The Riviera Maya in Mexico — including notable hotspots like Playa del Carmen, Cancun and Tulum — has everything a weather-weary traveler could ask for: dewy-sweet warmth, sapphire-blue water, and verdant waving palms. Plus, plentiful tacos.
And, since the the coastline of the Riviera Maya is largely protected by the Mesoamerican Reef system, waves are typically on the chill side, making for a snorkel paradise through and through. Right?
Well, yes and no.
There is fantastic snorkeling here. But, if we’re talking about the best snorkeling in Play del Carmen (or Cancun, or Tulum) or the greater Riviera Maya, the best snorkeling isn’t actually directly in Playa del Carmen (or Cancun, or Tulum). It’s typically just outside.
That’s often because of what makes those hotspot destinations a favorite of many: that powdery-white sand, which often extends well into the water at these locales and makes for a relatively plain underwater landscape. Snorkeling here will have you finding a handful of curious shore fish, but nothing necessarily life-changing.
Instead, we need to find spots that are more reef-y or rocky — places where fish (and lots of other marine life) like to live. And those best snorkel spots, while not directly in somewhere like downtown Playa del Carmen, are typically just an easy drive, cab, shuttle, or colectivo (shared transport) away.
So, let’s look at the best snorkeling in Playa del Carmen’s general area, which also includes Cancun, Tulum and most of the Riviera Maya.
As we established, the best snorkeling in Play del Carmen isn’t directly in Playa del Carmen or any of the other major tourist towns in the area, but you can get to the best spots easily from Playa, Cancun, Tulum or most anywhere in the Riviera Maya. Let’s run through each of my top 7 favorite spots to snorkel in this paradise, where they actually are, and how to get to each.
Let’s start big — both figuratively and literally. Figuratively, it’s a big day and a big experience. Literally, how about 40-foot, 15-ton whale sharks?
If that sounds intriguing to you, one of the best places on the planet to swim with these gentle giants is near an island just off the coast of Cancun named Isla Mujeres.
Every summer from roughly June through September, hundreds of these gorgeous school bus-sized sharks (don’t worry, they have absolutely zero interest in munching on people) congregate in the blue waters off of Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox off the tip of the Yucatan peninsula to feed on a seasonal influx of fish eggs and tiny crustaceans which compose a large share of their diet.
And, yep, you can swim right along side them as they do. Truthfully, it’s magical.
As I mentioned, it’s a big day coming from the mainland and for that reason it’s 100% worth it to book with a tour company that will take care of all of your transportation, boats, meals, etc. Our favorite tour is with Ocean Tours Mexico (on Viator) since they’re one of the few tours operating from the Riviera Maya that seems to have been able to put together a seamless day getting you from and back to your hotel with all of the needed vans and boats. Plus, their guides have always ben super friendly, fun and knowledgeable which really makes a big difference in a full-day tour.
If swimming with such big, big leviathans makes you a little uncomfortable, that’s OK. It might seem a little intimidating, but it’s truly a blast, very safe, and something you will remember for the rest of your life. We’ve written up a guide with more information on swimming with whale sharks (and doing it at Isla Mujeres) over at Swim with Whale Sharks: The 3 Unbeatable Best Places to Snorkel & Dive which should help you feel more confident, informed and excited.
[Google Maps Link to Puerto Juarez, where the ferry from Cancun to Isla Mujeres departs, if you need to get to the island yourself.]
If you’re needing a bit of a break from the immensity of Playa del Carmen, Cancun or Tulum but aren’t yet ready to completely disconnect and move into a hut on the beach, Puerto Morelos might be what you’re looking for.
Not only does this much smaller and slower-paced town (about 25 minutes south of Cancun or 25 minutes north of Play del Carmen) have a great beach with lots of good food and plenty of snorkel and scuba amenities, it also has some of the absolute best snorkeling in Playa del Carmen (or nearby, technically).
The biggest reason for its high class of snorkeling is the Mesoamerican Reef system, which spans over 700 miles from Honduras to Cancun making it the second longest barrier reef system in the world behind only the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. And, here at Puerto Morelos, it makes its closest contact with the coast, making it perfect for snorkeling.
At this national park you’ll see all manner of marine life: multitudes of colorful tropical fish, different types of rays, turtles, squid, octopuses, and maybe even the occasional small nurse shark. It really feels like you’ve hit the jackpot, especially for how easy it is to get here.
If you have your own car and drive into the town of Puerto Morelos, park somewhere near the town square (you can’t miss it on your way in) and head to the small malecón near the infamous crooked lighthouse on the beach. There, you’ll find plenty of people organizing snorkel tours and it’s easy to get in on one which will take you out to the reef (about a 5-minute boat ride) for an hour and a half or so. It’s well worth it and definitely some of the best snorkeling in Playa del Carmen (or anywhere nearby).
Or, if you don’t have your own transport, booking a half-day tour online is plenty easy and still plenty affordable.
We really like Wisest Travel’s snorkel tour to Puerto Morelos (here on Viator) for car-less folks because they have easy and comfortable transportation to and from town. Then, once in the water, the guides are really good with all levels of snorkelers and will take the time to help you if you’re newer to the sport, or take you right to best spots with the highest probability of seeing the coolest marine life if you’re already good to go.
Another island just off of the coast of the Riviera Maya also has world-class snorkeling, and that’s Cozumel. But, it’s some of the best snorkeling in Play del Carmen (or nearby) for different reasons than Isla Mujeres above.
Instead of being a famous gathering point for the world’s biggest fish like its more northern sibling, Cozumel is instead known for having some of the best reefs in Mexico which attract a multitude of aquatic life, especially in national parks like Arrecifes de Cozumel.
And, fortunately, it’s pretty easy to get here, especially if you’re already in Play del Carmen since ferries run back and forth between Cozumel and the ferry port in Playa del Carmen every hour or two.
Both Ultramar and Winjet run ferries either daily or on an alternating bi-daily schedule (depending on the season) which makes it a breeze to take a day trip over to the island since the ferry only takes about 30 minutes (and especially if you opt to spend the extra few bucks for a first class ticket for quicker boarding and more space on the ferry, which is totally worth it). You can — and should, for time’s sake — buy tickets online before you show up.
Once you arrive in Cozumel, there will be plenty of people available at the ferry port with snorkel tours, jeep trips, and plenty of other adventures. But, I’ve always found it to be a bit chaotic and since there are so many snorkel trips available on the island, it’s hard to know which ones are better than others. So, this is a spot where I think it makes more sense to book a tour online in advance.
And, to that end, I really dig Cozumel Tours and Excursions’ snorkel trip to the Palancar, Columbia and El Cielo reefs (here on Viator) on the island. Not only will they pick you up at the ferry port (which is helpful, because while the port town of San Miguel de Cozumel is worth a stop-in for lunch or dinner on the way back, when I arrive in the morning, I just want to get straight to snorkeling), but they’re also really knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the best snorkeling spots on the southern end of the island where the best reef activity tends to be.
More toward the southern end of the Riviera Maya (starting just south of Tulum) lies Sian Ka’an, a massive biosphere reserve set aside in the name of preservation of the truest nature of this part of Mexico.
Sian Ka’an means something along the lines of “the place where the heavens are born” in the Mayan language, and you’ll get just that: a little taste of heaven with expansive skies birthing out of pristine waters, healthy mangroves, rustling palms, and plenty of spots for epic snorkeling.
This biosphere is also a place where booking a tour is going to go a long way towards having a good day. It’s a bit of a drive along tough roads to get into the park (so it’s good to have the right vehicle and someone who knows where they’re going) and, once you’re there, you need access to a network of boats and drivers to move you around the expansive reserve (so it’s great to have someone who knows the what, where, who and when of all this).
We had an exceptional time with Mexico Kan Tours (Viator) on their full day Sian Ka’an excursion, and they would be my recommended choice for the area. They took care of all of our needed transportation (both car and boat), lunch, and provided that extra expertise that took us to all of the right spots to have the best experience with the nature of the area.
As a result, we saw bunches of crocodiles patrolling the lagoons (this is not where you snorkel, FYI), a mother manatee teaching her calf how to eat sea grass, mating sea turtles, tons of roosting sea birds, several pods of dolphins literally leaping from the water around the boat, giant lobsters, loads of tropical fish, and plenty else. I hope the same for you!
If you’re a big fan of sea turtles (and really, who isn’t?), then Akumal might be your own top pick for the best snorkeling in Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya.
Known for the frisky sea turtles who inhabit its coasts and munch on the sea grass that grows there, this resort town about a half hour south of Playa del Carmen can be a dream for turtle lovers. Some care should be taken to be kind to our turtle friends here, however.
While it’s possible to snorkel directly from shore at the main beach here (you do officially need to snorkel with a guide since it’s a protected area, though it is possible to find one on the beach), the main snorkeling area can get crowded and some of the turtles here show signs of stress from just being bothered too much.
Instead, it’s a better idea to book a tour with a reputable snorkel guide that can take you to some less traveled areas and educate on how to best treat these beautiful ocean creatures to make sure they stay healthy while having an epic time yourself.
Our pick for the best Akumal turtle snorkel tour is Ocean Tours Mexico (here on Viator) for the very reasons I just mentioned. Not only do they know the right spots where you can see turtles in a less crowded environment, but they care about the turtles and the environment and will show you the best way to do so, too. Plus, the second half of their tour takes you to swim and snorkel in a cenote that flows through huge caves and caverns which is a blast and a unique experience in itself.
If you’re in Akumal and the ocean snorkeling isn’t cooperating (maybe it’s windy or wavy), or if you just want a second excellent spot to snorkel after snorkeling with the turtles, Yal Ku Lagoon is a great option.
Situated behind a protected strip of land just a few minutes north of the town of Akumal, this calm lagoon is full of tropical fish, rays, and plenty of other marine life that may be looking for a bit of calmer spot to chill for a while. Also the site of a natural cenote which brings fresh water up from underground to mix with the sea water, the calm water is excellent for beginner or expert snorkelers alike.
Yal Ku is easy to get to by car (or taxi, especially from Akumal) and there are some facilities here (palapas, nearby restaurants, platforms and ladders to easily get in and out of the water, etc.), which also means that there are some costs involved. Entrance fees for adults are about $15 while kids are around $12. However, it’s still plenty worth it since the marine life is always plentiful.
One highly-unique feature of the Riviera Maya and the Yucatan Peninsula as a whole is its cenotes. And, while it may not be your first thought, cenotes can make for some of the best snorkeling in Playa del Carmen and the surrounding areas.
If you’re not familiar, cenotes are essentially holes (sometimes very large holes) in the ground where fresh water rises up from deeper within the earth. There are no rivers in the Yucatan and this, instead, is how the fresh water makes it to the surface.
Some cenotes are wildly deep — dark blue holes plunging hundreds of feet into the earth — and are only really interesting to scuba divers (or general surface-swimming recreationists). But, some are much shallower and have tons of fascinating and unique aquatic life.
Maybe the best snorkeling in Playa del Carmen when it comes to cenotes is Cenote Jardin del Eden, a large open-air cenote about 20 minutes south of Playa and just outside the town of Puerto Aventuras. It’s a fantastic cenote for snorkeling because of its size (so it won’t feel crowded), crystal-clear water, and varying depths and underwater scenery — perfect to check out the multitude of fish that live there and come away with a very unique snorkeling experience. The entrance fee is reasonable at about $10.
If you do check out Jardin del Eden and want more cenote snorkeling in your life, the nearby Cenote Azul and Cenote Cristalino are both other great options. They’re very similar to Jardin del Eden in look, feel and vibe, but just a little smaller. If you visit Cenote Azul especially, make sure to dip your feet in the water for a very thorough fish pedicure.
If you’re looking to avoid driving, one of the most efficient ways to see multiple cenotes is on a cenote tour of the area. One of the best is with Woody Simental Tours (here on Viator) which will take care of all of your transportation, snorkel equipment (if you need it) and a guide while you visit each of the best aforementioned snorkeling cenotes: Jardin del Eden, Azul and Cristalino.
Snorkeling in Mexico is more or less like snorkeling anywhere else in the world with a few exceptions, and there are just a handful of specific things that you should know.
First, on all snorkeling tours and/or if you’re snorkeling in any of the national parks or reserves in Mexico, a chaleco (life jacket) is required when you’re in the water. This can be a bit annoying for more experienced snorkelers, but it’s done for safety as well as for general preservation of the undersea environment.
Next, if you’re snorkeling in a more sensitive area (like with the whale sharks off of Isla Mujeres or in cenotes on the mainland), sunscreen of any kind is not allowed. This can be a little annoying, too, but again it’s done for the preservation of delicate ecosystems and sensitive marine life, which is very worthwhile. Instead of sunscreen, make sure that you have a rashguard (a kind of water-friendly shirt) to wear in the water to keep your skin from getting burned. I really like the Volcom Lido Short Sleeve Rashguard (Amazon) for men, and my wife is partial to the REKITA Long Sleeve Rashguard (Amazon) for women.
Lastly, when you do put on sunscreen in Mexico, make certain that your sunscreen is fully reef safe, even if you’re only applying it to lay out on the beach. That’s because the sunscreen which later gets rinsed off in the shower inevitably ends up back in the ocean in some fashion, and many of the ingredients in traditional sunscreens are really harmful to coral reefs which need all the help we can give them to stay beautiful and healthy. For more guidance on reef-safe sunscreen, check out our write-up on the topic, The 2 Best Snorkeling Sunscreens (Reef Safe & Biodegradable).
The Deep Dive
Mexico’s Riviera Maya destination cities like Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Tulum are each paradises in their own right, but they typically don’t have the best snorkeling options (at least not right in town). Instead, you’ll need to know where to look just outside of town to find what you’re seeking.
With a little guidance (hopefully this read was helpful!), you’ll be able to find those epic snorkeling spots and enjoy some of the best snorkeling in Playa del Carmen, Cancun, Tulum and the Riviera Maya as a whole. Whether you have a car and strike out on your own or take some of the tours listed in this guide, you’re certain to have a great time.
Happy travels! Vaya con Dios!
Make sure that you’re up to date on your snorkel gear (it’s nice not having to rent it or rely on tours to provide it for you, but you can) before striking out to find the best snorkeling in Playa del Carmen, and read up on some of our other guides that may help you in the Riviera Maya: