Beyond Cancún

Tropical islands, Mayan ruins and colonial cities wait just outside Cancún.

By Maribeth Mellin

Most visitors head to Cancún to kick back on its white-sand beaches and explore its vibrant nightlife. But there’s even more to do just outside the city. Here, four-day trip ideas for all types of travelers.

Step Into History

The colonial city of Valladolid, one of the first Spanish settlements on the Yucatán Peninsula, lies roughly midway between Cancún and the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá. It’s a great place to stop for an authentic Yucatecan lunch followed by shopping for handcrafted souvenirs, such as intricately woven hammocks sold in the main plaza by ladies dressed in embroidered huipiles (traditional shifts). Be sure to venture over to the cobblestoned Calzada de los Frailes (Pathway of the Monks), which leads to a beautifully restored colonial-era neighborhood filled with historic homes and the 16th-century San Bernardino de Siena monastery. It also branches off to side roads that lead to several dramatic caves and cool freshwater swimming holes called cenotes.

Swim With Whale Sharks

Schools of whale sharks—the world’s largest species of fish, which can reach lengths of 40 feet and a weight of about 11 tons on a diet of plankton—migrate to the warmer waters near Cancún from May to September. During these months, thousands of humans head to the shore, eager to swim beside these docile giants. Cancún-based EcoColors offers responsible whale shark snorkel trips led by certified guides. Tours to feeding grounds are regulated, and swimmers are prohibited from touching the creatures and using flash photography.

Unwind on a Tropical Island

Funky Isla Mujeres lies about 12 miles northeast of Cancún yet seems a world apart. The pace is languid here, and many people get around by scooter or golf cart instead of by car. Consider beginning your visit at the downtown waterfront then making your way to Garrafón Natural Reef Park, where parrotfish nibble on coral in clear waters and hammocks sway invitingly beneath palms. Activities include snorkeling, kayaking, swimming and biking. Afterward you can toddle back to town along the island’s windward side for a bit of shopping and a seafood lunch before taking a ferry back to Cancún.

Follow Mayan Footsteps

The Tulum ruins may be the most photographed Mayan archaeological site in the region, but no picture could capture the beauty of these pale gray limestone structures, set on bluffs above the turquoise sea. You can reach the ruins 80 miles south of Cancún in a rental car or by bus, or sign up for an organized tour. Just be sure to get there early in the day, before crowds mar the scenery. Shady trails wind past the well-marked buildings that formed a seaport for commercial trading between the 13th and 15th centuries. The largest, El Castillo, is thought to have been a lighthouse that helped guide ships through the reefs. Be sure to bring a swimsuit so you can take a dip in the cove below El Castillo. Small hotels and cafés line the long beach south of the ruins. To wind up your visit, try the pasta or poached fish at Posada Margherita, a hangout popular among travelers.

011-52-998-884-3667;; tickets, $165* a person, price includes transportation from Cancún
Garrafón Natural Reef Park
011-52-998-849-4748;; tickets, from $89 a person
Posada Margherita
Carretera Punta Allen km 4.5; 011-52-984-801-8493;; lunch for two, $40 
San Bernardino de Siena
Calle 49 #238, Barrio de Sisal, Valladolid; 011-52-985-856-2160
Hwy. 307, 80 miles south of Cancún; 011-52-983-837-0796
  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: April 2016