With the dollar at record strength against the peso, the Riviera Maya, with its pristine beaches, delicious cuisine, and welcoming people, is a spectacular value for American travelers. This is one of Mexico’s most popular destinations, so it's easy to reach; leave in the morning from most U.S. cities and you’ll be poolside by noon. Here’s how to get the most out of a three-day stay.
A vacation in Riviera Maya begins in Cancun, where you’ll land, ideally in the morning. Try to get one of the first flights out from your departure city to avoid long lines at immigration in Cancun's busy airport. Grab a taxi to your destination: Playa del Carmen.
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It’s a straight shot south on Highway 307 to the lively town locals simply call Playa. Fronted by powdered-sugar beaches and the azure Caribbean, the vibe here is more adult and less manufactured than Cancun's. And unlike the self-contained resorts along the highway, Playa has the singular benefit of a town. By staying in Playa, you’re not stuck in your resort.
The Mahekal Beach Resort (rooms from $275) is your home base for this weekend. The location is perhaps the resort’s best asset; it sits right on the beach at the sandy terminus of Calle 38, and you can walk out the hotel’s front door and be in the heart of town in five minutes. Choose one of the oceanfront suites with white adobe walls, thatched roofs, hammock-equipped terraces, and linen canopy beds fit for conquistadors. Like giant chess pieces, the rooms are placed between lush gardens, three pools, three restaurants (rates include breakfast daily and dinner or lunch), bar, spa, gym, dive shop and lobby, where you’ll drop your bags.
Eat breakfast or lunch, depending on the time, at La Cueva del Chango (average main $10). The restaurant, located on Calle 38, is just a block from the hotel and feels like it was carved out of the jungle. Standout dishes include dulce de leche crepes, or the quinoa-and-pepita-stuffed mulato chiles.
Next, get changed and catch some pool time. The Las Olas pool, which faces the beach, tends to attract the most families, so go there if you have little ones. The larger Fuego pool, located behind Mahekal’s new restaurant of the same name, offers more peace and quiet—and more comfortable loungers.
For dinner head to Fuego (average main $25). It opened in December and is not technically included in Mahekal’s meal plan (you get a $25 credit per guest), but it’s worth the surcharge for chef Crescenciano Nerey’s cooking. The lobster, split and grilled, comes smoky, sweet, and drenched in butter and lime. Pair it with an outstanding Akumal English porter from one of the Riviera’s craft breweries.
Get up early, have breakfast at the hotel's Las Olas restaurant (recommended: chilaquiles and cheese-stuffed Poblano peppers), and stroll on the beach before the crowds arrive. Back at the resort, grab snorkeling equipment from Mahekal’s dive shop and spend some time getting to know the tropical fish just offshore. Or head over to brand-new 2,500-square-foot Revive Spa (treatments from $60). Try to book the spacious VIP room (especially nice for couples), which features its own tub and outdoor shower—though it’ll be hard to pull yourself away from the co-ed whirlpool set beneath a soaring palapa and lit with a mobile of firefly lights.
Make dinner plans at Punta Bonita (average main $34), the beachfront restaurant at the Rosewood Mayakoba (rooms from $515). A 20-minute drive from Playa, Rosewood is one of three hotels in the sprawling Mayakoba development. Chef Juan Pablo Loza, a Mexico City native and Rosewood veteran, tends an impressive garden whose herbs appear all over Punta Bonita’s menu. The thinnest slivers of potent Mexican oregano perfume the lovely grouper ceviche marinated in sour orange juice and garlic oil. Palm-size leaves of the hoja santa plant release their root beer–reminiscent aroma into the mango crème brulee. Not only is the regionally inspired food here amazing (duck tacos served with three moles and house-made tortillas), but so is the Mexican wine list. Don't miss the Polvo del Mar, a delicious blend of cabernet, syrah, and Nebbiolo made exclusively for Rosewood by Adobe de Guadeloupe in Baja.
After dinner, head back Playa and stroll along Avenida Cinco (“Fifth Avenue”), the lively, upscale drag of tree-shaded shops and restaurants that runs parallel to the beach. Do some shopping at boutiques like Tierra Huitchol (beaded sculpture from Nayarit’s Huitchol tribe), Nich Chiapas (jewel-tone moccasins), Hammacamart (hand-made hammocks), Maya-Xel (conch-shell lamps), and Guelaguetza Gallery (Mexican art) before calling it a night.
You could do absolutely nothing on your last full day in Playa but lounge by the pool or on the beach. But if you’ve got the energy, consider a day trip to Tulum (Mahekal can arrange a rental for about $65, much cheaper than a taxi).
Tulum is famous for its sugary beaches, Mayan ruins, and the restaurant Hartwood (average main $25). It's just an hour south of Playa, depending on traffic, but it’s nice to break up the ride with a visit to one of the area cenotes, the flooded underground caverns that pockmark the Riveria’s jungle.
Dos Ojos Cenote (admission $14) is about halfway to Tulum and one of the ten longest underwater cave systems in the world. You can make arrangements in advance or hire a guide on-site for a guided snorkel or SCUBA session in the pair of subterranean caves of crystal-clear water. It's an unforgettable experience.
Continue on to Tulum and go right to the Ruins (admission 65 pesos; pesos accepted only), a vestige of the city’s history as a key Mayan trading post in the 1600s. Grab a quick salad or wood-fired pizza at beachside Casa Violeta (average main $8), but make sure you finish by 2 pm, which is when you must head to Hartwood to get in line for dinner reservations.
Yes, you read that right. Get in line to make dinner reservations. Ex–New Yorkers Eric Werner and Mya Henry’s al fresco restaurant is so popular that reservations must be made in person for dining that same evening. A host appears at 3 pm and takes names for the evening's roster. It may feel like a waste of the afternoon, but dining at Hartwood is worth it.
Spend your time before dinner on beach or exploring funky eco retreats, yoga camps, and shops long so-called Beach Road. Grab a before dinner cocktail at stylish Gitano (average main $15), just a couple doors down from Hartwood
Hartwood's culinary creations are a vivid, thrilling celebration of this corner of the world. Signatures include the agave-glazed costillas (pork ribs) and wood-grilled octopus, but the blackboard menu changes daily. As the night goes on, dishes sell out, so it’s smart to aim for an early reservation.
Note: Parking along Beach Road is dreadful, so it's best to use the lot adjacent the Secret Garden Hotel for 150 pesos.
WHERE TO STAY
In terms of location, value, and quality of amenities, Mahekal is the best place to base in Playa del Carmen. All rates include their modified meal plan, which includes breakfast and lunch or dinner and does not include alcohol. The staff is especially wonderful; their resort-wide catchphrase, “Welcome home,” feels less like a company gimmick than a genuine expression of hospitality.
WHEN TO GO
High season, which runs from the start of winter through Easter/spring break, coincides with the best weather in the region. It’s warm year-round, but the heat gets progressively oppressive in summer. The jungle environment means humidity is always present—steady ocean breezes help—and there’s always a chance of a drizzle or flash storm. The Mayan Riviera is in the hurricane belt, so consider insurance if you’re traveling August through October.
HOW TO GET THERE
As one of the most popular destinations in Mexico, Cancun has nonstop service from most major U.S. cities. It makes a particularly easy weekend getaway from East Coast gateways like New York, Philadelphia, Boston. and DC, with flights averaging about three hours. From Cancun, Playa del Carmen is 40-to-60 minutes' driving, depending on traffic. Tulum is an hour and half to two hours.