Palm-fringed beaches, chili-spiced cuisine, steamy jungles, teeming cities, fiesta fireworks, Frida’s angst: Mexico conjures up diverse, vivid dreams. And the reality lives up to them.
An Outdoor Life
With steaming jungles, snowcapped volcanoes, cactus-strewn deserts and 10,000km of coast strung with sandy beaches and wildlife-rich lagoons, Mexico is an endless adventure for the senses and a place where life is lived largely in the open air. Harness the pounding waves of the Pacific on a surfboard, strap on a snorkel to explore the beauty beneath the surface of the Caribbean Sea and ride the whitewater of Mexico's rivers. Or stay on dry land and hike Oaxaca's mountain cloud forests, scale the peaks of dormant volcanoes or marvel at millions of migrating Monarch butterflies.
Art & Soul of a Nation
Mexico's pre-Hispanic civilizations built some of the world’s great archaeological monuments, including Teotihuacán’s towering pyramids and the exquisite Maya temples of Palenque. The Spanish colonial era left beautiful towns full of tree-shaded plazas and richly sculpted stone churches and mansions, while modern Mexico has seen a surge of great art from the likes of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Top-class museums and galleries document the country's fascinating history and its endless creative verve. Popular culture is just as vibrant, from the underground dance clubs and street art of Mexico City to the wonderful handicrafts of the indigenous population.
A Varied Palate
Mexico's gastronomic repertoire is as diverse as the country's people and topography. Dining out is an endless adventure, whether you're sampling regional dishes, such as Yucatán's cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork) or a vast array of moles (complex sauces, their recipes jealously guarded) in Oaxaca and Puebla, or trying the complex, artsy concoctions of world-class chefs in Mexico City. Some of Mexico's best eating is had at simple seafront palapa (thatched-roof shack) restaurants, serving achingly fresh fish and seafood, and the humble taquerías, ubiquitous all over Mexico, where tortillas are stuffed with a variety of fillings and slathered with homemade salsas.
At the heart of your Mexican experience will be the Mexican people. A super-diverse crew, from Mexico City hipsters to the shy indigenous villagers of Chiapas, they’re renowned for their love of color and frequent fiestas, but they're also philosophical folk, to whom timetables are less important than simpatía (empathy). You'll rarely find Mexicans less than courteous. They’re more often positively charming, and know how to please guests. They might despair of ever being well governed, but they're fiercely proud of Mexico, their one-of-a-kind homeland with all its variety, tight-knit family networks, beautiful-ugly cities, deep-rooted traditions and agave-based liquors.
Why Isla Mujeres is one of the best day trips from Cancún
5 min read — Published October 21st, 2021
Retreat for the day to Isla Mujeres' stunning, turquoise-water beaches, just a quick boat ride from Cancún.
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Archaeological SiteTulum Ruins
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. 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. 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).
Nature ReserveReserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka'an
While floating down a canal that Mayans dug by hand centuries ago, you see tall grasses on either side and colorful birds flying overhead. You hear the haunting call of a howler monkey in the distance, like you’re a thousand miles from civilization. This is Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, and home to endangered creatures and some of the Yucatán’s most sublime landscapes. A visit here, just south of Tulum, offers a window into the world beyond all-inclusive resorts and glittery nightclubs. Ecology The name Sian Ka’an – Yucatec Maya for "where the sky is born" – perfectly captures the magnificence of this 1.3 million acre reserve. Sian Ka’an is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, composed of a delicate balance of ecosystems : tropical forests and coral reefs, mangroves and savannahs, impossibly blue lagoons and miles and miles of untouched beaches. It is also one of the few places in the world where petenes (tree islands that form in swamps) thrive and cenotes (freshwater sinkholes) are found. Sian Ka’an is home to a brilliant diversity of fauna too: spider monkeys, howler monkeys, American crocodiles, jaguars, pumas, Central American tapirs, four sea turtle species, giant land crabs, more than 330 bird species (including roseate spoonbills and flamingos), manatees, dolphins and some 400 fish species. History Sian Ka’an was inhabited by ancient Maya peoples for over 1200 years, its waterways forming an important trade route between the coastal city of Tulum and the interior. Twenty-three known archaeological sites exist in the reserve, the earliest dating to 350 BC. By the mid-1500s, the Maya abandoned Sian Ka’an for reasons unknown. The region remained largely untouched until the early 1900s when a railway line was built through the southern end of Sian Ka’an, connecting the port of Vigía Chico to present-day Felipe Carrillo Puerto. The train was initially built to support the Mexican military during the Caste War; later it was used to transport chicle harvested in the region. (It was used for just 27 years; vestiges of the original tracks can still be seen today.) Sian Ka’an was protected as a biosphere reserve in 1986, when the Mexican government recognized that uncontrolled development – mostly land clearing for cattle pastures and timber extraction – would have a devastating effect on the region. A year later, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its exceptional biodiversity and its vast wetlands. Today, more than half of Sian Ka’an is off limits except for scientific research. The rest is reserved for sustainable development and low-impact activities like ecotourism. Only 2000 people live in Sian Ka’an, mostly in fishing villages. Excursions Sian Ka’an is best explored with a guide, as there are few trails and navigating the waterways on your own can be difficult. Several regional tour operators offer excursions into the reserve including birdwatching tours and kayaking through lagoons, visiting Maya ruins, swimming in ancient canals and snorkeling along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Full-service excursions typically include door-to-door transportation and snacks but can be pricey, running around $85-$165 per person for a half-day trip from Tulum. Maya-run Community Tours Sian Ka'an is a good option that directly benefits the local community. If you’re on a budget, local boatmen offer lagoon and canal tours from Laguna Muyil near Hwy 307. Tours (8am-4pm daily) last 2½ hours and cost $35-$50 per person, depending on the number of people in the boat. The dock is at the end of a short dirt road, just south of the Muyil Ruins (aka Chunyaxché Ruins). Alternatively, visit the ruins (M$45 or about $2) and take a 500-meter boardwalk trail (M$50 or about $2.50) from the east side of the site to the lagoon. If you have a rental car, you also can make the trek to Punta Allen – a fishing village at the end of Sian Ka’an’s coastal road. From here, Cooperativa Punta Allen runs various excursions ($150 per boat) including dolphin- and turtle-watching tours and snorkeling. Fly-fishing tours ($300 per boat) also offered. While possible to do as a day trip, an overnight stay makes the trip easier and more enjoyable. Eating and lodging Most people visit Sian Ka’an as a day trip from Tulum, which has a variety of accommodations and restaurants. Inside the reserve, Punta Allen has a handful of simple hotels and restaurants (note: there’s no cell service, and electricity runs only a few hours each day); a few higher-end fishing lodges and rental homes also are along the coastal road. Getting there and other practicalities There are two main entrances to Sian Ka’an. The most popular follows the coastline, south from Tulum’s beach road. A huge arch marks the reserve’s entrance where admission (M$37 or about $1.80) is collected and registration required. From the arch, a rutted dirt road runs through the reserve, occasional openings in the palm forest leading to gloriously empty beaches and peeks of turquoise lagoons. The road ends at the village of Punta Allen – a bumpy 35-mile ride that takes about 2 to 3 hours, longer after a heavy rain. Public transportation along this road is sporadic, so joining a tour or driving a rental (four-wheel drive is helpful) are your best options. A second, lesser known, entrance to Sian Ka’an is next to Muyil Ruins (aka Chunyaxché Ruins). Several buses (M$28 or about $1.40) make the 20-minute trip from Tulum to Muyil each day. From there, you can either enter the reserve via the archaeological site or walk down a short dirt road less than a quarter mile (250m) south of the ruins (look for it near an Oxxo minimart). Both lead to Muyil lagoon where you can take boat trips through the northwestern tip of the reserve.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
National ParkParque Nacional Isla Contoy
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. 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. 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.
Arts CenterPalacio de Bellas Artes
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.
Driving down a narrow sand road, the turquoise Caribbean on one side, the glimmering Laguna Chacmuchuch on the other, you feel like you’re a thousand miles from Cancún. But Isla Blanca sits just 20km north of the city – a sublime, pencil thin, virtually untouched peninsula, a hidden corner of Cancún. There’s no traffic, no high-rise hotels, no glittery nightclubs. Instead, you’ll find a ribbon of white sand along the peninsula’s oceanside, empty except for a handful of rustic beach clubs and the occasional beachcomber; and a lagoon on the other side, known for its steady wind and shallow waters that brings fly fishermen on grand slam missions and kiteboarders flipping and flying like giant butterflies. Meaning of Isla Blanca Though Isla Blanca means ‘White Island,’ it’s actually a long peninsula, attached to the mainland by a thin strip of land. Often during tropical storms or hurricanes, the sea crosses over its narrowest section, creating a momentary island – the reason behind the ‘island’ name. ‘White’ is a reference to the color of its sand. Isla Blanca beaches Isla Blanca has over 20km of Caribbean beaches. Most are nameless and gloriously wild but can be tough to access due to long stretches of barbed wire fencing. While the beach itself is public by law, the land between the road and the beach is mostly private and has few access points. A handful of beachfront parking lots (M$30-50) offer access to the windswept beaches; keep your eye out for openings here and there between fenced-off plots too. Otherwise, continue north until you reach a fence blocking the road, about 3.5 km from the start of the sand road. Here, Cielito Lindo restaurant charges M$50-100 per vehicle or group (depending on the toll-taker’s mood) to cross its property to continue north along the road, which opens onto beaches on both the ocean and lagoon sides. The toll also allows you to park on the restaurant’s property, which fronts a beach confusingly called Isla Blanca. Isla Blanca also has a handful of simple beach clubs with random assortments of beach chairs and umbrellas plus menus consisting of cold beer and freshly caught fish. (There are bathrooms too - though many are just porta potties.) Look for hand painted signs along the road, directing you to the beach clubs. The best of the bunch is Cabañas Playa Blanca (fka Pirata Morgan), with a well-maintained beach, palapa shade and even electricity after sunset. Kitesurfing Kiteboarding conditions don’t get much better than Laguna Chacmuchuch, the vast saltwater lagoon along the western shores of Isla Blanca. Its waters are flat and shallow, just knee-to-waist-deep; there’s very little boat traffic and few natural obstacles; and it has strong, consistent winds from November to June. Combined, these conditions make the lagoon a world class kiteboarding spot, a safe place for beginners to learn the sport, and for freestylers to practice tricks without worrying about crowds. Several kiteboard shops use the lagoon, some coming from as far away as Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Ikarus, one of the region’s most reputable kiteboarding operations, has a lagoon-side base camp here plus two launching sites. It offers lessons and rentals and also has a restaurant and a few simple hotel rooms for extended kiteboarding vacays. Fly Fishing Spanning over 150 square kilometers, with seemingly endless islands, flats and mangrove channels, Laguna Chacmuchuch is home to a rich variety of fish species year round – truly, an angler’s dream. In fact, the fishing grounds are so abundant, the chances of getting a grand slam in a single day – hooking a Permit, Tarpon, Snook and Bonefish – are excellent, especially from May to September. From Cancún, fishing trips run around US$400 per day for two people, including guide, equipment, food and drinks. Transportation to and from your hotel is typically included too. Several Cancún-based tour operators offer fishing trips in Isla Blanca; Fly Fish Isla Blanca is a good option with reliable boats, local captains and top notch service. Entrance fees and practicalities Isla Blanca is free. Entrance fees are charged by beach clubs, usually around M$50 per person. If you want to travel the entire length of the sand road, you’ll have to pay M$50-100 per vehicle or group to cross through Cielito Lindo restaurant’s beach lot. Sundays are especially busy with locals though they tend to hunker down at beach clubs and restaurants; the rest of the week, Isla Blanca is virtually empty. Cell phone service is intermittent – plan ahead, if you need a ride back to town. Bring cash; credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere on Isla Blanca. Tips for drivers There are no gas stations on Isla Blanca; be sure to fill your tank before heading down the sand road. Stay on the hard-packed sand road to avoid getting stuck; getting a tow truck to Isla Blanca is difficult and expensive. Stick to the speed limit (60km) – not only is it safer, police do occasionally patrol the road for unsuspecting speeders. Getting there Isla Blanca is a long thin peninsula located 20km north of downtown Cancún. A 9km-long sand road runs through it, petering out about 6km from the peninsula’s northern tip. The easiest way to access Isla Blanca is to drive yourself. From Cancún, head north on Avenida Bonampak, a paved road that passes a string of beachfront resorts before becoming Isla Blanca’s sand road. Taxis make the one-way trip for around M$300 from downtown Cancún, and M$800 from the Zona Hotelera. Be sure to agree on a price before getting in and make arrangements with the driver to be picked up (just don’t pay your return trip fare in advance!). Alternatively, colectivos (shuttle vans) make three daily trips (M$25) to Isla Blanca from downtown Cancún, stopping along the sand road until reaching Cielito Lindo restaurant. The red and white minivans leave at 7am, 11am and 4pm from Farmacia Canto near Parque El Crucero (Av. López Portillo at Calle 7) – look for the ‘Isla Blanca’ sign on the front. Colectivos make the return trip at 7:30am, 11:30am and 4:30pm. If the last colectivo is full (or you miss it), you’ll have to hoof it back to the paved section of Avenida Bonampak, where the resorts begin and taxis stands can be found.
At the end of a sand road is the hamlet of Tankah Tres (aka Tankah Bay), a seaside community of vacation homes and small hotels in Mexico, all facing a picturesque cove. Behind the village, a dense mangrove forest conceals Tankah Tres’ star attraction: Cenote Manatí (aka Casa Cenote). Named after the gentle “sea cows” that once frequented it, this open-air cenote is like none other in the region. While most cenotes are roughly in the form of swimming holes, Cenote Manatí’s clear waters wind like a river through the mangrove forest, the exposed tree roots extending like dark knobby fingers into the water below. At one end, its emerald waters feed Sac Aktun, one of the longest underground cave systems in the world, while at the other, a rocky 500m tunnel connects the cenote to the Caribbean. This meeting of the waters – the cool freshwater and the warm salty sea – creates a “halocline effect,” a blurring of the water that makes for remarkable underwater views. It also attracts a diversity of marine life that’s otherwise rare in cenotes. You’ll see everything from green moray eels and tarpon to blue swimming crabs and guppies. And, occasionally, small crocodiles sun themselves on the muddy banks too. Activities at Tankah Tres Snorkel Most people come here for DIY snorkeling. The cenote’s waters are so clear – visibility is often 20m – it’s almost as if the schools of fish are swimming through air. Snorkel gear can be rented onsite (M$400), but you could buy a set from a local supermarket (the megastore Chedraui, found in Tulum and beyond, is a good bet) . Even with no gear, swimming the cenote can be quite enjoyable, with treeline views, egrets walking along the edges and tiny fish visible just beneath the surface. Guided snorkeling tours (M$600 including gear) are offered onsite too but really not worth the cost since Cenote Manatí is only 250m long and losing your way is, well, impossible. Diving For divers, the shallow profile (8m) is favored by newbies completing their open water certification. More experienced divers enjoy swimming through the mangrove tunnels and under rocky overhangs; those interested in passing through the cenote’s tunnel to the Caribbean – a surreal experience – must be certified in cave diving. Dive trips are easily arranged through Tankah Divers Tulum, located just down the road from the cenote. Alternatively, you can book through a dive shop in Tulum, which provides transportation. Kayaking Kayaks also can be rented here (2-person kayak per hr M$300) but with the cenote often busy with swimmers and snorkelers, there’s not much room to paddle. If you’re set on it, try coming early or late in the day when there are typically fewer visitors. Beach combing If you have time, Tankah Tres’ oceanfront is just across the road from Cenote Manatí. The vacation homes and hotels have effectively blocked off the beach, but buying a drink at one of the restaurants will win you access. The narrow band of tawny sand is pleasant for beachcombing and checking out tide pools. DIY snorkelers will enjoy the water here too; the tranquil bay is protected by a healthy coral reef with schools of colorful fish and the occasional sea turtle – the bay’s southern end is especially close to the reef. What you should bring Tankah Tres’ amenities are limited so be sure to bring a towel and snorkel gear, if you have it. If you sunburn easily, wear a rash guard or a t-shirt to cover up – sunscreen, even biodegradable ones, are not permitted in Cenote Manatí. For ocean snorkeling, consider bringing water shoes – there are lots of rocks as you enter the water. Finally, be sure to have enough cash to pay your cenote admission as well as for your taxi- or colectivo-ride home. Tickets and practicalities The entrance to Cenote Manatí (open 9am-5pm) is on the beach road. Admission is M$150 including a life jacket – a safety measure but also helpful if you’ll be floating or snorkeling. Parking is free and lockers are available for M$50. Come early for a more peaceful experience, and later (on sunny days) for the best underwater photos. Where to eat Tankah Tres has a handful of restaurants, all associated with small hotels. The most popular is the Casa Cenote restaurant, directly across from Cenote Manatí. A simple thatch-roof affair on the beach, the restaurant serves up sandwiches and Mexican classics plus good ol’ Texas barbecue on Sundays, which is popular with expats. For something a bit more upscale (you’ll need a shirt), try the ceviche or wood oven pizza next door at Hotel Mereva ’s open-air dining room. There’s no ocean view, but the meals more than make up for it. If you just need a snack or a drink, there’s a basic market near the cenote. Getting to Tanka Tres Tankah Tres is 10km north of Tulum, off Hwy 307. Colectivos (shuttle vans, M$28) headed to Playa del Carmen drop off passengers at the turn-off; from there, it’s about 0.5km to the beach road, and another 1km from there to Cenote Manatí. All told, it’s about a 20 to 30 minute walk. If you’re driving, turn east at the “Casa Cenote” road sign, between kilometer markers 237 and 238. A guard is typically posted at the start of the beach road – simply state your reason for visiting, and you’ll be waved in. Note: There are several other “Tankahs” in the area (Tankah Caleta, Cenotes Tankah, Parque Tankah) – be sure you’re headed to the right one!
GardensJardín Botánico de Vallarta
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 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. 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
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