Top Things to Do and See in Quintana Roo State

At the Tulum Archaeological Zone, ruins are dotted on the shore alongside palm trees and clear waters
At the Tulum Archaeological Zone, ruins are dotted on the shore alongside palm trees and clear waters | © GlowImages / Alamy
Alex Robinson

When many think of the Caribbean, they think about paradise islands such as Barbados and Jamaica. But other countries get a slice of the tropical blue sea, too – especially Mexico, in the state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula, which is also dotted with magnificent Mayan temples. Base yourself in the beach town of Playa del Carmen and get ready to enjoy white sand beaches, mysterious cenotes and captivating wildlife. Here are the best things to do in Quintana Roo.

1. Cancún Underwater Museum

Museum

Mexico Cancun Sculptures at bottom sea in Cancun Underwater Museum in Caribbean Sea
© RGB Ventures / SuperStock / Alamy
Swimming or taking a glass-bottom boat over this underwater art gallery feels like discovering a latter-day Atlantis. Naked effigies encrusted with nascent coral sit around a mysterious monolith, fish play around a jaunty Mexican Volkswagen Beetle and the hard edges of giant concrete hand grenades are softened with seaweed. Most of the 500 objects are the work of British artist Jason deCaires Taylor, who opened the park in 2010 as a conservation project and the first artificial reef art gallery in the world. Are you ready to take the plunge?

2. Dos Ojos Cenote

Natural Feature

Tourist relaxing in Two Eyes Cenote (Cenote Dos Ojos), Yucatan, Mexico.
© Jan Wlodarczyk / Alamy Stock Photo

Quintana Roo is a region known for beautiful cenotes, water pools that are either in a cave or in a naturally formed pit once the cave ceiling has fallen. They’re spectacular spots in which to swim, sometimes they have lilies sitting on their glassy surfaces, blind fish hovering in the depths, or stalactites and stalagmites disappearing into the darkness. No one knows exactly how far the myriad caverns at Dos Ojos stretch, but it’s at least 60km (37mi). Come for the day and marvel at their complexity as you dive through them, or snorkel and keep close to the surface.

3. Enjoy sundowners at Zenzi Beach Bar

Restaurant, Mexican

The beach at Playa del Carmen on the Mayan Riviera on a sunny summer day
© Kamira / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s quite a scene – soft white sand, gently lapping waves, sky fading from pink to star-twinkling peacock-blue over the Caribbean sea – and you can watch it all with an icy mojito in your hand here in Playa del Carmen. It’s only an hour’s drive from Cancun’s big-brand resort beach boulevard, but with boutique resorts and a low-key, small town feel, Playa is a world away. Zenzi, right on the beach, is as laid-back as an Ibiza chill-out lounge… until sunset, that is, when people gather to sip cocktails and prepare for the DJ-driven dance parties after dark.

4. Eat tacos from Taquería Neza

Restaurant, Mexican

Mexican steak beef tacos with dip condiments
© Haider Azim / Alamy

It’s just a simple street stall but Neza, in the little beach town of Puerto Morelos, just south of Cancun, serves some of the best tacos in Quintana Roo. The tortillas are made using traditional masa harina and the taco fillings come in almost limitless varieties. But go easy on the chili sauce – it’s as fiery as a hot coal.

5. Riviera Maya Jazz Festival

Natural Feature

Ninth issue of the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival in Playa del Carmen
© LatinContent / Getty Images

This free extravaganza takes place every November, when the weather is still surprisingly warm and inviting. Big-name acts, such as George Benson and Herbie Hancock, have been featured on the bill, and the main stage is right on the beach in Playa del Carmen. But be sure to stay in the town itself, and to book ahead – around 20,000 people attend annually, and Playa has limited parking and toilet space.

6. Cozumel scuba diving

Natural Feature

Scuba diver at a deep water sea fan, coral reef at Cozumel island, Mexico, Caribbean
© Helmut Corneli / Alamy

Cozumel island, a few kilometers off the Playa del Carmen coast, is one of the best dive destinations in the Caribbean. Big reef walls covered in brilliantly colored corals and huge barrel sponges drop off into the deep blue. The marine life here is spectacular, with easy-to-spot turtles and nurse sharks, alongside big schools of reef fish. Most dives are drifts, with currents carrying you past the reef like a flowing river.

7. Tulum Archaeological Zone

Ruins

Tulum, The Site Of A Pre-Columbian Mayan Walled City Serving As A Major Port For Coba, In The Mexican State Of Quintana Roo
© Wojtkowski Cezary / Alamy
There are grander, more architecturally spectacular Mayan sites, but you can’t beat the location of the ruins in Tulum. They rise on a rocky cliff, high over a sweeping beach with sand as fine as white flour, facing the rising sun. Just note that it can get hot and very crowded here, so try to arrive first thing in the morning when it’s still cool, the sun is shining on the temples, and the coaches from Cancun are yet to arrive.

8. Xcaret

Amusement Park, Park

The aviary at XCaret park on the Mayan Riviera_2CDMC44
© Kamira / Alamy
Xcaret is where snorkelling and jungle walking is easily accessible to people of all skill levels. Trails lead through the forest to gentle lagoons and rivers filled with fish, as well as to underground caverns, butterfly pavilions, an aquarium and an aviary. There’s a beach and several restaurants for down time, and in the evenings, there are dance and music shows with loose Mayan or pre-Columbian cultural themes. As a day out with the kids it’s fun and much more manageable than genuine wild snorkelling.

9. Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

Natural Feature

The observation tower and boat dock at the Muyil Lagoon in Sian Kaan, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
© Jon G Fuller / VWPics / Alamy Stock Photo
This is animal magic – forests of wild ocelots and capuchin monkeys, swamps where crocodiles lurk, long empty beaches where thousands of turtles hatch and unspoiled reefs. A large protected area south of Tulum, Sian Ka’an, is what the Riviera Maya coast looked like before large-scale tourism arrived. You’ll need to visit on an organized day trip, which involves swimming in a pristine river (with baby crocodiles), birdwatching, trail walks and boat rides through the wetlands in search of manatees.

10. Cycle around Holbox

Natural Feature

Riding bike on Holbox island beach in sunset Mexico. People cycling on the Caribbean beach at sunset.
© marco boldrin / Alamy

This sand island off the north coast of Quintana Roo is a wildlife haven. In the summer, whale sharks congregate offshore and turtles nest on the beaches. The lagoon, which separates Holbox from the mainland, is pink with flamingos all year round. The best way to see it all is slowly, on a bicycle, with a sunhat, sunblock and plenty of water in your bag. Top tip: Holbox is too big to cycle around in one day, so consider staying overnight.

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