There’s more to Cancun than sand and sea
You’re thinking ahead to when the wind will be howling and the snow’s piling up outside. You’re looking for an inexpensive holiday where you can lie on the sand and swim in warm waters.
You think Cancun.
And you’d be right. With over 25 kilometres of white sandy beach and turquoise waters, Cancun is an ideal destination for beach holidays. Hotels of every size and price stretch along the strip of sand which is shaped like the number seven, with the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Nichupte Lagoon on the other. You can swim, snorkel, para-sail or just soak up the sun and salsa. In the calm waters of the lagoon, you can kayak or join a Jet Ski jungle tour through the mangroves.
But what many tourists are just starting to discover is that this busy city in the Yucatan Peninsula is the perfect base for a much richer holiday, whether your interests are ecological or cultural.
From here, you can take easy day trips to Isla Mujeres (Island of Women), the diving mecca of Cozumel and the Mayan ruins, all places that transplanted Canadian Kelly McLaughlin takes family and friends to when they visit. Formerly from Windsor, McLaughlin went to Cozumel on holiday almost seven years ago and never left the country. She met a man, had a child and now blogs about her life in paradise at CancunCanuck.
“My ‘vacation’ turned into a life in Cancun, one that is far more connected to nature and to family,” she said. “In Canada it was ‘work, work, work,’ here I know what the important things are. We love the jungle and the ocean, iguanas and monkeys, even the giant spiders, scorpions and snakes.”
All of McLaughlin’s favourite places involve nature or culture, which is everywhere you look in Cancun. You don’t even have to leave the hotel zone to find a bit of history.
“There are some tiny (Mayan) ruins right in the hotel zone that are not historically significant but thousands of iguanas live there and will come running for tortillas. It’s a great way to pass an hour and inexpensive, too.”
Cancun is known as the gateway to the Mayan world, where you can discover the legacy of one of the most important civilizations in history, which dates back to 2000 BC.
Once dominating a territory that includes the Yucatan, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize, the Mayans developed a calendar, hieroglyphic writing and astronomy. They were known for their elaborate architecture and were masters at understanding the land. They carved cities out of the jungle and built large, underground caverns (cenotes) to store water during dry times.
One of their most magnificent structures is the top attraction in the Yucatan. The Chichen Itza ruins, recently voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, are only a three-hour trip from the tourist zone.
Chichen Itza was founded in 445 BC and inhabited until 1204 AD when it was mysteriously abandoned. Eighteen structures have been restored over the years. In the centre of the ruins lies the largest structure, the pyramid El Castillo (The Castle), which has hundreds of steps that end in huge serpent heads. During the spring and fall equinoxes, the steps cast shadows which give the appearance of a great snake ascending or descending the pyramid.
Two other Mayan ruins worth seeing are Coba, a vast ancient city in the jungle, and Tulum, which has a spectacular setting on the coast. They are smaller and less fully restored but because of their settings and fewer tourists, they have a magical quality.
There has been a recent change regarding Mexico’s ruins that shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of them but is long overdue. Millions of tourists clambering over the ancient stones caused major erosion and after several serious and tragic accidents, the government has closed most of the country’s pyramids to adventure seekers.
You can no longer climb El Castillo at Chichen Itza, but it is still possible to climb the 120 stairs (12 storeys) of the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan at Coba. It is not for the faint of heart however. Very narrow steps and the extreme pitch of the pyramid make for a nerve-racking experience. And even if you manage it well enough, you’ve got potentially clumsy tourists above you to worry about. That said, the views are unbelievable and give a real sense of the scope and grandeur of the ancient civilization.
Experience it now because it is likely that climbing on Mayan pyramids throughout the region will be banned within two or three years.
In addition to the Mayan ruins, Mexico is teeming with archaeological and ecological sites that are internationally recognized, including:
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Over three hundred bird species are found in Sian Ka’an and most of Mexico’s big cats can be found within the reserve. It also offers a unique crocodile adventure, according to McLaughlin. For $200 per person, you join researchers in their boats for a late-night search for one- to three-metre-long wild crocodiles.
n Ria Lagartos, a biosphere reserve famous for its flamingo colony and over 280 bird species. The reserve comprises nearly 518 square kilometres and protects eight ecosystems.
n Isla Contoy is a national park one hour by boat north of Cancun. The island has a natural, undisturbed beach, lagoons and mangroves, and is home to over 150 species of protected birds.
McLaughlin also recommends The Jungle Place, a sanctioned 20-acre reserve where you can interact with endangered spider monkeys and royal toucans, and the Croco Cun Zoo just south of the hotel zone. Originally a commercial crocodile farm, it changed its mandate after being levelled by Hurricane Gilbert. The focus is now on conservation of local plants and animals. Here, you can hold baby crocodiles, snakes and iguanas and feed the deer and monkeys.
Another favourite local activity is heading to one of the eco-parks around Cancun for a swim in the cenotes, which are limestone sinkholes in the jungle. “Hidden Worlds is probably the most famous but there are many scattered around that are open to the public and are far less expensive. I love Cenote Azul and Gran Cenote among others. My five-year-old clamours for cenotes every Sunday,” said McLaughlin.
If you’re looking for a day trip to acquaint yourself with local culture, look no further than Isla Mujeres, or Island of Women. Spanish conqueror Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba named the island in 1517 after finding several female figures close to a temple dedicated to Ixchel, goddess of love, fertility and the moon.
Only 12 km and a 20-minute ferry ride separates the island from Cancun across the Bahia de Mujeres, but it’s a world away. Most people walk everywhere, as the island is only 7.5-km long and 700 metres wide. It’s quiet, pretty and although major resorts have cropped up in the past decade, it still has the charming feel of a fishing village. Where else can you hire a bicycle porter to ride your bags to your hotel while you stroll behind?
If you’re a diver and you don’t want to make the trip down to Cozumel, Isla Mujeres has great visibility and you can encounter the massive whale sharks that congregate here between May and September.
Underwater enthusiasts will also want to see the new sunken sculpture museum off the west coast of Isla Mujeres. The $350,000 project, which will eventually have 400 sculptures at different depths, was created to help divert the 750,000 annual tourists away from the natural coral reefs, giving them a chance to regenerate.
So while it’s easy to spend an entire vacation on the spectacular beach in Cancun, take the opportunity to venture out and experience the wilder side of Mexico’s best playground.
There’s a vast range of restaurants, from street stands to gourmet cuisine. Skip Taco Bell and find a place serving good local food. Most are downtown, in the local markets or in the outlying areas. Some of the specialties of the region include pozole (a red pork dish spiced with chiles), corn tamales, and chiles en nogada (stuffed green peppers in a sauce made from walnuts, cream cheese, and sour cream, and topped with a red pomegranate). There’s nothing better to wash it all down than mango or papaya juice, agua de arroz (a drink made from pureed rice), Mexican sangria or the ubiquitous Corona.
There is no shortage of accommodations in the Hotel Zone, and for every budget. The inexpensive motel-style facilities are in the older section closest to the mainland with the high-priced resorts in the newer sections. All-inclusives are also very popular here which are terrific bargains for families with young children. Many have kids’ clubs where the youngsters can have some supervised fun while mom and dad get a break.
Don’t miss one of the two water parks south of Cancun, Xcaret or Xel-Ha. Both are fabulous excursions, each different, featuring underground caverns, river rides, sheltered snorkelling and dolphin encounters. Every hotel or tour operator offers tours here, or if you’re adventurous catch a bus south for the day. If you can stay until the evening, there are drama, dance and music performances.
For culture, don’t miss the Ballet Folklorico at the Cancun Convention Centre. The dinner show features music and dance from across the country. The price of about $50 includes dinner, open bar, show, tax, and tip. If you want to skip dinner, it’s $30 for the show and open bar.
Some other events to mark on the calendar this year include the Cancun Riviera Maya Film Festival (Nov. 17 to 21) and the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival (Nov. 24 to 27).