Close your eyes and think of Cancun; now what exactly do you see? More than likely it’s white sand beaches in front of large resorts, where cobalt waters lap the shore and palm trees sway in the breeze. For as enticing as beaches and water might be, there’s an entirely different side of Cancun that offers just as much excitement; a place where you swim in turquoise waters set miles inside of the jungle, and literally race through the jungle canopy to feel the breeze in your hair.
At the famous Selvatica Eco-Park, an hour south of Cancun, visitors can infuse their beach vacation with a shot of jungle adrenaline. Clip into a harness and race through the trees on the 12-line zipline adventure, or test your nerves on a bungee swing while staring out over the forest. If you’d prefer that a motor generate the speed—rather than regular old gravity—crank the throttle of an ATV while splashing through dirt and mud.
One of the most popular dives in all of Cozumel, Paradise Reef proudly lives up to its name by offering numerous coral heads, teeming schools of colorful fish, and some of the best visibility anywhere in the world. Divers that look closely will spot numerous species of larger sea life such as eels, rays and nurse shark in addition to smaller creatures such as seahorses, boxfish and the delicate pipefish. A great dive for those who are just entering into the world of scuba as well as advanced divers who want to add a little color to their dives, Paradise Reef is one of the best dive spots in Cozumel.
Kept hidden from the public until 2007 and strictly adhering to its sustainable tourism model, the evocatively named Rio Secreto, or “Secret River,” is deserved of its reputation as the best kept secret of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. A dramatic series of caves carved out by the flow of an ancient underground river, the Rio Secreto is most famous for its large half-sunken cavern, one of few in the world that is accessible to non-professional divers.
Venturing underground, visitors can explore the eerie passageways that once formed part of the mysterious, yet much talked about Mayan underworld; swim in the fabled underground river; and admire the unique natural caves, dripping with stalactites, stalagmites and strikingly colored mineral formations.
Part of the Cozumel Reefs National Park (or Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel) Faro de Punta Celerain, also known as Punta Sur, Ecological Park offers some of the best diving and snorkeling around Cozumel. If you want to dive, go through one of the island's many dive operators. If you'd just like to snorkel, however, you can rent equipment and guides right here.
In addition to the undersea attractions, Punta Sur has broad, beautiful beaches (the reef is well offshore, so you can splash around safely), great seafood, and shady hammocks. If you're up for a some terrestrial exploration, you could climb the Faro de Punta Celerain (Celerain Point Lighthouse), with great views, or visit the tiny Mayan shrine to Ixcel, the fertility goddess, known as Tumba de Caracol. Punta Sur also has interesting wetlands, a magnet for migratory birds in April and May, and home to lots of crocodiles year-round.
Party the night away in a disco ambiance with song and dance shows performing into the early hours of the morning at CoCo Bongo. The performances highlight music from big-name artists like Rihanna and Elvis, and you’ll also see impressive acrobatics as performers fly through the air dangling from a long rope of fabric, flip through large hoops and more. CoCo Bongo has an energetic vibe that will get you dancing along to every performance.
Playa Uvas is one of the newer private beach clubs in Cozumel, and it is the closest to downtown and the piers. Facing the white sands and the turquoise waters, the club sits directly on the coastline and offers a variety of beach activities to its visitors. For the adventurous, there are snorkel tours, parasailing and kayaks, while those who would rather relax in the sun and feel the tropical breeze can opt for the lounge chairs, a beachside massage or the pool facilities. There is also a full bar and restaurant, as well as a small shop with souvenirs.
From Playa Uvas it is easy to admire the reefs of nearby Chankanaab National Marine Park. Options range from a day on the water in a catamaran to a day in the water scuba diving.
Cancun’s best, most festive and most authentic fiesta tradition, Xoximilco, is an eponymous throwback and homage to the floating gardens and canals of Mexico City’s famous neighbor-hood Xochimilco. Xochimilco means “field of flowers,”and this Cancun attraction brings all the beauty and splendor of the floating gardens of Mexico City to the tropical paradise of Cancun. Today, a visit to Xoximilco entices guests with Central American traditions like floating flower-strung boats, live music serenades and some of the best food in Cancun.
This beachfront park has seemingly endless options for activities on the Caribbean Sea. From swimming in the warm ocean and playing in the sand to splashing around the water park or floating in one of the many pools, there are a variety of ways to enjoy a day in and on the water.
Day passes offer access to the many facilities, including beachfront lounge chairs and hammocks, reef tours and snorkeling, and options for massage, photos and scuba diving. Get there early to grab a chair closest to the water. There are dozens of beach games and water toys, themed pools and slides and even an underwater Mayan city to explore.
When you get tired from all the splashing, there is a buffet and full bar to keep you going, as well as a Mexican cooking workshop and shopping center with handicrafts, clothes and jewelry to take home with you.
The Island of Cozumel was first incorporated into the Mayan Empire around 0 AD, and was apparently a thinly populated backwater, primarily important as a ceremonial island for women from the mainland. Although 24 archaeological sites have been identified, most are small and as yet unexcavated. The San Gervasio Ruins, dating to around 300 AD, are by far the largest and best developed for tourism, but still won't impress tourists hoping for the grand pyramids of the Mayan Imperial Cities. Adjust your expectations, however, and the sacred gardens of Ixcel, the Goddess of Fertility and Rainbows, are a serene escape. Most of the low, stone structures cluster around a central plaza, which archaeologists suspect was enhanced with wood and adobe building. The main temple, however, was probably the large Ka'na Na building, located close to the cenotes, or natural wells. There are several other intriguing ruins scattered throughout the jungle, all awaiting your personal interpretation.
Less than 1% of the Earth is covered in coral—yet these reefs are home to over 25% of the world’s total marine species. Unfortunately, despite their abundance of biodiversity, coral reefs across the globe are in a serious state of decline. That said, in places like the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park off the island’s southern coast, the establishment of a protected coral reserve is helping the reef to thrive.
In the warm waters off Cozumel’s coast, 26 different species of coral house 300 species of fish. Some fish, like the Splendid Toadfish, are endemic to the reefs of Cozumel—which means that the fish are only found here in these colorful castles in the sand. Hawksbill and green sea turtles are frequently spotted in the marine park’s 29,000 acres, which also encompasses mangrove forests and sandy sections of shoreline.
El Cedral is a small village on the southwestern side of Cozumel and also the site of the oldest Mayan ruins on the island. Spanish explorers first discovered the site in 1518, when it was a center of Mayan life and commerce. It later became the island’s first official city in 1847, andtoday it is home to a small community of quaint houses and farms. Visitors can view the ruins alongside a small church and the village of El Cedral as it stands today.
Most of the Mayan temple was torn down, but a small archway remains. Though it is just a fraction of the structure’s former glory, it is enough to visualize what daily life may have been like at the time of Mayan civilization. In late April, you can catch the annual Festival de El Cedral, celebrating local artists, music and traditions. Year-round there are vendors selling embroidered handicrafts and refreshments.
Playa Delfines is a welcome respite from the crowded beaches and bustling nightclubs that make Cancun a popular Spring Break destination. One of the highest points in the city, this beach lies just beyond the “Hotel Zone” strip and offers breathtaking views perfect for tropical vacation photo ops. The quiet stretch of sand is ideal for a leisurely stroll or a relaxing lounge and the untouched nature of Playa Delfines makes it a favorite among travelers eager to get off the beaten path. Be advised, its rustic feel means there are few places to purchase food or drink, so it’s best to pack your own. And while the shores are calm, the undercurrent can be rough and waves impressive, so proceed with caution when dipping your toes in the ocean here.
Love it or hate it, Avenida Kukulkan is a Cancun strip where nearly all visitors will end up. If you’re staying at one of the oceanfront resorts across from Nichupte Lagoon, Avenida Kukulkan is the pulsing thoroughfare that leads to all of the resorts. Lined with shops, restaurants, cafés, and thumping late nightclubs, it’s also home to what many visitors consider as Cancun’s best shopping. And, while brand name stores and high end labels aren’t very difficult to find, there are still pockets of local boutiques selling traditional, handmade Yuacatan crafts for those who take the time to explore.
The stores and restaurants and shopping malls aside, one of the best activities on Avenida Kukulkan is simply going for walk. Along the length of this long, flat strip, visitors can marvel at the manicured resorts and their ornately designed entranceways, or get views looking out at Nichupte Lagoon and people watch by the shops.
It’s hard to miss Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida) in Playa del Carmen as it is the city’s main street running through the downtown area. Fifth Avenue stretches parallel to the ocean and serves as both a street for cars and a pedestrian walkway for visitors exploring the city. Fifth Avenue is a popular place to rest your head while in Playa del Carmen as the hotels on the street boast an ideal location that provides easy access to the beach as well as being easy walking distance to shops, clubs and restaurants. The shops that line Fifth Avenue are aplenty and visitors can find local artisan crafts, clothing and other fashion accessories, fine jewelry and cigar shops (you can find Cubans here). It’s also not uncommon to see street performers entertaining the masses on Fifth Avenue.
Relaxed Chankanaab Park - or Parque Chankanaab - is a lovely and laid-back "eco archaeological park," just south of the town of Cozumel. There are several attractions on dry land, including faux Mayan ruins, pleasant gardens, dolphin and sea lion shows, and good seafood.
The main attraction, however, is the wildlife rich undersea park, which you can explore with rented snorkel equipment. They also offer regular diving (you must have PADI certification) and the Sea Trek Adventure, like a resort dive with a breathing helmet but no certification necessary. You could also swim in a tank with dolphins, manatees and sea lions for an extra fee.
Cancun is full of places to party, but the young and energetic late-night set knows the exclusive Mandala Night Club is the best place to sip strong drinks, dance to loud beats and mingle with a truly cosmopolitan crowd. Guests love the wide-open dance floor, glittery lights and impressive entryway. Fifty dollars gets partygoers through the door and keeps drinks in their hands, too, with access to an all-night open bar.
The ancient Mayans believed hidden cenotes were sacred portals to the underworld. Given the dark, eerie surroundings and stalactites dripping from above, it’s easy to see how these subterranean caves inspired the paranormal awe. At Cenote Chaak Tun outside Playa del Carmen, venture inside an enormous cave where early Mayans once roamed, and splash in the cool, almost secret waters that are hidden back in the forest. Unlike some of the larger cenotes on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Cenote Chaak Tun is still relatively unknown and has half the amount of crowds. Follow the beam of your powerful headlamp into the twisting cave, where the faint squeaks of bats on the ceiling add to the spooky soundtrack. Cool off in the refreshing waters that twist their way through the cave, and hear traditional Mayan tales of the legends, myths, and sacred beliefs towards this mysterious and powerful place.
The star attraction of the Cozumel Reefs National Park - or Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel - not to mention Jacques Cousteau's television show, which quite literally put Cozumel on the map - is Palancar Reef. Actually composed of 4 separate coral reefs, it is home to sea turtles, rays, nurse sharks, barracudas, moray eels, lobsters, crabs, and a keleidescope of colorful fish.
Boats leaving from Playa Palancar take snorkelers out to the shallowest parts of the reef, about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from shore. Scuba divers, however, have several world-famous spots to explore. The Palancar Caves are probably the most famous attraction, with huge brain corals and swim-through tunnels. Palancar Horseshoe is another massive formation of huge corals, some partially damaged in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma. Less experienced divers can visit Palancar Gardens, a shallower spot with mellow currents.
There are dozens of ways to see Cancun but one of the most entertaining is aboard the Captain Hook Pirate Ship. Spend an evening enjoying dinner served by salty sea men followed by dancing on the deck and an all-night open bar.
The cannon’s fire signals the departure of this famous ship. As the night progresses visitors can enjoy tales from the high sea, as well as a live enemy attack complete with swords and pistols. A ride aboard the Captain Hook Pirate Ship is the perfect way to experience life on the sea without the fear of being forced to walk the plank.
The El Rey Ruins (or Las Ruinas del Rey) are a spectacular archeological site in Cancun's Hotel Zone, with 47 structures estimated to have been inhabited by the Mayans as early as 900 AD. There are two primary platforms and temples believed to be the remains of religious ceremonial buildings and market areas.
El Rey was named for the ceremonial mask and skull found on the site to honor the Mayan Sun God and over the years further excavations have incited speculation over the ruins history. Although, the El Rey Ruins are not as large in size when compared to Chichen Itza, many visitors enjoy taking pictures of the hundreds of Iguanas that call the ruins home. The Iguanas are unafraid of humans as the park guides keep them well-fed with tortillas.
While the center of Merida is all Spanish Colonial in architecture and layout, Paseo de Montejo is the product of a brief period when the French controlled Mexico and built a grand boulevard lined by mansions. Several upscale hotels, nightclubs, and hot restaurants are on this stretch, retaining their original interesting façades. It’s a pleasant street for walking, with wide shady sidewalks and interesting shops and galleries here and there. It ends at a roundabout with the city’s history laid out in stone on a relief in the center. Just before that are two places showing where we’ve come: a small tourist shopping mall on one side and a Super Wal-mart on the other.
If you stay on this boulevard heading north in a car, eventually it turns into a highway that goes 40 minutes to Progreso’s beach and cruise ship dock, on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a long, hot walk to get here from the center, however, so most visitors see Paseo de Montejo on a horse carriage.
This new theme park grants visitors the opportunity to experience the many parts of Mexico while visiting Cozumel. It showcases the history, culture and art of the country through several indoor and outdoor exhibitions.
Visitors can weave through an outdoors timeline with miniature scale models of famous sites and check out the art museum featuring handmade Mexican artisanal crafts. There are showings of a film about Mexico’s history and sights in their video experience room, as well as traditional Mexican food and beverages at the snack bar. For a relaxing yet colorful experience, take a stroll through the tropical gardens.
Mexican music can be heard throughout the park and both new and old Mexican architecture can be seen all over, making for an experience that covers both traditional and contemporary Mexico.
Celestun, a fishing village located along the Yucatan coast, is home to a wildlife refuge within Celestun Biosphere Reserve. The lush landscape of the reserve is full of mangroves and covers over 146,000 acres, making it the ideal place for animals and especially birds to inhabit. The refuge is home to over 300 bird species, including the popular flamingo.
The best way to get to the Celestun Bisophere Reserve and see the wildlife refuge is via boat. You can hire a guide with one in the town of Celestun and then depart for the reserve. You'll travel along the Ria Celestun, from which it’s easy to spot wildlife, and boats can also stop at swimming spots for a refreshing dip.