Ancient Mayan Ruins, Dreamy Tropical Islands and Unforgettable Tours in Cancun
By Kristin Busse
Cancún Local Expert
Cancun is certainly paradise for beach lovers and sun worshippers, but it is also a little slice of heaven for outdoor enthusiasts, history buffs and thrill-seekers. During a Cancun vacation, a day trip to tropical island Isla Mujeres is a must. Isla Contoy, a natural reserve, is another island which is relatively close to Cancun. One of the world’s largest coral reefs, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, is located in the Caribbean waters off the shores of the Yucatan Peninsula. Close proximity to the massive reef, coupled with crystal-clear water which provides excellent visibility, makes the region a hot spot for scuba divers and snorkelers. The opening of Cancun’s Underwater Museum, a unique, underwater attraction that features hand-made sculptures is also a big hit with divers and snorkelers. Aquaworld provides tours of all scuba and snorkeling sites in the area. Chichen Itza, Tulum and other Mayan ruin sites can be found throughout the entire Yucatan Peninsula. Tours are available to most sites. You can also learn a bit about Mexican and Mayan culture and local flora and fauna by visiting the eco-parks of Xcaret and Xel-Ha. Xoximilco provides a lively evening of Mexican music, culture and cuisine. There truly is fun for everyone in Cancun.
10 Isla Contoy
To get away from it all, spend the day on Isla Contoy, an uninhabited island that is a nature preserve. The island is approximately 26.5 miles from Cancun and can easily be visited on a day trip. Isla Contoy is filled with various species of birds, some live on the island year-round, while others are migratory. Sea turtles lay eggs on Isla Contoy each summer. Tours are given by biologists, who live on the island in order to study the flora and fauna. Tours to Isla Contoy normally stop along the way to allow people to snorkel. Then, on the island, there is a beach barbecue of fresh fish. While waiting for lunch to be served, you can explore the island or simply relax on the pristine beach. (998-891-4623)
Xochimilco is a popular tourist attraction in central Mexico, and now Experiencias Xcaret has created its own version right in Cancun, just five minutes from the airport. At Xoximilco (the "ch" changed to an "x") visitors enjoy the best of Mexican cuisine, music and culture while riding on "trajineras", colorfully decorated gondola-like boats. All courses and aguas frescas (fresh fruit drinks), beer, tequila and soft drinks are included. The tour culminates with all trajineras gathering together for a lively party. This is a fun, one-of-a kind tour that hightlights the best that Mexico has to offer. (998 251 6560, 1 855 326 0698)
Another popular Mayan ruin site, Tulum is located a bit closer to Cancun than Chichen Itza, roughly 2 hours south. This is a smaller site and can be seen in about an hour but it's worth the trip simply for the breathtaking views. The Mayans knew good real estate when they saw it and the main pyramid of Tulum sits on a cliff above an amazing beach. Once a major port for the Mayan empire, the ruins site is the main attraction of the growing town. Tulum also boasts a downtown area (Tulum pueblo) and a bohemian "hotel zone" with relaxed cabana hotels and open-air eateries. (984 871 2304)
7 Underwater Museum (MUSA)
This is one of Cancun's most unique attractions. The underwater museum is made up of hundreds of sunken statues sculpted by artist Jason deCaires Taylor. The statues have begun to grow coral. This benefits the environment in two ways; one, by creating an "artificial reef" and two, by directing some off the traffic away from the natural reefs. Snorkel and dive tours are offered by many Cancun vendors, including Aqua World Cancun, which has been a big supporter of the Cancun Underwater Museum project, from its inception. There are three locations of the underwater museum; off of Punta Cancun, off of Punta Nizuc, and off of Isla Mujeres. (877-443-2188)
This eco-park part of the Experiencias Xcaret family (Xcaret, Xplor, Xenotes). Xel-Ha boasts the "largest, most beautiful natural aquarium in the world". You can swim in grottos & cenotes (natural sinkholes)and see local sea life, explore Mayan ruins, jump off the Stone of Courage, cross the floating bridge, ride bikes or fly kites. There are plenty of other activities and exhibits to keep you occupied for the entire day or you can simply spend your time relaxing in the sun or napping in a seaside hammock. Xel-Ha features a delicious buffet restaurant and offers a children's area. (998-251-6560)
5 Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is by far the largest and most impressive site of Mayan archaeological ruins site in the region. It was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. If you only have time to take one sightseeing excursion while on vacation, visit Chichen Itza. You'll not only learn a bit about the Mayan people and Mexican history, but you'll see a cenote where human sacrifices were performed and stare in awe when you see the massive structures that were built with only manpower and crude tools. (998-881-2745)
4 Aquaworld Cancun
Aquaworld Cancun is a PADI Dive Center and teaches scuba classes, but it also happens to be one of the largest and most reputable companies for fishing excursions, dive trips, and other watersports & activities, like swimming with dolphins. Day trips to nearby Isla Mujeres are very popular and fun. During the Summer months, when whale sharks migrate to the waters north of Cancun, Aquaworld offers tours to swim with these gentle giants in the open sea. The Skyrider, Aquaworld's version of parasailing, is another enjoyable, once-in-a-lifetime activity that you can try while in Cancun. Traveling with kids? The Sub See Explorer is perfect for little ones or non-swimmers. ((998) 848-8326, 1-877-730-4054)
Xplor is a natural eco adventure park located in the Riviera Maya, just south of Playa del Carmen, and is part of the Xcaret family. Activites include 14 zip lines, amphibious vehicles, and underground rivers that feature amazing stalactites and stalagmites created over millions of years. Recover from all the action in the buffet restaurant which features international favorites or the snacks bar which serve yummy juices, smoothies and cookies. Xplor is the place to find safe adventure in Cancun, Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya. Xplor is not for couch potatoes! (1-888-922-7381)
Pronounced "Sh-car-ret", this ecological park is filled with activities the whole family will love. Inside the park there is a butterfly pavilion, as well as places where you can view flamingos, manatees, spider monkeys, and jaguars. There are also shows and exhibits that will teach you a little about Mexican culture. And, if that's not enough, you can also swim with dolphins, float down a lazy river, or relax on the beach. This is a very popular attraction. They hold amazing annual events like a Day of the Dead festival and the recreation of an ancient Mayan ocean crossing to Cozumel. (800-212-8951-1-8881)
1 Isla Mujeres
It only takes a 15 minute boat ride to travel to one of the most popular day trip destinations near Cancun; Isla Mujeres. The island's popularity is largely due to its relaxing, uncluttered beaches and the relative seclusion visitors enjoy compared to almost any other place near Cancun. You can book a tour with one of several guides who provide lunch and drinks, and those willing to pack a picnic and go it on their own can catch a water taxi or ferry to this veritable paradise. The downtown area is a charming mix of shops and restaurants. Rent a golf cart and visit Punta Sur, the easternmost point of the country of Mexico. (998 877 0307)
About Kristin Busse
After vacationing in Mexico many times, Kristin decided to move to Cancun "for a year". That was in 2001. Kristin grew-up in Michigan and studied Communications at Michigan State University. Chicago was her home for the next 9 years. Mexico has been good to Kristin, she became a mother and achieved her lifelong dream to become a professional singer. She loves to explore the area on the weekends with her 5 year old son, and she enjoys sharing her experiences and discoveries with others through writing and social media.
Read more about Kristin Busse here.