Use Cancun as your base and explore its surrounding highlights!
It’s very cheap to fly (from almost anywhere) to Cancun. I don’t know why but it seems like Cancun has some major flight deals going on at the moment. And Cancun itself has some attractions that you shouldn’t miss when starting your journey through Mexico. Check out my post on things to do in Cancun! After 3-4 days in Cancun, you should be ready to go on and explore the surrounding area! There are many sites that you can easily reach from Cancun, either on your own or with an organised tour. We did a bit of both and here are our highlights of the Mexican states Quintana Roo and Yucatan:
Day trips from Cancun #1: Isla Mujeres
We did a Day-trip from Cancun on a Catamaran to Isla Mujeres with a company called attractions. The tour starts at 10 am in the Marina of Cancun. You can get there easily by bus both from the centre and from your hotel on the ‘Zona Hotelera’. It’s the bus #R1 that gets you there and you need to get off at the Temptation Resort. Once you get off the bus all the tour operators have their people standing on the street in order to lead everyone to the right boat. Make sure, you’ll be there 45 minutes before the tour starts to pay your Ocean Marine Park fee (10 USD) and do the check-in to board the boat.
Once you’re on board, the catamaran takes you in a slow and relaxed pace towards Isla Mujeres. Halfway there, you get an hour of snorkelling time, all the equipment is included. Depending on the weather conditions you can get lucky and snorkel at MUSA, the famous underwater museum! We were not lucky that day because it was too windy. Instead, we stopped at one of the reefs on the way to the island.
The tour includes ‘open bar’! This means you can sip cocktails all day on the catamaran and also when you get to the island where you have lunch. It goes without saying that it turns into a very casual and happy tour. Once you get to the island and after your snorkel stop (about 45 minutes in the water), you enjoy a delicious lunch buffet in a nice beach club. Remember, you can always choose to drink some water, and you definitely should do that in between your Mojitos! That reminds me: Bring sunscreen and a hat for the time on the catamaran and also when you walk around on the island.
After your lunch break, you have 1 1/2 hours of free time to explore the little island. Most people rent golf carts in order to get around and see the island – it’s 7km diameter lets you do that easily in an hour. We forgot to bring our driver’s license, so we were not able to rent one of the golf carts. Instead, we negotiated a fair price with a local taxi driver to show us the island. Which he did for 100 pesos (roughly 8 USD). Some of the people from our boat chose to stay at the beach and simply relax in the shade for some time.
In the harbour area, there are also cute little gift shops where you can find souvenirs, clothes and jewellery. We resisted buying things, as we always remember how heavy our bags can become if we get carried away…
By 5:30 pm you are back in the harbour of Cancun. The tour includes all snorkel gear, food, drinks and a lot of fun! We were lucky and got to go for free because we helped our hostel (Mezcal Hostel) to sell the tour to the hostel guests. But in general you get it for 45 USD and I can recommend it for anyone who is looking for a fun day on a catamaran and in order to get an idea of Isla Mujeres.
Day trips from Cancun #2: Playa del Carmen
From Cancun, most people head down south the coast or the so-called Riviera Maya. The beautiful coastline boasts with many nice beaches and stops on the way. One popular place to visit is Playa del Carmen. The small touristic town is just a one-hour bus ride south of Cancun. You can get there in a ‘colectivo’ (minivan) for as cheap as 34 pesos, or for 62 pesos if you prefer the bigger ADO buses.
Playa del Carmen has become a trendy place and has a vibrant nightlife but in a more centred location compared to Cancun: you live where all the activities are and reach mostly everything by foot or a short taxi ride. The main hotel/hostel area is also close to the beach, so you can easily reach your day activities, such as snorkelling, diving, shopping or sightseeing.
We visited ‘Playa’ two times; the first time before we stayed just for one night and hopped over to Cozumel (a little island that you can read more about further down in this post). And the second time we stayed for two nights and came back for a very cool music event (see my review about the party location which was actually the hostel where we stayed at Hostel 3B).
In general Playa del Carmen is a hotspot for festivals and concerts with musicians and DJs from around the world. Especially in December and January during the ‘high season; many international artists come and attract thousands of people from around the world. One major event takes place in January 2016, the BPM: The Festival lasts for 10 days, with over 150 DJs and 50 events. The program is split into daytime and nighttime and is hosted by different record labels and promoters across various venues in Playa del Carmen, including beach clubs, nightclubs and even underground restaurants.
Day trips from Cancun #3: Tulum
Further south, you will reach Tulum. This place is not only popular for the tourist that seeks Mayan evidence and wants to visit some of the ruins in the area. Tulum is also known for its variety of eco-stores, fashion and art. It attracts tourists who are looking to spend a bit more in order to get some higher standards of food and products.
When I went to visit Tulum, I couchsurfed and stayed at a private house in one of the outer areas of the city centre. But I was still only 15 minutes walking distance from the main street. During my two-day stay, I visited the ruins and strolled around the quirky little streets.
When you visit the ruins in Tulum, you can take public transport right to the entrance. It takes 15 minutes from the centre and costs 15 pesos to get there. You just let the driver know that you want to go to ‘Las Ruinas’ and they let you hop off. The park entrance is a short walk away from the highway where you can buy your ticket (62 Mexican pesos). Once you are inside the park area, you simply follow the signs to see the ruins. The beauty of this site is its location, it is right next to the ocean and some of the ruins are above the cliffs.
Day trips from Cancun #4: Cozumel
I really liked this little island. Some people go there only for the day, but there are a lot of things to do, so you can easily spend a few days. We went to Cozumel because of its dive spots. So we stayed two nights and spend one day exploring the world’s second largest reef (after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) and the little island’s ‘backyard’…
Choose your dive company wisely! There are many options in Cozumel and in this case, it’s definitely not worth saving money as you depend on the company’s selection from the many different spots. I wish I had known that beforehand, as we chose one of the cheaper ones that offered us a special deal…unfortunately though, only one of the two dives were ok. At the second dive spot, our guide got lost and we couldn’t even find the reef…there was nothing but sand to see. When we went snorkelling we saw a lot more fish… 😀
Day trips from Cancun #4: Chichén Itzá
The Mexican Peninsula Yucatan is rich in Mayan cultural sights. Its main attraction is probably Chichén Itzá, a world-famous complex of Mayan ruins. A massive step pyramid known as El Castillo dominates the 6.5-sq.-km-ancient city, which thrived from around 600 A.D. to the 1200s. Graphic stone carvings survive at structures like the ball court, Temple of the Warriors and the Wall of the Skulls. Everyone who visits the state of Yucatan tries to fit in the most popular former Mayan city. The ruins of Chichén Itzá are spread out on a large area that you’ll be able to visit within 3-4 hours. Remember to bring water and sun protection – you are in the middle of the jungle!
The place has become a big attraction and is compared to other cultural sites the least magical one. For one, the masses of tourists who walk around the national park can be distracting and it’s hard to get a good picture of the impressive temples without other people standing in front of you. And on the other hand, there are many vendors inside the area who want to sell their souvenirs. They got creative and try to get your attention with all sorts of things, like panther sounds, reminding you that you are in the middle of the jungle. If you are interested in souvenirs you’re better off buying them in Cancun though or anywhere else – the prices in Chichén Itzá are double as high.
We went on a guided tour this time, which we enjoyed for free as part of our hostel volunteer program. The tour started at 9 am in Cancun and brought as back, from Chichén Itza to Cancun, in the evening. We went in a big air-conditioned bus towards Chichén Itzá. On the way, we stopped at one of the cenotes and swam in its cold fresh water.
Once we got to the archaeological site of Chichén Itzá we strolled around on the huge area. The pre-Hispanic city was built by the Maya people and is completely built with stone tools.
All in all, it is a very intense tour because it’s a long day (we came back around 9 pm) and it was very hot but definitely very great to see such a unique historic Mexican site.
Day trips from Cancun #5: Isla Holbox
Going up north, Holbox Island is 2 hours away from Cancun. You can reach it by bus and after a short ferry ride. Its name is pronounced ‘Holbosh’. This is a little gem, where you don’t need to plan anything at all. It is a place to just be. It’s hassle-free with a very remote touch. The streets are not paved and you see horses in use to get around. And when it rains, it can become a bit difficult to cross the streets…
The main plaza is the centre of Holbox from which you reach the beach by foot in 5 minutes and all the restaurants, shops and bars are located around too. If you go, bring a book or simply enjoy peaceful hours walking along the shore. You can do tours, but all they offer to see is right in front of you: birds and more beaches. Every day you can buy fresh fish from the local fishermen that sell their catch off the beach. Or if you don’t fancy cooking, then choose one of the restaurants and enjoy fresh seafood with ocean view – we loved it!
Have you been on the Yucatan Peninsula? What was your highlight? Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear your story!
NOT DONE READING YET?
If you have more than just a few days time for visiting Cancún, I recommend reading my travel guide for the city. Click HERE to read the post.
Heading towards Belize after your stay on the Yucatan Peninsula? Read what we loved best about this country.