Travel Professionals Share Secrets To Avoid Crowds In Riviera Maya

Riviera Maya tours often feel mass-produced, missing the mark for travelers seeking unique experiences. This guide dives into the hidden gems, offering tips to avoid crowds and suggesting offbeat alternatives to the typical tourist hotspots we have learned from our 7+ years of traveling professionally.

Despite heavy tourism, authentic Yucatan experiences exist; it’s just about knowing where to look. In an era prioritizing impactful travel, Riviera Maya falls short, epitomized by crowded Cancun day trips and resorts that isolate guests and drain local economies.

This article aims to disrupt that norm, offering insights like exploring Chichen Itza without the crowds or supporting local businesses by visiting family-owned cenotes off the beaten track. This kind of travel not only enriches your trip but also positively impacts the places you explore.

How Do You Avoid the Crowds at Chichen Itza?

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Back when I first visited Chichen Itza as a kid, it was a different world. Now, with the crowds flooding in daily, it’s a classic case of over-tourism. But let me share a tip: stay at a place like the Mayaland Hotel, attached to the site. The grounds are gorgeous, perfect for chilling by the pool or exploring the outer ruins on a mountain bike. Trust me, avoiding the midday sun with the busloads of tourists will leave you knowing you chose wisely!

Chichen Itza Sound and Light Show

Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

For a cool Chichen Itza experience, hit the sound and light show after sunset. Some might call it cheesy, but hey, if the Mayans could’ve done it, they might’ve! The lights make the temples pop, and trust me, it beats the daytime heat and crowds. The laser finale on El Castillo is seriously impressive and educational – they even offer an English audio simulcast on your phone. Oh, and parking? Usually free, so no need to stress about fees. And don’t miss dinner at Oxtun Restaurant near the ticket booth – their food is top-notch.

Take A Sunrise Tour of Chichen Itza

Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

If you thought the sound and light show was good, you have to check out the sunrise tour at Chichen Itza. Booking a private guide through your hotel is key (a bit pricey, but worth it!). Our guide met us crazy early at Mayaland’s lobby, leading us through their private entrance near the Cenote de Xtoloc.

With only about 50 people around (thanks, Mexican National Soccer team!), we practically had the place to ourselves, which is typical on regular mornings. Guided by a flashlight, our knowledgeable guide brought the Mayan stories to life as we wandered the ruins, reaching El Castillo just in time for sunrise. 

The beauty? No crowds, just the echo of the place. Trust me, it’s pure magic without the thousand voices.

Other Mayan Ruins Besides Chichen Itza

Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Yucatan’s dotted with Mayan ruins, but two rival Chichen Itza: Ek Balam and Coba. Ek Balam, north of Valladolid, boasts the Palace of the Black Jaguar; it’s compact and lets you climb the main pyramid. Plus, killer cenotes nearby.

Coba, closer to Tulum, offers a sprawling complex, with options to rent a bike or pedicab for exploration. Though climbing Nohoch Mul might be iffy post-Covid, it’s still a standout site.

Tulum Ruins, near town and by the ocean, offer stunning views. Ek Balam and Coba are less crowded gems, but Chichen Itza’s grandeur is hard to beat. Still, a specialized, crowd-free Chichen Itza tour? Worth the time and dime!

How do you Avoid the Crowds at Ik Kil Cenote?

Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Cenote Ik Kil, an open-sky wonder with a 200′ diameter and water 85′ below, features a carved stairway to its swim platform, adorned with vines and waterfalls. Best seen in early morning serenity before the crowds hit.

Conveniently located on the road from Valladolid to Chichen Itza, it’s often bundled in day tours. However, once the Cancun bus arrives, expect bustling crowds, harsh shadows, and echoing kid noises. The picture-perfect scenes might clash with reality, but you’ve got options.

Explore the Secret Cenotes in the Yucatan

Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

For the Chichen Itza sunrise tour, hit Ik Kil before the crowds. Get there early for those stunning morning reflections and serene shots by the pool. Yet, Ik Kil isn’t the lone star in cenotes. The Yucatan’s filled with them, courtesy of a meteor impact. Xcanahaltun and Agua Dulce/Palomita rank higher on my list.

Xcanahaltun’s a majestic cave with a light beam, while Agua Dulce flaunts dazzling sun-water plays. Don’t buy into Ik Kil’s hype. Early mornings shine, but others like these are prettier, cheaper, and quieter. We spent Christmas day exploring them, almost entirely to ourselves. Combine these beauties with Ek Balam and Chichen Itza tours for a stellar 2-day adventure. And while at it, stop in Valladolid for a meal and a stroll in the town square.

Where Should You Stay in the Cancun Hotel Zone?

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Choosing among Cancun’s 32,000 hotel rooms? Consider your luxury level. Ask: food quality, family-friendly vibes? Skip the cheapest – disappointment awaits. Cost-conscious?

Question if the Hotel Zone’s your jam. It’s pricey: cabs cost double, no direct airport bus, and inflated prices await within this resort bubble.

The Best Alternatives to Cancun Hotel Zone

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Consider Playa Del Carmen or Isla Mujeres over Cancun’s Hotel Zone. Holbox rocks too, especially for summer whale shark swims and bioluminescent lagoons. Ado’s tourist bus from Cancun Airport to Playa has AC, Wi-Fi, and movies – a comfy ride, though surreal with Spanish-dubbed Warren Miller films, lol!

Isla Mujeres? Easy Ado bus/taxi/ferry trip for less than Hotel Zone taxi fares. Isla Mujeres offers cheaper rooms, stunning beaches, and access to the Cancun Underwater Museum. Find your magic moments here – sunsets, happy hours, tranquil mornings. Unless you’ve got your heart set on a specific Cancun spot, seriously consider Isla Mujeres.

How Do You Get the Most Out of Xcaret?

Photo Credit: Spencer and Christina.

Xcaret, dubbed “Disney World for active adults,” comes highly recommended by adventure travelers Spencer and Christina, known for our Havasu Hiking Guide. It’s a solid alternative to Cancun’s Hotel Zone if luxury and adrenaline are your vibe. Part of a group of eco-adventure parks, Xcaret offers underground river swims, jungle trails, caves, and diverse wildlife like Jaguars and exotic birds. There’s plenty to explore, including Xel-Há (snorkeling), Xplor (day and night jungle adventures), Xavage (high adventure), and more.

Beat the crowds by staying overnight; arriving early and leaving late maximizes the all-inclusive perks across 40+ attractions.

Pro tip from Spencer and Christina: schedule busy activities in the morning to dodge day-trippers. And at night, don’t miss Xplor Fuego – think intense zip-lines with fiery elements for a riveting experience.

Rio Secreto as an Alternative to Xcaret

Photo Credit: Janiel Green @Culture Trekking.

Xcaret, often likened to Disney World, embraces the “more is more” ethos, offering a plethora of activities. Among their draws, the caves and underground rivers stand out. While modified for accessibility, for a wilder caving experience, Rio Secreto, near Playa Del Carmen, is a gem.

With five distinct cave expeditions featuring wet passages and stunning formations, it offers a unique journey into the Mayan Underworld. Equipped with wetsuits and headlamps, it’s an immersive experience that can be transformative, offering a more profound connection than the Disney-esque atmosphere. Our Rio Secreto trip was amazing, but Xcaret could be equally enticing—it all boils down to your time and preference for crowds.

Where’s The Best Food on Calle Quinta Avenida?

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In Playa del Carmen, Calle Quinta Avenida is a must-visit hotspot packed with eats, art, shopping, and music. Check out these restaurants: Blue Lobster for Caribbean seafood, La Cazota Grill for top-notch Mexican cuisine, Zitla for a relaxed vibe and great food, Porfirio’s Restaurante for upscale Mexican fare (don’t miss their churros), and 500 Gramos Grill for fantastic Italian dishes and steaks. Trust me, they’re worth a visit!

Avoiding the Crowds at El Fogón

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There’s a lot of eating going on, but every hip traveler will tell you about the hidden gem El Fogón. It is an open-air taquéria that tempts your taste buds without busting your wallet.
Only, with over 4,000 google reviews, it’s not hidden anymore. If you’re going to go, arrive at about 6:00 to beat the lines and then start exploring. The best way to see Calle Quinta Avenida is with a full stomach of street tacos.

Best Restaurants Off Calle Quinta Avenida

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Calle Quinta Avenida in Playa Del Carmen is a must-see; it’s a vibrant hub, but you don’t have to explore it all, especially the similar-looking shops and cigar stands. For a unique dining experience away from the bustle, try Alux – a cave-based restaurant. It’s pricier, but hit their happy hour (5:30 – 7:00) for discounted drinks and a self-guided cave tour.

Another gem nearby is Pavo Real by the Sea, an upscale seafood spot near Belmond Maroma Resort, boasting impeccable food and ocean vistas. Consider it our nudge off Quinta Avenida. It’s like Vegas; you might want to stroll through, or you might get lost in the vibe all night. Up to you!

What is it Like Shark Diving in Playa Del Carmen?

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Playa Del Carmen is known for its shark diving scene, dominated by major dive shops offering what feels like an alpha male shark diving show. Picture this: a divemaster in chainmail, rattling chum, and luring sharks for a spectacle. Sure, you’ll see plenty of sharks, but there’s something missing…

Thankfully, there are other options….

The Best Shark Dive in Playa Del Carmen

Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

We found an ethical shark diving gem in Playa Del Carmen: Blue Life. They prioritize small groups, no chumming, and offer enriched air for deep dives. Our experience was serene and respectful, sans the usual spectacle. Plus, they arrange cenote trips—a logistical win if you bus into Playa.

Not sure about the chum show, but with Blue Life, our shark dive was thoroughly enjoyable.

Is it Worth Snorkeling Dos Ojos Cenote?

Diver in Dos Ojos Cenote

Skip snorkeling at Dos Ojos; it’s not worth it. The impressive cenote beauty lies in the cave passages accessible only by diving. Snorkeling leaves you bobbing on the surface, missing out on the stunning underwater scenes. Save Dos Ojos for diving or explore other options.

Check out the dive trip photo above—notice the snorkeler’s legs but miss the captivating passage.

Alternative Tulum Cenotes

Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

For diving, start with Dos Ojos in Tulum, a truly remarkable experience.

Not certified? Casa Cenote offers combo snorkeling/SUP trips, more engaging than bobbing at Dos Ojos. Cenote Agua Dulce and Xcanahaltun are farther from Tulum and only for swimming.

Alternatively, snorkel through caves at Xcaret—all more enjoyable options than snorkeling at Dos Ojos.

Snorkeling Chankanaab on Cozumel

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Cozumel offers brilliant snorkel routes a short ferry ride from Playa Del Carmen. Tropical currents create clear waters and feed massive coral formations, making it a world-class destination for both diving and snorkeling. The strong current limits snorkel trips close to land, but Hurricane Wilma damaged nearshore reefs.

While Chankanaab snorkeling is decent with added attractions like an underwater statue garden and animal encounters, we suggest an alternative with fewer people and a more natural experience.

Snorkeling El Cielo / Columbia Reef on Cozumel

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El Cielo, a Cozumel snorkel tour, beats Chankanaab with its dreamy waist-deep lagoon filled with vibrant starfish, sans enclosures and typical amenities. While diving in Cozumel might be preferable, El Cielo offers a stunning day for non-divers.

Understanding Cozumel’s geography helps—El Cielo, near Columbia Reef, is part of the Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park. Specificity matters when booking; ensure you’re headed to this dreamy blue lagoon for an aquatic paradise.

Snorkeling with Turtles at Akumal Bay

Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

Akumal Bay, between Playa Del Carmen and Tulum, is renowned for its resident sea turtles—over forty call it home year-round. It’s a must to get a guide for your Akumal Beach visit; avoiding this stresses you and disrupts turtle management.

Even with a guide, it can get crowded; the trail restricts fins and guides aim to keep tours moving. Arriving around 3:00 PM helps avoid crowds and maximizes your chances—being the last tour increases turtle sightings. Snorkeling with these resident turtles is a unique experience; follow conservation rules (yes, get a guide!) and opt for early mornings or late days.

What’s the Best Way to See the Tulum Ruins?

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The Tulum Ruins are a must-see in Tulum; they’re the only oceanfront Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. To dodge the crowds, arrive early.

Tourist behavior there can sometimes be less than respectful…so much so we felt compelled to post on Instagram about the importance of respecting countries, cultures, and boundaries while traveling.

Muyil / Sian Ka’an Biosphere Tours as an Alternative to Tulum Ruins

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Consider a trip to Muyil Ruins and Sian Ka’an Biosphere as an alternative to Tulum Ruins. Muyil, the first and last Mayan city in the Yucatan, features restored structures and intriguing Alux houses. Adjacent, Sian Ka’an offers lagoons and canals—a water-world integral to Muyil’s existence.

Tours include a picturesque snorkel along a Mayan canal—a delightful lazy river experience. We opted for a combined trip with Agua Clara Dive Center in Tulum and found it outstanding. While Tulum Ruins left us conflicted due to crowds and other factors, Muyil and Sian Ka’an were simply awesome!

Wrapping Up Our Best Tips to Avoid Crowds In Riviera Maya

Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

People might tell you that Riviera Maya lacks authenticity. We just don’t think that’s true. It’s a remarkable confluence of natural beauty and world history. You can adventure in the air on ziplines, on or under the trees in the jungles, and even under the ground in the caves and cenotes.

There are plenty of ways to beat the crowds, find authentic experiences, and have genuine adventures on the Riviera Maya. Best of all, if you shop local and stay local, you money will stay in Mexico and not the pockets of multinational hospitality companies.

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