The Caribbean side of Mexico isn't known as the western Riviera for nothing—this stunning section of coast is lined with white-sand beaches home to towering hotels overlooking turquoise waters. More than that, it's filled with ancient Maya ruins, fairy-tale cenotes, and unspoiled nature reserves. You'll see all this and more as you spend 13 days on a self-drive tour around the region's natural highlights and resort towns—from Tulum to Playa del Carmen to Holbox Island.


  • Tour the ancient Maya fortresses at Tulum
  • Go caving and swim in underground cenotes
  • Take boat tours of Caribbean biosphere reserves
  • Enjoy some R&R on the laid-back island of Holbox 

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Cancún, Transfer to Tulum & Optional Activities Tulum
Day 2 Free Day in Tulum Tulum
Day 3 Tour Underground Cave Cenotes Tulum
Day 4 Bacalar, Visit Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve Bacalar
Day 5 Sail Lake Bacalar Bacalar
Day 6 Free day in Bacalar Bacalar
Day 7 Bacalar to Playa del Carmen, Visit Cobá Ruins & Nuevo Durango Playa del Carmen
Day 8 Cenotes of Chemuyil, Playa del Carmen & Optional Activities Playa del Carmen
Day 9 Free Day in Playa del Carmen Playa del Carmen
Day 10 Holbox Island, Optional Activities Holbox
Days 11-12 Free Days in Holbox Holbox
Day 13 Transfer to Cancún, Depart  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Cancún, Transfer to Tulum & Optional Activities

Welcome to the Riviera Maya
Welcome to Cancún. Located at the northeast tip of Mexico's beautiful Yucatán Peninsula, this tourist hotspot is known for its white-sand beaches and 4-star hotels. It's also at the doorstep of Mexico's famous Riviera Maya, a section of stunning coast spanning over 100 miles (160 km) that includes resort areas like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, the latter of which is where you're headed today. A driver will meet you at the airport, and from there, it's a scenic two-hour drive to Tulum. Upon arrival, you'll check in to your hotel and have free the rest of the day.
There are many activities here. One enticing option is to while away the hours on Tulum's white-sand beaches. This resort town is also known for dining and nightlife, so when the sun goes down, head to the center, where you'll find restaurants, bars, and nightclubs lining the main highway. Stroll the waterfront shopping district of Tulum Beach Road for retail therapy, which is filled with boutiques, clothing stores, and art galleries.

Day 2: Free Day in Tulum

Playa Ruinas, a beach frequented by visitors to the Tulum archeological site
Playa Ruinas, just below Tulum's famous archeological site
Enjoy a free day in Tulum. You'll want to head out and visit the main attraction: Tulum's famous archeological site. The ruins here were built on 39-foot (12-m) cliffs overlooking the ocean and once comprised a great Maya fortress city (the word tulum is a Yucatán Mayan word meaning "wall"). On a tour of the site, which dates to 1200 CE, you can visit the famous El Castillo. This iconic fortress stands 25 feet (7.5 m) tall and overlooks the sea. Afterward, head directly below the ruins for a swim at Playa Ruinas.
You can also visit a nearby cenote, one of the true natural wonders of Yucatán. These limestone sinkholes are found throughout the region and are fed by the largest underground aquifer in the world. There are many within just a few minute's drive of Tulum, including Gran Cenote and Cenote Calvera. The most romantic might be Cenote Dos Ojos, a cave lagoon with electric blue waters.

Day 3: Tour Underground Cave Cenotes

Enjoy a Sound Journey in Underground Caves & Cenotes
Musicians performing at the underground cave cenote
Today you'll embark on a half-day tour of a very special cenote. Using flashlights, you'll explore the labyrinthine chambers of a cave system hidden beneath the jungles near Tulum. The route leads to a pristine cenote where you can take a refreshing dip in the lagoon waters. Afterward, head to the mouth of the cave, where a group of local musicians will perform an exclusive concert. More than just music, this spiritual sound meditation harmonizes in frequency with the earth. The goal is to connect you with the Underworld spirit, central to ancient Maya mythology.
Afterward, you'll return to Tulum and have the rest of the day free to enjoy its beaches, restaurants, nightlife, and shopping options.

Day 4: Tulum to Bacalar, Visit Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

Floating in Sian Ka'an Reserve
The most popular pastime at Sian Ka'an
After breakfast, you'll hop in a rental car for a self-drive trip 2.5 hours to the far south of Mexico and the town of Bacalar. On the way, you'll stop at Sian Ka'an, a biosphere reserve and Unesco World Heritage Site. It's the largest protected area in Mexico, covering over 2,000 sq miles (5,180 sq km). The site contains tropical forests, palm savannas, mangroves, lagoons, and unspoiled coastline. The region's beauty is represented in its name—in Mayan, Sian Ka'an means "origin of the sky." Today's activity is part of a community-based ecotourism cooperative focusing on responsible tourism.

You'll arrive at a community center where you'll join your tour group and start the 6-hour excursion. After hiking for a while through a jungle trail, you'll arrive at the temple ruins at Muyil, an ancient Maya site settled in 300 BCE. Continue hiking until you reach the edge of the turquoise Chunyaxche Lagoon, where you'll ride a boat through a mangrove channel to a small dock. Once there, you can take a refreshing dip in the water. The absolute joy here is floating slowly along the channels amid the peaceful surroundings and listening to the calls of howler monkeys and exotic birds in the trees.
After the swim, you'll head back to the community center and enjoy a hearty meal. Then continue on to Bacalar, where you'll check in to your hotel. Bacalar is a beautiful town that sits on the eponymous lake, which is known as the "Lagoon of the Seven Colors" due to its waters' many shades of blue.
Plan your trip to Mexico
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.

Day 5: Sail Lake Bacalar

Bacalar lagoon
Sail across Bacalar lagoon

In the morning, hit the water for a 3.5-hour sail across Lake Bacalar. Sailing on a traditional sailboats—a great alternative to motorboats as there's no pollution—the excursion begins with a visit to Pirates' Channel, a waterway between the Hondo River and the lagoon. It's said the Maya built this channel as a commercial link to connect the people of the south with those of the north. As a result, pirate attacks became frequent, hence the name. It's a great place for a swim and snorkel.

After Pirates' Channel, continue to Cenote de la Bruja, also called Cenote Negro (Black Cenote). Here you can also take a refreshing swim. Finally, pay a visit to the Isla de Los Pájaros, an island and bird sanctuary home to herons, parrots, snail-hawks, mockingbirds, larks, and more. 

Day 6: Free day in Bacalar

Free day in Bacalar
Spend the day in Bacalar as you like 
Today you'll have free to enjoy Bacalar on your own. After breakfast, you can take a stroll on the lagoon's shores and enjoy the tranquil waters' contrasting hues. Perhaps even take a dip in the water. Then you could visit Fort San Felipe, an 18th-century Spanish castle built to protect the Yucatán from English colonizers. There are also cenotes in the area, plus the Maya archeological site of Chacchoben, whose ruins date to around 700 CE. 

Day 7: Bacalar to Playa del Carmen, Visit Cobá Ruins & Nuevo Durango

The Nohoch Mul pyramid at Cobá
In the morning, hop back in your rental car for the 3-hour trip north to Playa del Carmen. You'll make another stop, this time at the ancient Maya archeological site of Cobá. Once there, you'll embark on a guided 3-mile (5-km) bike tour. It's a fun time as you cycle along ancient white pathways lined with the ruins of a former metropolis whose heyday was between 600-900 CE. The real highlight is hiking up the 120 stone steps of Nohoch Mul, which, at 137 feet (41 m), is the tallest pyramid in Yucatán.

Then continue driving north to Nuevo Durango, a small village known for its underground caves, ecotourism projects, and organic farms. This charming community has been little touched by tourism, and thus the residents have retained their customs and culture. Here you'll enjoy a traditional meal with the family of Don Manuel, who operates a project for the conservation of endangered animals. As you learn about Don's work, you'll see a few of the region's endemic species. Also here is an insectarium, which holds a variety of spiders, scorpions, and butterflies. 
After Nuevo Durango, drive to Playa del Carmen, another star of the Riviera Maya. After checking in to your hotel, you can spend the rest of the day soaking up the sun on one of its amazing beaches.

Day 8: Cenotes of Chemuyil, Playa del Carmen & Optional Activities

Chemuyil Cenotes
Dive into a cenote in Chemuyil
In the morning, you'll head south of Playa del Carmen to Chemuyil for a half-day tour. This small coastal town is famous for its nearby cenotes. Once there, you'll hop on a bicycle and follow a local guide to three such lagoons. The first is La Cuevita (Little Cave), a hidden cave cenote with crystalline waters. You'll then visit two open lagoons great for diving and swimming. Plus, you can hike around nearby forests and spot some of the endemic birds of the Yucatán, like parrots, motmots, and woodpeckers.
After the tour, you'll return to Playa del Carmen and have the remainder of the day free. Perhaps take a stroll along the famous 5th Avenue, which runs 3 miles (5 km) and is filled with the city's best shopping, dining, and nightlife options. Later, head to one of Playa del Carmen's beaches to watch the sun as it dips below the horizon, turning the sky into captivating shades of orange and red. 

Day 9: Free Day in Playa del Carmen

Enjoy Playa del Carmen
You'll have the day free to explore the city of Playa del Carmen. One optional activity is to head just south of town to enjoy the white-sand beach at Xpu-Ha. There are also many beach clubs where you can pull up a lounge chair and while away the hours with a tropical drink... or three. Active adventures include snorkeling at National Reef Park in nearby Puerto Morelos or swimming at the many cenotes in the area like Cenote Cristalino, Jardín Del Eden, and Cenote Azul. Another option is to go wildlife spotting in the 185-acre Nativa Natural Park.

Day 10: Holbox Island, Optional Activities

Off to Holbox Island
In the morning, you'll leave Playa del Carmen on a 2.5-hour bus ride to Chiquilá, located at the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula. From there, take a 15-minute ferry to Holbox. This sleepy island is the opposite of bustling Cancún, just a couple of hours away. There are no paved roads here, as most people get around on foot, bicycle, or golf cart. And while there are many activities on offer, one of the most popular is whiling away the hours lazing in a hammock perched in the shallow turquoise waters of Holbox's shores. 
After checking in to your hotel, you'll have the rest of the day free. You should stroll around this colorful village, filled with street art, and stop at a café to try Holbox's famous lobster pizza. Maybe arrange a boat tour to Cabo Catoche to do some snorkeling. Or rent a golf cart and explore the island on four wheels. You can also head to Punta Coco and sit on the sand to enjoy one of Holbox's famous golden sunsets tinged with vermillion hues.

Day 11-13: Free Days in Holbox

Spend a free day relaxing on Holbox Island
Relaxing on Holbox
Kick back and relax for two days in this tropical island paradise. Beach time is the order of the day here, but there are plenty of active excursions in Holbox. For example, kitesurfing is a popular activity along the shallow shores, particularly during the winter when the winds are up. Also, May to September is whale shark season, and during this time you can book an excursion to go swimming with these gentle giants. You can also take a kayak tour along the coast, which is most incredible at night where, if you're lucky, you'll witness electric blue bioluminescence lighting up the water.
If you'd prefer to get out on the water, you can take the popular "Three Islands" tour. This half-day boat excursion visits three of the most stunning islands around Holbox. First is Yalahau Lagoon, a natural cenote and habitat for various animal species, including dolphins and the pink flamingoes that congregate here from April to October. Then stop at Isla Pájaros (Bird Island), a protected area home to dozens of bird species, like frigates, cormorants, ibises, gazelles, and herons. Continue to Passion Island, an idyllic place famous for its beaches covered in bright pink seashells. 

Day 13: Transfer to Cancún, Depart

Goodbye, Holbox
In the morning, you'll take the ferry out of Holbox and then transfer by car about three hours to the airport in Cancún, where you'll catch your flight home. Safe travels!

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Map of Riviera Maya Road Trip - 13 Days
Map of Riviera Maya Road Trip - 13 Days