Most people travel to Cancun to make the most of the beautiful beaches, fabulous hotels and incredible service and value for money. But there are many more things to do in Cancun, and the largest city of Quintana Roo is an excellent starting point to explore the Riviera Maya (Mayan Riviera, in English); some of the most impressive Mayan sites in the Yucatan Peninsula; smaller islands off the coast; colonial cities; cenotes; natural sites and so much more.
If you are looking for the best Cancun day trips, you are in the right place. I have traveled to the area several times and explored it thoroughly. Continue reading this post for a selection of the best places to visit on day trips from Cancun, with tips on how to get there and how to make the most of your day!
17 Best Cancun Day Trips
The island of Cozumel is easily one of the most popular Cancun day trips. This beautiful island is located just off the coast of Playa del Carmen, and is well known for its beaches and emerald waters abundant with coral and sea life.
To reach the island, you’ll have to get a ferry from Playa del Carmen, but you have to get there first. All in all, the combined trip takes around two hours from Cancun.
Once you’re in Cozumel, it’s time to unwind and bask on those beautiful beaches. Or if you feel like being more active, then it’s all about snorkeling or scuba diving and seeing the vibrant submarine life beneath the waves. After all, this is where you’ll find part of the Mesoamerican Barrier reef – the world’s second-largest coral reef.
You may want to join a boat tour that will take you to the best snorkeling spot. You can book it here.
No trip to the Yucatan Peninsula would be complete without a visit to the world famous Chichen Itza. This incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site is only around a two-and-a-half-hour drive away from Cancun, making it easy to reach on a day trip. It’s an incredible place that’s cited as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
This large complex of Mayan ruins is dominated by an enormous, stepped pyramid named El Castillo – or, more correctly, the Temple of Kukulcan. This impressive monument overlooks an area that was once a city that thrived between 600 and 1200, and it was home to an estimated 35,000 people.
A day here is an unforgettable way to learn about the history of this part of the world and get an insight into how people once lived in the heyday of the Maya civilization.
At the time of writing, there are no buses from Cancun to Chichen Itza. Unless you have a car, the best way to get there is on a guided tour that also includes transportation.
Make sure to read my post A Complete Guide To Visiting Chichen Itza, Mexico.
Valladolid is a beautiful colonial town known for being a great starting point to visit Chichen Itza, but it’s actually a great place to visit in and of itself and hence a great destination for Cancun day trips. A two-hour drive from Cancun, Valladolid is a small city – around 50,000 people live there.
The highlight of the city is easily the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena, a Franciscan convent dating back to 1552. Also notable is the cathedral; and you will surely enjoy wandering around the colorful streets to admire the colonial buildings painted in bright colors. Finally, walking distance from the center of Valladolid you will find a bunch of beautiful cenotes that are perfect for a swim! Zac-Hi is definitely the most famous; whereas a short driving distance you will find Xkeken (Dzitnup) cenote.
I recommend driving to Valladolid for a chance of exploring the surroundings and nearby cenotes. If you don’t feel comfortable driving, you can count on several ADO buses connecting the two cities. The trip takes around two hours and 45 minutes.
Alternatively, you can also opt for a guided tour that also goes to Chichen Itza and Cenote Ik Kil. You can book it here.
The ruins of Ek’ Balam date from 700-300 BC to 900-1100 AD and are among the most impressive in Mexico. A two hours and 20 minutes drive from Cancun, the site is actually really close to Valladolid, which means you could visit both on day trips from Cancun.
The most notable thing about the site is the defensive walls that surround it, and the platforms, plazas, and sacbeob. You’ll be able to spot Mayan glyphs throughout the site too, and a tall pyramid – El Torre.
The easiest way to get to Ek Balam from Cancun is by car. If you don’t have a car, you can go on guided day trips from Cancun that also go to Chichen Itza. For more information, click here.
Head over to my post The Best Mayan Ruins In Mexico.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is another of the beautiful laid-back yet fun-loving destinations along the Maya Riviera of the Yucatan Peninsula. Once a quiet fishing village, it has developed into a vibrant town where a wealth of shops, eateries, entertainment, and accommodation have sprung up around this part of the Caribbean coast.
The palm-lined beaches of Playa del Carmen are only part of the story. There are also coral reefs to explore offshore – multiple companies in town will be able to take you on a tour of the best spots. It’s great for nature lovers and for those who simply want to soak up the sun on the sand.
Beach clubs in Playa del Carmen offers food, drink, and poolside chilling in stylish settings. And all of this is just 45 minutes away from Cancun by car or bus.
Make sure to read my post The Best Things To Do In Playa Del Carmen.
Dreaming about a break on a Caribbean island? Well, dream no more. Isla Mujeres is the tiny but beautiful Caribbean island just a 20-minute boat ride from Cancun. More laid-back and authentic than the larger resort areas along the coast, Isla Mujeres provides one of the top places for Cancun day trips for anybody looking for a rustic atmosphere.
There are plenty of things to see and do on Isla Mujeres – you can reach them all by hiring a golf cart and zooming around the island. The attractions here are varied, including visiting a turtle sanctuary, checking out Mayan ruins, and snorkeling at an underwater museum.
Beaches are definitely also a thing on Isla Mujeres. Playa Norte, on the north of the island, is a particularly good family-friendly spot for soaking up some sunshine and splashing around in the shallow water.
To get to Isla Mujeres, you can hop on a quick ferry leaving from Puerto Juarez or Punta Sam. You can check out the timetable and book your ride here.
For an all-inclusive catamaran day trip from Cancun to Isla Mujeres, click here.
30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north of Isla Mujeres, Isla Contoy is the perfect destination for Cancun day trips. The tiny island (it’s just 8.5 kilometers – 5.2 miles – long) is located on the Medoamerican Barrier Reef and part of a national park and a perfect place for birdwatching, as it is home to an abundance of sea turtles, and more than 150 tropical bird species.
It’s an overall great place to visit if you want to get away from the typical crowds of Cancun and the rest of the Mayan Riviera, and being completely immersed in the pristine nature of this part of the Yucatan Peninsula.
The easiest way to reach Isla Contoy is on guided boat trips. Some also go to Isla Mujeres. For information on day trips from Cancun to Isla Contoy, click here.
Cenotes – derived from the Yucatec Maya word tsʼonot – are natural sinkholes that are filled with water from underground rivers or groundwater. Once used for religious rites by the ancient Maya people, these natural pools are today dreamy destinations for diving into glistening turquoise waters. Depending on the cenote, you could explore subterranean rivers and caverns, too.
There is a whole host of cenotes that make really easy day trips from Cancun. Some are very easy to reach, such as the nearby Cenote La Noria (around a 50-minute drive away), a picture-perfect spot that boasts snorkeling opportunities.
Around 45 minutes by car, Cenote Azul – near Playa del Carmen – is a popular spot for swimming, drenched in sunlight and surrounded by jungle. Close by, Cenote Jardin del Eden and Cenote Cristalino are also easily visited.
If you drive south along the coast from Cancun, after 100 kilometers (62 miles) or so you’ll reach the resort town of Akumal. Meaning “Place of the Turtle”, it’s a perfect spot for relaxing on white sand beaches and lapping up its easygoing atmosphere.
The small beachfront community is much more sleepy in comparison to Cancun, and was built on a former coconut plantation. But what it lacks in people (its population is only around 1,500) it makes up for in terms of marine life. In fact, Akumal was actually founded as a community by scuba divers in 1958.
Since then, it’s become a prime destination for snorkeling, diving and other aquatic adventures. In particular, the shallow bay of Akumal attracts endangered green sea turtles who come to feed on seagrass. Because of its abundant wildlife, Akumal has been dedicated a marine refuge.
Read my post The Best Beaches In Mexico.
Xcaret is a nature park situated near Playa del Carmen, around an hour from Cancun (it’s easy to take the bus here). This park is totally jam-packed with adventurous activities and makes for one of the best Cancun day trips. In fact, there are more than 50 natural and cultural attractions scattered around Xcaret, so you’ll never be bored here.
Pronounced “Ish-ka-ret”, this eco-park is spread over 250 acres. Time here can be spent admiring the colorful birds in the aviary, floating along an underground river, embarking on the tropical jungle trail, and meeting some spider monkeys on Monkey Island. And with cenotes and a slice of beach, make sure not to forget your swimsuit and snorkel.
With restaurants, shows and educational talks about Mexican culture, Xcaret is a great family-friendly place to come to learn and be educated on your vacation. Elsewhere, Children’s World is crammed with activities, from climbing nets, labyrinths and obstacle courses, to wading pools and sandpits.
You can get a full day pass to Xcaret here.
If you like a beachside destination, and also want to see some Mayan ruins at the same time, then you might want to take a day trip from Cancun to Tulum. Situated around an hour and forty minutes away by car – further south than Playa del Carmen – Tulum is more chilled out than its neighbors. It’s popular not only with spring breakers and honeymooners, but also backpackers and families, making it less party-centric than other towns.
Tulum was once a major port for the Maya civilization, and was a walled, fortified settlement. It was one of the last Mayan cities to be built and abandoned, surviving well into the late 16th century. Today, remnants of this make for some of the best things to see in Tulum, such as the cliffside Tulum ruins – a picturesque spot to whisk you back to the heyday of this port town.
The easiest way to get from Cancun to Tulum ruins is by car. If you don’t have a car, you can take one of the frequent ADO buses departing from Cancun to Tulum ruins. Finally, you may consider joining one of the many guided tours departing daily from Cancun.
For the best guided tours of Tulum departing from Cancun, click here.
Make sure to read my Guide To Visiting Tulum Ruins.
For more Mayan ruins, you should make time to visit Coba. This archaeological site is around two hours’ drive away from Cancun and so makes for an easy day trip.
Situated next to a modern village of the same name, the ancient ruins of Coba once formed part of a city that is thought to have been home to around 50,000 inhabitants. The site consists of residential areas, as well as walkways and temples, so visitors will really have a chance to explore and see what it may have been like to live in a Mayan city.
One of the most prominent buildings is Nohoch Mul Pyramid – a 138-foot tall (that’s 32 meters) pyramid with 120 steps that visitors can climb up. And after wandering around this ancient wonder, the nearby cenotes make for a refreshing place to cool off.
The easiest way to get to from Cancun to Coba is by car. There are no direct buses, so you’d have to travel to Tulum Pueblo and then get a bus or – better – a colectivo to the site. Alternatively, there are plenty of good guided tours departing from Cancun.
For the best tours of Coba departing from Cancun, and which usually include a visit of Tulum and a nearby cenote, click here.
Head over to my post The Best Guide To Visiting Coba Ruins.
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, or simply Sian Ka’an, is an area rich with flora and fauna that nature lovers will enjoy. Dedicated as a biosphere reserve in 1986, the 400,000-hectare site was then designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site a year later.
Located a two-hour drive from Cancun, visiting Sian Ka’an – meaning “Origin of the Sky” in the Maya language – means further understanding the natural beauty of this part of Mexico. The reserve encompasses coastal wetlands and glimmering lagoons, and is home to various different animals, including 300 species of bird, jaguar, puma, and black howler monkeys.
A portion of the reserve also covers a marine area, which protects a part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, as well as the seagrass beds, which are important for sea turtles and other marine animals. Visitors to Sian Ka’an can go bird watching, hop on a sunset tour, or opt to snorkel over the reef.
To make the most of everything that Sian Ka’an has to offer, you are better off joining a guided tour. There are several departing from Cancun. For more information, click here.
Laguna de Bacalar
Situated in southern Quintana Roo is Laguna de Bacalar. This picture-perfect slice of water is a long, narrow lake, running for 42 kilometers (26 miles) but is only two kilometers (1.2 miles) across at its widest. It’s fed by numerous underground rivers, for which the Yucatan Peninsula is well known.
Thanks to white limestone at the bottom of the lake, the water here is famously clear and therefore ideal for snorkeling and swimming. It’s also rich in underwater life, including a colony of stromatolites – stony formations created by cyanobacteria and some of the oldest lifeforms on Earth.
As well as snorkeling and seeing the underwater world of Bacalar, there are a number of other activities to enjoy. Kayaking is popular here, and there are many rental companies situated around the lake – a boat tour allows you to see the length and breadth of the lake with a knowledgeable guide.
Bacalar is a 4 hour drive from Cancun. Unless you have your own car, the best way of getting there is on a guided tour that includes transportation. You can book it here.
For more eco-tourism wonders, take a trip to Xel-Ha Park. Situated around an hour and a half south of Cancun, it’s a perfect mix of stunning, serene nature and a fun day out for everyone. It’s great for families or groups of friends alike.
Xel-Ha Park is a good option for Cancun day trips if you’re an active person who can’t sit still. There’s a whole range of things to do at this eco-park. You could go ziplining across the jungle canopy, or maybe you could take a river tour and witness the wide array of wildlife here. Alternatively, you could hike the jungle trail, overflowing with native plants.
One of the most popular attractions at Xel-Ha is the Scenic Lighthouse. This 131-feet (almost 40 meters) landmark tower offers up 360-degree views across the landscape, and really allows you to take in the gleaming aqua waters and lush green jungle. To get down, you could opt to take one of the four waterslides that spiral down into the natural pool below!
If you have your own car, getting to Xel-Ha Park is very easy. You will need to have a pass to get in – you can get that here.
Otherwise, you can get a pass with a transportation add-on and you won’t have to worry about how to get there. You can book that here.
Merida may be relatively far from Cancun, and there’s quire a bit to see there – so I’d actuall recommend spending a night or two there. If a day is all you have, a day trip to this beautiful city is well worth it. Merida is the capital of Yucatan and as such is rich in both Mayan culture and colonial heritage. Spending the day here means wandering the city’s charming streets, hitting up a museum or two, and eating at a traditional restaurant.
Dubbed “Ciudad Blanca” or “White City”, Merida is awash with white-washed colonial era buildings, dotted with a rainbow of pastel-colored homes – so don’t forget to bring your camera!
A great way to get to grips with what the city has to offer is to opt for a free walking tour of Merida’s historic center. And if you’ve got time, make sure to explore the bustling central market, which dates back to the late 19th century.
If you have your own car, driving to Merida takes about three hours and 45 minutes. There are regular ADO buses too – the quickest one takes four hours and leaves at 7:37 am, so you’d have plenty of time to explore the city.
Check out my post The Best Things To Do In Merida.
Meaning “Black Hole” in the Mayan language, Holbox is a thin, serpentine island separated from the mainland by the Yalahau Lagoon. Part of the Yum Balam Nature Reserve, Isla Holbox sits between the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Due to being a reserve, it’s a car-free island.
People flock to Holbox for its powdery white sand beaches and its rich marine life. Think sea turtles and whale sharks, as well as bird species such as flamingos and pelicans. Away from the wildlife watching opportunities, Isla Holbox is renowned for its kiteboarding and incredible seafood.
It’s such a beautiful island that you may just end up wanting to spend the night here – thankfully, with its many laid-back hostels and beachside villas, that’s very possible!
If you only have a day to spare, you can count on good day tours departing from Cancun. You can book yours here.