December is upon us and you know what that means. ‘Tis the season for celebrations full of food, music, friends, lights, and dressing up. I am of course talking about the festival season in the Riviera Maya! There are plenty of options for getting some sun & sand along with your live music fix this winter. Having spent a lot of time in the area, we’re here to help with a Riviera Maya guide for live music fans.
Table of Contents
A Busy Schedule
While Phish had their Riviera Maya event in February 2020, everything else was postponed last year. Everything is back with a bang this year, though. Here’s the schedule of festivals in the Riviera Maya for this season:
- Holy Ship! Wrecked – December 3-7, Hard Rock Riviera Maya
- Holidaze – December 4-8, Now Sapphire & Dreams
- Closer to the Sun – December 8-12, Hard Rock Riviera Maya
- Strings & Sol – December 9-13, Now Sapphire & Dreams
- Dead & Co Playing in the Sand – January 7-10 and 13-16, Moon Palace
- Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky – January 17-21, Hard Rock Riviera Maya
- Panic en la Playa – January 22-26, Hard Rock Riviera Maya
- Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds – February 18-20, Moon Palace
- Phish Riviera Maya – February 24-27, Moon Palace
- MMJ One Big Holiday – March 2-5, Moon Palace
As you can see, it’s a jam-packed schedule this season, emphasis on the jam! We’ve been to Holidaze and Phish Riviera Maya and had the time of our lives at both events. Check out our recap and watch our video to see just how much fun it was:
Pretty much all of these events are sold out, which is no surprise. After a year of lockdowns and social distancing, people are beyond ready to boogie on the beach with a margarita in hand.
As such, we’re not here to sell any tickets or convince you to go to one of these (although you should do that at some point). Instead, this Riviera Maya guide is for people already planning on attending one or more of these events.
We’ve spent the past five years using Mexico as our digital nomad home base and have spent a lot of time in that area. Our hope is to encourage people to leave the resort to experience a bit of real Mexico in between all the tunes. Vamos, chicos!
Getting to and From the Airport
Basically everyone who goes to these shows will fly in and out of Cancun. All of these events provide a shuttle service, which is a convenient and fun way to get to the resort with other fans.
They usually have shuttles available for a couple of days before the event and then again for a few after. That way you can still take the shuttle even if you add on some extra nights (which is a good idea, by the way).
Cancun is a super busy airport with tons of options for ground transportation if you want to do your own thing. The Moon Palace is only about 10 minutes away and Now Sapphire is 20 or so. The Hard Rock is the farthest, taking over an hour from the airport.
If you’re traveling in the area for a while before or after the shows, you can take advantage of the cheap local transportation. The ADO bus system is great and will get you from the airport to downtown Cancun, Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum. Click here to check schedules and book tickets.
Looking for the super local option? Then hop in a colectivo, amigo! These shared vans ply the main highway day and night and are the preferred method of transport for locals. Just let them know which resort you’re going to and they’ll drop you off out front.
We used the colectivo to get to Phish from Playa, then down to Tulum after the show. It’s really not that difficult and it’s super cheap. Plus, it’s a great way to practice your Spanish!
What to Do Outside of the Resort
I realize it can seem counterintuitive to leave an all-inclusive resort. After all, everything is included. Why not just bounce between pool, beach, restaurant, bar, show, and room? There is absolutely nothing wrong with that!
In fact, we didn’t leave the resort at all for the four days of Phish. That’s because we live in Mexico half the year, though, and we spend plenty of time exploring the area.
If your trip is short, we highly recommend getting out of the resort a bit to experience Mexico. These resorts really are bubbles and it’s nice to escape for a bit. We hope that’s one main takeaway from this Riviera Maya guide!
So, what should you do with a day trip outside of the resort? Well, most of these festivals have several different off-site activities you can choose from.
These are fine and can be tons of fun. We went on a Mayan jungle expedition with some of the guys from the Disco Biscuits in 2012 and it was an unforgettable experience. They even had an article about it in Rolling Stone!
Going on these excursions will ensure you’re around other fans and possibly even some of the artists. Once again, it’s not your only option.
This is the most touristy part of Mexico and they are used to catering to your needs. You can rent a car, hire a driver, or sign up for a tour very easily to take part in any of the amazing activities in the area. Here are some of our favorites:
Seeing some of the Mayan ruins should be high on your list whichever event you’re attending. There are plenty to choose from. It all depends on how much time, money, and effort you want to spend.
The star of the show in this corner of the world is definitely Chichen Itza. It’s one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and is an awe-inspiring place to visit.
That being said, it takes around 3 hours to get to the ruins from any of the aforementioned resorts. That means six hours in a car or bus in addition to time spent at the ruins. It can be quite draining, especially on a show day.
Chichen Itza is best visited if you have time before or after the shows. The nearby town of Valladolid makes for a great base. We’ve been twice now and it’s one of our favorite small towns in Mexico.
There are a few other epic Mayan ruins that are much closer to the resorts. The ruins at Tulum are very easy to visit from the Hard Rock, as it’s only about a 40-minute drive between the two.
It’s a bit further from the other resorts but still doable as a day trip. While it can be hard to get out of bed after a night of raging, it’s worth it to get down there earlier in the day before the sun is too intense. You can also swim here so bring your bathing suit!
A bit further inland, you’ll find Coba. A big draw here is that you can still climb up the main pyramid and enjoy the amazing views. This is no longer allowed at the busier Chichen Itza nor in Tulum.
If you’re spending an extra few days in the area before or after the shows, it’s well worth signing up for a tour that hits both Tulum and Coba.
No Riviera Maya guide is complete without mentioning the area’s amazing cenotes. There are hundreds upon hundreds of these sinkholes scattered across the Yucatan peninsula, including plenty within a short drive of the resorts.
Taking a dip in a cenote is a great way to cool off in the often intense mid-day heat. Many of them have spots where you can jump in and some even have a rope swing.
If you’re going to one of the shows at Now Sapphire, Sol y Luna is just a 15-minute ride away. You can easily get a cab and pop over there for an hour or two before the music starts. It’s not too far from the Moon Palace, either.
For those going to the Hard Rock, there are plenty of choices. Cenote Azul is a great one that’s just 10 minutes down the road. If you want to pop down to Tulum for the day, you can also hit the amazing Gran Cenote.
One of the coolest things to do in the Riviera Maya is visiting one of the many adventure parks. They’re kind of like natural theme parks.
You won’t find roller coasters and carny games, but you can go snorkeling, kayaking, or just float along in a tube. It’s so stupendous, floating in this tube!
Some of the parks have waterslides. Others have zip lines and ATV rides available. Most of them are all-inclusive, so you can hit the buffet or grab drinks from the bar at any time.
I went to Xcaret back on my first trip to Cancun many years ago and loved it. We also hit Xel-Ha with friends who were visiting us when we lived in Playa del Carmen and we had a blast! Definitely add one to your itinerary if you can.
Beaches and Islands
Whichever resort you end up at, you’ll have a beach right on your doorstep. All of these beaches are just fine and you can easily laze away your days at any of them.
If you want to explore and check out some other beaches, here are a few recommendations: Soliman Bay, Akumal, Xpu-Ha, and Punta Esmeralda. These are all just off the main road and can be reached by cab or colectivo.
You know what’s even cooler than a beach day? A day on an island! For those staying at the Moon Palace, it’s just a quick trip over to the stunning Isla Mujeres. In case you were wondering – yes, that means “Island of Women.”
It’s a small island with no traffic other than the taxis. You can rent a golf cart or a scooter to get around and check out the different beaches. This is one of our favorite spots in the Riviera Maya and we highly recommend it!
Places to Go Before or After the Shows
For those who are spending several extra days in Mexico before or after the shows, a whole new world opens up. Places like the aforementioned Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Isla Mujeres are all solid choices.
Visiting any of those places is easy enough to do before or after the show. You won’t need to spend that much time in a car, bus, or boat to get to any of those.
If you’re want to check out places that feel more Mexican than the touristy beach towns, we recommend heading inland to Valladolid. As I mentioned above, it’s a colorful colonial town and a fun place to visit.
From Valladolid, you can easily visit the ruins at Chichen Itza as well as the ones at Ek Balam. There’s also an awesome cenote right in the middle of town.
A bit further inland, you can visit the bustling city of Merida. It’s the capital of the state of Yucatan and has a very vibrant culture. The food in particular here is absolutely incredible!
Both of these places are inland, so if you want more time by the water I would recommend heading up to Isla Holbox.
It takes a bit of work to get there, but the juice is worth the squeeze. Just look at our video from our trip there and see for yourself:
Those on a longer trip can also consider heading south past Tulum down to Bacalar. This small town is famous for its stunning Lagoon of Seven Colors. Some people are calling it “the next Tulum,” so try to get there before the influencers take over.
Tipping in Mexico
Before we wrap up this Riviera Maya guide – a brief note about tipping in Mexico. All of these shows take place at all-inclusive resorts, so there’s always confusion about whether or not to tip and if so, how much.
On the one hand, you don’t want to have to carry cash around while you’re bouncing between the beach and the pool. Then again, you also want to get good service and something other than well liquor. What to do?
First of all, it’s better to have pesos. Sure, you can get a bunch of $1 bills to use as tips but this is Mexico. People will have to take time out of their day to go and exchange your bald eagle bucks for pesos.
The peso has been at around 20 to a dollar for a while. Try to get a stack of 20 or 50 notes, or even 10 peso coins. Keep them in a ziplock bag or a waterproof bag if you have one and hand out tips as you see fit.
Tipping your housekeeper will surely result in your mini-fridge getting filled more often. You can even ask for more beers and fewer soft drinks as we always do.
If you keep tipping the same bartenders, they will definitely recognize you and make sure your glass is always full. Let them know you want the good stuff and they’ll hook you up.
At the buffet and restaurants, you can definitely feel free to leave a tip to show your appreciation. Keep in mind that the minimum wage here is around $8. And that’s per day, not per hour. A little goes a long way here.
Enjoy the Riviera Maya
Hopefully this Riviera Maya guide has been helpful and entertaining. It’s a beautiful corner of the world and we always enjoy visiting the area, especially for a show with our favorite bands.
If you have any questions or want more recommendations, feel free to drop us a line. We’re always happy to chat Mexico and help out fellow live music lovers!
Enjoy your trip, don’t forget to stay hydrated, eat some street tacos, and have an absolute blast. There’s nothing quite like dancing with your feet in the sand and a margarita in your hand!