If you can pry yourself away from the sandy beaches that line the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, you can go back in time to the Mayan ruins, swim alongside giants of the sea, hop between uninhabited islands, and discover villages that tourism forgot.
Swim with whale sharks off Isla Contoy
Growing to an average length of 65 feet, it’s safe to say that you’ll never get closer to such an enormous fish. It’s only when you’re swimming alongside these friendly giants that you get a sense of their magnitude. As filter feeders, whale sharks move at a slow pace to the surface while gliding through the waters surrounding the beautiful Isla Contoy, now a dedicated national park.
Explore an ancient cave system
When it comes to the region’s most photogenic spots, you might be surprised at how beautiful Mexico can be 30 feet underground. The Rio Secreto is a recently discovered network of caves that winds seven miles under Playacar. After donning a wetsuit, you can follow a guide along tunnels through freshwater rivers, into enormous caverns covered in thousands of stalactites.
Discover Mayan history at Chichén Itzá
For a heavy dose of history, head into the center of the Yucatán Peninsula to this spectacular Mayan ruin. The stepped pyramids, temples, columned arcades, and other stone structures reveal a lot about the lost civilization’s vision of the universe. It’s a magical place but does get busy, so we recommend arriving early in the morning.
Charter a yacht and island hop
If you thought beach life couldn’t be more relaxing than sunbathing along the quiet stretches of sand, try spending a week on a luxury yacht along the Riviera’s northern coast. The coral beaches of Isla Mujeres are a good starting point, and the quiet island life sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the voyage. From here, it’s onto Isla Holbox, before dropping anchor for unrivalled snorkeling around Isla Contoy.
Spot a jaguar at Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Keep your binoculars ready as you tour the mangroves, marshes, and jungles of one of the nation’s largest biosphere reserves. While birdwatchers will have the opportunity to observe up to 300 species, you can also expect a sighting of the elusive jaguars that live among the trees. There are also healthy populations of crocodiles, howler monkeys, pumas, black iguanas, and many other thriving species.
Scuba with families of rare green turtles
The reefs surrounding the Akumal Bay are popular feeding grounds for hundreds of endangered green turtles. While certain areas are closed to the public, many guided scuba tours take you as close as possible to the protected area. The water visibility is exceptional and the underwater landscape looks particularly beautiful with the early morning light shining through the water.
Taste traditional street food at Cancun’s Parque de las Palapas
While Riviera Maya has become a hotbed of young culinary talent, it’s Cancun’s unassuming street food stalls that really bring out the regional flavor. Every evening, locals head over to Parque de las Palapas to meet friends and family around the low, umbrella-shaded tables to enjoy tacos, tamales torteados, tikin xic, and salbutes. Vendors usually specialize in one regional dish, so be sure to arrive hungry and have plenty of Mexican pesos.