Followers and friends often ask me which I’d recommend when traveling to the Cancun and Riviera Maya areas: going out to explore on your own, or booking a tour?
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to go on an organized tour with my friends at GoMexico, a Cancun-based company that offers tours in several of Mexico’s top travel destinations. We took the Tulum + Cenotes Plus tour, and I LOVED IT. The day’s itinerary would take us first to the Maya ruins of Tulum, then to a cenote park called Aktun Chen just north of Tulum. We were taken everywhere on a comfortable, air conditioned bus, and I frequently found myself comparing the experience to a similar day last year when I had taken my sisters on a Tulum/cenote day trip using the public van system. Which experience was better? Which experience would I be more likely to recommend? The comfortable and convenient organized tour? Or the self-made family itinerary with nobody but me as the primary tour guide?
When I took my sisters to Tulum last year, we got there by using the public van system out of Playa del Carmen, with cheap “colectivo” vans that take you up and down the main Riviera Maya highway (read more on that experience here). While cheap, the vans were somewhat uncomfortable and always full… Not necessarily a problem if you’re only going on a half hour trip, but something to consider for people with mobility problems. The region’s main destinations (Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Akumal and Tulum) all have designated spots in town where you can find the vans, but when on the highway after visiting a cenote, you have to flag them down by the side of the road. It’s a bit hectic to figure out the first time, but pretty easy once you know what you’re doing. By contrast, the bus with the GoMexico tour was air conditioned and very comfortable with reclining seats, great for napping. Tour buses usually pick you up straight from your hotel, or from an easy-to-access location in a popular tourist area. From there, they take you to each of the day’s tour locations, then back to your hotel, or close to it. Easy peasy. And bonus: They’ll usually serve you a boxed breakfast and/or lunch along the way!
I’ve been to the Maya ruins of Tulum over my past decade living in Cancun, but this was my first time visiting the site with an organized tour. Having a tour guide was WONDERFUL. Thanks to our ruins guide Cesar, I learned so much about why the ancient city of Tulum was built a certain way (often relating to the sun’s positioning throughout the year), as well as its history and way of life. Cesar even took us to spots around the site that I’d never thought to visit before! If you go to Tulum on your own, you can still hire a guide at the entrance to take you through the site, and if you have all day with nowhere else to go, you can even spend the afternoon at the beach below the ruins, one of my favorite places in the world.
A little language trivia: While we were at Tulum last weekend, some Mexican friends and I got into an interesting discussion on the use of the word “ruins”. In Mexico, they tend to prefer the phrase sitio arqueológico (archaeological site), while ruinas (ruins) might be considered an insult. On the other hand, in English the word “ruins” has a feeling of mystery and romance and has become the more preferred phrase, while “archaeological site” is hardly used at all… and when it is used, it sounds a bit cold, scientific and impersonal.
The second leg of our tour with GoMexico took us to a place called Aktun Chen. Here, we were given a Mexican-style lunch before we were taken to see some of the features of this area: a 20-minute walk through stunning caves, followed by an hour swim and snorkel in what is, to date, the most gorgeous cenote I have ever seen. The cenote at Aktun Chen is almost entirely enclosed within a cave; stalactites hang over clear, blue waters, and beautiful stalagmite formations lurk below to create a memorable snorkeling experience. Booking a tour will often let you visit some of the region’s most amazing cenotes located deeper in the jungle (like Aktun Chen), and using the van system limits you to the cenotes located closer to the highway, like Jardin del Eden or Cenote Azul. When renting a car, you have no limit to your choices.
My Verdict: Solo Exploration or Organized Tour?
Well, I guess in the end I don’t have a huge preference either way as it mostly depends on who’s asking!
If you’re a tourist: Go for the organized tour. There’s no hassle, no headaches, no questioning if you’re going in the right direction, no wasting precious vacation time getting lost, and you’ll probably get to see the area’s more impressive attractions, even if they’re harder to reach. You won’t have to figure out where to get lunch, your bus will be comfortable, and your pick-up spot will be easy to find.
If you’re a resident or a frequent visitor to the area: Do mostly solo exploring to save money and see places other tourists might not ever get to visit, BUT book a tour every once in awhile to see some of the Riviera Maya’s most beautiful and hard-to-reach locations. If you have a car – or can rent a car – or have a local friend with a car… well, that’s the best of both worlds.
No matter which option you choose, I hope you have fun exploring Cancun and the Riviera Maya!