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Depending on where they're from, travelers seem to treat Cancun as different destinations. Europeans tend to treat Cancun as a gateway to the world of the Maya. They'll spend a couple of days on the beach, then set off inland for the ruins and the Yucatan’s beautiful colonial towns, Merida, Izamal and Valladolid. But for workaholic Americans who tend to want to unwind on the beach with a little adventure thrown in, Cancun is perfect. There are any number of excursions from half to full day trips that provide an added memorable element to the luxury of vegging out on the Caribbean beach experience. Whatever the case, Cancun has it all and you can act like a beach bum, scale Mayan pyramids, scuba dive and party to the wee hours of the morning all on the same trip. Aside from sitting on the beach, most of the things to do here involve day trips outside of the area.
Neighborhood: Riviera Maya
The Yucatan Peninsula is a vast, flat limestone shelf laced with underground rivers. Here and there the limestone has collapsed, creating cool, freshwater pools called cenotes. Most people only refresh themselves with a swim, sometimes entering a grotto or cavern still light and within view of the cenote opening. But advanced divers come from all over the world to explore the underground caverns that connect cenotes. This is too dangerous to do independently; a dive master is a must. Check with the dive association APSA for reliable vendors.
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Neighborhood: Quinta Roo
This water park bills itself as an aquarium and it's pretty close to that. It’s another good kiddie spot (though still lots of fun for adults, too, of course), offering swimming with dolphins, snorkeling, some very mild water “adventures,” including an agility test involving crossing a bridge made of buoyant, moving sections, and “cliff” diving 15 feet. There’s also biking through jungle. A jungle train connects the attractions (actually a painted bus with a thatched roof). You can “snuba” here too, or try going underwater wearing a diving helmet.
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Snorkeling off Cancun’s beaches is a disappointment, but it’s a short boat ride to sections of the world’s second-largest barrier reef, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (or Great Maya Barrier Reef), which stretches from Isla Contoy 560 miles south to Honduras. A very popular dive site is Palancar Reef on the southern end of Cozumel island. There are numerous vendors in both Cancun, just to the south in Puerto Morelos, and in Playa del Carmen. Check with the dive association APSA for approved vendors.
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Neighborhood: Isla Mujeres
From June to September speckled whale sharks (which average 25 feet in length and can reach 45 feet) come to the waters where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean. It’s possible to swim with these benign giants, whose preferred diet is plankton and small fish, not you. It’s a completely overwhelming experience. To reach one of the better vendors, take the ferry to Isla Mujeres and then go out with Serious Divers.
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Neighborhood: Quintana Roo
This fairly hokey eco-theme-park is a great place for families, offering everything from a wine cellar to small Mayan ruins, snorkeling, diving and swimming with dolphins. It’s also a great place to go if you have only a few days and want one-stop shopping for entertainment. Try their “snuba” excursion, which is snorkeling with a breathing tube attached to oxygen on a raft, enabling non-divers to venture further underwater than they might with a snorkel alone. Xcaret also offers dinner and elaborately costumed shows including Mayan dancing and Mayan ball games (undaunted by the fact no one really knows for sure how the ball games were played).
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Neighborhood: Punta Sam/Playa las Mujeres
There are an awful lot of great golf courses in the area, but one of our favorites is the Playa Mujeres Golf Club. It's an 18-hole, Greg Norman-designed course perfectly nestled in the ecological treasures of the area, with water holes, bunkers and greens surrounded by jungle, native plants and indigenous foliage. A number of the holes here offer spectacular views of the Caribbean Sea and Isla Mujeres. Playa Mujeres is recognized as one of the top courses in Mexico, and there's a great restaurant and lounge at the 18th hole.
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You'll need to pack a bathing suit when you visit these striking ruins. They're perched near a cliff on the Caribbean, and there's a lovely little cove below for swimming. Compared to some other Mayan sites, the ruins aren't all that big, but they're rare, as it is the only coastal temple complex. Tulum, built in the 13th century, is believed to have once been painted in vivid primary colors. Lights in two windows guided ships through the reef. It doesn’t take long to see the ruins, but between the trip there, swimming off the cove and the sea of souvenir stands outside, the visit can end up consuming most of the day.
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Neighborhood: Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an
About two-and-a-half hours south of Cancun, this UNESCO World heritage site occupies 1.3 million acres of wild tropical forest and marine sanctuary, with few villages. The biosphere contains a small area of Mayan ruins open for visiting, but the main attraction is the beauty of the forest, the untouched coast and wildlife, including endangered species. Currents in canals between shores covered in reeds and arching trees provide a perfect lazy ride on tires. The best way to plan a full-day trip from Cancun is via the NGO (non-government organization) Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an.
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The two-and-a-half-hour drive from Cancun makes a visit to these Mayan ruins a long, long day, but it's well worth it. Once the most powerful city in the Yucatan, Chichen Itza (pronounced chee-chen-eet-za) covers approximately 2.5 square miles and incorporates the magnificent serpent-adorned Temple of Kukulcan pyramid, a palace, observatory and the largest ball court in the Mayan empire. The architecture is powerful and shows influence from the Toltecs, who introduced worship of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered-serpent god. One very good vendor of trips from Cancun is Gray Line, which offers comfortable air-conditioned buses, lunch at a charming Spanish-colonial hotel, and access to the ruins through a private entrance. If you're willing to spend a night away from Cancun, it might be worth considering a 2-day/1-night trip here.
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Neighborhood: Hotel Zone
This small museum features craft art from all over Mexico, including painted wood and intricate ceramics. The museum is centered around a replica of a tianguis, a traditional marketplace. The gift shop is worth visiting.
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Neighborhood: Isla Mujeres
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An uninhabited preserve since 1961 and a national park since 1998, Isla Contoy is 5.2 miles long and as narrow as 70 feet wide in spots. It’s about 45 minutes north of Isla Mujeres by boat, and only 200 people are allowed to visit per day. It’s ideal for diving, snorkeling and bird watching, and it’s the northernmost point of the world’s second-largest barrier reef. From April to October, four species of sea turtles can be found in the waters, and approximately 150 species of birds can be seen year-round, including the Caribbean’s largest population of brown pelicans. Frigate birds are also plentiful. Iguanas also have found their way to the island, and stingrays skim along the shallow waters by the beaches. You can arrange trips from Isla Mujeres.
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