The Mayan Riviera is one of my favorite places in Mexico. Years ago, I went to Mexico for a wedding and stayed in Playa del Carmen just South of Cancun. This year, my sister decided to go to a Spanish school in Mexico, so I went down and we took a week together in Tulum and Cozumel after she completed a week of Spanish immersion. Our 6-day Tulum and Cozumel vacation itinerary had enough adventure balanced with relaxation to be just right.
While I have nothing against all-inclusive resorts, my sister and I are a bit more spontaneous travelers and prefer to be able to do, eat, see, and be wherever we want when we want to. This 6-day itinerary is for travelers who like to explore a bit off the beaten path, while also finding time to unwind and relax while on vacation.
Timing wise, I flew into Cancun on a Saturday afternoon and then back out the following Saturday evening. Technically, it was an 8-day and 7-night trip, but we spent 6 days exploring and relaxing in Tulum and Cozumel.
I took the first day to acclimate to Mexico, reserving a $20 USD shuttle from Cancun to Tulum. I wouldn't recommend it, but next time would just take the ADO bus for around $240 pesos*. It took about an hour and a half to get to Tulum from the Cancun airport. My sister met me and we went to our Airbnb located in town and putzed about. One of the goals of our vacation was to really find time to relax, so we didn't rush into activities. But you can feel free to jump right in!
Day 1: Caleta Tankah Beach Club
Tulum has the main beach strip which is the most expensive area in the city. Then a few kilometers away there is the central part of town, which is much less expensive, where my sister and I stayed in an Airbnb. Most of the all-inclusive resorts are on the beach though, where a lot of the beach clubs are located.
Since my sister spent a week in Tulum in language school before I got there, she was able to see that the main Tulum beach had a ton of seaweed and wasn't very good for swimming. And we wanted to swim. With advice from a local, she was pointed to Caleta Tankah as a beach club off the beaten path that was a great place for swimming and even had a small cenote.
For our first full day in Tulum, we took a taxi outside of town to Caleta Tankah for a day as guests at their beach club. The cab ride one way was $150 pesos, which we split three ways with a friend of my sisters, and entry per person to the club was another $150 pesos each. The food and drink were on par with what you'd expect for any beach club in Tulum at $150 pesos for a meal, $110 pesos for a fancy drink, and $50 pesos for a beer. But the location was absolutely worth all of that.
There were plenty of lounge chairs, which are included with your entry fee, looking over the ocean and the main coastline which did still have a lot of seaweed. But then there was a small cove between rocks which was calm enough and seaweed-free for swimming. Guys, it was amazing. We got there at about 12 pm and around 1 pm a live band started playing. A few hours later we decided to take a short walk to the cenote, which took less than 5 minutes and we took a small dip.
At the end of the day, the front desk called us a taxi and we rode back into town for another $150 pesos. Honestly, this was one of the more expensive days in Tulum, but I think it was well worth it. I don't remember any other American tourists at all, so it is off the beaten path. It was secluded enough to feel private, with amazing ocean access.
Day 2: Coba Pyramids and Gran Cenote
The highlight of our trip was the day we rented a car in Tulum and drove to the Coba ruins stopping at the Gran Cenote on our way back. Hands down the best day of the trip. Coba is one of the very few locations still allowing visitors to climb a pyramid. It's not a small park but ruins scattered across a vast jungle with flat terrain which makes it a blast to bike through. It's easy to imagine a bustling city covering the space thousands of years ago, now overgrown and swept away by time.
The rental car we drove out to Coba was $32 USD + $350 pesos gas and it was about an hour drive from Tulum. Parking was $50 pesos and the park entry fee was $180 pesos each. We opted out of the tours being offered for several hundred pesos at the entrance and instead walked in a couple hundred meters and found the bike rentals. The bikes were $50 pesos each for the day. There were also bike taxis that could fit two people that were available for hire. I would definitely say rent a bike or bike taxi because walking this compound could easily take an entire day, and it's HOT.
We rented our bikes and rode straight to the largest pyramid, Ixmoja, which is at the end of one of the main trails. Arriving around 11 am we passed several large groups of tourists on foot by biking. The pyramid is built out of slick limestone that has been worn round over the centuries. It was less than a climb than a crawl up and down the side of the structure at a steep incline. Would I recommend adding this to your bucket list ASAP? Yes! Would I be surprised if it was closed sometime soon due to an accident? Not at all.
While there were larger groups of tourists at the main pyramid and along the path out to it, overall there were surprisingly few people here. Maybe it's the size of the park, which took us about 2 hours to bike the entirety of, stopping often to explore, that means there are fewer tourists. Perhaps it's the fact we went on a Monday. Either way, it felt off the beaten path and like we'd found a hidden gem deep within the jungle.
After the Coba pyramids, we were sweaty hot messes but still high from all of the exploring. Amy had read that the little towns on the main road between Tulum and Coba were great to grab food and get good deals on souvenirs. She was right. I really don't know the name of the town we stopped in, but we had an amazing meal in an open roadside restaurant and did some shopping before heading to the Gran Cenote.
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Just outside of Tulum is the Gran Cenote. It cost $210 pesos for entry, which actually felt expensive. But as I mentioned earlier, we were hot and sweaty and I probably would've paid $500 pesos for the promise of cool crystal clear spring water. You can pay $30 pesos to rent a locker for our things while you swim, and I think it's $150 pesos to rent snorkel gear and/or life jackets. We were feeling paranoid since there were a lot of people so we sprung for the locker, but passed on snorkeling.
There are two entries to the Cenote that we saw, connected by an underground waterway. The water was absolutely pristine and for the super hardcore, you're able to go deep into a darkened cavern which we didn't venture into. Though we did eventually get the courage to swim the connecting tunnel between the two openings, once we came to terms with the bats.
After swimming for a bit we found some hammocks to dry off in. They also have a large lawn to sunbathe, showers, and clean bathrooms. I could imagine spending a bit more time here, but it was the perfect short stop to relax on our way back from the ruins.
The Gran Cenote is close enough to Tulum that you can bike here from town, but it was the perfect end to our day trip to Coba. It meant that when we were done we were just a short drive from Tulum and our Airbnb where we could crash. And it also meant that we weren't one of the poor biking souls that got caught in the tropical downpour that came down just after we left the cenote.
Day 3: Tulum Ruins
On the third day of our vacation, we woke up late (okay, I woke up late) and went to get breakfast at a nearby taco place and then rode the bikes that were included with our Airbnb out to the Tulum ruins. It is less than 20 minutes via the bike trail along the main road, but also a main tourist stop for visiting cruise ships. So expect big crowds and long lines. Park entry was $70 pesos. It was the only thing that was reasonably priced.
First, I want to say that overall the city of Tulum is super affordable. Then when we made it to the Tulum ruin area I was SHOCKED by the prices of not only food but the souvenirs. If you can help it do not plan on doing any shopping or eating here, it's a total tourist trap.
Once you see the Tulum ruins themselves you'll understand why though. Where Coba was overgrown, untouched, expansive and rugged, Tulum is polished, landscaped, compact and dare I say... accessible. I mean, you probably can't take a wheelchair to view the place, but a stroller could probably make the trek. Maybe? I don't have much experience with strollers.
Either way, there were graveled trails, educational signage, ramps, multiple entryways, and a billion other tourists. There was also a true sense of a fortress overlooking the sea where you could easily see why the Mayans chose this place to build their city. It was breathtaking.
You can also see the preservation effort that has been undertaken on the Tulum ruins and the care they're putting into the park. While you don't get any feeling of an untouched Mexico at the Tulum ruins, you can see the grandeur of the ancient civilization that once settled on these lands.
After visiting the ruins, we biked down to the beaches that are near the ruins. We didn't stay long as they were all expensive and we wanted to relax in town before traveling to Cozumel the next day. But instead of biking back the way we came, we completed the loop from the beach back into Tulum. I have to say one of my favorite parts of Tulum was how bike-friendly the city is.
Day 4: Travel from Tulum to Cozumel
Day 4 was our travel day. We chose to take the ADO bus from Tulum to Playa del Carmen and then the UltraMar ferry from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel. The bus was $180 pesos each one way and the ferry was $360 pesos per person round trip. The bus was about 45 minutes, and then the ferry was just over a half hour.
We didn't spend any time at all in Playa del Carmen which was an intentional choice. You could easily spend a day in Playa, but we were itching for the more laid-back feel of Cozumel and hopped directly onto the ferry with our luggage.
Once in Cozumel, we got a taxi to our hotel which was about $80 pesos. We headed directly to our hotel's beach for a dip in the sea and then took care of renting our car for the next day.
Day 5: Drive Around Cozumel Island and Punta Morena
Full transparency, we got ripped off on our rental car on Cozumel. We did our research but didn't book a car ahead of time since we hadn't known which day we really wanted a car or if we wanted scooters. The internet convinced us against the idea of renting a scooter so we rented the car through our hotel, which was probably not the best idea. I think it came to $80 USD for 24 hours + gas, which ended up being around $350 pesos for two trips around the island. Definitely book ahead of time if you can, because the internet said you can easily rent a car for closer to $40 USD on the island.
The car we rented was a little lawn mower of a thing with an open-air back and a stick shift. Amy kept insisting I wasn't shifting soon enough until I convinced her it was not, in fact, my driving, but the very very very rough condition of the car itself. No radio, no AC, but it did the trick and the sea breeze in our hair was AC enough.
That being said, renting a car was worth it on Cozumel since it was my sisters first time on the island. My first trip to Cozumel was a day trip from Playa del Carmen where my friends and I rented a bug convertible and explored the island and it is still one of my fondest travel memories.
During our stay, we drove the island twice. The first time was the evening of the day we arrived. We started at dusk and drove to Punta Sur and then the North Side of the island. The next day we were told the island road is closed at night and I am not surprised. We saw all sorts of wildlife, and I may have slowly driven over a crab to the most horrifying crunch. The North side of the island is open sea, so there are breakers and the vistas are gorgeous. But a safe night drive is not exactly how it felt. I'd say stick to Punta Sur and the southside before sunset, leaving the North side of the island to daylight.
The first trip around the island was done by heading South and then around to the North Side. The next day we took the loop backward, hoping to avoid the cruise crowd. You see Cozumel is a huge cruise port, with three ships stopping on the island every day. So the island can be crowded and busy during the day with visitors in port for the day.
When driving North to South, you'll find the more remote beach clubs. That is how we found Punta Morena. We actually drove past it at first, since the beach side, with lines of chairs and plenty of hammocks, is past the parking lot. After driving a few more miles past multiple other clubs, and encountering more and more traffic, we decided to turn around and return to Punta Morena. Being off season and also far away from town meant there was plenty of room for us. They tried to get us to pay $10 USD for chairs, but we didn't plan on staying all day, so negotiated to get a drink and a chair for $10 USD. It was dead, so they went for it.
A note about Cozumel, you can stay here and use USD as cash and speak only English. Which is very different than Tulum. The fact that everything is priced and available in USD means things are more expensive, too. And shopping? The low quality of merchandise and the high prices made us glad we did most of our shopping in Tulum.
Day 6: Playa Azul Resort
I almost don't want to tell you about this Playa Azul. It's that good. So good, that I'm afraid I'll ruin it by telling you about it. But alas, it's better to share the wealth.
As I mentioned above, Cozumel can be an expensive tourist trap with the fact that it's a cruise port. But if you want a feeling of a small private resort that still has a feel of Mexico without being too bougie, and an air of privacy without being remote, then Playa Azul is a great choice. Amy and I hmmmed and hawed over where to stay in Cozumel. We went back and forth over doing all-inclusive or not because we really did want this portion of our trip to be more about relaxing and recharging before heading back to real life.
After a lot of in-depth research, we found that a non-inclusive stay at Playa Azul was about the same or a bit more expensive than several all-inclusive resorts on the island, about $150 USD per night. But the reviews of Playa Azul are stellar and we both had a feeling in our guts that it was where we needed to stay. Thank God we listened to our guts.
Located in the North Hotel Zone, Playa Azul is known for its swimmable beach and snorkeling. (Cozumel is actually known for its scuba diving, but neither of us dives, so we can only speak to the snorkeling.) Technically, all beaches in Cozumel (maybe Mexico?) are public, so anyone can come to the beach. But there are two portions of the beach at the resort, one which is open to the public, and another which is only for hotel guests. We never had a problem with finding a chair under a palapa. The public portion has a dive shop where you can rent scuba gear for $150 pesos per hour. And there's another public beach on the other side which has jet skis and paddle boarding, though we didn't look into that at all.
My favorite part about Playa Azul was the pier that juts out into the ocean. While the beach is fairly shallow, with tons of fish, you're able to jump off the end of the pier and climb back out pretty easily. It made for a fun day of laying out and walking lazily to the end of the pier to hop into the open. Oh, and it was also a great place for a photo shoot with nothing but crystal blue Caribbean water as your backdrop.
For $150 USD per night, our stay included a breakfast buffet that was pretty Americanized, but good. We stayed for three nights, eating 3 meals that weren't breakfast and drinking several drinks per day on the beach and it came to $90 USD per person at the end of the stay. Better than the $80 USD more per person per day to make the stay all inclusive. But if we hadn't gone on our excursion for one of those days, or were heavier drinkers, it would've been a nice place to stay as an all-inclusive.
The day we left we woke up early and had breakfast overlooking the ocean at Playa Azul, lazing about for about an hour on the beach before packing up to take the ferry back to the mainland and head to the airport. We then took the ADO bus from Playa del Carmen to the Cancun airport for about $180 pesos each, which took just over an hour.
All in all, it's hard to pick what my favorite part of the trip was. I think I want to split it into a favorite adventure and a favorite relaxation day. Coba would be my favorite adventure, as it really did seem like we'd stumbled across a secret site of uncovered pyramids, and Playa Azul was my favorite relaxation day. There is something super luxurious about being able to wake up in your hotel room and walk just a few steps to a chair where you can have a drink in your hand in under 10 minutes. Makes me wish I was there right now!
Tulum is such a magical place; affordable, charming, authentic, and a great jumping off point for exploring the region. Cozumel is more of a miniature Mexican escape; calm, dreamy, secluded, and a perfect place to take your time and restore. Both offer very different experiences but make a great combination as well. If you ever visit either, I hope you can find however much fun or peace that you need.
*We visited in June 2018 when $10 CAD equaled $150 MEX pesos and $10 USD equaled $200 MEX pesos.
Like what you read? Check out my 3 tips for finding authentic street food in Mexico from this same trip!