Cancun has great hotels and fabulous nightlife, not to mention its stunning beaches, but it's just the gateway to getting to know the Mayan world. There are water parks, nature reserves and archaeological sites that you really shouldn't miss out on. Even if your main interest is relaxing and taking it easy, you should still check out some of these Cancun day trips during your stay.
Named one of the New World Wonders, this pre-Hispanic city was the political, religious and military center of the Yucatan Peninsula for centuries. Admire the amazing Mayan art and architecture of this ancient city. Hire a guide to appreciate the archaeological site fully. Chichen Itza is 125 miles from Cancun, a two to three-hour drive, about halfway between Cancun and Mérida. If you go on your own, get an early start to arrive before the tour groups to enjoy the site with fewer crowds.
Tulum was once a busy Mayan ceremonial center and trading port. The ruins are in a spectacular setting, on a cliff overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. The Tulum archaeological site is small, consisting of some 60 buildings and can be toured in about two hours. Tulum's beach is arguably the most beautiful in Mexico. Tulum is located 72 miles south of Cancun. A visit to Tulum can be combined with a visit to Xel-Ha (see next item on the list) to make an all-day excursion.
Xel-Ha is a water theme park where interconnected freshwater lagoons combine with salt water streams, producing a unique ecosystem with multitudes of tropical fish. This is a great spot for kids and beginners to practice snorkeling. Other activities include floating along the river on inner tubes, swinging over cenotes and swimming with dolphins. If you get tired of being in the water you can go on an ecological walking tour through the surrounding jungle. Xel-Ha is 68 miles south of Cancun.
Once a sleepy fishing village, Playa del Carmen has grown into a cosmopolitan town, now the largest in the Mayan Riviera. If you're interested in shopping, nightlife, and fine dining, this is the place, but the beach is also alluring. Go for the day, or even better, for the evening, to stroll along Quinta Avenida and enjoy perusing the shops and people watching. Playa del Carmen is located about 35 miles south of Cancun.
This is a unique ecological theme park with water activities, an archaeological site, a re-created Mayan village and jungle trails. A full day can be spent in Xcaret! You can swim in underground rivers, go snorkeling, see a re-enactment of the Prehispanic ball game, visit ancient Mayan ruins and top off the day by watching the spectacular cultural show that is presented every evening. Xcaret is a little less than an hour south of Cancun, about 40 miles.
Sian Ka'an Ecological Reserve
One of the largest protected areas in Mexico, Sian Ka'an has approximately 1.3 million acres of unspoiled natural beauty with unexcavated Mayan ruins, freshwater canals, mangroves, lagoons, and inlets. Visitors can learn about its diverse wildlife and participate in conservation projects. Ecological tours of the reserve are offered, as well as kayak tours and fly fishing. The Sian Ka'an ecological reserve begins just south of Tulum.
Isla Mujeres is a 5-mile long island with a tranquil atmosphere. It's a great place to lounge by the water or enjoy a meal at one of the oceanfront restaurants. There are plenty of options for snorkeling, or you can rent a golf cart or a scooter to explore the island. Attractions include the Turtle Farm, Garrafon Park, and Isla Contoy, located nearby. You can get to Isla Mujeres by ferry from the Cancun hotel zone in about 20 minutes.
The largest island in the Mexican Caribbean is a short ferry ride from Playa del Carmen. It's one of the best spots for scuba diving and snorkeling, the clear water offering visibility of up to 200 feet. The center of the island is mostly undeveloped jungle and lagoons with many endemic species of small animals and birds. Chankanaab National Park has a botanical garden featuring tropical plants, and Chankanaab Lagoon, a natural aquarium with more than 60 species of tropical fish, crustaceans, and corals.
This fishing village is a good spot to practice windsurfing and snorkeling and is a popular spot to swim with sea turtles. You can hire boats for sport fishing, or a diving instructor to take you to visit the closest reefs. At the Ecological Center, you can hire a guide to take you on a walk into the jungle to learn about the local flora and fauna. There are rustic restaurants with great seafood along the beach. Akumal is located 62 miles south of Cancun.
This is one of the largest Mayan archaeological sites, though only a few of its estimated 6,500 structures have been excavated. Cobá was the hub of a complex network of causeways and was probably an important trade link between Mayan outposts on the coast and cities in the interior. The Nohuch Mul Pyramid, the tallest in the area, has 120 steps - if you don't suffer from vertigo you can enjoy a breathtaking view of the jungle from the top. Cobá is 95 miles from Cancun.