After you’ve had your fill of parties and pools in Cancún, take a couple of detours to these top destinations.
Cancún might have powdery white sands, legendary nightlife, and some of the most luxurious resorts in Mexico, but you’re missing out if you don’t ditch the pool and the piña coladas for a day trip or two while you’re in the region. Whether you’re looking to relax on a Caribbean island—there are plenty to choose from—travel back in time at one of the area’s many Mayan ruins, or make a splash in a freshwater cenote, here are 10 day trips from Cancún you should consider.
Chichén Itzá is by far the most well-known and popular of the Mayan ruins within day-trip distance from Cancún. But is this iconic New Wonder of the World the best destination for archaeology buffs? Perhaps. As long as you get there before the busloads of tourists descend for the day, that is. If you want a quieter experience though, don’t overlook Cobá. At this vast site, you can climb to the top of the central Nohuch Mul Pyramid and explore the sacbes (roads) which connect the site.
Long since overtaken by North American weekenders and Instagram influencers, Tulum is no longer the somewhat secret paradise it once was, but the white sand and palapas remain. Now thronged with uber-exclusive restaurants, jungle cocktail bars, and boutique hotels, Tulum is an ideal day trip if you’re looking for somewhere with a distinctly different vibe to Cancún. Stop by the beaches, clifftop ruins and take a detour to the cool waters of nearby cenotes if you start to feel the heat.
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Speaking of cenotes, if you’re sick of the salty ocean (remember: while Cancún’s beaches look beautiful, they often harbor a nasty undertow) take a trip to some cenotes. These freshwater sinkholes which were sacred to the Mayans speckle the peninsula, so you won’t have trouble finding a good one and the entrance fees are usually well under $10 per person. One of the region’s most popular is the Gran Cenote, just outside Tulum, although Zazil-Ha, with its aquamarine waters and the made-for-Instagram appeal is a closer-to-Cancún alternative.
When the party atmosphere of Cancún all gets just too much, take a break in the colonial city of Valladolid, one of our Go List destinations for 2020. There, you’ll find 16th-century convents, super snackable street foods (be sure to seek out the chocolate and cheese-filled marquesita) and two cenotes in which to cool off—Cenote Zaci and the recently discovered Cenote Chukum-Ha (they really are everywhere).
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
There are close to 50 Protected Biosphere Reserves in Mexico and Sian Ka’an in Quintana Roo is widely considered to be one of the best. (As if that wasn’t enough, it was also one of the first UNESCO-recognized attractions in the country.) Knotted with mangroves and dotted with lagoons, Sian Ka’an is home to dense jungles, diverse creatures, and even archaeological ruins. At three and a half hours from Cancún, it’s not the most convenient day trip, but it’s worth the effort.
Río Lagartos Biosphere Reserve
Made famous a few years ago thanks to the cotton-candy pink waters of Los Colorados, the Río Lagartos Biosphere Reserve is another striking natural attraction just over three hours outside of Cancún. Although you can no longer swim in them, the pink waters are what often draw people but the incredible diversity of the Biosphere Reserve itself is where the real appeal lies. Look out for the flamboyant flamingos in particular.
The Caribbean Islands
Flee the mainland and make for a Caribbean island off the coast of Cancún. Isla Holbox, known for its laidback, desert island vibes is a great place to swim with whale sharks from May to September, while Cozumel is a popular cruise-ship stop and still one of the top diving destinations in the country. Over on Isla Mujeres—which is just a 20-minute ferry ride from Cancún—you’ll find glorious beaches and plenty of opportunities to snorkel with sea turtles. Finally, the tiny Isla Contoy (which only accepts 200 visitors a day) is a haven for bird watchers.
Playa del Carmen
When discussing vacations in Quintana Roo, you’ll often hear people debating whether to go to Cancún or Playa del Carmen, but why not do both? Just one hour apart from one another, these two cities are a little like eyebrows—sisters, not twins. While Cancún has better nightlife and beaches, Playa is great for shopping and has a more Mexican feel to it. Stroll Quinta Avenida, hang out on Playacar, and catch a Voladores de Papantla performance in Parque Fundadores.
If you remain unmoved by the bright lights of Playa del Carmen, ambivalent in the face of Tulum and reluctant to move inland for your Cancún day trip, consider a visit to one of the region’s small(er) coastal towns: Akumal and Puerto Morelos. The former is probably best known for sea turtles, but you can also enjoy a quiet waterfront lunch, windsurfing lessons, and even fishing excursions. Meanwhile, Puerto Morelos is a tranquil gateway to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef with several nearby cenotes, including the lush Verde Lucero.
INSIDER TIPIf you want to snorkel with turtles in Akumal, head to Akumal Bay and remember that wearing fins is banned. The sea turtle season runs from roughly May to November.
Eco Theme Parks
If you’re traveling with children (or just remain young at heart), the trio of water parks which surround Cancún—Xel Há, Xcaret, and Xplor—are unmissable. Visit one or all three during your vacation but remember that they’re all between one and one and a half hours away from Cancún and share similar attractions—think freshwater rivers, cenotes, jungle walkways, and massive evening spectaculars. However, true adrenaline chasers may prefer Xplor, families will probably be best suited to Xcaret, and Xel-Há is all about the water activities.