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Why Isla Mujeres is one of the best day trips from Cancún
5 min read — Published Oct 21, 2021
Retreat for the day to Isla Mujeres' stunning, turquoise-water beaches, just a quick boat ride from Cancún.
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Tulum is one of the most visited archaeological zones in Mexico and for good reason: it’s sublime. The ruins sit on seaside cliffs, high above turquoise waters that extend as far as your eye can see. True, the structures themselves are modest in comparison to other grand Maya cities. But Tulum captures your imagination like no other, perhaps conjuring visions of pre-Columbian tradesmen arriving in canoes laden with goods, and the Maya workers who received them, contemplating the same bracing views. History Inhabited as early as 564, Tulum’s heyday wasn’t until 1200–1521 when it served as an important port town, controlling maritime commerce along the Caribbean coast to Belize. When the Spanish conquistador Juan de Grijalva sailed past in 1518, he was amazed by the sight of the walled city, its buildings painted a gleaming red, blue and yellow, and a ceremonial fire burning atop its seaside watchtower. Yet, only 75 years after the Spanish conquest, the city was abandoned, its population decimated by European-borne diseases. For hundreds of years afterward, nature reclaimed the city, and it was unknown to the outside world until the mid-1800s when explorers John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood published detailed descriptions and drawings of it. Foreign travelers didn’t begin arriving in earnest for another 100-plus years, though Maya pilgrims and indigenous refugees taking shelter during the Caste War used the site intermittently. Meaning of Tulum Tulum means “wall” in Yucatec Maya, a reference to the city’s fortifications; 19th-century explorers used the name and it stuck. Originally, the city was called Zamá, or “dawn,” because it faced east. How to navigate Tulum Tulum is a compact archaeological zone, contained entirely within its enormous stone walls. The entrance is on the north side. Starting with the oceanfront structures and walking clockwise through the site, you’ll see it all in a couple hours, longer if you stay for a swim. The exit is through the south wall. Ancient ruins in Tulum, Mexico © Tony Prisovsky / Shutterstock Principal structures The three ramparts (walls) surrounding Tulum are 3m to 5m high, and measure between 170m to 380m long. They served to enclose and fortify the city, protecting the city’s civic-ceremonial buildings, palaces and the ruling classes who lived there. The vast majority of the residents, Tulum’s working class, lived outside the walls. The most photographed structure is Templo del Dios de Viento, a small temple perched on a rocky outcrop, the Caribbean waters perfectly framing it. The structure’s circular base is associated with the god of wind, for which it is named. It’s believed that the roof had a special opening that would whistle when hurricanes approached to warn Tulum’s residents. Templo del Dios Descendente is named after the relief figure of a descending god above the building's door. The image, perhaps the most iconic of Tulum, is associated with the highly revered god of bees. At the spring equinox, a ray of sunlight shines through the temple, aligning perfectly under the image. Sitting on a dramatic bluff, El Castillo is the tallest (7.5m) and most imposing structure in Tulum. Built in several phases, it served as a lighthouse, with a shrine at the top doubling as a beacon to lead canoes to the beach landing. Look for the plumed serpents hugging the pyramid’s corners, a reflection of regional influence of the Toltecs. Templo de las Pinturas was an observatory used to track the movements of the sun. It features some of Tulum's most elaborate décor – now quite weathered – including carved figures of the descending god, stucco masks and colorful murals on interior walls depicting various Maya gods. Maya ruins on one of two beaches in Tulum. © Sven Hansche / Shutterstock The beach Tulum is one of the few Maya ruins with a beach – two, in fact – the ancient structures sitting like sentinels above them. Add to that the seaside cliffs and the impossibly blue waters, and bringing your swimsuit is a no-brainer. The main beach is beneath El Castillo, at the bottom of a steep wood staircase. By late morning, it’s often crowded with visitors playing in the waves and posing on the sand. A second beach, just as lovely, is below the Templo del Dios de Viento. Reachable by a sandy trail, it’s typically cordoned off but is a good spot for selfies. Tours Tours (from M$700) are offered onsite by certified guides who hustle for customers at the visitors complex and near the ticket booth. Tours last about two hours and can offer invaluable insights into this ancient city. Tickets Tickets cost M$80 and can only be purchased onsite. The ruins are open from 9am to 5pm, but the last entry is at 3:30pm. Things you should know Arrive early. It’ll give you a shot at enjoying the ruins before the mass tour groups descend, typically by 11am. Visitors are not allowed to climb on or enter most the structures in order to protect them from erosion. Respect the barriers and “do not enter” signs. Bring a hat and plenty of water. May to September are the hottest months here, but it’s sunny and humid year-round and the ruins have very little shade. Eating and drinking Centro Artesanal Tulum, a handicrafts mini-mall in the visitors complex, has a few sit-down restaurants and fast-food joints. Prices are inflated, but they’ll do in a pinch. You can grab snacks and drinks here too. (There’s even a Starbucks.) Getting there Tulum’s visitor complex is just off Hwy 307, on the outskirts of town. From there, it’s another 1km to the ticket booth and archaeological site – a trolley (M$55) shuttles people or you can just hoof it. From town, taxis charge a fixed rate to the complex (M$100). Northbound colectivos (shuttle vans) will drop you on the highway (M$20) a couple blocks away. If you’re driving, there’s plenty of parking in the main lot (M$180). Alternatively, Tulum’s beach road becomes a pedestrian-only road to the ruins, about a 400m walk to the ticket booth. It’s a popular access point for those staying on the oceanfront (and for those who want to hit the beach after a visit to the ruins).
A white sand beach with manta rays gliding through the shimmering turquoise waters. No hotels. No nightclubs. No roads or cars of any kind. It’s hard to believe you’re just 40km (about 25 miles) from Cancún. This is Isla Contoy: a pencil-like island and oft-overlooked national park that has been a wildlife sanctuary and research area for over 60 years. For a few fortunate visitors, Isla Contoy also is a magnificent day trip, a place to explore, to admire little-seen birds and sea creatures and to get a glimpse of what the region must have looked like long ago. Isla Contoy location Parque Nacional Isla Contoy is at the confluence of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, a short distance north of Cancún’s Isla Blanca. It’s just 8km long and 20m across at its narrowest point. Isla Contoy became a national park in 1998, but it has been protected from development for over 60 years ©LUNAMARINA/Getty Images Meaning of Parque Nacional Isla Contoy Parque Nacional Isla Contoy means Contoy Island National Park. The word “contoy” is of Maya origin but the exact meaning is disputed. Some say it is an amalgamation of the words “Kom” and ‘To’oy,” which together mean “low shelter” – a reference to the island’s shallow waters that have provided refuge to fishers, sailors and pirates for centuries. Others say “contoy” is a mispronunciation of the Maya word “pontó,” which means “pelican” – one of the most commonly seen birds on the island. Ecology Parque Nacional Isla Contoy is one of the most important nesting places of seabirds in the Mexican Caribbean. The island’s dense mangroves and lagoons provide ideal shelter for over 170 bird species like brown pelicans, olive cormorants, brown boobies, red flamingos and white herons. During the winter, over 10,000 birds call the small island home. The island’s turquoise waters also mark the beginning of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second longest in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Isla Contoy’s marine diversity includes over 240 species of tropical fish, crustaceans and eight species of rays. The park’s northern shores also are important nesting grounds for hawksbill, loggerhead and white turtles in the summer months. Whale sharks, too, are sighted nearby between May and September. The island has been protected from development for over 60 years, a big reason for its amazingly rich ecology today. Isla Contoy history As early as 300 BC, the Maya used Isla Contoy for fishing and as a place to collect shells and stingray spines, which were used for rituals, jewelry and small tools. The Maya didn’t construct any permanent settlements on the island, most likely due to the lack of fresh water. The only known ancient structure on the island are the ruins of a Maya shelling station, with fragments of carved shells and simple pottery found nearby. The arrival of the Spanish (and foreign-borne diseases) in the 16th century halted Maya travel to and from the island, and instead it became a place of rest and shelter for conquistadors exploring and plundering the region. By the early 1800s, Isla Contoy was primarily an outpost for local fishers. It wasn’t until 1892 when the explorer John L. Stephens documented the remarkable number and variety of birds on Isla Contoy, that naturalists became aware of the existence the island. Over the course of the next century, ornithologists from near and far visited Isla Contoy, nicknaming it Isla de Pajaros (Island of Birds). Recognizing its ecological value, the Mexican government declared Isla Contoy a nature reserve in 1961, the first in the Yucatan Peninsula; it became a national park almost four decades later in 1998, encompassing 230 hectares (about 640 acres) of land and 49 sq km (19 sq miles) of ocean. Bring binoculars to see the frigates and the other bird species on the island © Maciej Czekajewski / Shutterstock How to get to Isla Contoy The only way to get to Parque Nacional Isla Contoy is on a guided tour from Cancún or Isla Mujeres. The national park limits its capacity to 200 visitors per day, with permission parceled out to a limited number of approved tour operators. These restrictions have served to protect and preserve the national park and its myriad creatures for decades. Excursions Several Cancún-based tour operators offer virtually identical trips to the national park: an early morning boat departure with a quick stop on Isla Mujeres, then open-water snorkeling on Ixlache Reef on the way to Isla Contoy, and finally arrival on to the island where visitors are given about three to four hours to explore its interpretive trails (either independently or with a bilingual guide), climb the 27m (88ft) observation tower or just relax on the beach. There’s also a small museum with exhibits on the island’s habitats. Continental breakfast, buffet lunch and open bar are normally included. Excursions run around US$100 for adults and US$80 for kids; hotel pickup also can be added for a small fee. Asterix Tours is a good option, providing reliable and high quality service. Eating and sleeping There are no hotels or restaurants on Isla Contoy, and camping is not permitted. Except for a few park rangers and biologists who reside on the island to monitor and study its ecosystem, Isla Contoy is completely uninhabited. Tour operators provide food and drink for guests. Admission and other practicalities Admission to Isla Contoy costs US$15 per person, including the docking fee and reef tax. This fee typically isn’t included in tour prices, and is collected when you arrive on the island. Be sure to bring cash; exact change also is appreciated. Things you should know and bring Biodegradable sunscreen is the only kind of sunblock allowed in Isla Contoy’s waters in order to protect the reef and marine life. If you can’t find any, wear a long sleeve rash guard and hat instead. Bring binoculars for birdwatching. Wear comfortable shoes and mosquito repellant for light hiking on well-marked paths. Don’t forget to bring a bathing suit and towel. All tour operators provide snorkel gear.
This fabulous archaeological zone lies in a mountain-ringed offshoot of the Valle de México. Site of the huge Pirámides del Sol y de la Luna (Pyramids of the Sun and Moon), Teotihuacán was Mexico's biggest ancient city and the capital of what was probably the country's largest pre-Hispanic empire. The pyramids The site's main drag is the famous Calzada de los Muertos, a monumental avenue lined with the former palaces of Teotihuacán's elite. To its south is the pyramid-bedecked La Ciudadela, believed to have been the residence of the city's supreme ruler. Enclosed within the citadel's walls is the Templo de Quetzalcóatl, with its striking serpent carvings. Heading north, you pass the world's third-largest pyramid: the awe-inspiring, 230ft (70m), 248-stepped Pirámide del Sol. The avenue terminates at the Pirámide de la Luna, flanked by the 12 temple platforms of the Plaza de la Luna. Nearby are the beautifully frescoed Palacio de Quetzalpapálotl (Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly), the Palacio de los Jaguares (Jaguar Palace) and the Templo de los Caracoles Emplumados (Temple of the Plumed Conch Shells). Teotihuacán's most famous mural, the Paradise of Tláloc, is in the Palacio de Tepantitla, northeast of the Pirámide del Sol. There's an onsite museum to help make sense of it all. Aerial view of Teotihuacán, as seen from an air balloon © Lorena Huerta/Shutterstock History Teotihuacán was a major hub of migration for people from the south, with multi-ethnic groups segregated into neighborhoods. Studies involving DNA tests in 2015 theorize that it was these cultural and class tensions that led to Teotihuacán's downfall. The city’s grid plan was plotted in the early part of the 1st century CE, and the Pirámide del Sol was completed – over an earlier cave shrine – by 150 CE. The rest of the city was developed between about 250 and 600 CE. Social, environmental and economic factors hastened its decline and eventual collapse in the 8th century. The city was divided into quarters by two great avenues that met near La Ciudadela (the Citadel). One of them, running roughly north–south, is the famous Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead), so called because the later Aztec believed the great buildings lining it were vast tombs, built by giants for Teotihuacán’s first rulers. The major structures are typified by a talud-tablero style, in which the rising portions of stepped, pyramid-like buildings consist of both talud (sloping) and tablero (upright) sections. They were often covered in lime and colorfully painted. Most of the city was made up of residential compounds, some of which contained elegant frescoes. Centuries after its fall, Teotihuacán remained a pilgrimage site for Aztec royalty, who believed that all of the gods had sacrificed themselves here to start the sun moving at the beginning of the ‘fifth world,’ inhabited by the Aztec themselves. It remains an important pilgrimage site: thousands of New Age devotees flock here each year to celebrate the vernal equinox (between March 19 and March 21) and to soak up the mystical energies believed to converge here. Tickets and information Tickets can be bought on the day at the entrance for M$75. If you're part of a group tour, your ticket will be included and you won't need to queue up. A day here can be awesome – don't let the hawkers get you down. Bring a hat, water and your walking shoes. The guardabultos (lockers) can store medium-sized bags. How do I get there? Teotihuacán is located 31 miles (50km) northeast of Mexico City. If you want to start early at the site before the crowds arrive and don't want to take a dawn tour, the town of San Juan Teotihuacán, just over a mile (2km) from the archaeological zone, has a few good overnight options, though there is little life around. During daylight hours, Autobuses México–San Juan Teotihuacán runs buses from Mexico City’s Terminal Norte to the ruins (M$52, one hour) every hour from 7am to 6pm. When entering Terminal Norte, turn left to gate 8 for tickets, though ask which gate your bus departs from. Make sure your bus is headed for ‘Los Pirámides,’ not the nearby town of San Juan Teotihuacán (unless you are heading to accommodations in San Juan). Armed robberies still occasionally occur on these buses; for current warnings, search the US State Department website for 'Teotihuacán.' At the ruins, buses arrive and depart from near gate 1, also making stops at gates 2 and 3 via the ring road around the site. Your ticket allows you to re-enter through any of the five entrances on the same day. The site museum is just inside the main east entrance (gate 5). Return buses are more frequent after 1pm. The last bus back to Mexico City leaves at 6pm; some terminate at Indios Verdes metro station, but most continue to Terminal Norte. Alternatively, tours to the ruins are plentiful, are better value for solo travelers than renting a guide alone, and depart conveniently from Mexico City's Zócalo metro station or accommodations. Capital Bus and Turibús run daily minivan tours including a bilingual guide and entrance fee, with or without a visit to the Basílica de Guadalupe. Reservations are required. Top tips Exploring the Teotihuacán site is fascinating, but rebuffing the indefatigable hawkers is exhausting. Crowds at the ruins can be huge. They're thickest from 10am to 2pm, and are busiest on Sunday, holidays and around the vernal equinox; going early pays off. Due to the heat and altitude, it’s best to take it easy while exploring the expansive ruins. Bring a hat and water – most visitors walk at least several miles, and the midday sun can be brutal. Afternoon rain showers are common from June to September. English speaking guides are available at the gates for about M$600 per group. An organized tour with guide from Mexico City can be a better-value option if you are traveling solo or in a very small group.
Wandering barefoot through the contemporary art museum at Azulik hotel, you feel like you’re in a giant cocoon. Nature surrounds you, inside and out: Curving walkways and bridges made of the vine-like bejuco wood guide you past mind-bending artwork, while the undulating cement walls open here and there to bright skies and dense tropical forest. Dreamlike and surreal, SFER IK Museion was conceived so viewers could experience world-class art alongside Tulum's natural elements; it does just that, heightening your experience of both the art and the space. Utterly unique and completely unexpected, a visit here is unmissable. The unusual art musum is the perfect backdrop for peaceful viewing © Marcia Lazzaron / Shutterstock Design The award-winning SFER IK Museion was designed by Jorge Eduardo Neira Sterkel, better known as ‘Roth,’ who also founded Azulik, the luxurious eco-hotel where the museum is located. An Argentinean ex-pat, former visual artist and self-taught architect, Roth created the space as a natural extension of Azulik. And like the hotel, with its treehouse-like villas and restaurant, the museum manages to integrate a boho-chic vibe with a reverence for the land and the ancestral people who have inhabited it for centuries. Walking through SFER IK you can’t help but be impressed by its 12-meter-high dome structure with curving ferrocement walls and swirling bejuco-lined walkways; trees growing out of the floor reach for openings in the ceiling, while giant circular windows look out onto the tropical forest just beyond the glass. Almost more remarkable is that all of it was built without using heavy machinery or even a blueprint, and it employed Maya craftsmen using traditional building techniques. Notably, visitors must be barefoot to enter the museum – a detail designed to force you to interact physically with the spectacular structure and, in turn, to heighten your awareness of all that surrounds you. Thick, round, monochromatic cushions are set out on the gallery floor too, inviting you to sit and take it all in – the building, the works of art and yourself as an integral part of it all. History SFER IK Museion was inaugurated in April 2018. Originally called IK Lab, Roth completed the structure in 2017, but had not decided on its use. That same year, Santiago Rumney Guggenheim, the great-grandson of art collector Peggy Guggenheim, visited the unoccupied space and proposed a joint venture to transform it into a gallery. The two had never met but within hours of receiving the proposal, Roth agreed. Since then, SFER IK has showcased several prominent international artists and attracted countless visitors (and Instagram posts). It also periodically hosts creative conferences and community workshops. A place to be immersed in the art, take your time as you wander through the gallery © Photo Spirit / Shutterstock Meaning of SFER IK Museion Pronounced ‘spheric,’ the name SFER IK refers to the curving structure of its design – there are no right angles, flat walls or straight lines in it. Also, the word ‘Ik’ is Yucatec Maya for ‘wind,’ which is associated with dreamers, the imagination and the creative; and no doubt, it is a reference to ‘Azulik.’ Finally, ‘Museion’ is the ancient Greek word for ‘temple of the muses’ – an appropriate name for a place that seeks to inspire. Exhibits and Programming SFER IK presents ever-changing exhibits throughout the year. The vast majority are site-specific installations, meant to join and interact with the museum’s striking design – there’s artwork hanging from ceilings, attached to the walls, sitting on the cement floor; some are created to be touched, others to be smelled, many just to be contemplated from a cushion a few feet away. The goal: to encourage visitors to be present to the art by making them move around, above and under the pieces. The hope is to inspire visitors to reflect on the interconnectedness of the works of art with the museum, Tulum’s natural environment and the viewer themselves. Beyond the temporary art installations, SFER IK is home to a small permanent collection that includes works by such celebrated artists as Ernesto Neto and Artur Lescher. The museum also hosts a variety of conferences and workshops each year, ranging from symposia on new uses for the sargassum seaweed to ceramics classes for local kids. Note: A second cultural complex, SFER IK – Uh May, opened in November 2018. (Construction had already begun when SFER IK Museion in Tulum was inaugurated.) Located along the road to Cobá Ruins, it’s similar in design and philosophy to SFER IK, but it’s much larger, integrating an artist-in-residence program. The undulating walls mean there are no sharp corners or angles in the space © Photo Spirit / Shutterstock / Tickets Admission costs US$10 and can be purchased onsite or online. Kids under 12 enter for free but must be accompanied by an adult (one child per adult). The museum is open daily, year-round. Things you should know Visitors must remove their shoes to enter the museum – it’s an integral part of the experience. Cell phone photography is free. Any other camera use (i.e. DSLR, GoPro, etc.) costs US$100 per visit. Selfie sticks and tripods are prohibited. Leave your big beach bags at home – anything larger than 40cm x 40cm isn’t permitted in the museum. Getting there SFER IK is located on the grounds of Azulik, an eco-chic hotel on the southern end of Tulum’s beach road. It’s accessible by bike, a ‘Cabañas’ route colectivo (shared van, M$15) or taxi. If you drive, there’s valet parking (US$5) or you can try your luck finding a spot along the road.
Immense murals by world-famous Mexican artists dominate the top floors of this splendid white-marble palace – a concert hall and arts center commissioned by President Porfirio Díaz. History Construction on the iconic building began in 1905 under Italian architect Adamo Boari, who favored neoclassical and art nouveau styles. Complications arose as the heavy marble shell sank into the spongy subsoil, and then the Mexican Revolution intervened. Architect Federico Mariscal eventually finished the interior in the 1930s, utilizing the more modern art deco style. With art nouveau on the outside and art deco on the inside, the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) is considered one of the most spectacular buildings from this era. Murals On the 2nd floor are two early 1950s works by Zapotec-heritage painter Rufino Tamayo: México de hoy (Mexico Today) and Nacimiento de la nacionalidad (Birth of Nationality), a symbolic depiction of the creation of the mestizo (mixed ancestry) identity. At the west end of the 3rd floor is Diego Rivera’s famous El hombre en el cruce de caminos (Man at the Crossroads), originally commissioned for New York’s Rockefeller Center. The Rockefellers had the original destroyed because of its anti-capitalist themes, but Rivera re-created it here in 1934. On the north side are David Alfaro Siqueiros’ three-part La nueva democracia (New Democracy) and Rivera’s four-part Carnaval de la vida mexicana (Carnival of Mexican Life). To the east is José Clemente Orozco’s La katharsis (Catharsis), depicting the conflict between humankind’s ‘social’ and ‘natural’ aspects. The 4th-floor Museo Nacional de Arquitectura features changing exhibits on contemporary architecture. In addition, the palace stages outstanding temporary art exhibitions. Bellas Artes Theater The renovated Bellas Artes theater is itself a masterpiece (though only viewable during performances), with a stained-glass curtain depicting the Valle de México. Based on a design by Mexican painter Gerardo Murillo (aka Dr Atl), it was assembled by New York jeweler Tiffany & Co from almost a million pieces of colored glass. The theater is the stage for seasonal opera and symphony performances and the Ballet Folklórico de México. Tickets and information Admission is M$75 per adult and free for those under 13 or with a disability. Entry is free on Sundays for both foreigners and Mexican nationals. It's not possible to book online in advance or reserve tickets – they must be purchased on the day from the museum ticket office. There are lofty views of the Palacio from the cafe terrace of the Sears building across the road.
For a change of scenery from the beach, head for the tropical highlands of the Sierra Madre mountains and wander the well-curated Jardín Botánico de Vallarta (Vallarta Botanical Gardens), home to one of Mexico's most extensive orchid collections and a fascinating variety of native plants and birds. After strolling through wooded grounds colored with bromeliads, succulents and brilliant hummingbirds, make your way down a jungle trail to the tranquil shores of Río Horcones, where you can cap off the visit with a refreshing dip in a boulder-strewn river. Things to do Nature enthusiasts come from far and wide to feast their eyes on the garden’s colorful collection of native orchids, which can be seen flowering along landscaped pathways and inside a large conservatory. Among the scores of orchid species is Mexican vanilla accompanied by displays explaining how the coveted spice is made. You’ll also come across a fair share of cacao trees and learn a thing or two about chocolate, which has been produced in Mexico for thousands of years and played an important role in pre-Hispanic rituals. Visitors can also get an up-close look at the state of Jalisco’s signature blue agave, aka agave tequilana, the base ingredient for making tequila. For a guided tour of the grounds you can book a six-hour nature-and-culinary outing on the garden’s website. It includes round-trip transportation, entrance fee, lunch at the onsite restaurant and a demonstration on how to make vanilla extract. The website also lists upcoming events at the botanical garden, such as flower and garden shows, birding fests and gatherings with a food or drink tie-in. If you get hungry, once inside the only option is the onsite restaurant Hacienda de Oro. The pleasant open-air restaurant and bar serves breakfast dishes, fish tacos and gringo-friendly fare such as burgers and brick-oven pizza; no outside food or beverages are allowed. Alternatively, on the way back to Puerto Vallarta you can grab a late lunch at a waterfront seafood restaurant in Boca de Tomatlán, a fishing village just 8km (5 miles) north of the garden. Journey into Jalisco – Mexico’s heartland Some of the lush greens of Jardín Botánico de Vallarta © Francisco J Ramos Gallego / Shutterstock History of Jardín Botánico de Vallarta The botanical gardens opened to the public in 2005 to support plant conservation, public education programs and horticulture for native and exotic plants. Formerly a large cattle ranch with overgrazed lands, the property was subsequently reforested with numerous pine, oak and mahogany trees. Today the nature preserve covers some 33 hectares (81 acres) and in addition to its renowned gardens and orchid house, it also features extensive hiking trails and a vitro propagation lab. Founded and curated by Savannah, Georgia transplant Robert Price, the nonprofit receives its funding from donations, admissions and proceeds from the restaurant and store. Practicalities and tips The garden accepts most major credit cards, however, it’s always a good idea to carry cash just in case. Admission is M$200 per person and children under four enter for free. Don’t forget to pack a bathing suit and towel if you’re up for a swim in the river, which swells to its most swimmable level during the rainy season from June to October. Bring insect repellent (or purchase it at the gate) and wear appropriate shoes to hit the hiking trails. The garden closes on Monday throughout most of the year but stays open daily during peak season from December to April. The restaurant area has Wi-Fi. The textured pathways of Jardín Botánico de Vallarta © Larry Satterberg / Shutterstock When to go to Puerto Vallarta Getting there To reach the Jardín Botanico by car, from downtown drive about 30km (19 miles) south along Hwy 200; it’s an easy 35-minute ride. If you’re taking a taxi or a more affordable Uber, expect to pay a one-way fare of M$370 to M$450 from the city center. For the cheapest option, buses marked “El Tuito” (M$35) depart every half hour or so from the corner of Carranza and Aguacate, in the Zona Romántica. Around the botanical gardens On your return to Puerto Vallarta, make the most out of the trip with a stop in the fishing village of Boca de Tomatlán, where you can enjoy a late lunch or access a coastal hiking trail that leads to a string of secluded coves and beaches. The scenic Colomitos cove is just a short hike away and the seafood restaurant Ocean Grill affords sweet bayside views. If you're up for seeing more of the inviting emerald coastline, it’s possible to walk as far west as Playa Quimixto. Another option would be to stop 5km (3 miles) east of Boca de Tomatlán in Mismaloya, where director John Huston famously shot his classic drama The Night of the Iguana. A colossal resort dominates Mismaloya’s scenic cove but it makes for a good jumping-off point to visit the nearby islets of Los Arcos, a wildlife-rich snorkeling and diving site that can be reached by motorboat, kayak or stand up paddleboard. You might also like: Best things to do in Puerto Vallarta with kids Puerto Vallarta's best beaches Top 5 day trips from Puerto Vallarta
Surrounded by dense tropical forest, the contemporary Museo Maya de Cancún is a welcome respite from the beach and buffet lines of the neighboring high-rise hotels. The sleek museum contains engaging exhibits on Mayan history and art, as well as one of the Yucatán's most important collections of Mayan artifacts, most of which were discovered at key archaeological sites in the region. Behind the museum, a jungle path winds through the trees to San Miguelito, a one-time thriving Maya community that is now a collection of crumbling stone temples, dwellings and pyramids. Together, the museum and the ruins are a powerful introduction to the ancient Maya civilization and a reminder of the people who once lived here. The Museo Maya de Cancun added a much needed cultural institution in Cancún © Fabiolm / Getty Images History In 2012, eight years after hurricane damage forced Cancún’s anthropology museum to close, the shiny, new and very modern Museo Maya de Cancún opened its doors (this time integrating hurricane-resistant reinforced glass). Designed by Mexican architect Alberto García Lascurain, it came at a time when Cancún, a city known more for its white-sand beaches and girls-gone-wild party scene, sorely needed more cultural offerings for its visitors. And culture it got, with a sleek museum showcasing hundreds of Maya artifacts found at archaeological sites around the Yucatán Peninsula; it also happened to share the property with San Miguelito Ruins. The museum highlights the regions natural landscape as well as Maya art and culture © Fabiolm / Getty Images What to see at Museo Maya de Cancún Set on a rare plot of intact jungle in the Zona Hotelera, the Museo Maya de Cancún integrates the outdoors into its contemporary design: open-air spaces, floor-to-ceiling windows, views of the tropical forest and glimpses of the glimmering Laguna Nichupté…all a reminder of what the Zona Hotelera looked like centuries ago. Museum Exhibits The exhibition halls themselves are located at the top of a spiraling outdoor staircase, a nod to the snail shell, a Maya symbol representing physical and spiritual birth. (There are elevators too.) It’s a small museum, made up of just three exhibition halls. Two showcase the museum’s permanent collection, which includes over 3500 artifacts, about 400 of which are displayed at any given time. The first hall focuses on the archaeological sites of the modern day state of Quintana Roo, while the second covers the greater Maya world. Multi-media exhibits complement the intricately painted pottery, beaded jewelry, funerary masks and behemoth stelae (stone slab monuments). A third hall hosts temporary Maya-themed exhibits and also is home to the celebrated La Mujer de las Palmas (The Woman of the Palms), a 12,000-year-old skeleton of a woman discovered in a cenote near Tulum. San Miguetito is a ruin set in the Hotel Zone of Cancún © Indigoai/Getty San Miguelito Ruins A short walk along a winding jungle path from the rear of the museum leads to the archaeological site of San Miguelito, a former Maya maritime community that once included El Rey Ruins, just down the street. Access to the Caribbean and Laguna Nichupté made San Miguelito a strategic Maya port, and it flourished between CE 1200 and 1350. The community was abandoned soon after Spanish conquistadors arrived in the mid-16th century. A leafy circular path takes visitors through the 80-hectare site, passing the remains of residences, a columned palace and temple, and even an 8-meter-high pyramid. Small placards explain the importance and function of most of the structures. You can't climb the structures, but viewing them gives you an excellent idea of what the Mayan city looked like© Fabiolom / Getty Images Things you should know English translations are available for most of the placards in the museum and the ruins. Multi-media exhibits include English captions. To avoid crowds, visit before 11am or during the Mexican lunch hour from 2pm to 4pm. Backpacks and large bags are not permitted in the museum; free lockers and a bag-check are available near the ticket booth. Bring insect repellent for strolling through San Miguelito Ruins, especially in the late afternoon. Climbing on and entering San Miguelito’s structures is not permitted. Respect the barriers and ‘do not enter’ signs to help prevent further erosion of the buildings. Tickets and other practicalities Tickets cost M$80 and can only be purchased onsite; the price of admission includes access to the adjoining San Miguelito archaeological site. The museum and ruins are open year-round Tuesday to Sunday. Note: The last entry to the ruins is at 430pm. Getting there The Museo Maya de Cancún is located on the southern end of the Zona Hotelera. There’s a bus stop in front. Take any R-1, R-2 or R-27 city bus (M$12); look for the ‘Hoteles’ or ‘Zona Hotelera’ sign. Taxis also are easy to flag down in Cancún – just be sure to agree upon a price before getting in. Finally, if you’re staying nearby, you can walk to the museum; the Zona Hotelera is lined with well-maintained sidewalks. Driving yourself isn’t worth the hassle. Parking at the museum is free but the small lot fills up by mid-morning. In a pinch, try the free lot at Playa Delfines, about 1.6km south; otherwise, head to the pay lot at Plaza Kukulcán, a shopping mall about 4.5km north of the museum.
Home to a small fishing community, the picturesque beach of Yelapa hugs an emerald coastline backed by jungle-shrouded mountains. The remote coastal village, which sits on Puerto Vallarta ’s southernmost cove, is best reached by boat. In recent years Yelapa has seen an ever-increasing stream of day-trippers turning up, but it reveals a much quieter side after the last water taxi returns to Puerto Vallarta and the busy beach empties out in the late afternoon. An overnight stay allows you to appreciate the town with fewer visitors around and the laid-back vibe makes for a refreshing change of pace from bustling downtown Puerto Vallarta. Boats from above in Yelapa, Mexico ©Whitney Johnson/Getty Images Sleeping Yelapa has some excellent places to stay, many perched on jungle-covered hills overlooking the cove. Accommodations range from budget-friendly apartments and small family-run hotels to luxury guesthouses and wellness retreats tucked away in the surrounding tropical mountains. Rates increase significantly during the high season from December to April and should be reserved months ahead; Casa Vista Magica and Casas Garcia provide good value. Some places have rooms with an open-air setup, meaning you get refreshing ocean breezes but also a fair share of mosquitoes, so don’t forget that insect repellent. Eating and drinking For a small village of just 1,500 inhabitants, Yelapa has an impressive number of eating options. Numerous palapa (thatched-roof) seafood restaurants overlook the beach and river that cuts through town, while west of the river you’ll come across about a dozen hillside cafes, taco joints and family-run eateries serving traditional Mexican cuisine and gringo-friendly fare. Taquería los Abuelos draws praise for its fish tacos served on blue corn tortillas, Ray’s Place does Sunday birria (a local goat stew fave) and Domingo’s grills pescado zarandeado (a regional grilled fish dish), which goes down nicely with a michelada cubana, a Bloody Mary-like beer cocktail. After the meal, look for one of Yelapa’s so-called “pie ladies,” who roam the beach carrying delicious coconut, banana and lime pies on their heads. Pescado Zarandeado (Zarandeado grilled fish is a popular dish served in Yelapa ©Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock/Lonely Planet Sights and activities There’s not a whole lot to do in Yelapa so most people make it a point to visit one of two cascading waterfalls with natural pools. The nearest fall takes just 15 minutes to reach from the beach and it’s a simple uphill walk through town with plenty of signs along the way to point you in the right direction. However, due to its fairly easy access, the Cola de Caballo (Horse Tail) waterfall can get very busy, especially during peak tourist season and even more so when cruise ships roll into Puerto Vallarta. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, set out on a hike to a remote waterfall outside of town. Pick up the trail on the west side of the river and head inland along a path that requires several river crossings. Once you get past the second crossing, the trail is well marked, though you’ll have to do some rock scrambling on the final stretch. Keep in mind that the river may be more difficult to cross during the rainy season from June to October. The hour and a half hike through the tropical jungle leads to a swimming hole with a waterfall, albeit a smaller one than the Cola de Caballo, but with any luck you’ll have the place all to yourself. Bring a bathing suit, hiking sandals, snacks, insect repellent and plenty of water. Both falls can also be reached on horseback. Fannys Restaurant (on the beach) rents horses for outings to Cola de Caballo (US$20) and to the waterfall out of town (US$30). Aside from swimming at the waterfalls and relaxing on the beach, you can keep yourself pleasantly entertained on a stroll through town along hilly paths overlooking the cove, or there’s always the option of renting a kayak and exploring the coast in and around Yelapa. You’ll also find a fair share of yoga studios in the village, but some close during the low season. How to get there Accessible by water taxis or private boats, Yelapa is a 45-minute ride from the Playa de los Muertos pier in downtown’s Zona Romántica. The round-trip water taxi fare costs M$380. The shared motorboats run at least four times daily and often more frequently in the high season. For departure times, inquire at the Yelapa water taxi office in front of the pier. Water taxis also depart from Boca de Tomatlán, a fishing town about 16km (10 miles) south of downtown, where they leave on a more frequent basis (hourly from 8am to 6pm) and are slightly cheaper at M$300 round-trip. Alternatively, you can hire a charter boat to Yelapa, or, if you’re pressed for time, book a tour to the village that makes a diving or snorkeling stop at Los Arcos, a national marine park teeming with tropical fish. Ecotours de México rents private boats and runs wildlife-watching excursions led by English-speaking naturalists.
To the casual observer this little-visited government building holds nothing of interest but those in the know flock here to gaze at the 120 murals tucked away on site. The two front courtyards of the Secretaría de Educación Pública (Secretariat of Education) are lined with fresco panels painted by Diego Rivera in the 1920s. Murales de Diego Rivera Together the courtyards form a tableau of ‘the very life of the people,’ in the artist’s words. Each one is thematically distinct: the one on the east end deals with labor, industry and agriculture, while the interior one depicts traditions and festivals. On the latter’s top level is a series on proletarian and agrarian revolution, underneath a continuous red banner emblazoned with a Mexican corrido (folk song). A likeness of Frida Kahlo appears in the first panel as an arsenal worker. Uniquely, the murals are open-air and not in a museum, but along the passageways lining the working offices of the education department, which means you are likely to ponder the murals all to yourself and can get up close to see every detailed brushstroke. Tickets and information The murals are free to visit but you will need to show a photo ID to enter. The paintings are labelled in both Spanish and English, but since this is a working government site and not a museum, there aren't any other explanatory materials. Guided tours are available if you'd like a full breakdown of the murals' composition. No onsite amenities are available to the public.
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