Glorious stretches of sand and eco-chic hotels are reason enough to visit Tulum, but if you can drag yourself away, you’ll find that this is much more than a beach destination.
Tulum is a gateway to the remarkable riches of the Yucatán Peninsula, and you can find towering Maya ruins, dense jungle forests, colonial towns and the world’s longest underground river system all just a day trip away.
Here are the best day trips from Tulum.
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Explore ancient Maya ruins at Cobá
Travel time: 45 minutes
Entering Cobá ruins long racks of multicolored bicycles are lined up for rent and people sit straddling yellow triciclos (pedicabs). Whichever you prefer, hire one – it’s worth it. The archaeological site is spread across several square miles, and the heat and humidity make riding so much more pleasant than walking. Pedaling under the forest canopy, listening to the sound of song birds and stopping to explore long abandoned Maya palaces and ball courts is nothing short of sublime.
The star of the site is Nohuch Mul. At almost 14 stories high, it’s one of the tallest pyramids in the Maya world. Climbing the narrow stone steps, clutching the thick rope that leads to the top, is not for the faint of heart, but you’ll never forget the view: a stunning jungle expanse, ancient temples poking above the verdant tree line. Aim to arrive at opening so that you miss the tour groups and have the best shot at seeing wildlife – motmots and colorful toucanets, blue morph butterflies and, if you’re lucky, spider monkeys.
How to get to Cobá from Tulum: The Cobá ruins are a 45-minute drive from Tulum on a well-maintained road. Public buses and colectivos travel to Cobá town several times daily, dropping off passengers at the ruins.
You can visit a dozen or more beautiful cenotes, including Gran Cenote, on a day trip from Tulum © Elzbieta Sekowska / Shutterstock
Swim in Tulum’s nearby cenotes
Travel time: 10 to 30 minutes
No matter how many photos you see, the first time at a cenote (sinkhole) feels like descending into another world. One moment you’re relaxing on Tulum’s white-sand beaches, and the next you’re lowering yourself down a rickety ladder into a hole in the ground.
Once your eyes adjust to the dark, you’ll see stalagmites and stalactites surrounding turquoise water that is so impossibly clear it looks bottomless. It’s a dream-like eerie wonderland. Tulum is surrounded by some of the region’s most dramatic cenotes. Popular Parque Dos Ojos offers guided snorkeling tours of its labyrinthine underwater cave system, while others like Gran Cenote are open-air caverns deep in the jungle where you can swim with small fish and freshwater turtles. Still others, such as Cenote Angelita, are best suited for scuba diving, its wonderfully creepy waters capped by a foggy layer of hydrogen sulfide, making the outstretched branches of submerged trees seem like arms reaching for the surface.
How to get to cenotes near Tulum: More than a dozen cenotes are located near Tulum, making cenote hopping a fun way to spend a day. They’re found along the coastal highway and on the road to Cobá, all reachable by car in 10 to 30 minutes from Tulum’s town center. Colectivos (public shuttles) stop at most of them.
The coastline, waterways and jungle of Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve are teeming with wildlife © Gim42 / Getty Images
Watch wildlife at Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Travel time: 30 minutes
A rutted dirt road runs along the eastern edge of Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a 1.3-million-acre reserve of coastal forests and beaches, mangroves and lagoons. It’s slow going but doable in most cars. Simple fences and thick vegetation line the road, with thatch-roofed homes appearing now and then. An occasional opening in the palm forest leads to gloriously empty beaches, showing what Tulum looked like decades ago.
The reserve is teeming with wildlife, and a handful of community-based agencies run excellent trips: sunset kayak trips to bird-watch and listen to the haunting call of howler monkeys; tubing excursions down ancient canals, with beefy iguanas sitting atop long-forgotten Maya ruins; and snorkeling tours, where giant sea turtles glide past you like underwater birds and dolphins play in your boat’s wake.
How to get to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve from Tulum: Sian Ka’an’s coastal road begins where Tulum’s beach road ends to the south. From the Tulum town center, it’s about 30 minutes to the entrance of the reserve, which is marked with a huge arch. There is no reliable public transportation to Sian Ka’an, but tours include transportation.
El Castillo is Chichén Itzá’s best-known temple © Matteo Colombo / Getty Images
Be captivated by the power of Chichén Itzá
Travel time: 2 hours
While the entrance to the park is a wooded path lined with souvenir stands, at one point the trees suddenly part to reveal a grassy plaza, the home of El Castillo, Chichén Itzá’s tallest and most recognizable temple. Looking up, it’s easy to imagine a Maya priest standing at the top, arms elevated to the heavens, thousands of people celebrating the shadow of a serpent descending the staircase on the autumnal equinox.
The site is majestic and ornate, every structure oozing brilliance and power, a reminder of the people who once lived here. Arrive at opening to enjoy the ruins before the tour groups descend on the site, and come back in the evening for the sound-and-light show and the treat of walking through the ruins with the moon overhead, with the most prominent structures lit up in bright reds, purples and blues.
How to get to Chichén Itzá from Tulum: By car, it’s two hours from Tulum to Chichén Itzá on paved roads that cut through the scrub forest and pass Maya villages. Public buses also make the trip from Tulum twice a day.
Valladolid is filled with impressive architecture and pedestrianized streets © kengoru / Getty Images
Wander the character-filled streets of Valladolid
Travel time: 1 hour 30 minutes
The cobblestone streets of Valladolid are lined with brightly painted Spanish-Colonial buildings, old VW Beetles are parked along the curb, and women dressed in huipiles (traditional Maya dress) buy mangoes from stands piled high with fruit. This is a slice of Yucatecan life.
Meander down Calzada de los Frailes, a street draped in bougainvillea and dotted with artisanal boutiques. When it’s time for lunch, order a plate of savory empanadas and a cool agua de jamaica (iced hibiscus tea) at the cozy Tresvanbien. The Templo de San Bernardino, an imposing Franciscan church, is nearby, and a self-guided tour includes flaking 16th-century frescos and a cenote where a cache of weapons from the Caste War was found. As the afternoon heat subsides, Valladolid’s central plaza fills with locals out for a stroll and food carts offering tasty snacks, such as sugar-coated churros and chicharrones (crispy pork rind) doused in hot sauce. Stay until sunset, when folkloric dancers arrive to spin and smile, entertaining those on the pedestrianized street.
How to get to Valladolid from Tulum: Valladolid is 1.5 hours by car from Tulum on a well-maintained road that passes small towns and thatch-roofed communities. Nonstop bus service is also offered several times daily.