I am not a beach lover, although I love sea shores and deep seas- staying in a condo or a hotel room with a sea view is my first choice anywhere, but I rarely touch the tip of my toenail to the last surviving foam left by receding sea waves; I back off immediately above the high tide lines when the waves come in… just like Sanderling shore birds. We went to Cancun for two great reasons: we had to attend a wedding of a special & dear relative and we always wanted to learn about the Mayan culture- the food, the ruins, the art, and the people along with the geology, flora, and fauna of Yucatan Peninsula.
We spent most of our time inside the resort on Rivera Maya. The entire coastal strip from Cancun to Tulum (Rivera Maya in the middle) has numerous resorts overlooking the Caribbean Sea and they are all wonderful for family travels. If you are into sea faring, island hopping, or deep sea fishing, then while being in the resort you can cover some islands on a boat in half-a-day tours.
We, instead, rented a van with a driver and a guide from the resort and asked them to cover Chichen Itza and Tulum on the same day with Mayan village and Cenotes (fresh water pools) experiences. We left early in the morning and returned back late in the evening and covered all of it, but we were exhausted! Some people prefer to split up Chichen Itza and Tulum in two separate trips, but it all depends on the time and priorities on hand. Also, there is the very convenient possibility of renting your own car and self-driving it- it is cheaper and safe as long as you return back to your resort in daylight (the roads are very well marked, as well). Keep pesos for toll booths and leave from your resort such that you are at the Chichen Itza gate by 8.30AM.
Top things to do in Cancun
This is one of the most scientific ruins I have seen in the Americas with its pre-Columbian architectural grandeur mixed with astrology. I recommend that you hire a local guide at the gate, if you are not carrying a guide with you, for some detailed explanations. The drive from Cancun (or Tulum) to Chichen Itza is about 2 1/2 hours through the limestone soiled thickets of Tamarind, Royal Palms, and Fig trees infested with numerous Cenotes. There is also a Cenotes right near the ruins- explore the place and lookout for red-vented woodpeckers and turquoise-browed motmot (the national bird of Nicaragua) as they are all over the inner linings of the Cenotes limestone wall. You should spend about 2 hours at Chichen Itza.
Cenotes are fresh water pools and looks like a filled up sink-hole. The color of the water is deep blue due to limestone-colored in most cases. We went to Gran Cenotes that was close to Coba village. It is open to the public and is very family friendly. Mostly all the Cenotes are privately owned, so you will pay entrance fees, but they are worth it! There are numerous Cenotes all around the Yucatan, so have your tour organizer pick a Cenote for you.
Tulum’s Mayan Castillo is another archaeological site that is worth visiting; it is the only Mayan site that is built overlooking the sea. The old port, residential houses of the elites, Temple of Frescoes, Zama Castillo, etc. all overlooking the Caribbean Coast. The hike through the ruins is about a mile through the limestone hills, jungle and the ancient pathways with arches; take ample amount of water and sunscreen. The beach by this ruin is small and rocky, but provides an astonishing panoramic view of the whole ancient Mayan theater.
Food & Mayan Experience
We selected the village of Coba as our Mayan experience point due to it’s proximity to our route on 109 from Chichen Itza to Tulum. We stopped here for lunch at a restaurant called Nicte Ha and had their fabulous Mayan Hahnchen Mit Pibil Sosse (Achiote-Chicken) slow cooked bone-in inside banana leaves. We also tried Cochinita Pibil (Pork Pibil), but not like Pollo Pibil! The village was a typical sleepy village on the banks of Laguna Coba, there were some handicraft shops in and around the village, but I highly recommend to purchase artifacts from your resort or directly from a local’s home.
Sea Faring and Island Hoping
We did not do this activity, but it was advertised everywhere and seemed to be lot of fun. There are numerous islands accessible from Cancun/Tulum by boat with activities abound – deep sea fishing, whale watching, snorkeling, etc. Keep half to a full day for any sea bound activities.