Do you want to explore the natural and cultural wonders of the Yucatan Peninsula? Have you ever dreamed of a white sand paradise surrounded by a lush jungle, mysterious temples and wildlife?
Or maybe you feel more drawn to the beach lifestyle, the crazy parties, local craft markets and Mexican food? Perhaps a sweet mix of all this?
If so, Cancun and the Riviera Maya will make all your wishes about a change of scenery come true.
To enjoy this magnificent region of the Mexican Caribbean, here are 15 must-do activities and excursions in Cancun and Riviera Maya.
¡¡¡AS A BONUS!!! For ecotourism enthusiasts 🌿 The second part of this article is focused on eco-tours and excursions.
Table of contents
- 1. Cancun, the heart of the Riviera Maya
- 2. Archaeological sites Part I: Chichen Itza
- 3. The cenotes and underground rivers: swimming and diving
- 4. Theme parks: adventure & fun!
- 5. Cancun Islands: Isla Mujeres
- 6. Archaeological sites Part II: Tulum ruins
- 7. Cozumel: the scuba diving paradise
- 8. Isla Contoy, a bird sanctuary
- 9. Playa del Carmen
- 10. Archaeological sites Part III: The city of Cobá
- 11. Holbox: The beauty of the wilderness at its finest
- 12. Las Coloradas National Park in Yucatan
- 13. Valladolid, the elegant colonial city
- 14. Puerto Morelos: a small charming paradise
- 15. Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve and Punta Allen
1. Cancun, the heart of the Riviera Maya
If your next travel destination is the Yucatan Peninsula, the city of Cancun is a must-visit on your trip.
This is the true heart of the Riviera Maya, you cannot miss all its excitement and beauty!
Whether you have chosen to stay there or that your accommodation is located in another destination in the Mexican Caribbean (Playa del Carmen, Puerto Morelos or Tulum), a trip to Cancun is a mustl! So, follow the parrot!
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👀 Things to do in Cancun 👀
- Cancun’s hotel zone:
The hotel zone of Cancun, located in a 15 mile-strip between the Caribbean Sea and the Nichupte Lagoon, is the biggest tourist area in the region. Due to its high concentration of resorts and hotels, it is the preferred place of stay for tourists during their vacation in the Riviera Maya.
An amazing architectural landscape of dozens of resorts with the stunning Caribbean Sea in the background is worth the visit!
This part of Cancun runs all along Kukulkan Boulevard, the main road of the Hotel Zone. It connects the city with the airport.
The hotel zone is totally focused on tourist services and activities. You will find everything there from restaurants and water parks to night clubs and yacht rentals.
The top highlight among its different attractions, the hotel zone is the access to some of the most beautiful beaches in Cancun.
To know everything about the beaches of Cancun, you can read our article on this subject by clicking 👉 HERE.
- The urban area, a look at a Mexican city:
Downtown Cancun is worth a visit.
On foot or by bike, let yourself wander through Cancun’s warm and lively streets. There you will be able to discover the amazing street food (taco tour) as well as bars and restaurants.
The urban area is also home to mythical places such as the Palapas Park or the famous Market 28, a place where you will find any type of Mexican crafts as well as local food.
Más moderno que este mercado tradicional, Plaza Las Américas alberga un popular centro comercial para los visitantes: Malecón Americas.
As a modern and artistic city, Cancun is also a museum thanks to the intervention of artists who have created a true street art experience.
If you are interested in a TOUR in Cancún, here is an article that may interest you! Click the link 👉 👉 👉 here!
TO DISCOVER CANCUN and make the most of the city's tourist offer, we recommend a 2 to 3-day visit.
Looking for ideas? Take a look at this post: CANCUN SPECIAL, things to do? [35 activities].
2. Archaeological sites Part I: Chichen Itza “The magnificent city”
Among the most outstanding things to do in Cancun, it is impossible not to mention the archaeological sites in the Mexican Caribbean.
Cradle of the Mayan civilization, the Yucatan Peninsula is home to the heritage of the greatness of some of the most important ancient societies in the continent. It is just not a coincidence that this part of Mexico called the Riviera Maya!
In this article we will talk about three of the main archeological sites near Cancun, the first is Chichen Itza.
Located 3 hours by car from Cancun, the archaeological site of Chichen Itza is considered one of the wonders of the modern world. This pre-Hispanic city amazes with its beauty and excellent state of conservation. It has been recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site since 1988.
Among the iconic monuments of Chichén Itzá is the immense ball court. There is also a sacred cenote in which it is thought human sacrifices were done as a ceremonial activity for the Mayan gods. Human remains have been found inside this cenote, as well as ceremonial instruments.
The Kukulkan pyramid, its most famous building, is astonishing due to its size, perfect location and architecture. All of this is the product of the Mayan civilization’s vast and surprising astronomical and mathematical knowledge.
If you are visiting Chichen Itza try to arrive early in the morning! Anticipate to the crowds and enjoy this site in a more intimate experience! The earlier you arrive, it will be easier to move around the buildings, take better pictures and be able to take a more in-depth look at every corner of this site.
3. Cenotes: the sacred Mayan world
If you are looking for a nature tourism activity in the surroundings of the Riviera Maya and Cancun, one of the most popular activities in the area is exploring and swimming in cenotes.
The cenotes are part of a vast network of underground rivers located throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.
This natural phenomenon is the product of water seepage through the limestone soil that can be found in most of the peninsula. The water in the cenotes, natural outdoor pools, is crystal clear and fresh.
For the Mayan people, the cenotes were sacred places, a source of water and, thus, of life. In the religious beliefs of this ancient civilization, these entrances to the depths of the earth were a connection with the underworld.
📍 WHERE TO FIND CENOTES AROUND CANCUN 🌎 ???
From Cancun and heading south to the Riviera Maya, you will find many parks with cenotes.
The "Ruta de los Cenotes" (Cenote’s Road) is very close to Puerto Morelos, a town located 30 minutes south from Cancun. Along this road (to Leona Vicario) you can find many parks with open cenotes as well as caves from which the fresh and crystalline water emerge.
In the vicinity of Playa del Carmen and Tulum, you can also discover other very beautiful cenotes.
👀 THINGS TO DO IN THE CENOTES 👀
The exploration of the cenotes can be done as part of a collective or private tour, during a visit to a theme park or after a visit to an archaeological site.
Swimming, snorkeling and diving are some of the most common activities in these places. Cenotes are usually private property belonging to members of the Mayan community.
Warning: diving is only available to those with a certification (PADI, CMAS, SSI or FFESSM) or during a first dive supervised by a professional instructor. In most of the cenotes you can rent snorkeling equipment.
4. Theme parks: adventure & fun!
The tropical vegetation of the Riviera Maya is the perfect setting for huge theme parks full of activities and attractions.
One of the main thiings to do in Cancun is visiting any of the theme parks in the region. They are easily accessible from any of Riviera Maya towns.
The theme parks of the Riviera Maya offer:
- Adventure activities
- Mexican folklore shows
- Relaxation areas
- Places to watch local flora and fauna
- Food courts
- Xcaret: the largest theme park in Cancun
Without a doubt, this is the most acitivity diverse theme park in the Riviera Maya. Xcaret Park offers its visitors a setting where nature is the center of attention: beaches, cenotes and underground rivers, a wide variety of folkloric shows, nature sanctuaries and reserves. Xcaret Park also offers the possibility of exploring Mayan ruins.
- Xplor: the adventure tourism park
In the heart of the jungle, live the adventure tourism experience with friends or family in Xplor Park.
Enjoy activities such as zip lines, rafting, underground river exploration and speleology in natural caves. Enough to awaken anyone's adventure fantasies!
- Xel - Ha: family and water park
This park is famous for its slide-lighthouse.
Xel-Ha focused its tourist attractions mainly towards aquatic activities: snorkeling, observation of aquatic fauna, cenote exploration or even swimming with dolphins among other activities.
- Xoximilco: A 100% Mexican Park
Xoximilco is a theme park based on the famous floating district located in Mexico City.
The main attraction are the colorful boats known as “trajineras”, in which you will navigate through a network of canals.
Once you are on the trajineras you will be offered traditional Mexican dishes and snacks while a mariachis band plays their music. A Mexican atmosphere for those who really wants to experience how is it to live the Mexican lifestyle.
- Xenses: a park for those who enjoy adrenaline
A theme park focused on recreational experiences, Xenses offers you physical and emotional challenges.
The surrounding jungle will immerse you in a wild atmosphere.
ARE YOU INTERESTED IN THEME PARKS?
Read our article Themes parks in Riviera Maya and get ready for your visit and know everything you need about the different parks as well as prices, schedules and useful tips to make the most of your day.
5. The islands of Cancun: Isla Mujeres
About 30 minutes by ferry from Cancun, Isla Mujeres was originally a small fishing village. This island is well-known for its beautiful beaches, its reefs that are perfect for snorkeling and for a wide diversity of scuba diving tours.
Isla Mujeres is a great destination for water sports enthusiasts. From mid-May to September, the amazing whale shark, the world's largest fish, come close to the shores of this island. There are tours specially designed for you to swim close to this fish.
6. Archaeological sites Part II: Tulum ruins
The ruins of Tulum are located two hours from Cancun by car or, if you are in the town of Tulum, it is just a 15-minute drive from downtown.
The site of Tulum is one of the most beautiful due to is location, just in front the sea. It used to be one of the few fortified cities of the Mayan culture. This city can be identified as one of the gates to the mainland of the Peninsula. Nowadays, the ruins of Tulum still rise up majestically in front of the Caribbean Sea.
Another important fact of Tulum is that one of its main buildings worked as a lighthouse. This building was the guardian of the shore and guided commercial vessels in a natural channel protected by reefs.
Remember to bring your swimsuit to Tulum! In addition to this exciting archaeological site, you can also go swimming in the sea just in front of the ruins thanks to the conditioned trails that lead to the beach that surrounds the archaeological area.
7. Cozumel: the scuba diving paradise
In front of Playa del Carmen, there is another tourist town of the Riviera Maya: Cozumel. An island that is worth visiting.
You can get to the island of Cozumel from Playa del Carmen, it just a 60 minutes ferry ride. It is the largest of the islands of the Riviera Maya, it was recognized in 2016 as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO.
Thousands of marine species inhabit the Mesoamerican barrier reef, the second largest in the world, also known as the Cancun Reef. This impressive natural area is located near Cozumel.
Due to all the reefs close the island, Cozumel is a world-famous diving site. The amazing Palancar Reef is one of the most popular among divers from all over the world!
8. Isla Contoy, a bird sanctuary
Visiting Isla Contoy is a true privilege.
This island is subject to very strict environmental regulations. It’s almost a virgin paradise that was declared a national park in 1988. You can only explore it with an authorized guide.
Only 200 persons a day can visit the island. So, if you are interested on this tour it would be very wise for you to book it way in advance.
Isla Contoy is also a nesting site for sea turtles, including the hawksbill turtle.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT about the activities, facilities, infrastructure and tours on the islands of Cancun, click 👉 here.
9. Playa del Carmen
Located just 1 hour and 15 minutes from Cancun, Playa del Carmen offers the perfect balance between Cancun’s hustle and bustle and the peaceful atmosphere of Tulum.
If you want to explore the Riviera Maya, this is an ideal alternative to Cancun due to its central location.
From Cancun Airport, it can be easily reached by bus. For more information about public transportation in the Riviera Maya 👉 here.
Already consolidated as a small city, Playa del Carmen has all the attractions and services that the more demanding tourist could be looking for in a medium- or long-term vacation. However, it is also an ideal destination for a one-day visit: white sandy beaches, bars, trendy restaurants, elegant shops and a warm atmosphere.
With a coast guarded by the island of Cozumel which is located just in front of Playa del Carmen, the sea at Playa’s beaches is calm and it has the optimal conditions for many activities like paddle boarding, kayaking and snorkeling.
Its proximity to the Cancun reef makes Playa del Carmen an ideal place for wildlife observation tours. In this city, you will find many diving schools.
From Playa del Carmen, you can also get in just a few minutes to the main theme parks of the Riviera.
10. Archaeological sites Part III: The city of Cobá
Two hours by car from Cancun and 40 minutes from the city of Tulum, the site of Coba is the most mysterious Mayan city.
Located deep in the jungle, a visit to this city, which used to be a trade hub in the Mayan Empire, feels like going on an expedition with the famous Indiana Jones.
The great pyramid of Cobá, the main building of the site, has some similarities with that of Chichén Itzá. The main difference is that in Cobá, visitors are allowed to climb to the top.
¡Encourage yourself to climb the 110 steps that separate you from the top of this impressive buildingt! The view at the top is worth the effort.
Climbing the Pyramid of Cobá can be difficult, even dangerous, due to its steep slope and uneven steps. The climb is not recommended for children (under 9 years of age) and for people suffering from vertigo.
11. Holbox: Beauty of the wilderness at its finest
Holbox is a charming island. To get there from Cancun, you need to take a bus or rent a car. After 2 hour drive you will arrive at Chiquila, a small town. From there, you will have to take a 30-minute ferry trip to reach the island.
Holbox is a bit out of the world we are used to live. It’s a place where time seems to have stopped. Let yourself get trapped by its bohemian atmosphere. Get around small and picturesque roads in golf carts, by bicycle or just walk. Wander through the small streets with colorful facades to discover its own street art.
Trendy beach bars and sea food restaurants, where the lobster is simply amazing, will delight your senses as well as your nights under the warm Caribbean weather.
Located in the heart of the Yum Balam Natural Reserve, Holbox is home to many protected species.
From April to October the flamingos come to the island by the thousands!
There are boat tours available at the island if you want to explore the surrounding ocean.
12. Las Coloradas de Yucatán
Las Coloradas (the colorful lagoons) is a small town located at the eastern end of the Yucatan Peninsula. It is named like that because of its "pink lagoon". From Mérida, it will take around 3 hours and 30 minutes to get to Las Coloradas.
Located in the the Ría Lagartos National Park, this site has become famous for its pastel-colored lakes. This colorful natural phenomenon is due to the high concentration of salt and microscopic algae. The sunlight and these elements make the water on the surface look yellow, orange or pink.
Declared as a nature reserve a few years ago, the lagoon is home to several flocks of pink flamingos.
A tour to this charming place is a true dream for all nature and photography lovers.
13. Valladolid, the elegant colonial city
In the heart of the State of Yucatán, equidistant from Mérida and Cancun, you will find Valladolid. A road trip of about 2 hours to reach this destination, a 100-mile drive.
A colonial city founded by the Spanish Crown in the 16th century, this location has preserved a typical Mexican baroque architecture.
Its charm immerses the visitor in an atmosphere quite different from that of Cancun and Chichén Itzá, the closest archaeological site.
Between the ancient city and the contemporary city, Valladolid stands as a good example of a city of the modern era with an important historic and cultural heritage.
A day trip will allow you to enjoy some cultural activities such as visiting the churches, the San Bernardo Convent or the “Casa de los Soldados” that flanks the cathedral.
Take advantage of its relaxed atmosphere to walk through its beautiful and colorful streets. A pleasant way to end the day after visiting Chichén Itzá.
14. Puerto Morelos: a small discrete charming paradise
There is no shortage of plans for one-day or half-day excursions in Cancun or the nearby towns.
If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and enjoy the simple pleasures of life in peace, a little getaway to Puerto Morelos will be perfect for you!
Located just a 30-minute drive away from Cancun and Playa del Carmen, this charming little fishing village is a dream of tranquility.
A cozy downtown overlooking the sea will invite you to stroll through the shops that border the central square. Do not miss the craft market that can be found in this same place. You will find jewelry, products with local flavors, hand-woven hammocks and other souvenirs. An excellent way to promote the local economy and contribute to solidarity tourism.
On the beach, small restaurants offer delicious fresh fish and tasty snacks.
Very close to this town is the entrance to the “Ruta de los Cenotes” (Cenote’s Road) along the road to Leona Vicario. Therefore, a day tour that combines a visit to Puerto Morelos and a tour of the Ruta de los Cenotes is a great idea.
15. Sian Ka’an, biosphere reserve and Punta Allen
For nature lovers who dream of venturing into untouched and unexplored territories, an excursion to the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve is a must.
The starting point for the excursions is less than a 20-minute drive from Tulum.
Tours in the Sian Ka'an reserve are done by members of the Mayan community who ensure the preservation of this protected area. The diversity of fauna and flora is exceptional but also fragile.
Flora and fauna observation is one of the most popular ecotourism activities in the region.
Excursions can be done in motorized boats. For a more responsible exploration, you can do them by kayak.
Not far from there, the Muyil archaeological site offers visitors the opportunity to finish their tour in the reserve adding a cultural and historical dimension.