Tulum is well known for its iconic cliff-top Mayan castle and temple overlooking the Caribbean Sea. But delve a little deeper into this coastal Mexican town and discover its incredible underground river system, picturesque swimming holes, known as cenotes, and other local natural wonders.
If you are looking for day trips to really digest the magnitude of this region’s unique geography and ecosystems, beyond Parque Nacional Tulum, here are our top five suggestions:
1. Dos Ojos Cenotes (Two Eyes)
Located 15 minutes’ drive from Tulum, Dos Ojos provides an overview of two different types of cenotes, as it features both an open and closed cenote, hence the name Two Eyes. There are over six thousand cenotes in the region of varying configurations, but Dos Ojos will give you an accessible taste.
You’ll don a wetsuit and snorkel or dive through various stages of the interconnected caves in crisp water, encountering colourful fish and limestone creations along the way. The tour ends with swimmers navigating through the darkness with torches, dodging estalactitas (or stalactites) into a ‘bat’ cave, where hundreds live in the walls of the cenote.
- Guides are essential. Your local leader will be able to give you more information
- As it’s on the main tourist route, it can get pretty busy. Arrive early, if you can
- You’ll be supplied with wetsuits, snorkel and mask, life jackets and torches.
2. Sian Ka’an Bio-Reserve
For nature lovers, an expedition to Sian Ka’an should definitely be on the itinerary while in Tulum.
UNESCO World Heritage-listed since 1987 due to its unique flora and fauna, this is the only place on earth (other than Florida) where tree formations called petenes can be found. The area also has a diverse mangrove system, as well as forest, sandy beaches, and channels connected to the ocean but sheltered by a coral reef.
Sian Ka’an is home to hundreds of animals such as jaguars, pumas, crocodiles, more than three hundred species of local and migratory birds, as well as manatees, the largest vegetarian animals to inhabit the ocean.
Tours can take you kayaking or boating through channels of pristine water, with the opportunity to hop in and free float down a waterway; some options also cross over from the river to the ocean to see dolphins. Approximately 45 minutes’ drive from Tulum, it’s not far to be transported into another bio-sphere!
- A guide is essential. Your local leader or hotel can advise on tours available
- As the area is UNESCO protected, there are strict and important guidelines to be aware of in preserving the reserve.
3. Yal-Ku Lagoon at Akumal
This is one natural wonder which had me backpedaling after first impressions. By Mexico standards at around $US14 to enter, it is not cheap. When I arrived at the water’s edge, I felt deflated; it just looked like a mossy pond. My friends and I exchanged doubtful glances. It was an overcast day too, which didn’t help its understated appearance.
But after taking the plunge with my mask and snorkel I resurfaced within seconds, yelling to my friends, “Get in! There’s more than meets the eye!”
Among the nooks and crannies of this lagoon are hundreds of species of fish; I likened it to a tiny Great Barrier Reef, without the coral. Fish migrate in from the ocean to breed, and later return with their offspring, so it’s like a local reproductive centre!
- Yal-Ku Lagoon can be visited without a guide and is around 35 minutes’ drive from Tulum
- Life jackets can be rented and are suggested for poor swimmers. You can also hire a mask and snorkel.
4. Coba – Mayan Archaeological Site
One of the most significant sites on the Yucatan Peninsula, Coba was first settled between 50 BC and 100 AD. It was a regional powerhouse rivalling Chichen Itza until it lost power to its rival in 900-1000 AD. By 1550, the Spanish conquest, the site of Coba was abandoned.
The archaeological site is made up of a large group of different structures connected to the central pyramid, making it unique from other Mayan sites. Its other defining feature is its Sabces – white roads – which interconnect the area and also extend regionally.
Less touristy than Chichén Itzá, this smaller Mayan site is located a few hours from Tulum. Visitors can climb the Nohoch Mul pyramid, however the steep steps can be slippery, and there are no medics on site.
- You’ll want a guide for this archaeological adventure
- The main pyramid Nohoch Mul is just under 2 kilometres from the entrance, or 20 minutes walk (you can also hire a bike or tuktuk to get you there)
- There are also some cenotes nearby, Multun-Ha and Choo-Ha, to cool off afterwards.
5. Casa Cenote
A local favourite for diving and snorkelling, this open cenote has an underground channel leading out to the ocean and a small crocodile as a friendly resident at the end of the waterway (I’ve never seen him but apparently he keeps his distance! If you have any fear, he lives far from the entrance). On a good day the water is so clear you can see to the bottom with snorkelling visibility of the highest degree.
- This site can be visited without a guide but if you’re not a confident swimmer, it’s best to go in a group
- Life jackets are available for rent.
Tulum’s environment is remarkably unique, yet fragile, and it’s essential that visitors do what they can to minimise their footprint. The health of waterways and associated ecosystems are detrimentally affected by human interference. To some degree, they are being poisoned by us visiting, so please take care!
- Avoid using chemical sunscreen (opt for environmentally friendly sunscreen instead), repellent, deodorant, makeup or perfume before entering water
- Where available, shower before entering cenotes
- Invest in “rock” shoes, made of wetsuit material with a solid grip sole. You can buy these locally and they will be your faithful companions
- Don’t leave anything behind!
- These sites have been worshipped by the Mayan culture for thousands of years, so please be mindful and respectful at all times.
Explore Tulum and surrounds on a small group adventure in Mexico with Intrepid now!
Feature image by Fominayaphoto via Shutterstock.