Relaxing Reefs plus Unexpected Adventures
In addition to colorful coral reefs and magnificent beaches, Mexico's Riviera Maya offers unique underwater adventures. North of Isla Mujeres, snorkelers swim with whale sharks and manta rays while divers plunge beneath swirling schools of baitfish corralled by circling sailfish. Big thrills continue when bull sharks congregate off Playa del Carmen each winter. Very different adventures await those who immerse in the clear fresh waters of the cenote caverns that riddle the coastal landscape. Also in the mix are easy boat rides to spur-and-groove reef formations, shipwrecks, the world's largest underwater sculpture park, and day trips to the reefs of Cozumel. Ashore are ancient Mayan cities and a world-class vacation destination.
- Best for: All divers, with sites ranging from beginner-friendly shallow reefs to big animal encounters and cavern dives
- Best season to visit: Year round for cenotes and reefs, with summer and fall offering calm conditions for offshore sites
- Weather: Tropical, with winter temperatures in the mid70s, and summer highs reaching into the 90s. East trade winds cool beachside locations. May to December sees passing rain showers, while February to early May tends to be drier
Riviera Maya Information
About Diving in Riviera Maya
The east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula receives the same life-giving currents as the nearby island of Cozumel. Exposed spur-and-groove reefs have less soft coral and sponge growth, while mid-level to deeper reefs and wrecks display more color, as do sheltered sites such as the reefs of Puerto Morelos and Bahia de Mujeres. The underwater landscape includes clefts and swim-throughs that provide habitat for the full range of Caribbean reef dwellers. Diving activity from Tulum through Playa del Carmen typically involves short boat rides to near shore reefs. Larger boats depart from the harbor at Puerto Aventuras, while other areas use pangas launched from the beach. Operators in Cancun and Isla Mujeres will add longer runs to deeper reefs and shipwrecks, and seasonal runs north to the Contoy Banks for whale shark encounters. Cenote diving involves a drive and a stairway leading to the water. Water temperatures range from 79 to 84, with cenotes maintaining a constant 76 degrees year round.
Diving in Riviera Maya Tips
Scuba diving may be your first priority, but there are also a number of unique sites better suited to snorkeling, including summer whale shark encounters, certain cenotes, the mangrove channels of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, the Museo Subacuático underwater sculpture park and the snorkel-only marine reserve at Puerto Morelos. Also keep in mind that freshwater cenotes are a refreshing 76 degrees year-round.
Best Places to Dive in Riviera Maya
Each summer, whale sharks and manta rays gather in the plankton-rich waters north of Holbox Island. Eagle rays glide around the C-58 wreck and the iron skeleton of the Ultrafreeze harbors large morays and goliath grouper. Dolphins and sea turtles ride the currents at Punta Sur, and each winter female bull sharks gather at Tiburones. The expansive cavern zone at Dos Ojos gives open-water divers a fascinating glimpse into the Yucatan's flooded underworld, while the limestone ledges of Cenote Manatee are washed in shafts of sunlight.
What to Pack for Diving in Riviera Maya
Skin suits are suitable for ocean dives in summer, with a 3mm in winter. Add a vest or a light hood to compensate for the cooler waters of the cenotes. A wide-beam dive light will evenly illuminate cenote caverns. Full foot fins are best for mixed snorkeling/diving plans. Add a surface marker and reel for drift dives.
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Diving in Riviera Maya
Though not as well known to divers as the reefs on nearby Cozumel island, the underwater landscape along the eastern shores of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula provides divers with a varied and rewarding range of underwater experiences. Typical profiles along most of this coast begin with shallow fringing reefs around points and bays, or spur-and-groove formations along more exposed beaches. Some dives in the 30 to 50-foot range are in areas sheltered from currents, while most sites farther offshore experience medium to strong northward water flows. Outer reefs start at depths of 70 to 80 feet and drop well below 200, and often include more intricate topographies such as caverns and arches. Typical marine life includes schooling fish such as snappers and grunts, reef dwellers such as morays, grouper, turtles and parrotfish, plus nocturnal hunters such as octopus and lobster. Tarpon school on some sites and eagle rays glide by at others. One of the area's signature dives takes place off Playa del Carmen, where bull sharks gather over a sand bottom at depths of 80 feet. These aggregations take place from December to March, and can draw dozens of sharks of up to nine feet in length, including many pregnant females. Closer to Cancun, the northern edge of the 700-mile-long Mesoamerican Reef offers a number of interesting coral formations, along with a number of shipwrecks. A favorite is the C-58, a World War II-era minesweeper that now sits broken in half at a depth of 80 feet. In winter, migrating schools of eagle rays can often be seen at this site. There are a number of additional shipwrecks visited by dive operators from Cancun and Isla Mujeres, including several shrimp boats and the cargo ship known as El Frio or Ultrafreeze. Many deeper dives are conducted as drifts, while others are made from moored boats. Shallower sites in this region feature groves of staghorn, elkhorn and brain corals, covered in schools of blue tangs, wrasse, grunts, and snappers, and harboring queen angelfish, parrotfish and spotted trunkfish. Also on the western side of Isla Mujeres is the Museo Subacuático de Arte, a submerged collection of more than 500 life-sized statues created by artist Jason deCaires Taylor. One of the area's most vaunted sites is the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks, made famous by Jacques Cousteau. Sightings of species other than nurse sharks are no longer a given, but a swim through this cavern is worthwhile, if only to claim bragging rights for having visited a historically famous venue. More predictable are the whale shark encounters that take place on shoals to the north and west of Isla Mujeres each summer. In recent years this area\ is also seeing an increasing number of manta rays. Another of the area's unique diving adventures takes place in spring, when schooling sardines attract sailfish, giving divers a rare opportunity to swim into huge bait balls of these tiny fish while spindle-nosed sailfish circle and slash through the schools. A very different type of diving takes place a few miles inland from the coast. The limestone sub strait of the Yucatan is flooded by underground rivers, which surface in freshwater sinkholes known as cenotes. Cave divers have mapped hundreds of miles of twisting and branching passageways, but open water divers can also experience this shadow-filled world. Many cenotes are ringed by large overhangs, which create extensive cavern zones that allow safe exploration without entering a full overhead environment or loosing sight of the sunlight entrance. Trips to these cenotes are now considered a must-do addition for those who visit the Riviera Maya.
Passport and/or Visa Requirements
Entry Requirements: All U.S. citizens are required to present a valid, undamaged passport. Visas are not required for stays less than 180 days. One blank page is required in your passport for the entry stamp.
Exit Requirements: All persons leaving the Riviera Maya, pay a Government Departure Tax of approximately USD $30, which should be included in your International ticket.
Vaccinations are not required for entry into Mexico. Check with your doctor and the Centers for Disease Control on recommended vaccinations for travel at cdc.gov.
Culture and Customs
From ancient Mayan cities to strobe-lit dance clubs, and jungle-clad swimming holes to five-star beach resorts, the attractions of the Riviera Maya run the full gamut. Cancun is one of the western hemisphere's most celebrated vacation destinations, with dazzling beaches flanked by luxury resorts, clubs and upscale eateries. A half-hour to the south, the lively avenues and beach clubs of Playa del Carmen are a favorite with both backpackers and jet setters. Along a 50-mile stretch of the coast, roadside entrance gates lead through coastal greenery to exclusive golf and beach resorts, while farther on, the eclectic seaside village of Akumal remains old-school Caribbean. At the southern end of the resort corridor, the village of Tulum and its namesake beach are a favorite winter haunt of East Coast sophisticates, but savvy budget travelers can still find hostels and campgrounds that cater to the wanderers of the world. English, French, Dutch and German are often heard along the beaches, but areas to the left of Highway 307 are pure Mexico, where tacos or a helado treat can still be purchased from a street vendor for a few pesos, and life proceeds at a more relaxed and accommodating pace.
Electricity, Phone and Internet Access
Electricity in Mexico is 120 volts, 60 cycle, so no adapter will be needed for U.S. visitors. The country code for the Yucatan is 52. Check with your service provider for long distance plans. Internet service is available at many hotels, restaurants, bars and shops.
Most restaurants and bars in tourist locations use purified water. Outside of resorts, be cautious with ice in drinks or vegetables which may have been washed in tap water. Bottled water is available for purchase and is recommended for drinking and brushing teeth.
Language & Currency
Spanish is the official language of Mexico, although English is widely spoken. The local currency is the Mexican Peso (MXN). Due to new regulations, merchants and business can no longer exchange U.S. Dollars for Pesos. That must be done at a currency exchange office. U.S. credit cards are widely accepted. Check the current exchange rate here.
Mexico spans four different time zones. February 15, 2015, the state of Quintana Roo, which includes the Riviera Maya changed to Eastern Standard Time Zone (Zona Sureste). Riviera Maya does not observe Daylight Savings Time which puts it 5 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (-5 GMT),
Location, Size and Population
The Riviera Maya is one of the fastest growing areas in Mexico, located in the state of Quintana Roo. Situated north of Cancun, on the northeast coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, this area includes the areas north of Cancun City including Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Puerto Morelos, and Felipe Carrillo Puerto which is 40 kilometers to the south of Tulum. This region is approximately 86 miles long.
The Riviera Maya encompasses a large area with a population estimated around 150,000, with cities like Playa del Carmen with a population of 118,570 and Tulum with a population of 18,370.