Ancient Mayan ruins can be found throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, but the most notable sites are Tulum, Coba, and Chichen Itza. Each of those major sites are at least a 2-hour drive from Cancun, though.
Many smaller archaeological sites are scattered around the region and some of those small, yet impressive, ruins can be found right in Cancun, or on the nearby Isla Mujeres. And it's quite possible to see each of the sites in Cancun and the one on Isla Mujeres in just one day.
El Rey, a small site of Mayan ruins, in Cancun's hotel zone — Photo courtesy of Susan R. Vincil
To start your self-guided tour of the Mayan ruins, make your way to El Rey Archaeological Zone, in the southern end of Cancun's hotel zone. The ruins are across the street from Playa Delfines, a big public beach that has a scenic overlook at the street level. It's one of the only places where you can view the Caribbean Sea from the street, in the hotel zone, so you aren't likely to miss this landmark.
You can take the bus to Playa Delfines and then walk to the ruins. At the park entrance, you'll see a big brown sign with bold, white lettering, that says "EL REY." Follow the arrow and go down the stairs to pay your admission fee and to enter the archaeological site.
El Rey is a small site and it can be seen in an hour or less. There are only a few structures that are in pretty good shape, considering they're over 1,000 years old. At one point you can see the ruins and, rising in the background, you see the enormous Iberostar Cancun resort rising above the trees. The contrast between the ancient world and the modern world is amazing. It really makes you think about what life might have been like for the Mayans when they inhabited that pretty piece of land, just steps away from the Caribbean Sea.
It's a beautiful, tranquil spot and you may want to relax on the grass and watch the iguanas for a while, instead of rushing on to your next stop. There are thousands of iguanas at El Rey, but they won't bother you if you don't bother them.
The archaeological site of El Meco is north of downtown Cancun — Photo courtesy of Susan R. Vincil
The next stop on your tour is in Puerto Juarez, north of downtown Cancun. Located a short drive from the ferry docks is the archaeological site of El Meco. It's rarely crowded, but occasionally you may encounter a group of school children there on a field trip. If you go during the week, you'll normally have the park all to yourself.
El Meco has many more trees and more structures than El Rey has and, in the center of the property, there is a well-preserved pyramid. When you walk into the park and get to the point where you can see the pyramid, you get the feeling that the area probably didn't look much different when the Mayans lived there.
At the base of the pyramid, there's a snake's head carved in stone on either side of the staircase. Details like that make this archaeological site special. And when you aren't competing with busloads of tourists to see those details up-close, that makes it all the more enjoyable.
You can see El Meco in about an hour to 90 minutes, and there are dozens of great photo opportunities inside the park. There are no tours to this site, so you'll have to hire a taxi or rent a car in order to get there. There are also no stores or restaurants nearby, so pack water and a snack.
More Mayan ruins can be found on Isla Mujeres — Photo courtesy of Susan R. Vincil
The last stop of this excursion is on Isla Mujeres. From El Meco, the ferry dock is only a couple of miles away. If you had a taxi drop you off at the ruins, you can hail a collectivo (a small van that acts as a bus; picking up and dropping off people along the route) to get to the ferry dock. This is a fairly inexpensive option.
At the ferry dock, buy your ticket and sit in the shaded waiting area by the water until it's time to board. Ferries run every half-hour, all day long.
Once you're on Isla Mujeres, you can hire a taxi to show you around the island and to take you to the ruins at the south end of the island. But the most fun way to travel around the island is by golf cart. You can rent a golf cart for the day and the cost is around $55 USD.
Make your way down to the southern tip of the island where you'll find an incredibly gorgeous scene. There are cliffs overlooking the water and, down from the flea market and the lighthouse, you'll see a small ruin. The island was once a sanctuary to the Mayan goddess, Ixchel, and the temple – perched high atop a cliff with a surreal view – is believed to have been built to honor the goddess.
You can see the temple in minutes, but while you're there, you should take a few moments to walk down each of the paths that take you to the water. It's one of the most beautiful parts of the island, and that's saying something since the entire island is like one big postcard.
After you've toured Isla Mujeres for a while and are ready to head back to the mainland, you can decide which ferry you'd rather take. If you're staying in the hotel zone, it would be much easier for you to take the ferry back to El Embarcadero, Playa Tortugas or Playa Caracol and, from there, take a taxi or bus back to your hotel.