Mexico’s Riviera Maya is home to some of the world’s most vibrant marine life and well-known beaches, making it a top destination for travelers from around the globe. With unparalleled waters, breath-taking views, five star resorts, and unmatched excursions, popular beach towns such as Cancun, Tulum, and the island of Cozumel are truly taking the world by storm. One destination in particular, however, encompasses it all – the town of Playa del Carmen.
Now one of Quintana Roo’s largest cities and one of the region’s top contenders for the title of “Riviera Maya’s trendiest spot”, the city of Playa del Carmen is situated right against the warm, turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. With Cancun located just 42 miles (68 kilometers) to the north, Tulum 40 miles (64 kilometers) to the south, and the Island of Cozumel a quick 45-minute ferry ride from its shores, Playa del Carmen has the ideal location for those looking to explore all that the Riviera Maya has to offer.
One major benefit to visiting Playa del Carmen is the ability to move throughout the surrounding areas cheaply and easily. With must-see attractions in nearly every direction, day trips are a must when visiting this incredible Mexican destination. To help you plan the perfect trip, take a look below at 10 of the best day trips available from Playa del Carmen. You won’t want to miss these!
1. The Amazing Secret River
Are you an explorer at heart? Do you crave adventure and being exposed to sights only witnessed by a lucky few? If these traits sound familiar, this is an activity for you.
Beneath the dense Mayan jungle that surrounds Playa del Carmen lies a labyrinth of limestone caverns and underwater rivers that few will ever see. There is however, one specific river open for exploration that truly mesmerizes those lucky enough to witness its innate beauty.
Known locally as the Amazing Secret River, this underground river and cave system could very well be one of the world’s greatest natural wonders. The caves alone, known as cenotes (sinkholes), are considered one of the region’s most unique treasures.
Formed over the past 100 million years as the Yucatan Peninsula experienced changing sea levels, this remarkable underground landscape exposes visitors not only to the fresh, clear-water rivers, but to breathtaking views of dramatic stalactites and stalagmites.
Take a step back in time and prepare to be amazed by the power of nature. With opportunities to swim and even walk this one-of-a-kind subterranean ecosystem, visitors are able to witness its astonishing beauty – including its unparalleled flora and fauna.
With tours lasting a few hours, and leaving directly from Playa del Carmen almost every hour on the hour between 9:00 AM and 2:00 PM, its best to keep at least half of your day open for this excursion. Keep in mind, you’ll want to plan for a morning or mid afternoon departure as tour transportation to the site stops during the late afternoon. Equipped with transportation, bilingual staff, proper equipment, snacks, and beverages this is an experience you don’t want to miss.
Be sure to bring biodegradable sunscreen, a swimsuit, a towel, water shoes, and perhaps a dry pair of clothes for afterwards (changing rooms and/or bathrooms will be available). Get ready to witness one of the most spectacular underground ecosystems the world has ever seen – you are sure to left speechless.
2. The Mayan Archaeological Site of Chichen Itza
It’s hard to imagine a trip to Mexico without the images of ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations coming to mind. After all, these images are often pictured in movies and shared in Spanish classes throughout the U.S. and Canada and around the world. What if we told you that these images, while intriguing, don’t capture the true awesomeness of these ancient structures and communities? The best way to get an honest understanding of how these ancient civilizations lived and thrived is to visit the very cities themselves.
One of the most iconic archeological sites known around the world is that of Mexico’s Chichen Itza. Covering an area of more than 740 acres (300 hectares), this ancient urban center still remains quite the mystery to archeologists who are trying to find out when and how this mega-city came to be.
With the opportunity to explore this site’s spectacular ancient monuments and learn about the people who once called them home, Chichen Itza has become a top destination for tourists from around the globe. With tours leaving directly from Playa del Carmen, a visit to this Mayan metropolis should be a priority during your stay.
Located 115 miles (185 kilometers) inland from Playa del Carmen’s beautiful shores, this tour is an all day event. Most tours leave bright and early in the morning around 8:00 AM and don’t return until late in the evening. With opportunities to visit and explore nearby cenotes during your trip, such as cenote Ik’ Kil, a swimsuit, biodegradable sunscreen, comfy waterproof shoes, and a hat are good items to bring along. Equipped with bilingual staff, transportation, meals, refreshments, and admission to the archeological site and cenotes this is an opportunity that you simply cannot miss.
Forget about the Spanish textbooks and famous images from the movies and experience these incredible, ancient Mayan ruins firsthand. Only then can you truly appreciate their profound awesomeness.
3. The Tropical Islands of Isla Contoy & Isla Mujeres
Playa del Carmen is one of those places where you can find almost everything that you are looking for – quiet time on the beach, relaxing spas, swim up bars, first class restaurants, impressive shows, and upbeat dance clubs. Sometimes, however, you simply want to get away from the action and escape to a more remote location – even if just for the day. If this sounds like you, be sure to check out the tours to the incomparable islands of Isla Contoy and Isla Mujeres.
Starting at Isla Contoy (Contoy Island) in the State of Quintana Roo, which is located at the confluence of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, visitors have the opportunity to partake in a plethora of relaxing, yet exciting activities. Although small, measuring only 5.2 miles (8.5 kilometers) in length, Isla Contoy is considered the most important nesting place for more than 150 migrating and resident seabirds in all of the Mexican Caribbean, including the frigate, brown pelicans, and the double-crested cormorant.
Protected by the Mexican government since 1961, and declared a National Park in February 1998, the island only welcomes 200 visitors a day, making it quite the in-demand activity for tourists. In addition to its impressive bird species, the island is home to secluded white beaches, lush palm trees, and acts as an important nesting place for the Caribbean’s many sea turtles.
Equipped with a visitor center, pier, museum, souvenir shop, resting areas with benches and palapas, and two walking-paths along which visitors are able to learn about the local flora and fauna, this island is a must-see for nature lovers near and far. Not to mention the available guided tours led by local biologists and bird watching tours onboard small boats that travel to the nesting-lagoon site of Puerto Viejo.
Before arriving at Isla Contoy, visitors have the opportunity to stop, snorkel, and witness the heart-stopping beauty of the Ixlache Reef, home to countless marine species.
The tour ends at the lovely Isla Mujeres (Woman Island). Located just 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the shores of Cancun, Isla Mujeres is home to some of the most pristine beaches in all of the Riviera Maya. With calm, warm waters and soft, white-sand beaches, this meek island is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of larger resort towns. With the opportunity to shop, grab a drink, or enjoy the stunning beach views, visitors are sure to quickly fall in love with this local gem.
Due to the limited number of visitors allowed to visit each day, only a few tour companies have permission to bring guests to the island. Departing from Playa del Carmen, tours to both islands usually last a full day (8 to 9 hours), and should be booked in advance.
Visitors to the islands should bring along sunglasses, hats, biodegradable sunscreen, mosquito repellent, photographic equipment, and binoculars. Equipped with bilingual staff, round-trip transportation, snorkel equipment, life jackets, meals, refreshments (both on and off the boat), and professional guides this Isla Mujeres and Contoy Island tour is an excursion that you must experience.
4. Maya Ceremonial Night
While not a day trip, visitors who make their way to the beautiful Playa del Carmen should select an evening to spend with the region’s famous Dos Palmas community. This fascinating, vibrant Mayan community takes guests back in time to a place of natural wonder and healing.
Guests are exposed to Mayan customs through a number of traditional Mayan activities such as storytelling, Mayan purification rituals, and the world-renowned Temazcal experience (sacred Mayan steam bath). A traditional Mayan purification ceremony, the Temazcal is used as part of a curative ceremony thought to purify the body after exertion and used to heal the sick, improve overall health, and assist women in giving birth. Still used today by local Mayan communities, this cleansing process continues to play a big role in Mayan spiritual and physical healing.
If that doesn’t sound amazing enough, guests all have the chance to take a dive into one of the area’s fresh-water cenotes under the night sky before enjoying a delicious home cooked meal with Mayan families. If you are someone who loves to learn about and experience foreign cultures, this is the opportunity for you – one that the entire family will remember forever.
Don’t miss out on this incredible immersion opportunity. Equipped with bilingual staff, transportation, entrances to a temazcal, Mayan purification ceremony, and fresh-water cenote, and with dinner and refreshments provided, this is an excursion unlike any other. Take a leap of faith, and go back in time with this one-of-a-kind Mayan experience.
5. Xel-Ha Water Adventure Park
What would you say if we told you that there was one place that encompassed all of the best that the Riviera Maya had to offer? One place that offered thrilling underwater excursions, adventurous hiking tours, exotic flora and fauna, breathtaking landscape, savory cuisine, and exciting water sports? Hopefully you would say, “I’m all in!” After all, the region’s eco-adventure park known as Xel-Ha is an experience you don’t want to miss.
Regarded as one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, Xel-Ha provides individuals of all ages a unique experience right in the heart of the Riviera Maya. A true paradise for nature lovers, this remarkable work of nature was named “Xel-Ha” by the ancient Maya, which means “place where water is born”. A place of unparalleled beauty, Xel-Ha offers guests the opportunity to partake in nearly every activity the region has to offer, including snorkeling, diving, zip-lining, trail walking, bike riding, swimming, and guided excursions through the surrounding jungle, cenotes, caves and beaches.
With organized day trips available for Playa del Carmen visitors, Xel-Ha is a must see for anyone wishing to see nature at its finest. Equipped with bilingual staff, transportation, entrance to the park, use of all of its facilities, water equipment, all you can eat and drink Mexican buffet, and passes for activities ranging from zip-lining to river tubing, this is one tour that you will never forget.
6. The Mayan Archeological Site of Tulum
Mexico’s famous ancient archeological sites of Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza have made a big splash in the tourism industry over the past decades. After being published in textbooks and discussed in Spanish classes around the world, it’s no wonder how these sites gained a large international following.
While their massive, pre-Hispanic structures (some of the largest in the world) and intriguing histories draw in tens of thousands of visitors each year, smaller, less known sites, such as Tulum on the Caribbean coast, have also begun to catch the attention of travelers from around the globe.
Located on the east coast of the Yucatan peninsula just 40 miles (65 kilometers) south of Playa del Carmen, Tulum was once one of the most important and powerful Mesoamerican centers. Once a major trading and religious post between the 11th and 16th centuries, this miraculous site sits on a 40-foot (12 meter) limestone cliff overlooking the bright turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, creating a dramatic view unlike any other in the world.
With daily tours leaving from Playa del Carmen, this site is a must-see for the history buff or those who love to explore mesmerizing, ancient structures. With the largest monument being that of El Castillo (The Castle) with a height of 25 feet (7.5 meters), the sites structures are smaller than those of larger ancient cities but are equally impressive.
Book a tour and explore the only surviving Maya archeological site set alongside the sea. Equipped with bilingual staff, transportation, admission to the site, a guided tour, and refreshments, this is an excursion well worth your time. Come visit this truly picturesque destination and be stunned by views that the Maya have awed at for centuries.
7. Local Cenotes
For those who can’t sit still on the beach, the Riviera Maya offers some of the most adrenaline rushing water and land activities. If you like to be active and explore life below the earth’s surface, Playa del Carmen’s cenote tour is just for you.
While diving in the warm, Caribbean waters is indeed an activity all visitors should experience, cenote swimming has become the new popular activity among action enthusiasts. Formed over years of erosion and geological change, Riviera Maya cenotes act as gateways to the world’s largest underground river system. With more than 5,000 hidden its jungles, it’s no surprise that Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula has become the hot spot for nature explorers.
Home to famous underground water and cave systems such as Dos Ojos (Two Eyes), Nohoch Nah Chich (Giant Birdhouse), Ox Bel Ha (Three Paths of Water), and Sac Atun (White Cave), visitors to the Riviera Maya have the opportunity to explore cenotes near Playa del Carmen of all types and magnitudes. Swim, kayak, rappel, and zip-line through a world of ancient rivers, caverns, stalagmites, and stalactites for an experience you’ll never forget.
Equipped with bilingual staff, transportation, entry to different cenotes, equipment for rappelling, zip-lining, swimming, and kayaking, and food and refreshments, the range of available one day trips are sure to leave you feeling exhilarated. Be sure to leave a full day open in order to explore this astonishing underground world – you won’t regret it.
8. The Maya Forest ATV Adventure
With so much to see and so little time to experience it all, people often feel overwhelmed when it comes to selecting the activities they wish to experience during their stay. Should you visit the mystic underground cenotes, hidden caves, or Mayan ruins? What about snorkeling? Does this sound like you? Not to fret – you can do it all!
Take a ride through this amazing natural landscape close to the Riviera Maya coastline and discover all the hidden treasures the jungle has to offer. Explore underground cave systems, ancient Mayan ruins, and swim in profound fresh-water cenotes to cool off. You will even visit a traditional Mayan home where you will learn about the lifestyle of these ancient inhabitants, which today number an impressive six-million individuals from 13 linguistic groups.
This is the ideal experience for the adventurer and avid learner. Equipped with bilingual staff, round trip transportation, a guided ATV tour, activity equipment, visit to Mayan home, ruins, and exotic cenotes, this half-day excursion is one for the books.
9. Bird Watching
One that visitors from near and far come to realize after their first experience visiting the Riviera Maya is that Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is home to abundant wild and marine life – whether on land, in the air, or below the water’s surface. One of the most rewarding experiences during your stay is simply observing these miraculous creatures in their natural habitats. Home to an impressive list of native creatures, ranging from Jungle Pumas to Sting Rays, and Spider Monkeys to Whale Sharks, the Riviera Maya is every animal lovers dream.
Some particularly popular excursions that draw in visitors of all types are the region’s bird watching tours. With nearly 550 species of birds spotted in the Yucatan Peninsula, both local and migratory, the Yucatan Peninsula is recognized as not only a popular bird watching destination, but also a critical migratory region. In fact, the region’s bird population represents nearly 50% of all the bird species present in Mexico.
Take an unforgettable tour by boat or on foot to the Peninsula’s most popular natural bird sanctuaries and witness species such as the Ocellated Turkey, Yucatan Flycatcher, Red-vented Woodpecker, and the Yellow-crowned Night Heron in action. Tours visit sites such as the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Contoy Island, and the nearby jungles of Puerto Morelos.
Equipped with bilingual staff, round trip transportation, guided tours, binoculars, snacks, and refreshments, this incredible half-day wildlife tour is sure to have all the bird lovers chirping.
10. Cozumel Island Jeep Excursion
As mentioned before, sometimes the process of selecting which activities to partake in during your stay can be overwhelming. Luckily, for those wishing to visit the nearby island of Cozumel, located just 12 miles (19 kilometers) off the shores of Playa del Carmen, the Cozumel Island jeep excursions allow visitors to experience the best that the island has to offer, both above and below the water’s surface.
With world-class snorkeling at Villa Blanca – one of Cozumel’s most stunning off-shore reefs – visits to the ancient Mayan ruins of San Gervasio, views of the island’s eastern shores, tequila tastings at one of the island’s tequila stands, and exploration at the Punta Sur Ecological Preserve, this island jeep excursion is truly unique in nature.
As Mexico’s third largest island and home to the famous Chankanaab National Park, Cozumel is home to abundant and unparalleled land and water activities for individuals of all ages and types. Home to some of the region’s most vibrant marine life, a day trip to the island when visiting Playa del Carmen isn’t only an option – but highly recommended.
Equipped with bilingual staff, round trip transportation, access to different areas of the island – including Punta Sur Park, San Gervasio, and Chankanaab Park – along with access to a Sea Lion show and tequila tasting among other activities, this tour is sure to have guests returning to the island for a second (or even third) day of adventure.
What are you waiting for? Start planning your dream vacation in Playa del Carmen. With its own personality and flavor, this hip Mexican destination is sure to steal the hearts of all of those who witness its liveliness. With a pristine location in the heart of the Riviera Maya, guests are not only able to fully enjoy the city and its many stunning beaches, but also the incredible natural wonders and historic towns located nearby. If you love ecotourism Playa del Carmen is for you. With these top 10 day trips in mind, you are sure to have the time of your life.