuc building techniques with methods from the highlands of central Mexico.
The city was a major centre for more than 600 years from the 7th to the 13th century and has imposing landmarks like the 30-metre Pyramid of Kukulcan, one of Mesoamerica’s most impressive ballgame courts and the Mayan calendar stone measuring 25 metres across.
Chichén Itzá’s history is complex and its monuments are charged with esoteric meaning, so it’s a good idea to hire a guide for a complete experience.
Recommended tour: Chichén Itzá All Inclusive Tour: Cenote Visit and Lunch
The most recent addition to the Riviera Maya attractions is a “sensory park”, using auditory, tactile, visual and olfactory installations for a strange but enjoyable multi-sensory environment where nothing is ever as it seems.
It takes half a day to get through the park, which blends natural topography and vegetation with man-made landscaping and installations.
Some of the many activities and attractions are the Xensatarium, which plays with perception, Xitrico Garden where you can drink lemonade from a lemon tree, El Pueblo, where houses are upside down and slopes that seem to go down go up, and Riverlaxing, where you’ll float gently through a cenote with ambient sound and lighting.
7. Tulum Ruins
For another dose of Mayan culture, the fortified city of Tulum is less than an hour down the east side of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Founded around the 6th century, Tulum was the port for the inland city of Cobá and reached its zenith between the 13th and 15th centuries.
Set atop 12-meter cliffs, it’s one of the only known walled cities in Mayan civilization.
This structure is up to eight meters thick and five meters high and runs continuously for 400 meters on the west side of the settlement – combine that with the cliffs and you can see that defense was a big consideration for the Mayans when they built the city.
Monuments not to be missed are the Castillo (main pyramid) and the Temple of Frescoes, with paintings that are still visible inside and figurines of the “Descending God” in its niches.
Top selling tour: Tulum, Cobá and Cenote Day Trip with Transfer Options
If Chichen Itza and Tulum piqued your interest for pre-Hispanic culture there’s another site just 15 kilometers south of Tulum.
Also known as Chunyaxché, Muyil is in nearly 40 hectares of ceiba forest on the northern fringe of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
You may even meet a howler monkey on your way to the site.
This Mayan city was settled as early as the 4th century BC and abandoned in the 16th century.
Only a fraction of Muyil has been excavated so far, but the emblematic monument is the Castillo pyramid, standing at more than 17 meters high which makes it the tallest on the Riviera Maya coast.
On the Sendero Muyil, there’s a wooden footpath leading down to the Muyil Lagoon where you can stand on the pier and survey the water.
Suggested tour: Half Day Trip Sian Kaan Muyil
9. 3D Museum of Wonders
One that kids will love, the 3D Museum of Wonders is a gallery with more than 60 painted three-dimensional illusions.
And while this might sound simple enough, it’s only when you witness these works up close that you can appreciate how creative and immersive the works are.
Keep your camera ready because there are a few opportunities to interact with the paintings, pretending to ride a surfboard, holding up a wall breaking through da Vinci’s Last Supper, being groomed by a monkey or getting stuck inside one of Jean Siméon Chardin’s soap bubbles.
10. Capilla de Nuestra Señora del Carmen
Amid the mayhem of the resort you may want to find somewhere a bit quieter and more reflective.
This lovely modern chapel is at the start of Quinta Avenida just in front of the bus terminal.
The chapel is a whitewashed building ringed with palms among the shops and eateries around the Parque Fundadores.
In front of the body of the chapel there’s a separate, rounded campanile.
Taking advantage of a prime spot at a much-loved resort, the chapel has a lively wedding schedule, but if you do get to go inside check out the view of the Caribbean Sea through the window.