The Maya city of Chichen Itza, famous for its pyramid ruins, is both a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The ancient city dates back to the 5th century, though its most impressive structures were built later in the 9th through 12th centuries and are a mix of Maya, Toltec, and Puuc styles. El Castillo (aka the Temple of Kukulkan) is the best-known pyramid, designed according to the astronomical calendar so that during the equinoxes, the sunlight creates a vision of a feathered snake climbing down its sides. Travelers here will also find the Mesoamerican ball court, with its unique audio qualities and intricately carved rings. Several other impressive structures and landmarks are here, including the Sacred Cenote, a place of pilgrimage and sacrifice; the tzompantli, where skulls of captured warriors were displayed; and El Caracol, the ancient observatory, among many others. There are several tour operators running day trips from Cancun to Chichen Itza, many with stops along the way to cenotes, the Tulum ruins, or Valladolid.
The Yucatan coast near Cancun is the most reliable spot worldwide to see endangered whale sharks. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world, about the size of a school bus. Despite their immense size, adult whale sharks are completely docile and harmless to humans, while the youngest whale sharks as playful as overgrown puppies. Whale shark season runs roughly from June through September. Most tours follow similar rules for the safety of the whale sharks; divers are allowed in the water two or three at a time, for around five minutes. That group will exit the water, while the next group jumps in. Typically each guest will get three or four swims over the course of the tour. Snorkel gear is included in the rate. Booking a private tour will allow each guest more time in the water versus tagging along with a larger group.
Cenotes, sometimes written xenotes, are natural pools formed from collapsed limestone with sapphire, turquoise, and emerald waters. The entire coast of the Riviera Maya is dotted with cenotes, nearly 7,000 in total. Some cenotes are open to the sun and surrounded by tropical trees and hanging vines – great for a swim or snorkel, while others are parts of vast, underground cave and river systems, fun to scuba through on a guided tour. Many cenotes are easy to reach on your own by driving or taxiing, like Dos Ojos and Gran Cenote near Tulum or Ik Kil and Suytun near Chichen Itza. Access is usually granted for a small entry fee, with life jackets and snorkel masks to rent onsite; Dos Ojos even has flashlights for cavern snorkeling and diving. For a more in depth exploration of the underwater cave systems, contact Cancun Scuba Center.
Get Ready to Rumble with Lucha Libre
Lucha libre is a uniquely Mexican version of pro-wrestling, emphasizing aerial maneuvers, choreographed acrobatics, wild personalities, and of course the famous masks. Each fight, whether one-on-one or tag team, pits the técnicos (good guys) against the rudos (bad guys), often with minis (dwarfs) or exóticos (wrestlers in drag) on either side. Events usually have around five bouts, with each fight lasting for three rounds and always spilling outside the ring. The crowd gets pretty rowdy, so if you’ve always wanted to learn how to swear in Spanish, this is where to practice! In Cancun, fights are held Downtown and sometimes on Isla Mujeres and coordinated by Lucha Libre TWS. Splurge for front row seats; they aren’t expensive, usually only 250 pesos ($12 USD). Beer, soda, and snacks are for sale throughout the event.
Swim the Underwater Museum
MUSA is an underwater art museum in between Cancun and Isla Mujeres. Over 500 sculptures by six artists were designed and installed to encourage the growth of coral and replenish the habitat of tropical marine life. Subjects include giant hands, naval mines, VW Beetles, and life-sized people modeled after Cancun locals. Already the largest artificial reef in the world, the museum is still expanding; as the older artworks become obscured by wildlife, new installations are added. The Enchanted Wood, featuring artworks blending land animals and trees, will make up the next permanent installation. There are a few ways to visit MUSA, including by glass-bottom boat or snorkeling for the two Cancun locations or by scuba diving in the Isla Mujeres portion. Contact MUSA directly or Aquaworld to schedule a visit.
The ocean and beaches of Cancun, Isla Mujeres, and the Riviera Maya are some of the best spots in the world to see sea turtles. Loggerhead, green, and hawksbill sea turtles are the most common, though sometimes giant leatherback sea turtles (the largest turtle in the world and fourth heaviest reptile) make appearances, too. From May through October, female sea turtles come ashore every night to dig nests and lay dozens of eggs each. The eggs hatch and the babies swim out to sea in July through December. Most resorts in Cancun are involved in sea turtle conservation efforts, and allow guests to participate or watch in all stages, including gathering the eggs into a protective enclosure and assisting in a sunset release of the babies. Snorkelers and divers visiting Cancun during the summer and fall months may glimpse sea turtles mating in the ocean. Winter or spring visitors will still find plenty to see at Tortugranja, the turtle conservation center in Isla Mujeres. While there, visitors can see, feed, and interact with turtles at all stages of development, along with other local marine life, like conches, horseshoe crabs, and urchins.
Located about an hour and a half south of Cancun, Tulum offers a unique getaway from the city, with a blend of bohemian style, sparkling cenotes, Maya ruins, and gorgeous beaches. Start with beachfront yoga at Sanará, followed by a healthy vegan breakfast at nearby Raw Love or a filling Mexican breakfast at Taqueria Honorio downtown. Head to the Ruins of Tulum next, before the sun gets too high and hot. The main entry to the ruins is off the highway, near the Artisan Mall, but strong swimmers can reach the ruins by swimming up from Santa Fe beach to the aptly named Ruins Beach. Entry is 65 pesos per person; add 600 for a guided tour. After the ruins, be sure to visit at least one of Tulum’s cenotes. There are three major cenotes in the area: Gran Cenote is the largest and busiest, made up of several small cenotes and filled with fish and turtles. Dos Ojos is two connecting cenotes, one a bright clear blue and the other a deep, dark cavern (they have flashlights to rent). Finally, Yal Ku is more of a lagoon, with a mix of fresh and salt water and tons of colorful, tropical fish.
Due west of Cancun’s main beach is Nichupte Lagoon, surrounded by a mangrove jungle, cut through with winding canals, and filled with wildlife. Tiny, two-seater speed boats are the most fun way to explore the lagoon once you get the hang of steering. Guests whip through the jungle waterways and make for the reef for a snorkel interlude before turning around. Most tours snorkel at the Punta Nizuc reef, sometimes in view of the underwater museum.
Visit the Maya Museum and San Miguelito Ruins
The Museo Maya and the San Miguelito archaeological site share an 80-hectacre compound in the Hotel Zone. Opened in 2012, the museum holds some of the most important Maya artifacts from the Yucatan region, including many from Chichen Itza, as well as from Comalcalco and Palenque in Tabasco and Chiapas, respectively. Three main galleries cover various topics of Maya history, archaeology, and culture, especially in the pre-Hispanic era. Museum tickets also grant admission to the San Miguelito site, a collection of Maya ruins spread out through a jungle garden. Included in this site are a pyramid, temple, and the remains of family homes. Museo Maya and San Miguelito are open from 9:00am until 6:00pm every day except Mondays.
Cancun is the perfect spot for first-timers to try out scuba diving. It’s adjacent to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the world’s second largest reef system, and with the underwater museum, endless cenotes, and an abundance of marine life, the city has so many aquatic attractions that are really worth the up close attention that scuba gives over snorkeling. Two-hour intro classes are available at several locations in the Hotel Zone and Riviera Maya, and though patrons won’t leave there PADI certified, they will receive a certificate allowing them to join guided scuba tours all over the area. Aquaworld offers a package deal for a morning intro class, followed by an afternoon dive at MUSA, and Scuba Diving Cancun offers a lesson package that includes two reef dives. Children must be at least ten-years-old to attend most dive courses and at least sixteen to attend without parental guidance.
• Reviews: Aquaworld, Scuba Diving Cancun
Isla Mujeres offers a laid back change of pace, just a fifteen minute ferry ride away from Cancun. Translating to “Island of Women,” the island’s name comes from it being the historical site if the Temple of Ixchel, the Maya fertility goddess. Now it’s a major destination, known for its main beach, Playa Norte, consistently ranked among best beaches in the world. It’s Downtown area has several amazing restaurants (try Rooster or Ruben’s) and street vendors on Hidalgo Street, while the South End of is home to Punta Sur national park, with Ixchel’s Temple ruins and a sculpture garden, plus Tortugranja, the turtle sanctuary, and Garrafon Natural Reef Park, with snorkeling, ziplining, kayaking, and more. The island is small, less than eight kilometers long and less than one kilometer across, so it’s easy to see the whole thing in a day. The preferred mode of travel here is by golf cart, with several rental shops directly across the street from the ferry terminal.
Explore the Shops and Food at Market 28
Market 28 (Mercado 28) is a huge, maze-like, flea market in Downtown with over 600 vendors and restaurants. Stalls sell tons of trinkets and textiles, like maracas, blankets, and leather goods, with some great bargain prices and some unique handicrafts mixed in with the souvenirs. Salespeople can be a little pushy, but it’s all in the game, so be prepared to haggle and you can walk away with some great buys. The market is also a great spot to try more authentic, local foods at a fraction of the Hotel Zone cost. Try Restaurant Margely here, one of the best spots for local Yucatecan food; ask for the conchinita pibil or the parrillada yucateca. This place is easy to reach by bus from the hotel zone. Take the R-2 bus and ask to get off at Market 28; this is the stop right before Wal-Mart. Then take Avenue Coba to Avenue Tankah headed north. Mercado 28 will be right behind the Super Aki store. There are a few stores in the area that have a similar name to try to fool tourists into stopping there, like Plaza 28 or Market 23, so look for the Super Aki and a sign behind it that says Mercado 28!