Top 10 sights in Cancún and Yucatán
The most famous and best restored of the Yucatán Maya sites, Chichén Itzá will still impress even the most jaded visitor. (Witold Skrypczak/LPI)
It is no great secret why Cancún, and to a larger extent the Yucatán Peninsula, has become Mexico's top tourist destination. Some people are lured by the simple pleasures of a white sand beach, turquoise waters and perhaps a little partying here and there. Others find themselves drawn to the pre-Hispanic Maya ruins, the ample ecotourism activities and the abundance of natural wonders. Here are 10 picks to keep you on the go while touring the peninsula:
A spring break rite-of-passage carries on year round in Cancún's high-gloss hotels and throbbing discos. If that is not your thing, an alternate version of the city beckons in downtown Cancún, where a local arts scene has taken root. Most of the action centres around Parque las Palapas, downtown's main stage for free open-air cultural events.
The Maya, who ruled these lands long before the Spanish conquest, knew a thing or two about beachfront real estate. Not only do the ruins at Tulum afford a spectacular view of the region's signature green and turquoise waters, but it is also a fascinating 13th-century walled city that stood as one of the last Maya strongholds.
What is not to like about an island where golf carts are the main mode of transportation? A half-hour boat ride from Cancún, low-key Isla Mujeres offers a refreshing break from the notably more hectic pace of the mainland. A sight well worth the visit is the Isla Mujeres Turtle Farm, a sanctuary that releases more than 60,000 hatchlings a year.
The Maya believed that some underground rivers and cave systems were gateways to the underworld. And as amazing as it may sound, some of the limestone formations that make up Rio Secreto's sinkholes started taking shape about 50 million years ago. A three-hour tour leads through stunning caverns while you wade through water.
Playa del Carmen
With a notably more European air than gringo-friendly Cancún, Playa del Carmen is the hot ticket if you are looking for a hipper, more scaled-down beach resort town. Ferries leave Playa del Carmen for Isla Cozumel, Mexico's largest island, where you can go diving and explore the coral reefs made famous by Jacques Cousteau.
These recently inaugurated underwater “museums” offer a one-of-a-kind opportunity to check out more than 400 sculptures submerged in the shallow waters off the coasts of Isla Mujeres and Cancún. The MUSA collection includes hundreds of life-sized concrete figures sculpted by British artist Jason de Caires Taylor, and it is all part of a conservation effort to draw people away from damaged coral reef areas. Aqua World in Cancún provides snorkelling and scuba tours of the sculptures.
A low-key island that sits on a nature reserve, Isla Holbox seems to go over well with unassuming types. Bird-watchers also get a kick out of Holbox, which is home to more than 150 species. For an experience like no other, from mid-May to mid-September, you have the rare opportunity to swim with whale sharks.
Lying inland about 20 miles from the coast, Mérida may not get the hype of Cancún or some of the peninsula's coveted beach destinations, but it is a city steeped in colonial history and therein lies its appeal. Famous for its colonial architecture, museums and Yucatecan cuisine, Mérida has long been considered the region's cultural capital. About an hour away are the well-preserved Maya ruins of Uxmal.
It would certainly be a glaring omission to exclude one of the “new seven wonders of the world” from any top 10 list, even though skeptics say Chichén Itzá's new and improved wonder-like status is nothing more than the result of an internet popularity contest. Say what they will, these Maya ruins are nonetheless remarkable and downright intriguing.
The no-frills Costa Maya beach town of Xcalak has managed to dodge the development bullet, but there is no telling how long that will last. North of Xcalak, the laid-back town of Mahahual recently saw a cruise-ship dock go up, making Xcalak all the more attractive if you are seeking a remote beach getaway.