Day Trips from Cancun: the Mayan Cities of Chichen Itza and Tulum

Day Trips from Cancun: Chichen Itza, Mexico

For US citizens, Mexico is one of our quintessential vacation destinations. Well-loved for its close proximity, great weather, and hundreds of relaxing resorts, we’ve been flocking to Mexico’s shores for beach vacations for years. A few years ago, Adam and I decided to do exactly that: despite our love of fast-paced trips that have us on the go from sunrise to sunset, we thought it might be fun to enjoy a few days poolside at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun. We booked a long weekend, four days of uninterrupted quiet away from work and obligations at home, but it wasn’t long before we found ourselves eyeing day trips that might stimulate our minds even as we relaxed (after all, vacations can be educational, too!). That’s how our relaxing vacation became one focused on planning day trips from Cancun: we spent a day each visiting Chichen Itza and Tulum, and they truly became the highlights of our time in Mexico. If your travels will take you to one of Mexico’s most popular destinations, here is why Chichen Itza and Tulum are perfect day trips from Cancun.

Day Trips from Cancun: Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza, Mexico
Chichen Itza
We love to visit UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world, and Chichen Itza is a fascinating city with a captivating history. Built between the years 600 and 900 AD, it is one of the largest Mayan complexes and is a great place to see some diverse architecture representative of the various Maya people who lived there. Chichen Itza rose to prominence in the 10th century, when it served as a regional capital, but its glory was short-lived. By the 13th century the city was conquered and entered a period of decline, and although it was no longer a political or economic capital it remained somewhat of a spiritual capital that attracted Mayan pilgrims.

Chichen Itza is one of the great day trips from Cancun for that reason: its colorful history comes to life as you walk among the various buildings that still exist today. Many are in various states of disrepair, although some are beautifully restored and maintained and will quickly transport you to what life might have been like for the Mayan people who called Chichen Itza home. Because historians believe several groups of people lived at Chichen Itza during its prime several types of architecture from the time are on display. Some buildings have ornate carvings and hieroglyphics that tell the stories of the rulers who governed the site.

Chichen Itza: What You Will See

Day trips from Cancun to Chichen Itza will often provide you with a guided tour of some of the site’s most impressive—and famous—spots.

El Castillo

The Kukulcán pyramid, or El Castillo, is perhaps the most famous landmark at Chichen Itza. Although the famous pyramids in Giza are the most well-known around the world, the Mayan people also constructed them as part of their temple complexes. It is the biggest pyramid in the Chichen Itza complex and stands at almost 80 feet (24 meters) tall. Kukulcan is a feathered serpent god at the center of one of the first Mesoamerican religions. Legend says that twice a year, during the spring and fall equinoxes, Kukulcan (sometimes known as Quetzalcoatl) returns to the pyramid to bless worshippers. On these dates, the sun casts a shadow along the pyramid that bears a striking resemblance to a snake—hence the belief it is the serpent himself returning to his people.

Many tour leaders will demonstrate a clapping technique; when standing in certain spots close to the pyramid it is possible for the sound of a clap to resemble the sound of a bird, which guides will connect to the legend of Kukulcan. In this very funny clip, Karl Pilkington demonstrates the clapping technique– and asks a few questions about just how intentional the sound might have been to the Mayans!


Day trips from Cancun to Chichen Itza aren’t complete until you have seen El Castillo, but remember climbing the pyramid is no longer allowed.


The Sacred Cenote is a sacrificial well used to worship the Mayan rain god Chaac. Sacrifices were both objects and humans; skeletons have been exhumed from the well with wounds that are consistent with human sacrifice. While there are other cenotes at Chichen Itza, only the Sacred Cenote is connected with sacrifices, which suggests that the Mayan people believed it was the only cenote connected to the underworld.

The Great Ball Court
The Ball Court at Chichen Itza
The Ball Court at Chichen Itza
This is the largest ball court found in the Chichen Itza complex, and it provides some interesting insight into recreation enjoyed by the Mayan people. Games were likely played by two teams, usually with two to four people each, who would keep a rubber ball in the air without using their hands and feet. Stone rings placed around the perimeter of the Great Ball Court were a difficult part of the game with big rewards: if a player could get a ball through the ring, which itself was not much larger than the ball, the game was immediately over and the team who completed the feat would be declared the winner. Today, a walk through the Great Ball Court is a chance to also see the carvings etched into its walls, which commonly depict scenes from the game.

The Temple of the Skulls

The Temple of the Skulls is one of the more disturbing sights at Chichen Itza. Decorated with carvings of human skulls, sacrifices, and even birds eating human hearts, the platform was once used to display the heads of human sacrifices and those who lost their lives playing dangerous games on the Great Ball Court.

Chichen Itza: Tips for Your Visit

Prepare for a long ride. Day trips from Cancun to Chichen Itza require a pretty lengthy road trip—typically more than two hours—and while the destination is worth the time it takes to get there, it does make for a long day. Take a book or a phone with a movie or two to make the time pass a little faster.

The steps of El Castillo, Chichen Itza
The steps of El Castillo, Chichen Itza
Go early. Chichen Itza is one of the most popular day trips from Cancun—and a few other destinations—which means you won’t be alone during your trip. Early tours might mean a wakeup call long before you would prefer to get out of bed, but you’ll also be more likely to be among the first to enter the grounds on the day of your visit. You’ll enjoy a little more quiet, a little more elbow room, and often a little more time to experience the magic of this former Mayan capital.

Pack a snack. Food options are limited at Chichen Itza, and this day trip from Cancun isn’t going to return you to your hotel in time for lunch. Take a few snacks to tide you over until you return to avoid paying very high prices for food onsite. Some tours will provide a complimentary box lunch, but we were pretty dissatisfied with the lunch we received from our tour operator (a soggy sandwich, a bag of potato chips, and an overripe banana). Providing your own food will keep you energized and save you from suffering through a bad meal.

Prepare for the weather. Mexico is often hot, and that means you’ll need to prepare for the conditions. Pack more than enough water, layer on sunscreen, and take a hat and sunglasses to keep yourself comfortable. We also like to pack small, battery-powered fans that are easy to stash in a daypack but add some comfort if there isn’t a breeze.

Day Trips from Cancun: Tulum

Chichen Itza may be the most popular of the day trips from Cancun, but don’t overlook the incredibly picturesque ruins of Tulum. Dating back to around 1200 AD, Tulum was one of the last Mayan cities to be constructed and is still one of the best-preserved examples of Precolumbian architecture. Tulum was particularly important for Mayan trade, as it was accessible by both the sea and roads that passed through it. It was also one of the only known walled cities, or fortresses, to be built by the Maya.

Tulum is located on the Caribbean Sea, and its original name Zama—meaning City of Dawn—is a perfect descriptor of a city that overlooks the sunrise each morning. These days, Tulum is one of the great day trips from Cancun because it’s a chance to connect history to scenery as you learn about the Mayan culture through a site that sits on white sand beaches lapped by turquoise waters. The crowds are smaller, the weather is a bit nicer, and it’s a great place to bird watch and enjoy a bit of nature at another of Mexico’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Tulum: What You Will See

Day trips from Cancun to Tulum typically provide a guided tour of the ruins, which are pretty spectacular on a sunny day.

El Castillo
Tulum, Mexico
Tulum, Mexico
Like Chichen Itza, Tulum’s main attraction is El Castillo, which served as both a temple and a navigational point for traders coming by canoe on the water. El Castillo’s geographical position is on a break in the surrounding barrier reef, and traders would know they could safely reach the shore if they aligned their boats in a way that allowed them to see daylight coming through the construction’s windows. It’s another symbol of how important Tulum was to the trading community.

The Temple of the Descending God

The Temple of the Descending God is named for a depiction of an upside-down god. While not much is known about the god, each year on his birthday—April 6—the sun enters the temple in a way that illuminates his likeness. Also known as the “diving god,” he is the main god recognized at Tulum.

The Temple of the Frescoes

Used to track the sun’s movement, the Temple of the Frescoes is an impressive structure, although its greatest treasures are inside and not accessible by the public. The temple’s interior houses representations of the rain god Chaac, the diving god, and several other scenes from Mayan life. The outside of the temple features some elaborate carvings that are still visible, although in some places there is evidence of crumbling and erosion.

Tulum: Tips for Your Visit

The Temple of the Descending God in Tulum, Mexico
The Temple of the Descending God
Take a swimsuit. Many day trips from Cancun to Tulum include both a guided tour and some free time, and swimming in the shadow of the ruins is a popular way to spend some time. The beaches are beautiful and not always as crowded as the beaches closer to the resorts, so prepare for a swim if the weather is nice.

Watch out for iguanas. We saw dozens of huge iguanas cross our path as we visited Tulum during our day trip from Cancun! They are harmless, and while you shouldn’t chase or touch them you should keep your cameras ready for some great action shots of the local reptiles enjoying a nice day at home. Some of the iguanas we saw were the size of a small cat!

Pack some bug spray. We found the area around Tulum to house a higher mosquito population than Cancun or Chichen Itza, so some bug spray would be a good item to pack if you want to avoid bites.

Prepare for a day away. Like Chichen Itza, Tulum is one of the longer day trips from Cancun. It takes around two hours to get there, and another two hours to get back, which means you’ll want some entertainment for the ride as well as snacks and water to get you through the day.

Hotels in Cancun, Mexico

Cancun is a popular vacation destination with plenty of resorts and hotels to choose from. Here are some deals to consider.

Enjoy Your Visit to Cancun and the Mayan Cities!

Day trips from Cancun, Mexico are a great way to break up the days of laying by the pool or the beach, and we found our visits to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum to be both educational and relaxing. Build a day or two into your vacation schedule to enjoy one or both of these incredible destinations.

Leave a comment below and let us know if these excursions make it onto your vacation itinerary—and share your tips for creating memorable visits to each of them with us!

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Day Trips from Cancun: The Mayan Cities of Chichen Itza and Tulum, Mexico

Day Trips from Cancun: The Mayan Cities of Chichen Itza and Tulum, Mexico