If you’ve never been to Mexico’s most popular destination of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, you might be surprised about how much there is to do in the region. The usual cliché about vacationers in these sunny and warm resorts is that the guests stay in a walled-off all-inclusive complex the whole time, then turn around and fly back home. It’s very easy to get out and about though for a range of fun Cancun excursions.
Here are eight Cancun excursion options for when you’ve had enough of walking the beach and drinking cocktails by the pool.
Chichen Itza Archaeological Site
Properly spelled as Chichén Itzá and pronounced with accents on the second syllable, this iconic site is one of the wonders of the world. It’s also the most famous and most-visited Mayan site. There’s plenty to see on a tour here that will give insight into the Maya culture, but of course the dominating structure is the giant pyramid in the middle of the lawn.
This excursion takes the whole day and it’s going to be crowded no matter what if you’re coming from Cancun. (If you have more time, spend a few nights in Valladolid instead so you can beat the crowds or come for the nighttime light show. Then you can also visit other ruins and cenotes.
If you do come from Cancun, it’s a few hours there and back, so bring something to read, extra water, and sunscreen for when you’re on site: there’s not much shade.
Tulum Archaeological Site
If you don’t have the time or energy to head a few hours inland, Tulum is a much more accessible site in the Riviera Maya. The main temple here sits on top a cliff overlooking the sea, so while the structures here aren’t all that impressive, the dramatic setting and beach below make up for it.
It’s a straight shot there from the Riviera Maya resorts, and relatively quick if you’re coming from the ones south of Playa del Carmen, including the luxury Tulum resorts on the beach or the town of the same name.
The Amazing Caverns of Rio Secreto
From the top it looks like nothing, but once you venture underground at Rio Secreto, you enter a cenote complex that’s filled with cavern stalagmites and stalactites. Your guide takes you wading through the shallow pools, at one point turning the lights off so you can experience true underground darkness.
When the lights are on though, it’s a beautiful sight created by nature over hundreds of thousands of years. Check ticket prices for your dates here.
The Underground Rivers of Xcaret
The Xcaret Park is one of the most popular destinations in the Cancun and Riviera Maya region, with plenty of activities to keep the family occupied all day. Then at night they put on a spectacular show in their large arena.
One of the most memorable experiences here is swimming in an underground river, part of the cenote system that runs underneath most of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Cenotes Tour Cancun Excursions
For a more complete Cenote experience, book a Tulum tour with cenotes visits and combine two different cenotes in one day with the closest set of ruins. You can just float around and swim, or try something more adventurous. Some tours like this offer the chance to rappel down, dive in, or go snorkeling.
If you really want to hit a lot of cenotes in one day though, the best bet is to head inland to Valladolid where there are dozens of them around that are open to the public.
There’s not a lot of snorkeling around Cancun itself, but there are plenty of options when you connect with the reef at Cozumel, Akumal, Puerto Morelos, or near the ruins of Tulum on Cancun excursions.
For a more turn-key experience though, you can book a trip to Xel-Ha, open 365 days a year. The pond and river system there is connected to the Caribbean but offers calm water for unlimited snorkeling. There are changing rooms and lockers on site, a full bar, and restaurant. If you’ve got your own rental car, there’s ample free parking.
The Ruins of Coba in the Jungle
The Mayan ruins site of Cobá is not nearly as busy as Chichen Itza and you’ll feel like more of an explorer there since it is still surrounded by wild jungle instead of sitting on manicured lawns next to a hotel. You won’t see 20 tour buses stacked up and you won’t get mobbed by vendors either.
This site is inland from Tulum, so it’s easier to reach from there or the southern Riviera Maya resorts, but you can still easily get there and back on a day trip from Cancun. Don’t forget the bug spray though, especially in the rainy season.
Mind Tricks and Fun at Xenses
One of the strangest-theme parks in the Riviera Maya is Xenses, a place that may just blow your mind. This man-made park has activities that will stimulate all your senses like the Xensatorium, the Bird Flight, and a huge slip slide, but then things start getting weird. There’s a mud river, a salt river for floating, a “Way of Dwarfs and Giants,” and tilting optical illusion structures to mess with your assumptions.
If just one short zipline is not enough, you can go all in at Xplor Park, where there are two circuits of zip-lines to ride. When you’ve had enough of that, you can ride amphibious vehicles through the jungle and cool off at an underground river with stalactites and stalagmites. This Park includes an unlimited buffet and beverages when you need to recharge.
Making plans now to come to Cancun? You can book any of these Cancun excursions in advance, which usually gets you a sizable discount compared to doing it on site. Or if you have a driver, he can usually set up reservations and tickets for any of these activities in advance. That will allow you to set your own schedule and get there faster since you’re the only ones they have to pick up.
Article by Timothy
Timothy Scott is the founder and editor of Luxury Latin America and has been covering the region as a travel journalist since the mid-2000s. He has visited each country we cover multiple times and is based in a UNESCO World Heritage city in central Mexico, where he owns a home. See contact information here.