Few Mexican destinations can dazzle you with ancient Maya ruins, azure Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico waters and colonial cities all in one fell swoop. Actually, there's only one – the Yucatán Peninsula. The peninsula comprises parts of Belize and Guatemala, as well as three separate Mexican states: Yucatán, Quintana Roo and Campeche. Quintana Roo is probably the best known thanks to the tourism mega-destinations of Cancún, Tulum and Playa del Carmen, where millions flock annually to get their share of vitamin D on brochure-perfect beaches or resort infinity pools. But head just a couple of hours west and you hit Mérida, the capital of Yucatán state, whose colonial architecture and contemporary restaurants are a satisfying change of pace, not to mention the many cenotes (freshwater springs) nearby. Neighboring Campeche state is home to mind-blowing Maya ruins galore. This entire compact peninsula holds wonderful, varied and accessible travel surprises.
Life's a Beach
Without a doubt, this corner of Mexico boasts some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline you'll ever see – which explains why beaches get top billing on the peninsula. On the east coast you have the famous coral-crushed white sands and turquoise waters of the Mexican Caribbean, while up north are sleepy fishing villages with sandy streets and wildlife-rich surroundings rimming the southern edge of the Gulf of Mexico. For the ultimate beach-bumming experience you can hit one of several low-key islands off the Caribbean coast, where life moves at a refreshingly slow pace.
Maya Ruins Galore
You can't help but feel awestruck when standing before the pyramids, temples and ball courts of one of the most brilliant pre-Hispanic civilizations of all time. Yes, those Maya certainly knew a thing or two about architecture and they were no slouchers when it came to astronomy, science and mathematics either. Witnessing their remarkable achievements firsthand leaves a lasting impression on even the most jaded traveler. The peninsula is chock-full of these Maya archaeological sites, a few of which were built right on the coast.
The Yucatán always keeps nature enthusiasts thoroughly entertained. With colorful underwater scenery like no other, it offers some of the best diving and snorkeling sites in the world. Then you have the many biosphere reserves and national parks that are home to a wide array of animal and plant life. Just to give you an idea of what's in store: you can swim with whale sharks, observe crocodiles and monkeys, help liberate newborn sea turtles, and spy hundreds upon hundreds of bird species in mangroves and jungles.
Culture & Fun
For those who need more than just pretty beaches and ancient ruins, you'll be glad to know that cultural and recreational activities are plentiful in the Yucatán. On any given day you may come across soulful dance performances, free concerts, interesting museums and art shows – especially in Mérida, the peninsula's cultural capital. For some fun in the sun, the Yucatán is one big splash fest after another, with thousands of underground natural pools (cenotes), parks with subterranean rivers and all kinds of thrilling boat tours.
Why We Love Cancún, Cozumel & Yucatán
By Ray Bartlett and John Hecht, Writers
So you think you know what to expect in the Yucatán? Sure, there are oceans that are many shades of blue, long stretches of pearly white sand and chlorophyll green jungles. Plus outdoor fun: swimming in a limestone sinkhole, diving in coral reefs, exploring ancient ruins. But the one thing hard to imagine is the hospitality. Yucatecans are among the friendliest and warmest people around. They welcome visitors and proudly show off their regional cuisine and culture. While you might come for history and a beach, you'll leave with a lot more.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Yucatán Peninsula.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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. 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. 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 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. 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.
You don't have to leave the Zona Hotelera to find Mayan culture in Cancún. Before the beach umbrellas, resorts, banana boats and Spanish conquistadors arrived, San Miguelito was a thriving city, a strategically placed trading center that controlled large parts of the present-day Zona Hotelera and beyond. Wandering the ruins is one of the top things to do in Cancún, and it's well worth dragging yourself away from the beach to explore. San Miguelito today is a relatively small Mayan archaeological site, but there’s still something special about the ruins here, not least the juxtaposition of ancient structures with modern resort towers peeking out from behind the trees. Strolling under the thick jungle canopy, and passing remnants of residential platforms, palace-like edifices, and even a three-story pyramid, you can begin to imagine what life might have been like in this important coastal city. It's a great primer before visiting more imposing ruins dotted around the Yucatán peninsula. Paired with a visit to the impressive onsite Museo Maya de Cancún, home to one of the region’s most important collections of Mayan artifacts, a trip to San Miguelito is a thought-provoking reminder of the people who walked these beaches before tourists and colonizers; it may even change the way you look at Cancún today. San Miguelito History A flourishing maritime community for many centuries, San Miguelito peaked between CE 1200 and 1350, when it was one of the most powerful settlements on the island of Cancún, growing to include the nearby site of El Rey. Today, the Zona Hotelera’s main boulevard divides the two archaeological sites. Access to both the Caribbean and Laguna Nichupté helped make San Miguelito a strategic port and regional powerhouse. Yet, for reasons unknown, San Miguelito declined rapidly in the 14th century. The site was abandoned soon after the arrival of the Spanish in the mid-1500s, its last remaining population decimated by European diseases. San Miguelito remained virtually untouched until the early 1900s when American archaeologists Thomas Gann and Samuel Lothrop visited and created the first modern-day descriptions and site maps. The Mexican government only started excavating and restoring the site in the 1970s and work continues today. Meaning of San Miguelito San Miguelito means ‘little Saint Michael’, a reference to the name of the coconut ranch that operated on the site from 1950 to 1970. The original name of the Mayan city remains unknown, though Nizuc is often mentioned as the pre-Spanish name for the promontory on which Cancún now stands. How to navigate San Miguelito The entrance to San Miguelito is through the contemporary Museo Maya de Cancún. Passing through the museum’s stark white lobby and into its gardens, you’ll find a winding jungle path that leads to the archaeological site. The ruins themselves sit on the west side of the 80-hectare property. The site is divided into four groupings: North Complex, Chaak Palace Grouping, Dragon Complex and South Complex. A pleasant path connects them in a north-south line, shaded by towering trees and thick tropical plants. Starting at the first juncture in the path, turn right (north) to the North Complex, then double-back to see the Chaak Palace Grouping, Dragon Complex and South Complex. To exit, head back the way you came. San Miguelito is small - most people find an hour is plenty of time to visit it. San Miguelito’s Principal Groupings The North Complex was a residential area, with five raised platforms serving as foundations for thatch-roofed homes. Although the houses themselves have long since disappeared, more than 20 gravesites were found beneath the foundations; it was common practice among the ancient Maya to bury loved ones under family homes. Look for the two circular enclosures, thought to have been used for food preparation and storage. The structures in the Chaak Palace Grouping served administrative functions. The most intact edifice is the namesake palace, which sits on the north side of a small plaza. An impressive 30-meters-long, it has well-preserved walls and 17 columns that once held up a flat wooden roof, a Mayan architectural feature also found at Tulum and Xel-Há, and an indicator of the strong ties among these coastal communities. If you look closely, you’ll see original stucco on some of the columns. The main stairway also contains stone etchings of Chaak, the Mayan god of rain. The Dragon Complex is made up of several small structures, mostly alters, shrines and residential platforms that have not yet been fully excavated or restored. The most significant finding is a wall with remnants of a mural depicting fish and turtles – look for it under a protective awning. This grouping was named after two stone sculptures that were found nearby during the construction of the main boulevard along the Zona Hotelera. The South Complex is the most impressive grouping of the site. Arranged around a central plaza are several residential platforms, altars and an east-facing palace with interior columns and two chultuns (stone cisterns used to catch rainwater). Just south of the palace is San Miguelito’s imposing pyramid, an 8m-tall structure crowned by a temple; its stairway faces south towards the El Rey ruins further along the strip. Things you should know There are no tour guides available onsite, so you'll need to explore under your own reconnaissance. Placards describe the importance and function of the site’s main structures, in Spanish and English. 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. Bring insect repellent, especially for late afternoon visits, when mosquitoes are most active. Tickets and other practicalities Admission to San Miguelito Ruins costs M$80, which includes access to the adjoining Museo Maya de Cancún. Tickets can only be purchased onsite. The ruins are open year-round Tuesday to Sunday; the last entry is at 4:30pm. How to get to San Miguelito The San Miguelito site is in the Zona Hotelera in the same complex as the Museo Maya de Cancún, near the Omni hotel complex. The R-1, R-2 and R-27 buses (M$12) stop in front. Taxis also are easy to flag down in Cancún–just agree upon a price before getting in. Parking at the museum is free but the small lot often fills up by mid-morning. If there are no spots, 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 ruins. Finally, if you’re staying nearby, consider walking; the Zona Hotelera is lined with sidewalks, though there's not a lot of shade.
Unfolding from the base of a mild seaside bluff, Playa Delfines is one of the most scenic beaches in Cancún. A languid stretch of sand with turquoise waves and endless views, it’s the only beach in the Zona Hotelera without the backdrop of a high-rise hotel. It feels worlds apart from Cancún’s DJ-driven beach clubs and poolside drink fests. Instead, this is a locals’ favorite, where a picture perfect beach day can be found under a palapa (thatched-roof shade) with traditional Mexican eats, and surfers and sandcastlers alike sharing the sand and sea. Meaning of Playa Delfines Playa Delfines means “Dolphin Beach.” It was named after the pods of dolphins that were once regularly seen here. Today, dolphin sightings are rare; your best chance of spotting one is in the early morning from the beach’s lookout platform called “El Mirador,” also a local nickname for the beach. The view Playa Delfines is known for its panoramic views of Cancún: turquoise waters tipped in white surf, a ribbon of tawny sand and the city’s high-rise resorts off in the distance. The best view is from El Mirador. Look for the huge block-lettered “Cancún” sign in front of it – a choice spot for pics. The beach Playa Delfines is a sloping, expansive beach, with soft, tawny sand and impossibly turquoise blue waters. Found at the bottom of a sandy bluff, it’s the only beach in the Zona Hotelera without a towering all-inclusive hotel on it (or any hotel, for that matter), making it especially popular with locals and independent travelers. Rows and rows of free palapas and a small playground distinguish it from Cancún’s other beaches. Be aware that the undertow can be quite strong at Playa Delfines, at times making the water unsafe – heed the water condition flags and the lifeguards’ whistles. If you need a break from the beach, the Maya archaeological site El Rey is just across the street; its weathered stone temples and beefy iguanas provide a striking contrast to the sand and surf. Surfing Though Cancún isn’t famous for its surf, Playa Delfines’ little rollers make it popular with a core group of local surfers. (Free parking doesn’t hurt either.) The water is warm year-round so there’s no need for wetsuits. The waves typically measure between one to two meters (about 3 to 6ft) high, though during hurricane season (June to November) they can reach five meters (about 16ft) – no joke, especially for beginners. Surf schools occasionally set up kiosks on the beach, offering lessons and equipment rentals. If you’re set on surfing at Playa Delfines, book classes in advance with Academia Mexicana de Surf, a premier school led by local surf legend David “Jamaican” Hernandez. Eating and drinking There are no restaurants or food shacks at Playa Delfines. Instead, vendors ply the beach selling Mexican baked goods from trays balanced on their shoulders and baskets of freshly cut mango, jicama and cucumber sold in baggies and seasoned with lime juice and chili powder. Bottles of water and soft drinks are sold from coolers near the stairway down to the beach and in the parking lot. For a bit more sustenance, you can stock up on picnic items, even gourmet sandwiches and self-serve wine, at the Zona Hotelera’s upscale market Selecto Súper Chedraui near Cancún’s convention center. There are several casual restaurants and fast food joints in that area as well. Admission and other practicalities Playa Delfines is a public beach that is free to everyone. It also is one of the most easily reachable beaches in the Zona Hotelera, with a bus stop and parking lot right on the main avenue and a staircase leading down to the beach. More things you should know Lifeguards are on duty during peak hours, around 9am to 6pm. There are public restrooms and outdoor showers, both free to use. Palapas (thatch-roof shade) are available for free, first-come, first-served. Beach chairs and umbrellas are available for rent (around M$200 per set). Parking is free. A police outpost overlooks the beach and main parking lot. How to get to Playa Delfines Playa Delfines is on the southernmost end of the Zona Hotelera, just off the main avenue. The R-1, R-2 and R-27 city buses (M$12) stop here, and are easy to spot with “Hoteles” or “Zona Hotelera” signs on their windshields. Taxis also make the trip – just be sure to agree on a price before you get in. Playa Delfines is one of the few Zona Hotelera beaches with free parking. The oceanfront lot can fill up on weekends but there are usually open spots during the week; overflow parking is available across the street.