Cancun, Mexico, was made for sun and fun, but just a short drive from this beach paradise is a region filled with adventure. I know it’s difficult to step away from the luxury hotels or the pool bar, but it’s worth the effort to take off and explore lush jungles, inviting inland waterways, and archaeological sites that serve as living reminders of the region’s fascinating history.
For more than 3,000 years, the Mayan civilization dominated the Yucatan Peninsula, where Cancun is located. Their power and might can still be witnessed today at the many Mayan ruins scattered throughout the region. One such spot: Chichen Itza. This World Heritage Site was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and is one of the most well-preserved Mayan ruins today. A tour through the grounds gives you a sense of what life was like back then. Another must-see: the striking Temple of Kulkucan, an imposing structure in the center of the complex. This massive pyramid has 365 steps on each side, and a giant shadow serpent that appears twice annually during the Spring and Fall Equinox. Taking a complete day to explore this area is a must, as you don’t want to miss the impressive ball court or the Temple of the Warriors.
Tulum is another Mayan archaeological site on the Mayan Riviera. It is not as grand or as well-restored as Chichen Itza, but the location is spectacular. Standing proud on 40-foot-tall cliffs, it’s the view and setting that makes visitors take notice. There is a beautiful beach below; be sure to bring your swimsuit so you can take a dip. This is a site you can tour without a guide, so rent a car in Cancun and drive the beautiful two-hour stretch arriving early before the rest of the tour buses come in.
In the Yucatan area there are several cenotes, or natural sinkholes, in which to swim and snorkel. One of the most famous is Dos Ojos. Often cenotes are created by collapsed cave ceilings. These sinkholes give swimmers divers and snorkelers access to underground waterways. Dos Ojos is one of the longest underwater cave systems in the world, extending 51 miles. When visiting Cancun, it’s worth taking a trip to visit one of these natural phenomenons unique to the area.
When we were first in the Yucatan, we saw ads everywhere for day trips to Xel-Ha. We thought it was a Mayan site but upon further investigation we learned that it is the world’s largest natural aquarium. This means it’s a great spot for snorkeling trips that put you face-to-face with dolphins, manatees, and stingrays. The attraction also doubles as the ultimate adventure park, with cliff jumps, ziplines, and kayaking. Xel-Ha is close to Tulum, so if you rent a car, you may want to visit them both and stay overnight for a little getaway.
Viewfinder Tip: If possible, arrive early at historic sights; cruise ships and tour buses visit later in the day, and you can beat the crowds by getting there first.
A tropical vacation wouldn’t be complete without a trip to a tropical island. Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) is just a 20 minute ferry ride from Cancun, and is a great alternative to Cozumel for diving and snorkeling. On the island, you’ll find a natural reef park and a unique museum with 450 underwater sculptures (the artwork was submerged to help disperse currents during tropical storms and allow for the growth of local coral reefs). Overall, Isla Mujeres has a laid back vibe that is perfect for a quick getaway.
Serious divers may want to take the two-hour transfer to Cozumel. Jacques Cousteau described the area as one of the most beautiful dive sites in the world, and it was declared a national marine park in 1996. Known for its swift currents, Cozumel is a haven for those loving a good drift dive. During our dives there, we saw all the marine life we could possibly want to see. Another highlight: Immense coral gardens we will never forget.
Cancun is a vacation destination that has it all. Sure, it’s nice to relax at a resort, but it’s even better to get out and explore all the amazing activities the Yucatan has to offer.
What’s your favorite thing to do in Cancun?