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Many people head to Cancun every year, aiming to do nothing but lie on the sand, soak up the sun and perhaps enjoy a tropical drink or two at one of the all-inclusive resorts. But if you want to take advantage of the time you have on the beautiful Yucatan Peninsula, consider broadening your horizons by sampling a few of the best things to do the area has to offer.
Explore Isla Mujeres
What Is It? The “Island of Women” is just a 20-minute ferry ride from Cancun, but here you’ll find a whole other world.
Why Do It? Legend says that the island was named by Spanish conqueror Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba when he discovered statues of women in the Mayan temples. Not only does this family-friendly destination in Mexico offer the chance to enjoy soaking up the sun and the sand in relative seclusion, but it also has a more laid-back atmosphere and amazing street food.
Good to Know: You’ll also have the opportunity to explore Mayan ruins, visit a turtle protection center and swim with dolphins. The downtown area offers a number of restaurants and shops too.
Road Trip to the Charming Colonial Town of Valladolid
What Is It? Another fantastic option for getting away from the hustle and bustle of Cancun is to take a road trip to the charming colonial town of Valladolid.
Why Do It? One of Mexico’s most magical towns, it’s filled with remnants of the Spanish colonial area, from its sun-splashed pastel buildings to its magnificent cathedral in the center plaza, while authentic Mayan cultural traditions permeate everyday life. Visit La Casa de los Venados, a private property owned by the patron of the arts John Venator, which features over 3,000 unique pieces of Mexican popular art, and explore the downtown area where the smell of slow-roasted pork wafts through the air.
Good to Know: You’ll notice an increasing number of women wearing traditional indigenous clothing as you walk through the streets, and if you want to buy your own, this is one of the best places to do it as they’re made right here in Valladolid.
Experience the Unspoiled Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve
What Is It? If you’d like to experience some of the world’s most stunning, unspoiled beaches, take a day trip to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
Why Do It? Just south of Tulum you’ll find some of the most pristine and untouched beaches on the Mexican Caribbean coast. The reserve is spread over a million acres with numerous diverse habitats and 23 archaeological sites, some of which date back more than 2,000 years. While most of the beach access is through an opening in the jungle, you won’t find crowds or traffic here. Choose your favorite empty stretch of sand, sit back, relax, and enjoy this incredible unspoiled paradise.
Good to Know: When, and if, you can tear yourself away from the view, you can explore the ruins and take a boat tour, watching for sea turtles and dolphins along the way before the grand finale in which you’ll float down the freshwater channels.
View Amazing Sculptures at Cancun Underwater Museum
What Is It? One of the most interesting museums in the world sits beneath the surface of the Mediterranean off the coast between Cancun and Isla Mujeres.
Why Do It? It offers divers and snorkelers the chance to view ghostly figures that sit at the bottom of the ocean. The sculptures, created by artist Jason de Caires Taylor, were placed there to lure visitors’ attention away from the nearby natural reefs that can be damaged by too much tourist traffic. One of the best places to snorkel in Mexico, its more than 450 sculptures rest at a depth of between 13 to 30-feet and were made from a cement mix that facilitates reef growth, united the causes of art and environmentalism.
Good to Know: The museum is one of the largest underwater art attractions in the world and features two galleries that are suitable for snorkelers.
Swim in a Cenote
What Is It? The Yucatan Peninsula has miles and miles of underground caverns and waterways.
Why Do It? You can get a good glimpse of this incredible world beneath the earth by visiting a cenote, a breathtaking sinkhole that’s filled with cerulean waters that are ideal for swimming, snorkeling or diving. At least 1,000 cenotes have been located among the roughly 4,000 that are believed to exist in the Yucatan, and many offer access to the magical underground waterways, providing one of the most unique and unforgettable experiences in the world.
Good to Know: Some of the most popular to visit along the Cenote Trail include Cenote Siete Bocas, Cenote Las Mojarras and Cenote Verde Lucero.
Observe Birds at Isla Contoy
What Is It? Bird watchers looking for a secluded island paradise will be in heaven on Isla Contoy.
Why Do It? Not only does it offer spectacular natural beauty, but it’s the most important nesting place for sea birds in the Mexican Caribbean, home to over 150 species, including one of the largest populations of pelicans in the Caribbean. Just 200 visitors are allowed to be on the island at any one time, so you’ll need to schedule a visit with one of the companies that are allowed to bring guests to this pristine ecosystem. Along the way, most boat tours stop to let passengers enjoy snorkeling with the tropical fish and sea turtles at Ixlache Reef.
Good to Know: Once on land, a resident biologist is available for tours, and bird watching trips to a nesting site can be arranged too. A portion of the proceeds from the various excursions is used to support the ongoing conservation efforts.
Meet Mayan People and Visit the Ruins in Coba
What Is It? Exploring the Mayan ruins is a must for anyone vacationing on the Yucatan Peninsula, as the Mayan civilization is without a doubt one of the most fascinating of ancient times.
Why Do It? The Empire is noted for its architecture, art, advances in mathematics and creating an accurate calendar. While the society collapsed more than 1,100 years ago, the Mayan people still exist, and speak indigenous languages in this region – and they’re just a few miles away from Cancun in Coba.
Good to Know: Some have opened up their communities to visitors, and along with the Coba Mayan ruins, a visit is not only quite intriguing, but it also offers the chance to learn about the culture from the people themselves.
Have a Drink at the Tequila Museum
What Is It? Tequila is to Mexico as sourdough bread is to San Francisco, it’s one of those things that have to be experienced on its native soil – if you’re one to indulge in alcohol that is.
Why Do It? If you don’t know a lot about the drink, one of the best places to find out is the Tequila Herradura Sensory Museum. Housed in the Hacienda San Jose del Refugio, the museum not only aims to educate visitors in the art of tequila making but offers an enlightening round of “sniff and slurp.”
Good to Know: During the tour, you’ll learn about the history of tequila, the Herradura tequila-making dynasty, how it’s distilled and proper drinking etiquette.
Fly Over a Lagoon with Jetpack Adventures
What Is It? If you’re looking for a heart-pounding thrill, try one of Cancun’s newest, and greatest activities: Jetpack Adventures.
Why Do It? You’ll strap on a futuristic jetpack and then soar over the Nichtupte Lagoon as if you’re flying through the air. You’ll get some training first, learning how to use the controls, communicate with your guide through the headset and do some pretty unbelievable things, like walking on water. When you’re ready, you’ll be launched 30 feet into the air, cruising past mangrove swamps and enjoying the breathtaking views from above.
Good to Know: The thrilling rides depart from the Marina Lighthouse, where you’ll take a tranquil boat ride through the mangroves first, searching the water and vegetation for a variety of wildlife, including leopards, white turtles and crocodiles.
Relax in Puerto Morelos
What Is It? This laid-back, peaceful fishing village, located just 20 miles south of Cancun, is one of the oldest communities on Mexico’s Caribbean coast.
Why Do It? It offers some of the most pristine beaches in the region, ideal for just kicking back on the sand, soaking up the sun, and perhaps heading into the water too, as it’s a great place for diving and snorkeling. It’s a perfect spot for relaxation, a destination for experiencing the simple Caribbean life and spending time with friendly locals.
Good to Know: The beach in the center of town is lined with colorful fishing boats, with the pier and the famous leaning lighthouse the highlights, though you’ll find a few outstanding eateries as well as some stores selling souvenirs and supplies, a book store and a dive shop.
Get Entertained at Xoximilco
What Is It? Xoximilco is a popular attraction located just five minutes from the Cancun airport.
Why Do It? It offers the chance to taste the flavors of authentic Mexican cuisine and enjoy the music and culture while riding colorfully decorated gondola-like boats known as “trajineras.” The trajineras themselves are a sight to see, and as you float through the water, mariachis will serenade you just before the big fiesta begins.
Good to Know: You’ll “travel” through Mexican history, enjoy traditional Mexican games and sipping beverages like beer, tequila and fresh fruit drinks, which are all included in the admission price. Afterward, everyone gathers for a night of music, dance and song.
Play at Xel-Ha Park
What Is It? Xel-Ha, an eco-park that’s part of the Xcaret family, is home to the largest and most spectacular natural aquarium in the world.
Why Do It? This is a spot where you can do much of what the Yucatan Peninsula offers all in one place: swim in cenotes and grottos, view local marine life, visit Mayan ruins, go cycling through the jungle, fly a kite and cross a floating bridge. You can even ride a zip line and test your bravery by jumping from the “stone of courage.”
Good to Know: When you’re worn out from all there is to do, enjoy napping in a seaside hammock and then feed your appetite, and thirst, at the delicious buffet restaurant that includes unlimited drinks.
Experience the Real Cancun at Parque Las Palapas
What Is It? Downtown Cancun offers fun things to explore too. Its main park is a large plaza known as Parque Las Palapas which hosts a playground, a stage, food carts, an outdoor food court, and vendors selling souvenirs and local handicrafts.
Why Do It? On Friday and Saturday evenings the park features weekly events like musical performances, exhibitions, fashion shows and dance productions, becoming a popular spot for local families to hang out – and for visitors to mingle with them for a more authentic experience.
Good to Know: If you’d like a taste of the real Cancun, head here on a Saturday evening and dine at one of the restaurants in the area. Afterward, enjoy a stroll in the park and chat with area residents.
Visit Crococun Zoo
What Is It? Mexico is home to a wide variety of wildlife, but if you don’t plan to venture outside the busy city of Cancun, you’re unlikely to run across much of it. But at the Crococun Zoo, you can get up close to some of the animals that live in the region, including spider monkeys, crocodiles and parrots.
Why Do It? The zoo helps protect local endangered species, and the admission prices include a tour in which you’ll be allowed close encounters with some of the creatures here.
Good to Know: If you’re prepared to hold a crocodile, this is definitely a not-to-be-missed experience.
See Extraordinary Artifacts at Maya Museum
What Is It? Cancun’s Maya Museum is a must for history lovers and archaeology buffs.
Why Do It? Home to some of the most important collections of Maya artifacts, there are some 400 pieces found at key sites in and around the peninsula, including everything from ceramics and jewelry to sculptures. One of its most extraordinary artifacts is the skeletal remains that were discovered in the underwater caves in Tulum and believed to be around 14,000 years old.
Good to Know: The admission price also includes access to the adjoining San Miguelito archaeological site.
Stand in the Ocean at Garrafon Natural Reef Park
What Is It? The designs of Garrafon Natural Reef Park, specifically designed it to make you feel as if you’re standing in the middle of the ocean, offering the best of the Mexican Caribbean’s ecology.
Why Do It? Visitors can enjoy taking a stroll along the edge of the sea, kayaking the gentle waves, biking through a seaside sculpture garden, and snorkeling on the reefs – but keep in mind that while there are colorful fish, when it comes to coral, much of it is dead due to hurricanes and human activity.
Good to Know: The dolphin encounter program offers the chance to swim with dolphins, and you can even take a thrilling zip-line ride too.
Swim with Whale Sharks
What Is It? A vacation to Cancun between May and September, and especially during July and August, offers the chance to swim with friendly whale sharks that gather in the nutrient-rich waters.
Why Do It? You can book a tour that leaves from Cancun to Punta Sam, or you can head to Isla Holbox and book an excursion while you’re there. You’ll be accompanied by experts for the exciting experience that will bring you within just a few yards of the 30-foot-long creatures.
Good to Know: Many operators also include the chance to snorkel beautiful coral reefs while stopping all types of sea life, like manta rays, tropical fish, sea turtles and dolphins.
Shop Mercado 28
What Is It? Mercado 28 is Cancun’s biggest and most popular market.
Why Do It? It’s a colorful maze of shops selling unique Mexican handicrafts, jewelry, pottery, traditional Mexican clothing, souvenirs and other goods. You can get your hair braided, or get a temporary tattoo.
Good to Know: In the center is a food court with a multitude of restaurants serving up authentic Mexican fare at budget prices.