By Laura Winfree
October 21, 2014
David Sanger Photography / Alamy

I’ve spent nearly a decade’s worth of weekends adventuring beyond downtown Cancun to nearby secluded beaches, untouched jungle towns, and the famed Mayan ruins. You can venture past Cancun’s city limits for more than ten years, and barely touch the list of small, nearby islands or worth-the-drive restaurants. Whether I wander just outside the boundaries of the Hotel Zone, or roam deep into the jungle, I know that something amazing and unexpected lies ahead. The breathtaking Caribbean is home to charming beachside villages, virtually unmarked swaths of white sand beaches, and centuries of mysterious ancient history. On your next Cancun vacation, make sure to set aside at least one day to step outside the resort and discover some of the region’s nearby attractions. Rent a car, grab a bicycle, board a ferry, or even saddle up a horse, and embark on one of these five easy day trips from the daily pulse and bustle of the Glistening City. 

Isla Mujeres

This small, Caribbean island is only a 20-minute ferry ride from Cancun. Upon arrival, rent a golf cart for the day to tour the island and visit the tortugranja, or turtle farm, to watch baby turtles (Green Sea Turtles, Loggerheads). Later, head back to downtown Isla Mujeres for a quick lunch (try Limon for their outdoor patio) followed by an afternoon swimming and relaxing at my favorite beach in the country, Playa Norte.

Playa del Carmen

The growing beach city of Playa del Carmen, known fondly by locals as the Playa, is a vibrant place for a day of swimming, walking, and dining. Spend your morning exploring Mexico’s 5th Avenue, Quinto Avenida, a charming pedestrian street lined with some of the region’s best shopping. Unique souvenirs can be found here, including natural lamps from Jellyfish boutique, made from carved shells and gourds. 

Tulum

This centuries-old Mayan city consists of breathtaking stone temples perched atop a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Of all the Mayan ruins I’ve visited, Tulum has by far the most beautiful location—get here by car or take a guided horseback tour from Cancun. Don’t forget a bathing suit: there’s a lovely beach nestled at the bottom of the cliff, popular for swimming and relaxing.

Akumal

This tiny beach town has earned fame as the perfect spot for snorkeling with sea turtles! Have lunch with an ocean view at Lol-Ha restaurant (calamari with jicama slaw; housemade churros), spend the afternoon snorkeling and swimming in the pool-like waters, then make your way to the nearby La Buena Vida for dinner and drinks on the sand. 

Coba

The Mayan city of Coba is situated around two lagoons in the heart of the jungle. This site features ancient temples that you can climb, strung together by wide, white limestone roads known as sacbe. Rent a bike for easy exploration of the ruins. At night, moonlight illuminates the ancient streets. 

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