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Things to do in Cancun and Riviera Maya: Excursions

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Last update: May 28, 2021

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Things to do in Cancun and Riviera Maya

Cancun and Riviera Maya are two of the most popular beach destinations in the world. Surrounded by breathtaking beaches and an astonishing sea, these places that are located in the State of Quintana Roo in the Mexican South East, are one of the best options to make a trip with your couple, family, friend or even by yourself. No matter how or who you are traveling with, you’ll find something of interest in these locations.

The natural wealth of the area that surrounds Cancun and extends through all Riviera Maya ( Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen, Puerto Morelos, Tulum, Cozumel) contributes to the fact that one of the main things to see in this region are the attractions formed by the ecosystems in the area. The mixture of beaches and islands in a jungle environment with a sea and rivers that host an impressive biodiversity makes a visit to these places a must for every tourist.

In addition, it should not be overlooked that the Yucatan Peninsula (the territory where Cancun and Riviera Maya are located), as well as most of Central America, has a very important historical heritage since it was the territory where the Mayan civilization developed.

In this way, the tourist companies in conjunction with the authorities of the State of Quintana Roo have designed excursions that allow you to explore and enjoy this natural wealth. These excursions are a fundamental part of the things to see in Cancun and Riviera Maya.

In this post, we will talk about the main excursions, their characteristics and what to see in each of them.

Archeological sites / ruins

Cancun and most of the State of Quintana Roo, as well as its neighbor State, Yucatan, were part of what was the Mayan World a few centuries ago. It is no coincidence that this area is also known as Riviera Maya. Thus, Cancun and the rest of its neighboring towns have a vast millenary heritage full of traditions, mysteries, surprising revelations, as well as impressive constructions that still flash their splendor when witnessed on site.

Among the most offered excursions to archaeological sites are:

CHICHEN ITZÁ

One of the modern wonders in the world. It still preserves most of its main buildings, including the Juego de Pelota (Ball Court) and a cenote that was originally used for ceremonies in which human sacrifices happened. The main building, the Pyramid of Kukulkan, is an impressive display of architecture, mathematical sciences, and astronomical knowledge developed by the Mayan culture. This place is a must visit for all tourists in Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

One of the biggest annual events in this park is the spring equinox (March 20th – 21st). In this day, the attendants can witness the “descent of Quetzalcóatl” through the stairs of the Pyramid of Kukulkán (main building). So, if your visit to Cancun is planned for that date, don't forget to schedule the excursion to see this incredible phenomenon.

TULUM

Here, you will find one of the walled cities of the Mayan culture. The main difference compared to other cities is its location, since most are located inside the jungle. Instead, Tulum was settled right in front of the sea, in such a way that it allows to appreciate the ancient Mayan architecture in front of the extraordinary turquoise sea. In fact, it is possible to go all the way down to the sea from the city and bathe on the beaches close to these ruins. This excursion is more popular among those who visit Playa del Carmen and Tulum city due to their proximity.

COBÁ

It was an old commercial city that developed inside the jungle. It still keeps several of its buildings and the main ones are similar to those in Chichen Itzá. One of the main differences is that here you are allowed to climb to the top of the main building (110 steps). Therefore, in Cobá you’ll have a view of the jungle and its surroundings like in no other place in Riviera Maya.

Cancún

What to see in the archaeological sites?

Each one has its own appeal with different types of buildings and ruins that will help you to understand and learn more about the Mayan Civilization. In these excursions, it’s very common to specialized staff who will explain in detail the activities that were done in the city and how it grew, developed and, eventually, decay, as well as the meaning and use of each of the buildings and constructions. Additionally, the lush vegetation in the surrounding of each site makes the landscape more colorful and gives a feeling of peace and relaxation. 

Zonas Arqueológicas

How long are the excursions to the archaeological sites?

For excursions to archaeological sites, it is best to think about a full day visit. Most of these sites are more than an hour away by car or bus from Cancun and the other towns in Riviera Maya. For example, Chichén Itza is located almost 112 miles (180 kilometers) away from Cancun and about 87 miles (140 kilometers) from Playa del Carmen. So, the trip alone takes about four hours (round trip).

Most of the excursions providers to these sites offer packages that include: the trip to the archaeological sites, a visit (and swim) to cenotes, a walk through current Mayan reservation towns and also to some towns that emerged in colonial times such as Valladolid.

What to see in the complementary activities to the excursions to the archaeological site?

In the Mayan reservation towns there are usually talks about the traditions of this culture, as well as the sale of handicrafts. In the cenotes, the main activity is swimming and enjoying an amazing landscape inside a cave. Finally, in Valladolid. the bus usually stops in the central square where it is possible to watch the church, as well as watch shows by local artists.

Due to the duration of the excursions to archaeological sites, a buffet-type meal is usually included in the price of the tour.

THEME PARKS

The presence of long extensions of jungle in Riviera Maya has set the perfect conditions for the creation of several theme parks. These places are full of different attractions and recreational activities. Most of the things to do in the parks are a mix between adventure activities, Mexican themed shows and local fauna exhibitions. You will also find food courts and places where you can rest.

Among the most popular theme parks are those that belong to Xcaret corporation:

XCARET

The largest and most diverse park. Here it is possible to swim on the beach, swim in underground rivers, watch different shows based on Mexican traditions, history and folklore; enjoy natural attractions (aviary, butterfly farm, Jaguar Island), as well as Mayan ruins. With a doubt, you will find a lot to see and do in this park.

XPLOR

A park designed for those looking for an adventure tour. There is a wide diversity of activities like: zip lines, rides in amphibious vehicles through the jungle, raft navigation through rivers, swimming and exploration in underground rivers, walks through caves, among others. The park can also be visited in the afternoon / night in the Xplor Fuego mode.

XEL-HA

Here you will find the famous slide in the lighthouse. From the top of the lighthouse you can take a look to the jungle, and later have a fun descent through the slide. In this park, you will also find areas to snorkel and appreciate a great diversity of fish and aquatic fauna. Other activities to do are cenote exploration, swim through underground rivers --- and even swimming with dolphins.

XOXIMILCO

A park inspired by the traditional Xochimilco Neighborhood in Mexico City. Here you can navigate through the river in “trajineras” (colorful boats) enjoying Mexican food and drinks, as well as traditional Mexican music such as the famous mariachis. It’s a different experience compared to those offered in other theme parks, with a doubt a great one for those who want to have a taste of the traditional party life in Central Mexico.

XENSES

A park with fun and experimental activities where the objective is to give yourself the opportunity to use all your senses and have a relaxing time walking through the jungle. Among the activities offered in this park are: the journey through the path of dwarfs and giants, walks through caves with atmospheres designed to sharpen the perceptions through each sense, sanctuaries where you can appreciate different species of birds and fish, as well as a lush vegetation sprouting.

For a visit to these parks, the best idea is to schedule each for a full day. In addition to its extension, diversity of activities and things to see, most of these parks are located more than an hour away from Cancun, since most are located a few minutes away from Playa del Carmen Downtown.

CENOTES - The underground rivers

The visit to cenotes (underground rivers) is another excursion in Cancun and Riviera Maya that has become extremely popular in recent years. The Yucatan Peninsula has a limestone soil that allows rainwater to filter into a network of caves. This natural phenomenon allowed the emergence of cenotes For the ancient Mayans, cenotes were more than just beautiful places to be explored and enjoyed; they were a source of life and a portal to communicate with the afterlife. 

Cenotes in Cancun

What to see and do in the cenotes?

The exploration and swimming in cenotes have become popular because it offers a unique landscape to the tourists: underground caves filled with fresh crystalline water. Many of these caves are exposed to the sky, some others are dark and mysterious. So light also plays an interesting role in setting the atmosphere in cenotes.

Although this activity can be part of a visit to a theme park or an archaeological site, there are also several excursions totally focused on cenotes. The excursions focused on cenotes allow you to do some activities such as snorkeling or diving, in addition to wandering through more extensive passages between the underground connections of these water bodies.

Some of the main cenotes available for excursions are:

CANCUN ATV

This excursion is adventure style. In this case, the name "ATV" comes from the acronym "All-Terrain Vehicle".

What to see and do on ATVs?

This excursion consists of a visit to the jungle in Riviera Maya where you can tour the jungle trail in ATVs or similar vehicles. Likewise, there are other activities included such as zip lining and swimming in cenotes.

This excursion lasts about four hours and also has meals included.

LAS COLORADAS TOUR

This excursion has become popular in recent years. Las Coloradas is a fishing village located in the East of the Peninsula. It is approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes away from Merida and about the same time from the City of Cancun. The town has gained notoriety due to the presence of the Laguna Rosa (Pink Lake).

What to see in Las Coloradas? The lake has a high concentration of salt and microscopic algae that along with sunlight can make the water turn yellow, orange or pink. In addition, it tends to host a great diversity of birds, including flamingos.

Excursions to this natural wonder include transportation, as well as a boat trip through the mangroves and the lake to appreciate all its beauty. Likewise, they usually include an activity related to learn more about the Mayan culture. Later, a lunch at a restaurant in the fishing village is also included.

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Festivals & Events

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Islands

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Clubs & Bars

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Sightseeing

There are many possibilities of sightseeing in Cancun and Riviera Maya. From attractions located within the cities to those in the jungle or beyond the sea.