Escape the Resort: 5 Epic Day Trips Near Cancún for Culture, Adventure & Nature
Escape the Resort: 5 Epic Day Trips Near Cancún for Culture, Adventure & Nature - Explore Ancient Ruins at Chichén Itzá
With over 1.4 million annual visitors, the archeological site of Chichén Itzá is one of the most popular day trips from Cancún. Located just 120 miles (193 km) west, it's an easy journey by rental car or tour bus. And while some complain it's too touristy, you simply can't visit the Yucatan Peninsula without seeing this UNESCO World Heritage Site for yourself.
Sprawling across 2.5 square miles (6.5 sq km), Chichén Itzá will transport you back over 1,000 years to the height of Mayan civilization. As you explore the various temples, columns, and sacred cenotes (natural sinkholes), it becomes clear why this was one of the greatest cities in pre-Columbian America.
The main draw is El Castillo, the iconic 79-foot (24 m) step pyramid that dominates the central plaza. Flanked by temples dedicated to jaguars and eagles, its design pays tribute to the Mayan calendar. On the spring and autumn equinoxes, the steps cast triangular shadows said to resemble the slithering descent of Kukulcán, the feathered serpent god.
Climbing the pyramid is no longer allowed, but you can still snap that classic photos from below. Afterwards, head into the Temple of Kukulcán at its base. The stonework here is incredibly ornate, decorated with statues of Chaac, the rain god. While much of the temple's interior remains off-limits, you can glimpse the red jaguar throne and a chacmool sculpture used for sacrificial rituals.
El Caracol, the observatory, is another highlight. Built sometime between 900-1000 CE, its cylindrical tower and slit-like windows were designed to track the sun, moon, Venus, and other celestial bodies. Climb to the top for panoramic views of the ruins and surrounding countryside.
Of course, no trip to Chichén Itzá would be complete without seeing the Great Ballcourt. At 545 feet (166 m) long, it's the largest in Mesoamerica. Steep stone walls tower over the playing field on all sides, where the losing team was traditionally decapitated! Reliefs carved into the walls depict nobles donning protective gear and clutching ritual balls.
After touring the central ruins, don't miss the chance to venture further out. The Temple of Warriors is fronted by rows of fearsome, stone columns carved with elaborate battle scenes. Nearby, check out the Group of a Thousand Columns, the ancient marketplace known for its forest of supports. Then there's the Sacred Cenote, a perfectly round, 60-foot deep sinkhole where human sacrifices were given to the gods.
While massive tour groups can make Chichén Itzá feel a bit hectic, getting there early lets you enjoy the magic before the crowds arrive. I'd recommend booking a guided VIP tour, which grants you special early access at 8 am. Wandering through the empty plazas and temples as the sun rises is an experience you won't soon forget.
Another option is to stay overnight at one of the hotels on-site, like the Mayaland Hotel & Bungalows. Its traditional architecture seamlessly blends into the surroundings, and rates include admission to the nightly sound and light show. Watching the ruins illuminated under a starry sky is hauntingly beautiful.
Pro tip: If possible, visit Chichén Itzá on the spring or fall equinox. Seeing the slithering shadow phenomenon on El Castillo (which lasts about 30 minutes) is a bucket list experience for any traveler. Just be prepared for massive crowds if you go on those dates. Alternatively, Chichén Itzá is quite magical during the annual Mayan new year celebration that coincides with the spring equinox.
What else is in this post?
- Escape the Resort: 5 Epic Day Trips Near Cancún for Culture, Adventure & Nature - Explore Ancient Ruins at Chichén Itzá
- Escape the Resort: 5 Epic Day Trips Near Cancún for Culture, Adventure & Nature - Swim in Cenotes Near Tulum
- Escape the Resort: 5 Epic Day Trips Near Cancún for Culture, Adventure & Nature - Island Hop to Cozumel for Snorkeling
- Escape the Resort: 5 Epic Day Trips Near Cancún for Culture, Adventure & Nature - Go Deep Into the Jungle at Sian Ka'an Biosphere
- Escape the Resort: 5 Epic Day Trips Near Cancún for Culture, Adventure & Nature - See Whale Sharks Up Close on Holbox Island
Escape the Resort: 5 Epic Day Trips Near Cancún for Culture, Adventure & Nature - Swim in Cenotes Near Tulum
Of all the natural wonders in the Yucatán Peninsula, few match the magic of the cenotes that dot the landscape. Formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock, these pristine sinkholes reveal an underwater world of cavernous swimming holes and intricate cave systems. Many contain striking rock formations, stalactites, and crystal-clear turquoise waters that are perfect for a refreshing dip.
The best place to experience cenotes is around Tulum, where you’ll find dozens within easy reach. Some stand right along the roadside, while others are hidden deep in the jungle. Either way, jumping into these natural swimming pools provides the ultimate escape from the Mexican heat.
Cenote Dos Ojos makes for a convenient first stop, located just 10 minutes outside central Tulum. One of the area’s most extensive cave networks, it consists of two adjacent cenotes (Spanish for “two eyes”) spanning over 10 miles (16 km). Snorkeling and diving here allows you to explore an elaborate maze of stalactites and stalagmites. Thewaters feel surprisingly cool and clean as you swim through cavern after cavern surrounded by rock walls.
Multiple dive shops operate tours to Dos Ojos, though you can also visit independently and pay a small entry fee. If scuba diving, you’ll need to show certification. For snorkelers, lifejackets are required. Regardless of how you see Dos Ojos, it’s an adventure you won’t soon forget. The clarity of the water and rays of sunlight streaming down into the caverns make for an almost extraterrestrial experience.
Further south along the coastal road, keep an eye out for Cenote Cristalino. True to its name, the crystalline water perfectly transmits the sun’s rays, making it ideal for snorkeling. A 30-foot (9 m) wide opening lets in plenty of sunshine along with tree roots that frame the outlines. You can climb up a makeshift ladder to leap from the rocks above or simply wade in from the shoreline.
With an open, outdoor layout, this is among the most family-friendly cenotes near Tulum. There are even picnic tables where you can enjoy a packed lunch after swimming. Entry costs about $6 per person.
For a cenote experience well off the beaten path, book a tour to Cenote Pak Chen. Located within the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, you can only access it via guided tour unless you have a 4x4 rental car. But the rewards are ample once you arrive. An underground river has carved out an expansive cavern here, 80 feet (24 m) wide and 60 feet (18 m) deep.
Multiple wooden platforms are suspended above the luminous blue-green waters, providing gorgeous vantage points. And since only small groups visit Pak Chen at once, you might have the whole place to yourself! That means ultimate serenity as you lounge on the platforms before plunging into the bracing waters below. Bring your own snorkel gear and a waterproof flashlight to illuminate every corner of this massive cavern.
No trip to the Riviera Maya’s cenotes is complete without a visit to Gran Cenote. Found just outside downtown Tulum, it’s conveniently located but never feels crowded. A broad wooden deck surrounds the blue waters, providing ample space to bask in the sunshine between swims.
Rays of light stream down through an open cavern in the limestone dome that arches 160 feet (50 m) above. It lends a hushed ambiance, as if you’re inside a grand cathedral. The swimming area spans about 300 feet (90 m) end-to-end, with a maximum depth around 10 feet (3 m).
For the more adventurous, there’s also a snorkeling cavern that extends off to the side. Duck underwater to find vines cascading down from above and a sandy bottom swirling with tropical fish. You might even spot freshwater turtles gliding through the shadows.
No motorized watercraft are allowed, keeping things blissfully peaceful. There’s also an on-site restaurant and gift shop where you can refuel after working up an appetite. With amenities and beauty in equal supply, it’s easy to spend hours unwinding at Gran Cenote.
Planning a cenote day trip from Tulum could hardly be easier. Most are a quick car ride away and charge nominal entry fees of $5-15. If relying on public transport, shared shuttle vans offer hop-on, hop-off service between the major cenotes.
Pack your swimsuit, towel, and biodegradable sunscreen, as some cenotes prohibit chemical-based lotions. Water shoes come in handy for scrambling over slick rocks. Underwater lights and diving gear can be rented at certain locations.
Escape the Resort: 5 Epic Day Trips Near Cancún for Culture, Adventure & Nature - Island Hop to Cozumel for Snorkeling
Known for its crystal-clear waters and extensive coral reefs, Cozumel has become one of the world’s premier snorkeling and scuba diving destinations. Jacques Cousteau once called its marine life some of the most beautiful he had ever seen. And thanks to Cozumel’s location just 12 miles (19 km) offshore from the Riviera Maya, the island makes for one of the best day trips from Cancún.
Whether you’re a beginner flopping around in goggles for the first time or a seasoned pro who could identify every colorful fish species, the snorkeling opportunities on Cozumel will blow you away. The island sits in the path of the Caribbean current, bathing the reefs in a constant flow of nutrients. This allows coral formations to grow bigger and marine ecosystems to flourish more than almost anywhere in the region.
Of course, one of the best parts about Cozumel is the diversity of snorkeling experiences. Providing access to both deep sea walls and shallow coral patches, you can choose sites based on your abilities. For newbies, opt for a close-to-shore spot like Playa Azul. Waves gently lap against the white sand beach here before you kick out over the reef crest just 20 or 30 feet offshore. Schools of angelfish and sergeant majors are a common sight.
Meanwhile, experienced snorkelers shouldn’t miss the Palancar Reef system on Cozumel’s southwestern edge. Stretching over 15 miles (24 km), it follows the edge of the island’s continental shelf. Diving down, you’ll be awestruck by offshore canyons and tunnels blanketed in brain corals, sponges, and sea fans. Eagle rays and sea turtles are frequent visitors. Currents can be strong, so palancar does require more advanced skills.
I’d recommend booking a snorkeling tour for optimal convenience and enjoyment. Knowledgeable guides will select sites based your abilities while providing useful background on the marine ecology. Top-notch gear like high-definition masks and hyper-responsive fins are also par for the course. And you get the peace of mind that comes with a licensed captain and crew watching out for your safety.
Most tours with transportation, equipment, instruction, and even food/drink included run $50-75 USD per person. I’ve had incredible luck with companies like Buccanos and Nachi Cocom. Both run modern speed boats and keep groups sizes intimate. You won’t get stuck on some overloaded cattle barge with hordes of other tourists. Small groups means more personal attention from your guide.
5. Consider booking a double tank scuba dive if certified - you’ll gain access to reefs farther offshore that most snorkelers can’t reach. The underwater perspectives while breathing compressed air are mind-blowing!
The biodiversity you’ll witness while snorkeling off Cozumel is truly astounding. On one tour, I spotted spotted eagle rays, barracudas, nurse sharks, and massive sea turtles among huge elkhorn corals that looked like alien lifeforms. Even Jacques Cousteau himself would have been impressed!
Escape the Resort: 5 Epic Day Trips Near Cancún for Culture, Adventure & Nature - Go Deep Into the Jungle at Sian Ka'an Biosphere
Transporting visitors to a lost world of exotic wildlife and nearly-forgotten Mayan relics, an excursion into Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve stands as one of the quintessential day trips from Cancún. Encompassing over 1.3 million acres of tropical forests, marshes, and coastal mangroves, it's the biggest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean. Home to over 300 bird species, 120 mammal species, and 100 reptile species, the diversity of fauna seems endless. I'm talking tapirs, ocelots, crocodiles...even the elusive jaguar still stalks the jungles here. For adventurers seeking close encounters with creatures and cultures rarely witnessed, Sian Ka'an invariably delivers.
Granted, Sian Ka'an lacks the archaeological grandeur of Chichén Itzá or the underwater dazzle of Cozumel's reefs. It's not as action-packed as ziplining through the jungle canopy north of Playa del Carmen. But in my estimation, immersing yourself in this unspoiled biosphere reserve is equally rewarding. Its appeal lies in witnessing nature's raw and unfiltered abundance, far from the throngs of sunscreen-slathered tourists clogging up coastal resorts.
Within the dense tropical forests and placid lagoons, it feels akin to stepping back centuries...maybe even millennia. The only modern traces are dirt roads laid down in the 1980s. Otherwise, the jungles, mangroves, cenotes, and canals remain precisely as the ancient Mayans experienced them. Of course, they knew Sian Ka'an as Zuuy Ha, meaning "Place of the Beginning."
The reserve's 1,300 square miles contain a complex mosaic of different ecosystems. Heading inland from the coast brings you through alternating palm savannas and thickets of mahogany and logwood trees draped in vines. Eventually the foliage grows impenetrable, full of figs, sapodillas, gumbo limbos, and cohune palms soaring 100 feet overhead. The calls of howler monkeys reverberate through the canopy as butterflies flitter about speckled in electric blue. Continuing on, you reach tangled mangrove swamps cut through with slow-moving channels opening to placid lagoons.
Pink flamingos pose gracefully here, while crocodiles lurk just below the glassy surface. Finally, pristine beaches fringe the outer coastline, providing critical nesting habitat for four species of sea turtles. Loggerheads, hawksbills, greens, and leatherbacks all return annually to lay eggs in the sugar-soft sand. But the restrictive access prevents most egg poachers or disruptive development from jeopardizing nests before hatchlings emerge.
While day tours only provide a small taste of Sian Ka'an, they still showcase some of the reserve's foremost highlights. I joined a group tour that began with pickup from my hotel zone resort in Cancún. A comfortable van then transported us 1.5 hours south along the coast to the Punta Allen entrance gate. From there we boarded a motorboat, our gateway into the biosphere's unspoiled wetlands.
Skimming through a maze of canals with our native Mayan guide, we spotted crocodiles basking lazily along the banks. Herons stalked the shallows while iguanas scurried between branches. The ride ended at a pristine cenote where we slipped into the cool waters for a swim surrounded by vine-draped limestone walls. It was akin to an ancient Mayan baptismal ritual, cleansing impurities before proceeding farther into Sian Ka'an's sacred jungle temples.
After returning to shore, we set off into the rainforest along raised wooden walkways designed to minimize impact. Our guide, Juan, grew up in one of the small fishing villages within the reserve. His knowledge of the local ecology was unparalleled. I learned how chicle workers still extract sap from sapodilla trees to produce natural chewing gum, just as the ancient Mayans did. We witnessed leaves that fold up when touched, carnivorous trumpet plants, and morning glory vines used in traditional medicine. Juan also demonstrated how the cohune palm provides everything needed for survival: nutritious fruits, edible hearts, fibers for rope, and fronds for thatching huts.
While parrots and motmots flitted overhead, Juan spotted an eyelash viper coiled around a branch, nearly invisible thanks to its expert camouflage. We gave it a wide berth - with venom that attacks blood cells and tissues, just one drop can be fatal. But Juan reassured us that respecting nature was the surest path to safety.
Farther along the trail, we came upon an unexcavated mound towering above the rainforest canopy. Juan explained it was likely an ancient Mayan structure now being reclaimed by jungle. We scrambled up its crumbling sides, glimpsing remnants of weathered stone poking through the soil. From the top, we surveyed the impenetrable forests in silent awe.
Escape the Resort: 5 Epic Day Trips Near Cancún for Culture, Adventure & Nature - See Whale Sharks Up Close on Holbox Island
With some fish stretching over 40 feet long and weighing up to 20 tons, witnessing whale sharks in the wild ranks among the most astounding animal encounters on Earth. Fortunately, the waters surrounding Mexico’s Holbox Island offer one of the best places worldwide to swim alongside these gentle giants. From May through September, massive whale sharks congregate just offshore to feed on plankton. No need to cram into a deep sea submarine or book some lavish liveaboard dive charter. During the right season, you can readily snorkel with whale sharks off Holbox just a quick boat ride from the beach. Trust me...coming face to face with Earth’s largest fish will be an experience you cherish forever!
Located 30 miles north of Cancún, Holbox remains blissfully undeveloped compared to the megaresorts dominating the Hotel Zone. At just 26 miles long and a little over 2 miles wide, it’s small enough to explore by golf cart or bicycle. The vibe here channels “barefoot paradise,” with sandy lanes flanked by colorful Caribbean cottages. I’m talking funky palapa-roofed abodes painted sunshine yellow or sky blue. Beaches fringe the entire circumference, backed by mangroves and lagoons that create a calm, shallow sanctuary attractive to whale sharks.
Abundant plankton draws these behemoths to Holbox from spring through fall. Although whale sharks are filter feeders that pose no threat to humans, it’s still hard not to feel awestruck swimming alongside a living creature the size of a school bus! They lazily skim the ocean’s surface with gaping mouths, vacuuming up tiny copepods and fish eggs by the thousands. Their broad backs and dorsal fins break the surface while distinctive spotted and striped patterns make each whale shark unique.
Unlike viewing marine life confined behind thick aquarium glass, the thrill of encountering whale sharks in the open ocean is next level. You’re entering their natural domain as a privileged guest, getting to observe behavior in the wild. Never rushed or crowded, the experience feels special...almost spiritual.
As with anywhere whale sharks congregate, there are a few rules to follow that protect both you and them during swims off Holbox. Give the animals ample space and don’t touch them (those giant tails could deliver a mean accidental thwack if startled!) Banks of remoras often attach themselves to whale sharks, so beware as you approach. But the suction-cupped fish are harmless - just a bit startling when they suddenly detach and bump into you.
Besides keeping a respectful distance, also avoid wearing sunscreens or insect repellants that contain harsh chemicals. These can damage the sharks’ sensitive eyes and skin. Opt for eco-friendly, mineral-based lotions instead. Lastly, don’t flash strobes or bright video lights directly at the animals. Low light is best for photography and preserves their natural behavior.
Logistically, joining a snorkel tour makes swimming with Holbox’s whale sharks easy and enjoyable. Dozens of operators run boats daily during peak season, typically charging $100-150 USD per person. I’d recommend going with a highly-reviewed outfit like Wildlife Connection or Mexicore that minimizes environmental impact and tourist disruption. Many use quiet, low-emissions electric motors and limit the number of people in the water at once. No chaotic scene of people flailing wildly around these gentle giants. Their professional guides provide excellent interpretation, both about whale shark ecology and respectful interaction in their environment.
Tours typically pick you up from your Holbox hotel around 7 AM to reach offshore waters as the sharks begin feeding. After about a 30 minute ride, your captain and guide will slow to a halt and scout for any surfacing fins. Once a whale shark is spotted, you’ll quietly don snorkel gear and slip overboard in small groups. The excitement builds as you kick slowly towards a shadowy shape materializing below. Then suddenly...WHOOSH...a spotted leviathan surfaces right beside you!
Getting so close, it’s hard not to feel tiny and insignificant next to the whale shark's mammoth size. They average around 25 feet long, though occasional giants reach almost double that. As you float motionless, the shark will glide gracefully by near enough to count every starburst spot adorning its hide. You might see remoras clinging tight or even pilot fish darting alongside for protection. Though plankton clouds limit underwater visibility, the jaw-dropping spectacle of these swimming giants needs no clarity.
After your initial whale shark encounter, your guide lets others take turns until everyone’s awe and adrenaline run high. But eventually you’ll need to leave the feeding sharks undisturbed. The boat then explores other parts of the island’s leeward side with opportunities to snorkel pristine coral reefs. Vibrant tropical fish swarm through elkhorn and staghorn corals along the dropoffs.