Encircled by the world’s second-biggest reef and blanketed in acres of untamed tropical forest the Yucatan Peninsula is an exciting destination on its own, and the Playa del Carmen’s proximity to Mayan ruins, coral reefs, and cenotes make it all the more appealing. 

As an excellent springboard for the area, Playa del Carmen hosts a medley of day trip adventures: from low-key islands to wild adventure parks. Plus its central location between Cancún and Tulum means you can visit a string of bucket-list sights in less than an hour’s drive.

Go cenote-hopping on the Yucatan Peninsula

If there’s one thing worth dragging yourself away from the shores of Playa del Carmen, it’s the cenote (freshwater springs). Under the thick jungles of the Riviera Maya lies a dreamy underworld of natural turquoise pools and water-filled caverns. Swim amidst clear-as-glass waters, with stalactites overhead and ancient boulders beneath your feet, while spider monkeys and iguanas roam the lush tropical forest surrounding you. 

The Mayan civilization revered the cenotes and made sacrifices here as offerings to the gods. Today, cenotes are equally venerated by outdoorsy travelers drawn to this unique setting.

Over 6,000 cenotes are peppered around the Yucatán Peninsula, and a few of the lesser-known ones are found near Playa del Carmen. A trio of cenotes – Azul, Cristalino, and Eden – are located side by side, making it easy to do a cenote-hopping tour of your own in just one day. All three are open-air cenotes with water deep enough for grownups to plunge into from the cliff’s edge and shallow pools for the little ones to wade in. 

How to get to the cenotes

The three cenotes are just a 25-minute drive south along 307 highway. Each cenote has its own entrance gate, car park, and changing facilities. To get there on public transport, head to the lineup of colectivos (shared vans) on Avenida Juarez, under the highway underpass, and catch one going in the direction of Tulum. Let the driver know where you’re going, and he’ll drop you off at the cenote’s entrance.

Caribbean Sea scenery with green turtle near Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Wild turtles are the star of seagrass meadows of the Mesoamerican Reef © Patryk Kosmider / Getty Images

Snorkel Akumal to swim with wild turtles

Don’t let the inviting panorama of swaying palm trees and sugary sand fool you – the real star of Akumal lies beneath its water surface. Thanks to the seagrass meadows and the protective Mesoamerican Reef, Akumal is the best place to snorkel with turtles in the Riviera Maya. If you’re lucky, you might even spot manta rays and squid. 

It’s mandatory to join a guided tour if you want to snorkel within the protected area. Standard prices M$300 (US$15) per person includes snorkeling gear and life vests. Seafood restaurants and hotels line the beach, serving fresh but overpriced seafood, ceviche and tacos. 

How to get to Akumal

By private car, Akumal is just 40 minutes from Playa. Drive south along Highway 307, taking the exit to Akumal playa (beach). Continue to the beach, and there’s plenty of parking close to the beach entrance. If you don’t drive, take a colectivo from Juarez Avenue towards Tulum. Let the driver know you’re going to Akumal and he’ll drop you by the highway exit, which is a 15-minute walk to the beach.

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Explore laid-back Isla Cozumel in a Jeep

Docking into Isla Cozumel, the first thing you’ll notice are the schools of technicolored fish swimming in the shimmering spearmint water beneath the pier. The beach by the ferry terminal is sparkling clean yet gloriously empty, which begs the question: where are the tourists? 

With its low-key flair and empty beaches, Cozumel is where Playenses (Playa del Carmen locals) go to escape from the hubbub of the mainland. Time your visit to the days when there are no cruises docked here, and you’ll literally have the island to yourself. To explore the island inside out, hire a Jeep for the day and drive the 30-mile (48km) loops around the island. 

First, drop in at San Gervasio Maya ruins, a pilgrimage center for the Mayans. Head southeast and drive alongside the rugged windward coast until you reach Punta Sur Ecological Park. Spot crocodiles on a boat ride on its saltwater marsh and climb to the top of the Celarain Lighthouse – both of which are included in your entrance ticket. End your day trip on a high note with a snorkeling excursion to El Cielo, where you can swim off the world’s second-biggest reef, the Mesoamerican Reef.

How to get to Isla Cozumel

Cozumel is an easy 45-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen center. High-speed ferries depart regularly, daily. Ultramar and Winjet run the route but on different schedules. Both have comfortable, air-conditioned ferries that leave on time. Ticket prices start from US$25 each way.

Casa Del Cenote Building in Tulum, Mexico
The ruins of the ancient Maya city of Tulum are an easy day trip from Playa del Carmen © Sherry Smith / Getty Images

Marvel at the ruins of Tulum 

Reclining majestically on the clifftops overlooking the azure waves, the Tulum archaeological site sets itself apart from other ancient cities with an atypical coastal setting. These ruins may not have the immaculately-restored pyramids of Chichén Itzá, but they capture your imagination with a clear grid layout and temple structures.

You can easily see the Tulum ruins in two hours – don’t forget your swimsuit as you’d want to take a dip in the beach beneath the ruins (although access has been closed since the pandemic started). You definitely won’t be alone at the Tulum ruins, arrive at 9am for the best chance to have the place to yourself.

After exploring the Tulum ruins, duck into the Mystika Tulum right by the exit. The interactive digital museum takes your senses on a journey through the Maya cosmology. Immerse in the planetarium dome and look around the mirror-filled square room – you’ll leave with renewed perspectives. Entry is pricier than average, but its outstanding visuals please both adults and kids. 

How to get to Tulum ruins

The Tulum archaeological zone is an easy one-hour drive south along the 307 Highway from Playa del Carmen. If you prefer private transport, take a colectivo from Avenida Juarez in the direction of Tulum. The driver will stop you close to the entrance. The ADO bus also runs hourly services from Playa del Carmen to Tulum ruins, with comfortable reclining seats and air conditioning.

Escape the crowds at the secret cenote at Laguna de Kaan Luum

When you tire of the crowds, take time out in the little-known Laguna de Kaan Luum, a perfectly circular lagoon that sparkles in different shades of blue under the sunlight. A cenote sits right in the middle of the lagoon, its dark indigo waters shimmering in contrast to the shallow aqua patches. Climb the viewing tower, and you’ll see what I mean. 

Mainly popular with locals, Kaan Luum has miraculously escaped the major tourist radar despite being just a 15-minute drive from Tulum town. You’ll find a trickle of visitors if you get here before 11 am or after 3 pm, but it’s busy around lunchtime. Bring a picnic lunch – fresh coconuts and beer are sold here – and you can combine a visit to the Tulum ruins with an afternoon swinging on the rainbow-colored hammocks, laying out on the dock, and soaking in the knee-deep water. 

How to get to Kaan Luum

Kaan Luum is an hour’s drive from Playa del Carmen. Car is the easiest way to get there, driving south along the 307 highway. Getting there by public transport is possible but tedious: you’ll need to change at Tulum to a colectivo heading towards Felipe Carillo. However, these colectivos do not run frequently, and it can be challenging to find one on your way back. Alternatively, book a standup paddleboard tour – transportation is usually included.

Go zip-lining and ATVing on the Ruta de los Cenotes

In the nearby town of Puerto Morelos, a 23-mile (37km) paved road cuts through the dense jungles inland, connecting a melange of cenotes and eco-adventure parks. These parks are one-stop shops complete with zipline circuits, ATV jungle trails, magical cenotes, and restaurants. They might be slightly commercial, but they promise both adults and children a thrilling good time and rarely disappoint. 

One of our favorites is Selvática, which boasts 10 different zip lines, flying fox circuits, and a bungee swing. Cenotes Zapote Ecopark is home to four different cenotes, including one with prehistoric sloth fossils found 50m deep. Siete Bocas is a massive underground cenote with seven openings, where shafts of sunlight beam in and create a dramatic setting.

How to get to Ruta de los Cenotes

The driving time to the start of the Ruta de los Cenotes is roughly 35 minutes from Playa del Carmen. Depending on which eco-park you’re visiting, it’s another five to 30 minutes from there by car. There’s no public transport to the Ruta de los Cenotes. Tours to the eco-adventure parks are plentiful, with transportation from Playa del Carmen included. 

Colourful buildings on a street in Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico
Spend a day meandering the colourful streets of Valladolid © Tetra Images / Getty Images

Meander the artsy cobblestone streets of Valladolid

Culturally minded travelers will not want to miss this cute colonial town. As the closest town to Chichen Itza, Valladolid is a popular launchpad for visitors to the new world wonder. Yet, it’s somehow retained a strong sense of Yucatecan identity, moving to its own mellow, laidback beat. The cobblestoned streets of this pueblo magico (magical town) are flanked by pastel-colored colonial buildings, leafy gardens, and vintage Volkswagen Beetles. Women saunter around in the traditional embroidered huipil, buying fresh tortillas from street stands and shopping for fruit.

Its historical center, crowned by the prominent stonewalled Iglesia de San Servacio, sprawls out in a maze of artisanal shops, restaurants, and cantinas. Grab a snack in the mercado municipal (town market) before strutting down the photogenic Calzada de los Frailes, a street lined with boutiques and galleries converted from old colonial houses. 

Poke into the Casa de los Venados to admire one of the largest collections of pre-Hispanic artwork in Mexico. Try Yucatecan staples at the historic El Mesón del Marqués, a glorious hacienda-style restaurant overlooking the main square. End the day trip with a dip in Cenote Zaci, a sinkhole just a 10-minute walk from the center.

 How to get to Valladolid

Valladolid is one hour and 55 minutes northwest of Playa del Carmen. It’s easily accessible by car: take the 305D highway north and then west along the 108 tolled highway. There’s a toll fee of M$230 (US$11) each way, but the new road cuts down travel time by 20 minutes. ADO bus has regular departures from Playa del Carmen to Valladolid, with one-way fares starting from M$206 (US$9.85). 

You might also like: 
The best beaches in Playa del Carmen for spring break relaxation
Five family adventures in the Riviera Maya
Things to know before going to Playa del Carmen to make your trip more memorable

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Girl tourist walks through the ancient Mayan complex Chichen Itza.A popular tourist destination in the Yucatan - Chichen Itza complex ; Shutterstock ID 2077363255; purchase_order: 65050; job: Cancun day trips; client: Online ed; other: ClaireN

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