Top 10 sights in Cancún and Yucatán

Tulum's combination of centuries-old ruins and a stunningly beautiful setting make it a firm favorite with visitors. Image by Dennis Jarvis / CC BY-SA 2.0 Tulum's combination of centuries-old ruins and a stunningly beautiful setting make it a firm favorite with visitors. Image by Dennis Jarvis / CC BY-SA 2.0

It's 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, an ample offering of ecotourism activities and an abundance of natural wonders. Here are 10 picks to keep you on the go while touring the peninsula:

Cancún

A spring break rite-of-passage carries on year-round in Cancún's high-gloss hotels and throbbing discos. If that's not your shtick, an alternate version of the city beckons in downtown Cancún, where a local arts scene has taken root. Most of the action centers around Parque las Palapas, downtown's main stage for free open-air cultural events.

Tulum

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's also a fascinating 13th-century walled city that stood as one of the last Maya strongholds.

Isla Mujeres

What's not to like about an island where golf carts are the main mode of transportation? Just 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.

Turtle eggs labelled and waiting to hatch at the turtle sanctuary on Isla Mujeres. Image by Tim Buss / CC BY 2.0 Turtle eggs labelled and waiting to hatch at the turtle sanctuary on Isla Mujeres. Image by Tim Buss / CC BY 2.0

Río Secreto

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 around 50 million years ago. A three-hour tour here 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're 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 coral reefs made famous by Jacques Cousteau.

MUSA

These recently inaugurated underwater 'museums' offer a one-of-a-kind opportunity to check out more than 400 sculptures submerged in 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's all part of a conservation effort to draw people away from damaged coral reef areas. Aqua World in Cancún provides snorkeling and scuba tours of the sculptures.

MUSA, the underwater museum, has some amusing exhibits. Image by 2il org / CC BY 2.0 MUSA, the underwater museum, has some amusing pieces among its 400-strong sculpture collection. Image by 2il org / CC BY 2.0

Isla Holbox

A no worries island sitting pretty 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 none other, from mid-May to mid-September, you have the rare opportunity to swim with whale sharks.

Mérida

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's 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. Just about an hour away await the well-preserved Maya ruins of Uxmal.

Chichén Itzá

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.

El Castillo (the Castle) is just one of the many impressive sights at Chichen Itza. Image by  Arian Zwegers / CC BY 2.0 El Castillo (the Castle) is just one of the many impressive sights at Chichén Itzá. Image by Arian Zwegers / CC BY 2.0

Xcalak

The no-frills Costa Maya beach town of Xcalak has managed to dodge the development bullet, but there's no telling how long that will last. North of Xcalak, the laid-back town of Mahahual saw a cruise-ship dock go up a few years back, making Xcalak all the more attractive if you're seeking a remote beach getaway.

This article was originally published in September 2011.