Cancun and the coastal resort strip known as the Riviera Maya are not exactly off the beaten track destinations these days. But there’s much more on offer in this part of Mexico than all inclusive beach holidays. Along the Riviera Maya and further afield on Yucatan Peninsula there are an incredible range of nature, wildlife, archaeological, active and eco-themed adventure possibilities. If you’re thinking of heading to this part of Mexico, here’s a few adventure ideas you might want to check out.
Cancun & Riviera Maya, Mexico
Once upon a time places like Cancun and the Yucatan Peninsula were faraway destinations. But not anymore. With major tour operators like Thomson offering great value Cancun holidays there are real opportunities for adventure seekers to grab a package bargain then, once on the ground, head off and create their own indie adventures. And what a lot there is on offer. Here's a selection of stand out ideas for cultural, ecological or pure thrill seeking adventures around Cancun and the Riviera Maya.
1: Be Indiana Jones on a Mayan adventure
If you’ve aspirations to re-enact Indiana Jones movies then you’ll want to check out some of the incredible archaeological sites within easy reach of Cancun. You can travel back in time and get a feel for the Mayan culture at the ruins in Tulum, Chichen Itza or Uxmal.
Tulum is an ancient city built on the Caribbean coast, a place that is unique in combining beautiful beaches with the legacy of an ancient civilisation. This Mayan site is one of the best preserved coastal sites, was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Mayans and has over 60 Mayan structures to explore. And a beach to swim at.
Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities. The ruins here show a great variety of architectural styles reflecting the diverse population said to have inhabited the city. The Kukulkan stepped pyramid at Chichen Itza is believed to have been used as a kind of calendar and in 2007 was voted one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
Uxmal is linked to Tulum and Chichen Itza by ancient roads and as an inland site rises up from the surrounding forest. It is well known for its well preserved larger buildings like the five levelled Pyramid of the Magician and the Governor's Palace. It’s also well known for its quirky nightly light and sound show. It’s not exactly Indiana Jones and you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it, but either way you’ll remember it.
Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Image Credit: Diorama Sky under Creative Commons Licence
2: Cancun Adventure & Ecotourism Tours
Cancun has well developed adventure & ecotourism tour offers, many suited to whole family participation. The Yucatan peninsula is an incredible area to explore, whether independently, in the company of a professional guide or on an organised tour. You can visit reserves and National Parks, go mountain biking through the undergrowth, swim in cenotes (swim holes), drive through the jungle in an open top jeep or fly through the canopy on some of the longest zip lines in the whole of Latin America. There’s a wide variety of ecotourism ‘attractions’ and projects. Some make a solid effort to protect the natural resources and educate visitors while others are primarily commercial and may have less concern for environmental impact.
The underground caves of Rio Secreto
Rio Secreto is an underground cave and river system deep below Quintana Roo. Here, deep underground, you can hike and swim back through geological time to experience the beauty and drama of a protected natural reserve and see for yourself incredible formations of thousands of beautiful stalactites and stalagmites growing in the silence of these caverns.
Snorkelling on Isla Mujeres
If you fancy going off-shore, Isla Mujeres is a short hop from Cancun and is famous for beautiful beaches and incredible snorkelling. The beach in the natural park of El Garrafón is a snorkelers dream with clear warm waters, coral reefs and more multi-coloured fish than any snorkeller could count. Don’t forget your waterproof camera.
Bird watching on Isla Contoy
There are some world class bird watching spots on the islands a little further afield. Isla Contoy is a small island about 30km north of Isla Mujeres and is considered one of the most important nesting place for sea birds in the Mexican Caribbean. It is a National Park with access strictly controlled making it a true reserve for the 90+ species of birds and the marine turtles you may be able to see there and a quite exclusive experience for visitors.
Swim with whale sharks on Isla Holbox
Isla Holbox is separated from mainland Mexico by a shallow lagoon which is a sanctuary for flamingos, pelicans and other exotic birds. This fishing island, with its white sandy streets and very few cars, is largely untouched by mass tourism and has opportunities not only for bird watching but for swimming with the whale shark – a phenomenon not be missed!
Sian Ka’an Reserve of the Biosphere
Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve is an official UNESCO World Heritage Property, a massive 1.3 million acre stretch of land south of Tulum. It is an important coastal ecosystems consisting of tropical forest, wetlands, savannahs, mangroves and coastal marine habitats. Most of it is off limits to people but Amigos, the small non profit that helps manage the reserve does lead eco- tours for small groups interested in visiting and learning about the reserve.
Photo: Mindaugas Danys. under Creative Commons Licence
3: Check out the Riviera Maya “Eco-parks”
There are many unusual ‘ecological’ theme parks within easy reach of Cancun. Just to be clear, ‘ecological’ is often used here to mean some kind of park, resort or attraction with a nature theme or connection and doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a particularly environmentally sensitive or low impact operation.
The most popular eco-theme park near Cancun is Xcaret, just 2.5 miles out of town. It’s a huge place and easy to spend a day or more there. Described as an archaeological park it’s part cultural attractions, archaeological site, nature park and activity heaven. Imagine if you can the natural beauty of the Caribbean sea, safe snorkelling in quiet inlets, swimming with dolphins, a coral reef aquarium, underground rivers you can swim in, butterfly pavilions and a cultural show that takes you on a musical journey through a thousand years of Mexican history. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, then probably best to steer well clear.
Just down the highway from Xcaret lies Xplor, another Xciting attraction. What is it with all the Xs here? Xplor is an underground attraction, set around water filled caverns in which you can dive in a sea of stalactites and stalagmites, go underground rafting, flying through the jungle on zip wires or drive amphibious vehicles through water and thicketed jungle . Definitely one for active Indiana Jones wannabes.
Xel-Há is one of the world’s largest natural aquariums, made up of a series of inlets and lagoons, where the ocean combines with freshwater currents, underground springs and rivers forming an incredible eco-system that you can explore. It’s home to thousands of multi-coloured fish just waiting for you to come and swim, snorkel and befriend them.
Swim with dolphins, meet the sharks
If you’ve ever dreamed of swimming with dolphins, then you can make your dream come true at the Interactive Aquarium in Cancun. And you can make it a family experience too as children are welcome too. The sessions are part education and part in the water encounter. For those wanting to learn more there are opportunities to get a deeper understanding by being a trainer for a day.
If you’ve always wanted to look a shark in the face you can do that too. For your own safety there’s an acrylic wall between you and the shark but that won’t stop the adrenaline pumping.
Selvatica - The Adventure Kingdom
If you like adrenaline filled outdoor fun, then how about a visit to Selvatica. Set in over 330 acres of jungle midway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, this self-proclaimed ‘adventure kingdom’ offers a range of adventure packages that will suit everyone from age 6 to 96, from mild thrill seekers to hardcore adrenaline junkies. Think fast zip-lines, skywalks, aerial challenges, parachuting, off-road truck driving and a chance to relax in cooling cenotes.
Photo: Fumi under Creative Commons Licence
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