Tours and Excursions

If you like to do things besides party, your choices of sightseeing tours will make a big difference in your enjoyment of Cancun. There are some tours not mentioned here. Most of them feature overnight stays or flights to the site; I found plenty to do within easy distance of Cancun.

Hey! You're blocking the view!

Chichen Itza

Don't leave Cancun without sightseeing at Chichen Itza. This is the largest site with the most impressive ruins. The guides give good explanations and demonstrations as they lead you around. You get to climb several of the ruins. In addition to the beautiful scenery and structures, there are fascinating echo effects in some of the enclosed areas.

That's better.

To streamline the tours, guides from different companies sometimes exchange parts of their groups so that one guide has the English speakers and the other has the Spanish speakers. This arrangement is more convenient than having everything repeated in both languages, and leaves more time for exploring on your own.

This is an all-day trip from Cancun, with a few hours' drive in each direction and 2-3 hours on-site. Expect a detailed explanation of Mayan culture and history. On my trip, I was the poster boy for the Mayan calendar as the guide used the design on my T-shirt to explain the system of dates.

There are also independent guides who show small parties around the vicinity as well as the site. Afterwards, you return on one of the regular tour buses. This seems like a good deal as the party that joined our group had a great time.

It's a good idea to drink a lot of liquids on the way as the open spaces are scorching hot. There are plenty of shaded areas though if you need to take a rest.

People say that climbing the grand pyramid is easier on the way up than on the way down. I experienced the opposite. On the way up, looking upward to see if anyone was in the way produced a feeling of falling backwards.

Inside the grand pyramid is a chamber containing a smaller pyramid. There is a long slow lineup to get into this chamber, and no picture-taking inside. If you go in, go early after the guided tour is over so that you don't run out of time like I did!

See Also

Photos of Chichen Itza
Photo tips for Chichen Itza
Food at Chichen-Itza (from a vegetarian perspective)
Finding your bus
The gift shop on the way to Cancun offered the widest selection and best value of any store I found.


Xcaret is another must-see location,especially if you are a nature lover. It is a sprawling nature preserve that includes:

  • A bird sanctuary
  • A butterfly habitat
  • An aquarium with tanks from different depths on the reef
  • Dolphin shows and swimming with dolphins
  • Jaguars and cougars
  • Several live shows throughout the day and evening
  • Underground river that you can float down
  • Lagoon for swimming and snorkeling
  • Botanical gardens
  • Riding stables
  • Recreation of Mayan village

Make sure to get a map. There are signs everywhere but it's easy to get lost, and many of the routes are winding and one-way. You should get a tour of the main places at the start from your tour guide, but there is lots more to explore on your own.

Plan on staying for the evening show at the teatro, featuring plenty of folkloric singing and dancing. Schedule some rest breaks throughout the day as you will be plenty tired at the end. When you stay for the evening show, it's an extra $5 charge for transportation back to town, as the tour buses leave before the show starts.

Don't apply any suntan lotion before coming to Xcaret as you are not allowed to swim with it on (it's toxic to the coral reef). But do bring it with you, as you can exchange it at the entrance for free coral-safe suntan lotion.

See Also

Photos of Xcaret
Photo tips for Xcaret
Finding your bus
Food at Xcaret (from a vegetarian perspective)


Tulum is like Chichen Itza but on a smaller scale. If you only have time to do one, do Chichen Itza. If you have plenty of time, you can use Tulum as practice for taking pictures of Mayan ruins and then go to Chichen Itza. Tulum's ruins are less spectacular and you are not allowed to climb most of them.

The unique aspect of Tulum is its seaside location. As there is no place to eat at Tulum itself, you may want to pack a picnic lunch and have it on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. There is a long uncrowded stretch to the right of the main temple.

Because a trip to Tulum only takes about half a day, make sure to book one of the combined tours: morning in Tulum and afternoon snorkeling in Xel-Ha.

See Also

Photos of Tulum
Photo tips for Tulum
Finding your bus
Food at Chichen-Itza (from a vegetarian perspective)


Usually, tours to Tulum also include an afternoon of snorkeling at Xel-Ha. It is a nature preserve with the lagoon as the main attraction.

Don't apply any suntan lotion before coming to Xel-Ha as you are not allowed to swim with it on (it's toxic to the coral reef).

See Also

Photo tips for Xel-Ha
Food at Xel-Ha (from a vegetarian perspective)

Undersea Boat Tour

You can get a great look at the reefs and marine life on a tour on an undersea boat tour. The one I took was from the Aquaworld marina. The tour leaves from Isla Paraiso, which is also a spot for all-day snorkeling, and you can get a discounted fare if you want to do both.

The boat is not actually glass-bottomed, you sit below-decks and get a view out windows in the side. (The view is better on the right-hand side.) The light is dim enough that you will have trouble getting good pictures; you'll certainly need low-light film, but I don't know if even that is enough.

See Also

Underwater photo tips

Snorkeling and Jungle Tours

There are snorkeling tours that go to Isla Mujeres and Cozumel, both islands near Cancun. You can go to both of these places by yourself for much less money, and if you are a sightseer rather than a serious snorkeler, or if you are already going on several other tours, I recommend going on your own.

To go to Isla Mujeres costs $13.50 US for the round-trip, and you can find coupons for a 10% discount. The water-taxi leaves from the marina near the "Fat Tuesday" bar in the hotel zone.

To go to Cozumel, you must leave early from the bus terminal downtown for Playa del Carmen on the coast. Once there, you take a ferry to Cozumel. The reason for leaving early is that the bus ride takes a couple of hours, the ferry stops running relatively early in the evening, and the ferry can be busy so you may wait a while to go over.

There are a variety of tours through the jungle (really a swamp with jungle vegetation) surrounding the Cancun lagoon. You can either pilot your own jet-ski, or cruise on a boat. You sail through the twisty passages in the swamp until you reach a spot where you can snorkel the rest of the afternoon.

Experienced snorkelers will probably prefer the jungle tour where you ride the jet-ski. Beginning snorkelers or those travelling with their families might prefer a boat tour like the one AquaWorld offers to its private island, "Isla Paraiso". After going through the jungle by boat, you spend the rest of the day on a man-made island with change rooms, a restaurant, and free food, drinks, and snorkeling equipment. You can snorkel by yourself or go on a guided tour of the reef (although the guiding consists mostly of saying "Follow me!").

You can also snorkel off the beach in the southern part of the hotel zone. Get off the bus at the Westin Regina hotel and head towards the Club Med.

There is also great snorkeling at Xel-Ha, which is often combined with a tour of the nearby Tulum ruins.

Don't apply any suntan lotion before snorkeling as you are not allowed to swim with it on (it's toxic to the coral reef).

See Also

Underwater photo tips

Curse of the Bilingual Guide

Many of the guided tours advertise their "bilingual guides". However, what this really means is that you will probably have to listen to all the directions in both languages. On the tours I was on, usually the majority was Spanish-speaking. This is good if you are trying to learn Spanish, but gets tiresome when it cuts into roaming-around time.

I don't know to what extent "unilingual" tours are available. I saw tourists from Germany and Japan being shown around by guides speaking their language. At Chichen-Itza the guides considerately traded some tourists so that everyone was served in one language only. I signed up for a cheap tour but got a guide from one of the expensive companies. (And he was quite good too.)

Finding Your Bus

The tourist sites get so many visitors that it's not always easy to find your group again when it's time to leave.

Chichen Itza
Has a well-organized parking lot where it's easy to find your bus. Make sure to be on time though as they are strict about leaving on time. The local restaurants all fill up at the same time and it's best not to be late.
Has a long walk from the site back to the parking lot, during which you can join up with your group.
Has a really big parking lot where it's tough to find your bus. If you have a few minutes during the day, you might want to go outside and find it so you don't have to rush at the end. (I only saw a couple of the bigger tour companies actually bringing their buses back to the entrance.)

There are also several stages of the entrance -- foyer, gift shop, courtyard, etc. -- so make sure you know where the group is supposed to gather.

You can avoid this headache by staying for the evening show, but make sure your tour guide knows that you will be staying behind and taking the late bus back to the hotels.

By the end of the day you will be completely relaxed and have no bus-locating worries. If you try out those hammocks, be sure not to oversleep!

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