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Yucatán Adventure: Whale Sharks and Maya Ruins

  • Trip Type: Active
  • Activity Rating: Light/Moderate
  • 8 Days | Cancún to Cancún
  • Group Size: Max 16

Trip Details


Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is blanketed with lush jungles, studded with beguiling cenotes and towering Maya temples, and edged by sparkling Caribbean seas. Set out to explore these diverse wonders on an adventure from the Riviera Maya to inland colonial towns and Isla Mujeres, just off the coast. Discover the ancient ruins at Tulum, Cobá, and Chichén Itzá; dive into the mythical Maya underworld while snorkeling underwater caves with an archaeologist; and get immersed in the culture of the modern-day Maya in colorful colonial towns. Cap off your trip swimming with the largest fish in the sea—the majestic whale shark.

Trip Highlights

  • Snorkel Cenote Cristal with National Geographic grantee Octavio del Río, an archaeologist who unearthed the oldest human fossil found in the Americas.
  • Take a private tour of the Maya ruins at Chichén Itzá, exploring the site’s temples and towers at sunrise before they open to the public.
  • Snorkel with majestic whale sharks in the waters off Isla Mujeres.
  • Explore the colorful towns of Valladolid and Izamal on foot to see relics of the ancient Maya intermingled with Spanish colonial architecture.

Itinerary - 8 Days

Day 1 — Cancún, Mexico/Tulum

Land in Cancún and travel south along the Caribbean coast to our beachfront hotel in Tulum. Here we’ll meet explorer and National Geographic grantee Octavio del Río, an underwater archaeologist who leads research expeditions in the cenotes of Yucatán. Octavio joins us for the first three days of our adventure, offering expert insight into the region’s fossil discoveries and ancient human history. Settle in and enjoy the rest of the day at leisure, lounging on the beach or exploring the sandy streets of Tulum’s charming town. Gather for a welcome dinner this evening.
Ana y José Charming Hotel and Spa (D)

Day 2 — Tulum/Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

Set out on a guided tour of the Tulum ruins, a Maya seaport presiding dramatically over the coastline. Marvel at the towering Castillo and the murals in the Temple of the Frescoes, and take in views across turquoise waters. Then head inland to Cenote Cristal for a snorkel in its subterranean cavern—believed by the ancient Maya to be a gateway to the underworld. The cenote is also the site where Octavio and his colleague discovered the oldest human fossil ever found in the Americas, known as Eve of Naharon. Continue to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site of tropical forests, marshlands, and mangroves. Take a boat ride across a turquoise lagoon, and dive in for a float along a mangrove-fringed canal, spotting myriad tropical birds as you swim. (2 hours walking; 1 hour snorkeling)
Ana y José Charming Hotel and Spa (B,L)

Day 3 — Cobá/Valladolid

Begin the day snorkeling the stunning Cenote Aktun Ha, where fallen trees and colorful plants create the feel of swimming through an ethereal underwater garden. Continue to the Cobá archaeological site, a vast—though largely unexcavated—city from the Classical Maya period. Tour the temples with our archaeologist guide, and learn about the important role Cobá played for the ancient Maya. Continue to the colorful town of Valladolid for a walking tour of its colonial architecture, including a visit to the Convent de San Bernardino de Siena. Later, settle into our lodge, bordering the Chichén Itzá archaeological complex. (3 hours walking; 1 hour snorkeling)
The Lodge at Chichén Itzá (B,L,D)

Day 4 — Chichén Itzá/Izamal

Today we’ll have the special opportunity to spend two hours exploring Chichén Itzá before the site opens to the public. Rise early for a private tour of these iconic ruins, a World Heritage site often called one of the new seven wonders of the world. See towering pyramids and temples surrounded by an ancient marketplace, sweat bath, and the largest Maya ball court ever excavated. Later, enjoy lunch in colonial Izamal, home to an impressive Franciscan monastery sitting atop a Maya temple. Return to our hotel and spend the rest of the day at leisure. (2 hours walking)
The Lodge at Chichén Itzá (B,L,D)

Day 5 — Chichén Itzá/Isla Mujeres

Spend the morning relaxing or exploring the hotel’s lush grounds. Then travel to Puerto Juárez on the outskirts of Cancun and board a ferry bound for Isla Mujeres. Check in to our hotel on sleepy Playa Norte, and enjoy an evening stroll on this stunning stretch of sand or swim in crystalline Caribbean waters.
Hotel Mia Reef (B,L,D)

Day 6 — Isla Mujeres

Board a boat this morning and set out in search of whale sharks—the largest identified fish in the world. On this flexible excursion, we seek out opportunities for an intimate snorkel with these magnificent creatures, extending our time on the water to avoid other boats if necessary. After lunch, take a bike ride across Isla Mujeres to a scenic outlook on the isle’s southern shores. (3 hours snorkeling; 10 miles optional cycling, 2–3 hours)
Hotel Mia Reef (B,L)

Day 7 — Isla Mujeres/Cancún

Set out on another morning snorkeling excursion to swim with the area’s resident whale sharks. After lunch, return to Cancun and settle into our beachfront hotel, where we’ll enjoy our final night. (3 hours snorkeling)
Presidente Intercontinental Cancun Resort (B,L,D)

Day 8 — Cancún

After breakfast, transfer to the Cancún airport to catch your flight home.

Related Trips

National Geographic Active Expeditions are unique, active itineraries for intrepid travelers that combine spectacular places, cultural interaction, and physical challenge. You'll explore fascinating, off-the-beaten-path places with top guides, and wherever possible, meet National Geographic experts in the field.

Trip Expert

Octavio del Rio

Octavio del RioUnderwater archaeologist Octavio del Río has plunged deep into Mexican waters in search of clues to the region’s natural and human history. His work has taken him from submerged shipwrecks off the coast to the aqueous caves lying below the surface of the Yucatán Peninsula. It was in one such cavern that Octavio’s expedition team discovered the 13,700-year-old Eve of Naharon—the oldest human fossil ever unearthed in the Americas. Recently, Octavio led a National Geographic-funded expedition into the Ancestors Chamber of cenote Aktun Ha to seek out evidence of human occupation during the last ice age.

Octavio will join the following departures:

Jun 04 - 11, 2018
Jun 18 - 25, 2018
Jul 16 - 23, 2018
Aug 13 - 20, 2018


  • Jun 04 - 11, 2018
  • Jun 18 - 25, 2018
  • Jul 16 - 23, 2018
  • Aug 13 - 20, 2018

Trip Cost



Price is per person, double occupancy. For a single room, add $1,500. International airfare to/from Cancún is not included in the cost.


See special terms and conditions for this adventure.

Activity Level


While there is no sustained hiking on this trip, we will be walking for 2–4 hours on most days across uneven terrain. While previous snorkeling experience is not required, you should know how to swim and be comfortable in water.

Click here for a description of all activity levels.

What To Expect

Accommodation Style

We will stay 7 nights in comfortable hotels with many amenities that are ideally situated for each day’s activities.

Contact Us: 1-888-689-2557

Call to speak with an Adventure specialist about this trip.