Things to Do in Riviera Maya & the Yucatan
Kept hidden from the public until 2007 and strictly adhering to its sustainable tourism model, the evocatively named Rio Secreto, or “Secret River,” is deserved of its reputation as the best kept secret of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. A dramatic series of caves carved out by the flow of an ancient underground river, the Rio Secreto is most famous for its large half-sunken cavern, one of few in the world that is accessible to non-professional divers.
Venturing underground, visitors can explore the eerie passageways that once formed part of the mysterious, yet much talked about Mayan underworld; swim in the fabled underground river; and admire the unique natural caves, dripping with stalactites, stalagmites and strikingly colored mineral formations.
Beautiful, underwater sinkholes flooded with light, the cenotes of Riviera Maya, Mexico are a natural wonder and a sight to behold. Though there are many throughout the region, Casa Cenote is uniquely located in a mangrove forest close to the sea. It can be thought of as almost an underwater jungle with its algae-covered mangrove forest and soft sands.
As it is mostly open to the sky, it is less enclosed than neighboring cenotes and often has more aquatic life to see. The cenote connects one of the world’s largest underwater river systems to the ocean. Because of this, it is possible to see both fresh and saltwater fish. The unique combination of clear freshwater conditions and underwater caverns and formations make this an interesting spot for scuba divers and snorkelers. Streams of light penetrating the water from the surface add to the beauty and intrigue visible from both above and below.
Find everything you need for a relaxing and fun day at the beach with an all-inclusive day pass to Mr. Sanchos Beach Club Cozumel. Situated on a private, 1,500-foot-long stretch of white-sand beach, Mr. Sanchos has all the usual beach amenities like umbrellas and lounge chairs, as well as an infinity pool and an Aqua Park with inflatable climbing structures and water trampolines. Day passes include all you can eat and drink from the restaurant and bar, and there are abundant activities available for an additional fee, including parasiling, ATV tours, massages and horseback riding.
Cancun’s best, most festive and most authentic fiesta tradition, Xoximilco, is an eponymous throwback and homage to the floating gardens and canals of Mexico City’s famous neighbor-hood Xochimilco. Xochimilco means “field of flowers,”and this Cancun attraction brings all the beauty and splendor of the floating gardens of Mexico City to the tropical paradise of Cancun. Today, a visit to Xoximilco entices guests with Central American traditions like floating flower-strung boats, live music serenades and some of the best food in Cancun.
Close your eyes and think of Cancun; now what exactly do you see? More than likely it’s white sand beaches in front of large resorts, where cobalt waters lap the shore and palm trees sway in the breeze. For as enticing as beaches and water might be, there’s an entirely different side of Cancun that offers just as much excitement; a place where you swim in turquoise waters set miles inside of the jungle, and literally race through the jungle canopy to feel the breeze in your hair.
At the famous Selvatica Eco-Park, an hour south of Cancun, visitors can infuse their beach vacation with a shot of jungle adrenaline. Clip into a harness and race through the trees on the 12-line zipline adventure, or test your nerves on a bungee swing while staring out over the forest. If you’d prefer that a motor generate the speed—rather than regular old gravity—crank the throttle of an ATV while splashing through dirt and mud.
One of the most popular dives in all of Cozumel, Paradise Reef proudly lives up to its name by offering numerous coral heads, teeming schools of colorful fish, and some of the best visibility anywhere in the world. Divers that look closely will spot numerous species of larger sea life such as eels, rays and nurse shark in addition to smaller creatures such as seahorses, boxfish and the delicate pipefish. A great dive for those who are just entering into the world of scuba as well as advanced divers who want to add a little color to their dives, Paradise Reef is one of the best dive spots in Cozumel.
More Things to Do in Riviera Maya & the Yucatan
The Mayans called this breathtaking underwater destination a sacred well. Today, travelers call it a once-in-a-lifetime SCUBA diving experience. That’s because open water certified divers can explore the incredible caves and underground rivers that have been around for nearly 7,000 years. Some 300 miles of connected underwater passageways create what can only be described as a truly natural wonder. Visitors can get an up close look at the remarkable ecosystems that exist only here and float through clear blue waters in a landscape filled with rocky stalactites and stalagmites.
The star attraction of the Cozumel Reefs National Park - or Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel - not to mention Jacques Cousteau's television show, which quite literally put Cozumel on the map - is Palancar Reef. Actually composed of 4 separate coral reefs, it is home to sea turtles, rays, nurse sharks, barracudas, moray eels, lobsters, crabs, and a keleidescope of colorful fish.
Boats leaving from Playa Palancar take snorkelers out to the shallowest parts of the reef, about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from shore. Scuba divers, however, have several world-famous spots to explore. The Palancar Caves are probably the most famous attraction, with huge brain corals and swim-through tunnels. Palancar Horseshoe is another massive formation of huge corals, some partially damaged in 2005 by Hurricane Wilma. Less experienced divers can visit Palancar Gardens, a shallower spot with mellow currents.
Take a break from the beaches of Cancun to explore artifacts from Mexico’s ancient past at the Maya Museum, one of the largest created by the National Institute of Anthropology and History. Inside the museum, visitors can see incredible items recovered from sites like Chichen Itza and Tulum, including the Woman of the Palms, ancient skeletal remains found submerged in a water-filled cave near Tulum. Next to the museum is an ancient archaeological site called San Miguelito, where visitors can stroll among the ruins and gardens.
Playa Uvas is one of the newer private beach clubs in Cozumel, and it is the closest to downtown and the piers. Facing the white sands and the turquoise waters, the club sits directly on the coastline and offers a variety of beach activities to its visitors. For the adventurous, there are snorkel tours, parasailing and kayaks, while those who would rather relax in the sun and feel the tropical breeze can opt for the lounge chairs, a beachside massage or the pool facilities. There is also a full bar and restaurant, as well as a small shop with souvenirs.
From Playa Uvas it is easy to admire the reefs of nearby Chankanaab National Marine Park. Options range from a day on the water in a catamaran to a day in the water scuba diving.
The Island of Cozumel was first incorporated into the Mayan Empire around 0 AD, and was apparently a thinly populated backwater, primarily important as a ceremonial island for women from the mainland. Although 24 archaeological sites have been identified, most are small and as yet unexcavated. The San Gervasio Ruins, dating to around 300 AD, are by far the largest and best developed for tourism, but still won't impress tourists hoping for the grand pyramids of the Mayan Imperial Cities. Adjust your expectations, however, and the sacred gardens of Ixcel, the Goddess of Fertility and Rainbows, are a serene escape. Most of the low, stone structures cluster around a central plaza, which archaeologists suspect was enhanced with wood and adobe building. The main temple, however, was probably the large Ka'na Na building, located close to the cenotes, or natural wells. There are several other intriguing ruins scattered throughout the jungle, all awaiting your personal interpretation.
There are dozens of ways to see Cancun but one of the most entertaining is aboard the Captain Hook Pirate Ship. Spend an evening enjoying dinner served by salty sea men followed by dancing on the deck and an all-night open bar.
The cannon’s fire signals the departure of this famous ship. As the night progresses visitors can enjoy tales from the high sea, as well as a live enemy attack complete with swords and pistols. A ride aboard the Captain Hook Pirate Ship is the perfect way to experience life on the sea without the fear of being forced to walk the plank.
Offering family entertainment that both adults and children can enjoy, the Jolly Roger Pirate Ship sets sail from the Riviera Maya and sails the Caribbean seas while dazzling passengers with swashbuckling pirate shows and hearty food. The ship is a modern replica of the Santa Maria, which Columbus is said to have journeyed on when he discovered the Americas.
The Jolly Roger features four decks and can accommodate up to 240 passengers, with plenty of space for entertainment and dining. Filet mignon, lobster, a vegetarian option, plus a special pirate kids menu are on offer, not to mention the open bar with free domestic drinks. The pirate show is a blend of comedy and adventure, interspersed by dinner, fireworks, and dancing. Expect dramatic sword fighting, exploding cannons, and amazing acrobatics, all designed to entertain, delight, and draw you in to this unique pirate adventure.
Part of the Cozumel Reefs National Park (or Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel) Faro de Punta Celerain, also known as Punta Sur, Ecological Park offers some of the best diving and snorkeling around Cozumel. If you want to dive, go through one of the island's many dive operators. If you'd just like to snorkel, however, you can rent equipment and guides right here.
In addition to the undersea attractions, Punta Sur has broad, beautiful beaches (the reef is well offshore, so you can splash around safely), great seafood, and shady hammocks. If you're up for a some terrestrial exploration, you could climb the Faro de Punta Celerain (Celerain Point Lighthouse), with great views, or visit the tiny Mayan shrine to Ixcel, the fertility goddess, known as Tumba de Caracol. Punta Sur also has interesting wetlands, a magnet for migratory birds in April and May, and home to lots of crocodiles year-round.
Relaxed Chankanaab Park - or Parque Chankanaab - is a lovely and laid-back "eco archaeological park," just south of the town of Cozumel. There are several attractions on dry land, including faux Mayan ruins, pleasant gardens, dolphin and sea lion shows, and good seafood.
The main attraction, however, is the wildlife rich undersea park, which you can explore with rented snorkel equipment. They also offer regular diving (you must have PADI certification) and the Sea Trek Adventure, like a resort dive with a breathing helmet but no certification necessary. You could also swim in a tank with dolphins, manatees and sea lions for an extra fee.
The ancient Mayans believed hidden cenotes were sacred portals to the underworld. Given the dark, eerie surroundings and stalactites dripping from above, it’s easy to see how these subterranean caves inspired the paranormal awe. At Cenote Chaak Tun outside Playa del Carmen, venture inside an enormous cave where early Mayans once roamed, and splash in the cool, almost secret waters that are hidden back in the forest. Unlike some of the larger cenotes on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, Cenote Chaak Tun is still relatively unknown and has half the amount of crowds. Follow the beam of your powerful headlamp into the twisting cave, where the faint squeaks of bats on the ceiling add to the spooky soundtrack. Cool off in the refreshing waters that twist their way through the cave, and hear traditional Mayan tales of the legends, myths, and sacred beliefs towards this mysterious and powerful place.
Less than 1% of the Earth is covered in coral—yet these reefs are home to over 25% of the world’s total marine species. Unfortunately, despite their abundance of biodiversity, coral reefs across the globe are in a serious state of decline. That said, in places like the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park off the island’s southern coast, the establishment of a protected coral reserve is helping the reef to thrive.
In the warm waters off Cozumel’s coast, 26 different species of coral house 300 species of fish. Some fish, like the Splendid Toadfish, are endemic to the reefs of Cozumel—which means that the fish are only found here in these colorful castles in the sand. Hawksbill and green sea turtles are frequently spotted in the marine park’s 29,000 acres, which also encompasses mangrove forests and sandy sections of shoreline.
El Cedral is a small village on the southwestern side of Cozumel and also the site of the oldest Mayan ruins on the island. Spanish explorers first discovered the site in 1518, when it was a center of Mayan life and commerce. It later became the island’s first official city in 1847, andtoday it is home to a small community of quaint houses and farms. Visitors can view the ruins alongside a small church and the village of El Cedral as it stands today.
Most of the Mayan temple was torn down, but a small archway remains. Though it is just a fraction of the structure’s former glory, it is enough to visualize what daily life may have been like at the time of Mayan civilization. In late April, you can catch the annual Festival de El Cedral, celebrating local artists, music and traditions. Year-round there are vendors selling embroidered handicrafts and refreshments.
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