Cancun draws visitors from all over the world to its powdery sand beaches, turquoise Caribbean water, glorious food, and archaeological sites.
As most of the best things to do in Cancun are located outside of the hotel zone, expect your vacation to involve easy day trips from Cancun to Mayan ruins, coastal towns, cenotes, and even theme parks.
You will not regret sprinkling these outstanding experiences in between beach time at your resort.
If you’re going to pick one archaeological site to visit, make it Chichen Itza. This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the largest Mayan cities ever built and recently named one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.
Its temples, stadium, observatory and other buildings lie between four major cenotes which were the city’s sources of water. Today, you can walk right up to the most famous Cenote Sagrado, which was used to sacrifice people to the gods.
Chichen Itza is about 2.5 hours from Cancun and Riviera Maya each way. You can stop in the town of Valladolid for lunch and swim in Cenote Samulá before returning to your resort.
Visit Tulum to see Mayan ruins perched right on the water, which provided ancient Mayan cities a means for trade.
The area is far more laid back than the mega resorts in Cancun and Riviera Maya. You’ll find mostly ec0-friendly and smaller boutique properties. Its powdery white sand beaches are among some of the best in Mexico.
It’s a trendy place where people go for an unplugged, even yoga-centric, retreat for the day if not longer. Find Tulum about 1 hour and 40 minutes drive from Cancun. It’s 30 minutes south of Playa Del Carmen, where you can stop to shop their version of 5th Avenue.
Tulum is a theme park, resort and ecotourism development famous for its underground rivers, 50 attractions and emphasis on Mayan culture. The park is centered around the Mayan ruins of Xcaret.
Highlights also include traditional dance performances, a recreation of a Mayan village, a turtle nesting site in addition to many opportunities to swim and snorkel.
You’ll also find 11 restaurants, a spa, and the all-inclusive Hotel Xcaret. This day trip from Cancun is 1.5 hours from downtown, and you’ll want to spend a full day here.
A sister park to Xcaret, Xel-Ha is an aquatic theme park built around a natural inlet and lagoon with opportunities to get up-close with wildlife.
The inlet is a natural aquarium that guests can swim in with hundreds of different species including tropical fish.
Environmental research takes place in the park, which has been noted for its sustainability practices and habitat conservation. Xel-Ha is near Tulum, about 1 hour and 20 minutes from Cancun.
You’ll find restaurants, bars and colorful houses on Isla Mujeres, but it’s mostly famous for its reefs. It was one of Jacques Cousteau’s favorite diving locations, so it’s no surprise that visitors come to scuba dive and snorkel, too.
Between May and September is when hundreds of whale sharks gather off Isla Mujeres. Be sure to book with an official operator who is regulated and agrees to abide by certain safety standards.
This is one of the most leisurely day trips from Cancun as the ferry to Isla Mujeres departs Puerto Juarez, just a few minutes from downtown. The ride across the sea takes only 15 minutes, and ferries run every 30 minutes. They also depart from other spots around the Cancun area.
The Mayan ruins at Coba are one of the last that you can climb as it doesn’t receive the number of visitors as Chichen Itza and other ruins. It’s 120 steep steps to the top of the tallest temple in Mexico where a panoramic view awaits.
Rumor has it that you won’t be able to climb Coba for much longer so plan to do it while you can.
Note that it is very hot here so wear sunscreen, bring water, and consider carrying an umbrella for shade (when not climbing). Drive time from Cancun is about 2.5 hours each way.
In the Mayan language, Akumal means land of the turtles, and they still nest here today primarily in May. It’s a cute little town perched on a beautiful bay with a wide white sand beach. The underwater terrain makes it a haven for snorkelers. Note that the main turtle feeding ground is off limits to the public.
Drive about 90 minutes from Cancun down the coast to reach Akumal.
Across from Playa Del Carmen awaits another island that is a paradise for snorkelers and divers, and one of the most popular day trips from Cancun.
Cozumel, one of the best diving sites in the world, is known for its pretty beaches, clear water, and Stingray Beach where you’ll encounter friendly stingrays who regularly interact with humans.
The island is also home to a main town called San Miguel in addition to several archaeological sites that are open to tourists.
Ferries to Cozumel depart from Playa Del Carmen, which is about an hour from Cancun. The length of the ferry ride depends on whether you take the 20-minute high-speed ferry or the 45-minute regular ferry.
A vacation to the Yucatán Peninsula isn’t complete without a swim in one of the over 10,000 cenotes. Cenotes are natural sinkholes, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater below. It’s the cenotes that allows this arid region to be lush with vegetation and why so many Mayan civilizations were built here.
Many of the cenotes are quite deep which allows people to scuba dive or snorkel in them. Day trips from Cancun to cenotes that you can snorkel, swim or dive in include Cenote Selvatica, Casa Cenote, Cenote Cristallino, Cenote Ik Kil and many others.
Best Cancun Hotels to Book
There are no shortage of good resort options in this favorite part of Mexico. Tourists tend to stay in the Hotel Zone though there are resorts lining the beach down to Tulum.
NIZUC: If you are going to choose a Cancun hotel near the airport. NIZUC is a boutique hotel that is regarded as one of the best in the entire country. The six dining options are outstanding, and many accommodations have their own plunge pools. Read my full Nizuc Cancun review.
Belmond Maroma: To the south of Cancun deeper into Riviera Maya is a quiet beach called Maroma. There are only 63 rooms and suites at this luxe beachfront resort. Book in advance as it’s very popular.
Jashita Hotel: If you’re looking for quiet luxury in hipster Tulum (about 10 minutes away from the heart of town), this beachfront resort caters to couples and families equally well and is filled with activities like kayaking, paddle boarding, snorkeling and simply lounging by the pool.
What are your picks for best day trips from Cancun, Mexico?