7-9 Day Travel Itinerary: Riviera Maya, Cozumel, and Mayan Ruins
This 7-9 day travel itinerary explores the Yucatan and its Mayan ruins. The trip planner includes stops on Cozumel Island, Playa del Carmen, the colonial town of Valladolid, and at the Mayan archeological sites of Ek Balam, Coba, and Talum.
The Riviera Maya is a coastal region on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula that stretches from Cancun to Punta Allen. At this vacation destination you will find great little beach towns with a relaxed vibe. Playa del Carmen is a seaside city in the Riviera Maya. It is a terrific base from which to explore the region, including the beautiful Island of Cozumel and several Mayan ruins on the Yucatan mainland.
To get to Playa del Carmen most people fly into the Cancun Airport (located about 40 minutes north). Travelers will find Playa del Carmen alive with fun shops, restaurants and night spots. There are many hotels in town. Or, lodgings can be reserved at one of the all-inclusive resorts along the Caribbean Sea. Many of these have shuttles going to and from the city.
The all-inclusive resorts in this area tend to be large and lush. Most have several types of accommodations and restaurants within their complexes. You will find gorgeous beaches, pools, spas, and well-informed concierge services that will book tours and activities as well as transportation to and from the airport.
In addition to visiting Playa del Carmen and the Island of Cozumel, this 7-9 day Working Joe Travel Itinerary includes the lovely Mexican town of Valladolid, Mayan ruins at Talum, Coba, and Ek Balam, and the eco-park, Xcaret. All of the destinations in this trip planner are popular sites within a few hours of the coast. Most small group tour operators will offer combination tours to these sites. Alternatively, you can hire a private guide. We do not recommend renting a car and driving to these sites on your own.
For more information on traveling to Mexico read our articles on:
Day 1: Resort and Beach Exploration
Check in. Confirm (or make) reservations for the week. Explore resort. Hang out by pool and beach.
Day 2: Ek Balam and Valladolid
The Mayan translation of Ek Balam is ‘star jaguar’ or ‘black jaguar.’ The ancient Mayan archeological site is located about 1 ¾ hours from Playa del Carmen. During the period of 600 – 900AD, the city was the seat of the Mayan kingdom.
At the site, there are about 45 buildings in various states of excavation. This site is smaller and shadier than Chichen Itza. It also has a more tranquil atmosphere (see our blog posting for Cancun, Merida, and Chichen Itza for more information on Chichen Itza). There are plazas, temples, tombs, and residences to explore. You can also view the remnants of a wall that surrounded the city, and limestone scabe (roads) that connected the city to outlying towns.
A major highlight of visiting Ek Balam is scaling the façade of the enormous onsite pyramidal palace, the Acropolis. The city was an innovator of technological and architectural advances, and the Acropolis denotes the city's standing in the Mayan civilization. The enormous multi-level Acropolis stands over 100’ high (taller than Chichen Itza’s El Castillo).
The view from the top of the Acropolis is glorious. The jungle stretches out in all directions. On a clear day you can see all the way to Coba’s tallest structures (we will visit this site later in the week).
TRAVEL TIP: Do not attempt the climb if you have vertigo or a compromised physical condition.
From Ek Balam, continue the road trip with a short 30 minute ride to the charming community of Valladolid. The city has a small-town feel with lovingly restored colonial buildings and a central plaza where local people sell wares during the day. Small shops surround the plaza. The store owners are friendly and proud of their businesses. In this area there is opportunity to interact with Yucatan people in a natural setting.
Grab some lunch at a food cart in the main plaza. Find an empty ‘S’ shaped Confidenciales bench under a shade tree, and soak in the scenery. When you are feeling reenergized, locate the cathedral that borders the plaza.
The Inglesio de San Gervasio Cathedral was built from the bricks of a deconstructed Mayan temple. On the outside of the church there are intricate carvings. The inside contains vaulted ceilings and niches full of colorful statues and paintings. The Latin folk-art style of the decorations is very different from an American or European cathedral. It is stunning in its simplicity.
Away from the main plaza explore Cenote Zaci, a free park where you can follow a trail to a cenote (sinkhole), and escape the heat for a few minutes. There are two small museums: Casa de los Venados (displays a collection of regional artwork and furniture) and Museo San Roque (displays religious and Mayan artifacts). There is also a Franciscan monastery, Convent of San Bernardin de Siena, open for tours.
The trip back to Playa del Carmen from Valladolid is about 1 ½ hours. Along the way there are cenotes, roadside souvenir shops, and tiny Mexican main streets to take in.
Day 3: Snorkeling on the Island of Cozumel
The Island of Cozumel sits 12 miles off the coast of Playa del Carmen, about 45 minutes by ferry. The island itself measures 28 miles long by 11 miles wide. Cozumel is famous for its excellent snorkeling, diving, and other water sports. It is a favorite cruise ship destination, but outside of the main town (San Miguel) the island manages to maintain a sleepy, small-town feel.
Getting around: This is a location Joe and I are comfortable renting a vehicle and navigating on our own. Once outside of San Miguel, the roads are well-maintained, and generally either up or down island. Alternatively, if you plan to pack a lot into the day, consider booking a small group tour for efficiency and ease. If you go this route, try a Jeep tour. You can cover a lot of ground and it is fun motoring over the gravel roads that skirt the ocean’s edge.
If you decide to rent a vehicle, it is an easy walk from the ferry to most rental shops. Grab your keys, and head out of San Miguel. Take the main coastal road toward the southwestern corner of the island and the Punta Sur Beach Club. Along the way you will pass the Chankanaab Park (a favorite cruise ship destination). Both parks lie within the National Marine Reef Park, and are run by the same company.
Chankanaab has sea lion, crocs, and manatee exhibits as well as zip lining and swimming with the dolphins. Punta Sur offers a wide beach with watersport rentals (no motorized water sports). There is a large palapa covered restaurant and bar, and unbelievably clear and calm aqua water for great snorkeling. Punta Sur tends to be the quieter, less crowded option, and is the one Joe and I prefer. If you like a lot of action, try Chankanaab.
After a snorkeling, have lunch and a trek around Punta Sur’s exhibits and shops. Next, drive to the Faro Celarain Lighthouse (about 5 miles from the entrance and included in your admission). At this site you can climb to the top of the lighthouse and pose next to small Mayan ruins. Then, investigate the booths full of handicrafts, and walk along the spectacular sapphire-colored sea.
Later, drive along the eastern side of the island. There are gorgeous beaches, small Mayan ruins, and family run shops along the route. On the northern tip of the island there is another lighthouse, Punta Molas, to check out.
When you are done exploring, head across the island to San Miguel. In the late afternoon, town will be clearing out. It is a great time to walk along the Avenida Juarez and the Avenida Meigar taking in the sights.
Day 4: Coba and Playa del Carmen
Rise early, and take a trip to the ancient Mayan site of Coba (about a 90 minute ride). Located deep in the jungle, the UNESCO world heritage site of Coba was once a working class city (100BC to 1000AD). Today, you can see the remnants of temples, Mayan homes, and the limestone scabe (roads) that connected Coba to the other great Mayan cities.
In the morning, before too many tourists arrive, the large site has a serene feel. Many areas of the jungle complex are unexcavated, but you can rent bikes and explore the earth-covered mounds by pedaling over 16 scabe paths that are open to the public.
At Coba, it is still possible to get up close to many of the structures. This includes climbing the 138’ Ixmoja Pyramid. There are 120 steps leading to the top of the pyramid with one rope hanging down the middle of the flight. The steps are steeper than they look, but the view from the top is spectacular. It is worth mentioning that the stone get very hot by late morning. If you plan to climb the pyramid, this is another reason to arrive early before the heat from the sun warms the steps.
Back at your resort, spend the afternoon trekking between the beach and the pool.
In the evening, head to Playa del Carmen. At sunset, amble up and down the white powdered beach. Bordering the sand, there is a steady line of bars and restaurants to keep you hydrated. When the sun dips, check out Quinta Avenida and the streets that veer off it, for chic shops, dining, and dancing.
Day 5: Beach Day and Joya Show
Relax by the beach or pool. Enjoy everything your resort has to offer.
This evening, attend the Cirque du Soleil show, Joya, at the Vidanta Riviera Maya resort. If you enjoy Cirque du Soleil, the 80 minute show will not disappoint. The theater complex itself is lovely.
TRAVEL TIP: Skip the in-theater dinner. Make reservations at one of the other restaurants on site. Try Nektar, serving Yucatan food on the Cirque campus.
Day 6: Tulum and Xcaret
The ancient Mayan fortress of Tulum sits about 30 minutes south of Playa del Carmen. In its day the complex functioned as a trading, ceremonial, and religious center. The cliff-side, walled complex sits above a gorgeous beach, and is adjacent to a lively seaside village.
The Tulum site gets very hot, and often uncomfortably crowded. At this archeological site the exhibits are roped or gated off so you cannot climb on the ruins. Plan to spend about 45 minutes touring the Tulum ruins. Be prepared to take a shocking number of photographs of the beautiful El Castillo. The Castle sits atop a cliff above the Caribbean Sea and a white sand beach. Visit early in the day, and then travel on to Xcaret.
Xcaret is a commercial nature park in Playa del Carmen is both exciting and relaxing. It is packed with people, but it is also easy to find uncrowded spaces. Spend the afternoon and evening discovering over 50 natural and cultural attractions (including animals, gardens, Mayan ruins, and day-in-the-life exhibits). One popular activity is floating in a tube, or snorkeling, through a maze of caves, tunnels, rivers and lagoons. There are bathhouses, restaurants, and shops for all budgets on site.
By far, my favorite part of a trip to Xcaret is the Espectacular Show. Included in the price of admission, the evening show take place in a gorgeous open-air stadium. The show features a cast of hundreds of talented dancers, singers, and musicians, and enacts the history of Mexico. The traditional costumes and colorful sets impart a wonderful joy and pride of what it means to be Mexican. Don’t miss it. TRAVEL TIP: We love this show!
Day 7: Riviera Maya Beaches
Repeat of Day 5, with evening restaurant of choice.
Day 8 &9: Final beach day and travel home.
Bonus Days: You can easily shorten or extend this itinerary by deleting or inserting beach days between trips.
Viajes seguros (safe travels)! Laura and Randy
For more information on traveling to Mexico read our articles on:
IF YOU LIKE THIS ARTICLE, PIN IT!