Cancún is one of Mexico’s crown jewels – a spectacular destination with stunning white-sand beaches and a nightlife that doesn’t stop. 

But just beyond this bustling beach city, there’s a world of excursions and adventures that offer everything from a pleasant change of pace to a deeper understanding of the region’s richness, with ancient pyramids, otherworldly cenotes and colonial towns to explore. 

Here are a few day trip options from Cancún and all the info you need to make them happen.

A young couple driving a golf cart alongside a tropical beach
Rent a golf cart to explore more of chilled-out Isla Mujeres © Belikova Oksana / Shutterstock

1. Relax in Isla Mujeres

Travel time: 20 to 30 minutes

A quick ferry ride from Cancún transports you to Isla Mujeres, a laid-back island with backpacker roots. The main town is draped in murals and known for its superstar Playa Norte – a white-sand beauty with swaying palm trees and tranquil turquoise waters, perfect for a relaxed beach day.

Take a stroll along Calle Hidalgo, a pleasant pedestrian street lined with artsy boutiques and eateries; in the evening, enjoy live music at a handful of open-air bars.

Alternatively, explore the island by golf cart, stopping at Playa Garrafón for snorkeling and at Punta Sur, with its crashing waves and Maya temple to Ixchel, the goddess of fertility. All are easily done in a day, especially with ferries running from 5:30am to midnight.

How to get to Isla Mujeres from Cancún: Ultramar operates two ferries from the Zona Hotelera at Playa Tortugas and Playa Caracol, and one just north of downtown Cancún at Puerto Juárez. Tickets are M$270 each way.

A man dives into a cenote - a sunken water hole - to join friends swimming there
Swim in one of the many atmospheric cenotes found in the Riviera Maya © Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

2. Cenote hop along the Riviera Maya

Travel time: 1 hour

The coastal road (Hwy 307) from Cancún to Tulum is dotted with spectacular cenotes, crystal-clear pools of water found in deep underground caves or in open-air jungle settings.

Spend a day hopping between them, snorkeling and swimming ‘til dark. Most are located just south of Playa del Carmen, though new ones open yearly. 

Favorites include Cenote Azul, a luminous set of open-air cenotes with teal waters, stone walkways and overhangs for jumping into the water; Cenote Manatí, a rare oceanside cenote winding through a lush mangrove forest; and Dos Ojos, twin caverns decked out in stalagmites and connected by a chilly underground river. Snorkel gear rentals are available at each.

How to get to cenotes along the Riviera Maya from Cancún: Colectivos (shared minivans) are an inexpensive way to travel along Hwy 307; they leave every few minutes from outside Cancún’s bus station and stop at passengers' request. 

If they’re full, however, they won’t pick up passengers, so you may have to wait for an open seat between cenotes. Alternatively, rent a car for the day or hire a taxi to take you from spot to spot.

Snorkelers observe a sea turtle from a safe distance as it sits on the ocean floor
Hire a guide in Akumal and head out to view sea turtles from a safe distance © Polly Dawson / Shutterstock

3. Swim with sea turtles in Akumal

Travel time: 1 hour 20 minutes

The calm, clear waters directly in front of the beachfront hamlet of Akumal are designated as a marine conservation area. And with good reason: endangered loggerhead, hawksbill and green sea turtles feed, rest and nest here, and can be spotted in and around Akumal Bay year-round. 

Come here for a snorkeling tour of the turtle feeding grounds, where they’re most frequently seen (guides are required to enter the water and are easily hired on the beach); or join staff members of Centro Ecológico Akumal for an evening walk to see nesting turtles and check on nests. Remember to give turtles plenty of space and do not attempt to touch them.

Before you leave, spend some quality time on the gorgeous palm-laden beach, then head north to Half Moon Bay for an oceanfront meal at La Buena Vida.

How to get to Akumal from Cancún: Colectivos from Cancún drop passengers off at the turn-off to Akumal, a dusty 1km (0.6-mile) walk to the beach. For more comfort, rent a car or hire a cab. There’s a parking lot and a taxi stand just outside the town arch.

4. Experience the Yucatan at Xcaret eco-park

Travel time: 1 hour

Of all the region’s theme parks, Xcaret is the most ambitious, a sprawling, tropical park on a beautiful oceanfront property and a great place to get a taste of the Yucatan’s offerings. Spend your day floating in underground rivers, walking through butterfly gardens, snorkeling along reefs, and visiting folk art museums and Maya ruins.

There are live performances too, including a spectacular nightly showstopper integrating Mexican folk dances, regional music and even a Maya ball game. For sure, it’s a packaged experience – there are even all-inclusive meal plans – but it makes for a stellar day trip, especially if you’re short on time.

How to get to Xcaret from Cancún: Xcaret offers round-trip transportation from any Cancún hotel; it’s convenient, but you’re at the mercy of the shuttle schedule. There’s also ADO bus service several times daily from downtown Cancún. If you have a car rental, there’s free parking. Alternatively, taxi stands make cabbing it easy in either direction.

A row of terraced colonial-era houses painted in pale pastel yellows and oranges
Stroll the colorful streets of Valladolid on a day trip from Cancún © Tetra Images / Getty Images

5. Take in the colonial vibe of Valladolid

Travel time: 2 hours

Valladolid is a charming town just inland from Cancún. The central plaza is the heart of the action, a leafy affair surrounded by historic buildings and buzzing with locals. Late afternoons bring regional dance performances plus cart vendors selling elote (corn on the cob) and paletas (popsicles). 

Consider visiting one of the town’s museums, including MUREM or Casa de los Venados with their respective (and impressive) collections of traditional dress and Mexican folk art. Or stroll down Calzada de los Frailes, a cobblestone street lined with artisanal boutiques and cozy cafes. 

End with a tour of Templo de San Bernardino, an imposing Franciscan church and convent that doubled as a fortress during the Caste War. If you have flexibility, stay overnight to soak in the town’s atmosphere, making time for a dip in one of the local cenotes.

How to get to Valladolid from Cancún: ADO provides bus services from downtown Cancún to Valladolid several times per day. If you have a car, it’s a straight shot on Hwy 180 (libre) or Hwy 180D, the toll road (cuota).

Maya ruin of the Temple of Kukulcan at Chichén Itzá, Mexico, a stone pyramid with a square top
Chichén Itzá is one of the world's most spectacular Maya ruins © Yiming Chen / Getty Images

6. Wander through the Maya world of Chichén Itzá

Travel time: 2 hours 30 minutes

West of Cancún sits one of the world’s most celebrated archaeological zones – Chichén Itzá, an iconic Maya ruin with magnificent palaces, pyramids and ball courts. The most recognizable is El Castillo, a towering 25m-high (82ft) structure positioned to create the shadow of a serpent moving down its staircase at the spring and fall equinoxes

The ruins, however, are a must-see year-round – the sprawling site revealing the complexities of ancient Maya life. Arrive early to avoid the midday heat and crush of tourists; consider hiring an onsite guide to gain a deeper understanding of the place and the people who built it. Afterward, cool off at the nearby Cenote Ik Kil or grab a bite in the tiny town of Pisté at Restaurante Las Mestizas, with a tasty Yucatecan menu.

How to get to Chichén Itzá from Cancún: First-class buses travel from downtown Cancún to the ruins. If you rent a car, take the well-maintained toll road (Hwy 180D) for the fastest trip; or to see villages along the way, take the libre (Hwy 180). A rail service on the Maya Train is in the works too.

This article was first published June 2021 and updated about 11 hours ago

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