I have been visiting Cancun and the Mayan Riviera for 30 years. Although many people visit this peninsula in southeast Mexico for the gorgeous white sand beaches straddling the colorful turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean Sea or to party in Cancun, there are many things to do in the Yucatan aside from that. There is also a rich Mayan culture and history, friendly people, delicious food, unique animals, ancient ruins, and stunning natural landscapes.
While speaking to tourists on the plane home from Cancun, I am generally amazed at how little of the area they see. Although Mexico isn’t the safest country, I have always felt safe leaving my resort with a van driver. At the end of this article, I will give you the names of some I trust. You will be amazed at how gorgeous this area is away from the resorts.
The main tourist destinations on the Yucatan Peninsula include Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen. The more southern resorts are generally closer to many of the outdoor adventures, but any of them can be taken as a day trip from Cancun.
I will start my list with the easier and obvious things to do near or at your resort and end with magical experiences that are full-day or overnight trips.
- Spend a few days relaxing on the beach. The white sand beaches are more numerous around Cancun. As you proceed south, you are more likely to have rocky beaches. If you want a protected harbor, consider staying within Cancun’s bay, such as the Breathless Cancun (adults only), or the all-suite Royal Cancun. The Fiesta Americana is farther south into Cancun’s Hotel Zona (Zona Hotelera). I have also enjoyed their protected beach, which stays shallow for quite a bit.
- Go parasailing and soar over the stunning waters around Cancun.
- Go sailing. Many hotels include some time on your own small sailboat. Consider a catamaran tour if your hotel doesn’t, or you don’t know how to sail.
- Rent a jet ski.
- See Cancun and Isla Mujeres from the sky by going up the Cancun Tower (Torre Escenica). This tower gives you a perfect overview of the geography of Cancun. The hotel zone sits on a sandbar that separates a huge lagoon from the ocean. You can also see Isla Mujeres across the water. If you take the ferry to Isla Mujeres from El Embarcadero, your ticket will include a ticket up this gentle ride into the sky.
- Enjoy a night out in Cancun’s many energetic nightclubs.
- Shop for high-end merchandise in Cancun’s new La Isla Cancun Shopping Village.
- Watch a thunderstorm over the water. This has long been one of my favorite parts of staying in a property in Cancun’s hotel zone. The open water seems to go on forever from their beaches, and there are frequent short storms featuring massive thunderheads and lightning over the water. You can be safe and dry on the beach watching this show of nature. The sunrises are incredible too.
- Try some Mayan food at La Habichuela. I have been frequenting this upscale restaurant for thirty years. The food is amazing, and if you eat in the garden, you will be surrounded by stones, ambient light, and plants. My favorite dishes are the stewed Mayan pork and the Cocobichuela; a seafood stew served in a coconut.
- They also have an incredible Mayan Coffee which they make in front of you with flames pouring from the drink, which contains Mayan Liquor, brandy, espresso, and vanilla ice cream. You can get this drink throughout the Yucatan, but it is extra special at La Habichuela.
- La Habichuela is in the heart of downtown Cancun, where the locals live. Join them in the Parque de las Palapas, a daily food festival with lights and music. I recommend finding a booth that sells marquesitas.
- Eat dinner with a crocodile or two at the Captain’s Cove in Cancun. Pancho and Willie, along with other crocs, will often visit this lagoon-side restaurant.
- A Carajillo is another coffee drink unique to this area. It features Liquor 43, a citrusy Spanish liquor with cardamom.
- Take a kayaking tour into Cancun’s mangroves. Unless you go up the tower, when you are in the hotel zone, it is unimaginable that there is a peaceful lagoon just a short distance away filled with nature, including birds, crocodiles, and starfish. You will want to put on bug spray for any exploration into the jungle.
- If you want to experience the lagoon but don’t want to kayak, take a jetski tour into Cancun’s mangroves.
- Take the ferry from Cancun to Isla Mujeres. Just 30 minutes off the coast of Cancun sits the quieter Isla Mujeres. This island got its name from statues on the island’s south coast. Many ferries go, so find the one closest to where you are staying.
- While on Isla Mujeres, rent a golf cart. Since it is less than 5 miles long and very skinny, it is easy to explore the island in half day. You can book a golf cart here or find one when you get off the ferry along the main street.
- Isla Mujeres is also a great place to do a free tequila tasting. Many stores on this road that sell tequila will do a sampling. Obviously, do this after you have driven your golf cart. Mexico has a zero drinking and driving policy, and you do not want to end up in a Mexican jail!
- Drive your golf cart to Punta Sur, a national park at the southern tip of the island. There is a small entrance fee in cash to see the ruins and a lighthouse and walk along the rocky coastline. The main park is handicap and stroller accessible, but not the coastline walks. There is also an open-air restaurant outside of the park under the lighthouse.
- Snorkel or SCUBA the Cancun Underwater Museum of Art – MUSA. Cement statues were installed in the shallow waters off Isla Mujeres; then, the ocean deposited life on them. When I discovered that we were SCUBA diving it, I wasn’t sure, but it ended up being one of our favorite spots. You can book a snorkel tour here or email Miguel at [email protected] for SCUBA.
- After a day of carting around Isla Mujeres, relax on Playa Norte, the island’s most popular white sand beach, located right near the ferry.
- About an hour from Cancun is a deserted jungle island- Isla Contoy. It is difficult to get to, but worth it. Read about my adventures on Contoy Island and all the animals I saw.
- Take the island tour to explore the jungle while on Isla Contoy.
- Shop 5th Avenue in Playa de Carmen.
- Take the ferry to Cozumel, which leaves from Playa del Carmen. There are two companies that each leave every two hours until 9 pm. Unless you want to stick to a schedule, I recommend buying a one-way ticket than buying your ticket back when you arrive at the ferry terminal to leave.
- Cozumel is much bigger than Isla Mujeres. You will need to rent a car or jeep to explore the island. You will find many rentals at the ferry terminal. If you don’t want to do it on your own, you can book a jeep tour. Find a private beach club to spend some time relaxing on the beach.
- Snorkel Palancar Reef, which is part of the second largest coral formation in the world, the Great Mayan Reef. It extends from Mexico to Honduras. You can find many tours, including Palancar and Cielo, either here or at the ferry terminal in Cozumel.
- Take a boat to Playa Cielo and snorkel over large red starfish. This was my highlight of Cozumel!
- Relax in the water on Playa Cielito while stingrays swim around your feet. Every boat ride tour I went on in Mexico included the captain’s homemade ceviche. The droppings from that are what attract the stingrays to the beach.
- From a distance, see a sea turtle lay eggs on the beach. Read my post about how to experience this safely.
- Even better, have a part in an ethical release of the sea turtle hatchlings into the water- same post.
- Drive La Ruta de Los Cenotes. Cenotes are one of the most unique and special parts of this area. They are ground-water-fed limestone sinkholes. They can be open or caves. The Rutas de Cenotes is a 20-mile-long road with around 20 cenotes. They are all privately owned and differ greatly. There will be an entrance fee for each one. You can head onto the road knowing where you want to go or turn into anyone that looks interesting. The ticket booth will tell you what their cenote is about. I have been to many cenotes through the years and think Siete Bocas is perfect! There is a large open area where one can jump 20 feet into the fresh, cold water, but there are also attached caves with stalactites, bats, and doctor fish. We bring our snorkels with us to see fish and underwater formations. If you don’t want to take a private tour, you can book a group tour to cenotes here. These are the closest cenotes to Cancun.
- Take an ATV ride through the jungle. Many of the cenotes also offer ATV rides through their jungle. We did ours at Cenote Sol.
- Visit Xel-ha. When you arrive at the airport, you will see advertisements for a number of adventure parks. My absolute favorite is the protected snorkeling at Xel-ha. Buy your tickets here.
- Get SCUBA certified. My boys started their certification process at home and finished it in Hawaii. We all agree that the best diving we have done is in this part of Mexico, so this would be an ideal place to finish your certification dives. Read on to find out how to do the process.
- SCUBA dive Cozumel’s Santa Rosa wall. This is one of the best dives I have ever done. This dive starts deep at around 50 feet but then falls into oblivion. What an incredible sight to see!
- SCUBA into Siete Bocas Cenote. You can also have the unique experience of SCUBA diving in a cenote!
- One of the last Mayan cities to be built is now ruins that tower over the ocean. Spend time exploring the ruins at Tulum. You can book a tour there or make your way there and hire a guide at the entrance.
- There are also many cenotes near Tulum. Enjoy a day at the Cenote Azul, one of my favorites. It is a busy open cenote with doctor fish, cliffs to jump from, and cold water. Dos Ojos is also a great cenote surrounded by jungle.
- Get your feet nibbled by doctor fish. These are freshwater fish that nibble on dead skin. Although you can find them in tanks in Isla Mujeres to use, they are also naturally occurring in cenotes.
- Akumal is one of my favorite places to visit because you can swim with sea turtles. Unless you stay here, you will likely need a private guide to pay your way in. Read about my adventures in Akumal. If you are obsessed with sea turtles like me, visit Maui, as they are ubiquitous.
- Chichen Itza is the most impressive Mayan ruins in this area and one of the most visited in Mexico. It will be a long day to visit, so you may consider making this an overnight visit and getting to the ruins early in the morning when it is cooler. You can book a day tour here.
- A few years ago, we took a day trip to the Crocodile River- Rio Lagartos and the pink lagoon of Las Coloradas with its resident flamingos. It is a memorable day trip I would recommend. Read about our adventure.
- Isla Holbox is a nature-filled island north of the peninsula. Read this Backpack and Snorkel Travel Guide for Holbox, Mexico
- Take a birding tour. If you follow my Instagram, you will see I love our feathered friends; they are unique and colorful in Cancun!
- Swim with whale sharks. Whale sharks are the largest fish and invertebrates in the world. Despite their size, they are not scary- they are gentle giants.
- Swim with manta rays- although this isn’t advertised, these huge underwater acrobats hang out with whale sharks, so you can see them on your whale shark adventure! They can reach up to 29 feet across.
Here are some guide’s contact info:
Miguel can help you book drivers and tours [email protected]
Fabián is a Cancún-based van driver +52 998 239 5351
Are you convinced that there are so many more unique things to do in Cancun and the Yucatan Peninsula than you imagined? What is your favorite thing to do on the Yucatan? What is on your Cancun bucket list?