Isla Contoy – Image courtesy of Peter Maas/Wikimdea Commons
Major Attractions around Cancun
Cancun offers a choice of sights and attractions, including the following. . .
Ruins of the King
Stroll between a small temple and several ceremonial platforms in this interesting archaeological site (commonly called El Rey) located just a short distance from Cancun’s Zona Hotelera. El Rey is notable for having two main plazas bounded by two streets. (Most other Mayan cities contain only one plaza.)
More about the Ruins of the King. . .
Isla Mujeres and Garrafon National Park
Take the 20-minue ferry ride to Isla Mujeres off Cancun's coast and spend a relaxing day at Garrafon National Park snorkelling, kayaking, swimming or helmet diving. Swim with dolphins at Dolphin Discovery and sunbathe at Playa Norte, the island's best beach. Or rent a bicycle and tour the island.
More about the Isla Mujeres and Garrafon National Park. . .
Join a guided tour of this protected reserve to see more than 150 migrating and resident birds, including flocks of pelicans, frigates, double-crested cormorants and boobies.
The island is a pristine wildlife habitat of mangroves, lagoons, corals and secluded white sandy beaches that are home also to nesting sea turtles. Located about 30 km north of Isla Mujeres, the reserve is only open to 200 visitors daily.
More about the Isla Contoy. . .
The Yucatan Peninsula
Stretching along the Caribbean Coast just a short drive from the beaches of Cancun lies the Riviera Maya (between Punta Tanchacté to Punta Allen), which features some of the Yucatan's most impressive ruins and cenotes. Further south lies the Costa Maya (from Punta Allen to Chetumal), where you can find the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. This coastline offers a wide range of must-see sights and attractions, including:
– Discover an eco-adventure theme park where you can swim with dolphins, see jaguars, flamingos and toucans, snorkel through underwater caverns, walk through a butterfly aviary and a bat cave or float down a river in an inner tube or on a raft.
The park is named after the nearby archaeological site, Xcaret, a pre-Columbian Maya settlement some of whose ruins lie within the park's boundaries.
More about Xcaret. . .
– Stroll around the walled fortress of Tulum, an important Maya spiritual and cultural centre. Standing atop a bluff, this outpost of the Maya civilisation offers breathtaking views over the Caribbean.
Wander around the Temple of the Descending God, El Castillo and the Temple of the Frescoes. Afterwards, cool off with a swim in the Caribbean from the white-sand beach right in front of the site.
Tulum is the only major Maya archaeological site to overlook the Caribbean Sea, and is only 128 km south of Cancun, about an hours drive.
More about Tulum. . .
– Explore some of the half-million hectare ecological park of forests, lagoons, exotic marine habitats and wetlands at Sian Ka'an, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located just south of Tulum.
The biosphere reserve contains tropical forests, mangroves and marshes, with a habitat for more than 300 species of birds as well as a large marine area and barrier reef. Here you can wander through the rainforest, go horseback riding or hook and release a sailfish or marlin.
More about Sian Ka'an. . .
– Take a day trip from Cancun or stay overnight to fully explore the fabled ruins of Chichén Itzá, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico.
The Maya name ‘Chichen Itza’ means ‘at the mouth of the well of the Itza’ and the city was a centre of pilgrimage for ancient Maya for more than 100 years.
Admire the huge 38m-high Pyramid of Kukulcan (or El Castillo), stroll among the columns at the Temple of the Warriors, venture inside El Caracol (the observatory) and discover bas-reliefs and paintings that decorate every square metre of wall of the Nunnery.
More about Chichén Itzá. . .
– Go east of Chichén Itzá to discover sacred Mayan sinkholes where young girls were apparently thrown as sacrifices to the rain god Chaac. At Xkeken near Valladolid, descend a vertical hole down narrow stone steps into a dark underground world of red limestone stalactites hanging above a green pool of water that shimmers in the sunlight from a gap in the cavern roof. Cool off in the ice-cold water.
– Discover one of Mexico's premier diving destinations in the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park. Known as “Island of the swallows’ by its earliest inhabitants, Cozumel is fringed by wide sugar-white beaches, beautiful reefs and clear turquoise waters.
Snorkel or dive underwater caves, offshore reefs and see wrecks and bays littered with sunken cannons, anchors and statues.
Stroll the waterfront boulevard of charming San Miguel village, see exhibits of the island’s history in the fascinating Museo de la Isla de Cozumel, swim with dolphins at Chankanaab National Park and wander Maya ruins at San Gervasio.
More about Cozumel Island. . .
– Stroll among the elaborate stuccowork and detailed façades in this World Heritage site, one of the best restored and maintained ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula. Admire the entwined serpents in the Nun’s Quadrangle, the House of Pigeons and the Ball Court.
Climb the 30m to the top of the Pyramid of the Magician and explore the carvings of serpents, sculptures of the rain god Chaac and astrological symbols in the Governor’s Palace.
More about Uxmal. . .
– For panoramic views over this ancient Mayan site, climb the 120 stone steps to the summit of the weather-worn 42m-high El Castillo pyramid, which forms part of the Nohoch Mul Group.
Older than much of Chichén Itzá and larger than Tulum, Coba offers 20,719ha of scenic ruins scattered around five lakes and crowded with thick forest.
Come early in the morning when the site is less crowded, listen to the shriek of spider monkeys and watch colonies of army ants parading down ancient pathways before disappearing into the dense forest.
More about Coba. . .
– Hike through the rainforest near Coba, 42km northwest of Tulum, and choose from several cliffs from which to rappel down into cool underwater cenotes (sinkholes). Then discover the Mayan jungle settlement of Pac Chan, where around 100 people live without electricity or running water in traditional round thatch huts.
More about Pac Chen. . .
– Follow a 600m trail through underground passages, past stalactites and stalagmites until you reach the main cenote (sinkhole), a 12m-deep pool of crystal clear water estimated to be five million years old. Above ground, a 400ha rainforest boasts hiking trails from which you can spot wildlife such as white tail deer, spider monkeys, badgers, wild boar and iguanas.
More about Aktun-Chen. . .
Nohoch Nah Chich
– Join a four-wheel drive tour through the Mexican rainforest to the Mayan community of Rancho San Felipe. From here explore Nohoch Nah Chich, considered to be the second-longest underground river system in the world. Snorkel through the clear water past thick strands of stalagmites and stalactites. Afterwards, tuck into a traditional Mayan lunch at the ranch.
More about Nohoch Nah Chich. . .
Celestun Biosphere Reserve
– Admire graceful pink flamingos while keeping an eye open for some of the other 300 species of birdlife that reside in the Yucatan's Celestun Biosphere Reserve, including cormorants, frigate birds, sheartail, black-throated bobwhite and egrets. Also look out for crocodiles, hawksbill and green turtles, iguanas and boa constrictors.
– Discover the largest coral-ringed lagoon in the world at Chinchorro Bank, a 46km-long and 14km-wide reef that lies 35km offshore from Xcalak (about a two-hour boat ride).
The Bank’s 620km² of jagged reefs create a ring of coral with depths that range from 2m to 25m. Beyond the reef the water plunges dramatically to 1000m in the deep channel that separates Chinchorro from the mainland.
Dive past spectacular coral formations, see abundant marine life and a sea floor littered with the wrecks of vessels that have foundered on the reefs over the centuries.
More about Chinchorro Bank. . .
Day of the Dead
Celebrated on All Souls Day, the first day of November and into the next day, with intense passion throughout Mexico. In cemeteries see papier-mâché statues of skeletons and locals enjoying picnics by the graves of their ancestors.
Look out for Carnaval in February, the week-long Cancun Jazz Festival in May and El Senor de las Ampollas, celebrated with fireworks, dancing and music from late September to early October.