search

Eco-Parks, Archaeological Sites and Nature Reserves in Cancun and the Riviera Maya



The Cancun area is home to ecological parks, nature reserves and archaeological sites of Mayan ruins. All are unique, interesting, fun to visit and give travelers taste of the Yucatan Peninsula's natural wonders and ancient history.

The eco-parks of Xcaret and Xel-Ha wow thousands of visitors each year and are two of the region's most popular attractions. Visitors can learn about local flora and fauna and Mayan culture, and can snorkel, float down a lazy river or swim with dolphins. There are also areas created for relaxing, which feature hammocks and lounge chairs.

Isla Contoy and Sian Ka'an are both protected national parks. Isla Contoy is a small island that has been designated as a nature reserve. There are thousands of birds on the island, some of which live on the island year-round and others that migrate to the area year after year. Sea turtles nest on the island during the summer months. Visitation to the island is tightly controlled with only 200 guests allowed on the island each day.

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve covers a massive 1.3 million acres and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Visitors to the reserve can kayak, go fly fishing, see Mayan ruins, or just relax and enjoy the tranquil surroundings. Off-the-gird eco lodging is available inside Sian Ka'an.

Tours to visit the various archaeological sites of Mayan ruins provide a glimpse into ancient Mayan culture and are a must when in the area.

Ventura Park is a water-adventure park which is ideal for families and kids at heart.


Advertisement

10
Hotel Zone
Ventura Park

Formerly Wet 'n Wild, Ventura Park is the only adventure park in the Cancun Hotel Zone. The park has something for every member of the family and is made of of different "worlds", including Dolphinaris, Underworld, Grand Prix, Fun World, Aaaahventura and Wet n' Wild. There are various packages available and there are kids areas for small children. Wet 'n Wild rides include the Bubble Space Bowl, an elevated chute that you drop through at 30 mph into a giant bowl below, the Kamikaze water slide, the Wave Pool, where the waves are up to 3 feet high and the 320-meter lazy river. Other activities include a small roller coaster, zip lines, go karts and gaming. The park is open from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm and is located at km 25 in the Hotel Zone.


National Reef Park of Puerto Morelos
Photo courtesy of Kristin Busse


Running alongside the Yucatan Peninsula is the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which is the second-largest coral reef in the world. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is the only reef that is larger. In Puerto Morelos, the reef is closer to the shore than in other areas of the Riviera Maya and in 1998 that area of the reef became protected. Snorkeling tours and scuba diving trips are available from several dive shops in the small, seaside town of Puerto Morelos. In order to protect the reef, all snorkelers and divers must go out to the reef in boats with accredited guides.


8
Zona Hotelera
Isla Contoy
Photo courtesy of zhuzhu/iStock

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.


Advertisement


Community Tours Sian Kaan is an eco-tourism organization that provides tours in the pristine Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean (1.6 million acres). What makes this enterprise so special, is that they are committed to sustainable tourism, genuine cultural exchange, and providing jobs to locals of Mayan decent. The offer various tours including bird watching, sport fishing, kayaking, hiking, snorkeling and exploring archaeological sites. One of the most popular tours is a boat ride on mangrove-surrounded rivers. You can even learn how chewing gum is made. All tours are free for children under age 6.




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 thousands 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!


Tulum
Photo courtesy of SL_Photography/iStock


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 rapidly growing town. Tulum also boasts a downtown area (Tulum pueblo) and a bohemian "hotel zone" with relaxed cabana hotels and open-air eateries.


4
Vicinity


This eco-park is part of the Experiencias Xcaret family (Xcaret, Xplor, Xenotes, Xoximilco). 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.


3


Chichen Itza is by far the largest and most impressive 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. Bring water, sunscreen, lightweight clothing and a hat. It's hot out there in the jungle!




Pronounced "Sh-car-ret", this eco-archaeological park is filled with Mexican and Mayan flavor, color, music, nature and culture. Inside the park there is a butterfly pavilion, an aviary, an aquarium, as well as places where you can view flamingos, manatees, spider monkeys, jaguars and more. If that's not enough, you can also swim with dolphins, float down a lazy river, swim in underground rivers, climb a small Mayan ruin, visit the traditional cemetery, snorkel in the inlet, relax on the beach and more. For kids, visit Children's World aka Mundo de Niños. There are performances throughout the day, but Xcaret's night show, a celebration of Mexican and Mayan history, sport, dance and music, is an unforgettable experience and is not to be missed. The park holds amazing annual events like a Day of the Dead festival and the recreation of an ancient Mayan ocean crossing to the island of Cozumel.


Coba Archaeological Park
Photo courtesy of Susan R. Vincil


Ruins from ancient Mayan cities that once thrived on the Yucatan Peninsula can be found throughout Cancun and the Riviera Maya. Of those archaeological sites, Coba, is one of the region's largest and most notable. Located approximately 2.5 hours south Cancun near the town of Tulum, you'll find Coba tucked away in the jungle. The site has not yet been fully excavated so even though it will currently take you a few hours to see the park, visitors to the site will not see the majority of Coba as it was when it was still inhabited by the Mayan people. Experts believe that the site once had about 50,000 residents.


Map

Meet 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....  More About Kristin

×