What comes to mind when thinking about a trip to Cancun? Hordes of spring breakers crowding the beach with their tequila-induced antics? Enormous all-inclusive resorts packed with pink, sunburned tourists? Peddlers incessantly hawking their wares on the beach while you’re attempting to read your book in peace? Stereotypes about vacation destinations exist for a reason; however, getting caught up in the hype means you may overlook the unique and remarkable experiences a place has to offer its visitors.
Cancun is a certainly a haven for the conventional beach goer looking to lounge by the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, umbrella-adorned cocktail in hand. Additionally, a resort stay on Cancun’s gorgeous beach can be fun and relaxing for both kids and parents alike, providing myriad comforts and amenities that make family travel a breeze. Falling prey to the travel cliches and opting to go elsewhere means you’ll miss seeing the other side of Cancun–one in which nature, ecotourism and history are at the fore. Here are three off-the-grid family adventures near Cancun–you won’t want to miss these during a trip to Mexico’s beautiful Yucatan Peninsula.
Explore the Cenotes
Up until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of a cenote. A bit of research prior to a recent weekend trip to Cancun taught me a bit about these natural wonders. A cenote–pronounced say-NO-tay–is a sinkhole that is created when the limestone ceiling of a cave collapses. The area around Cancun and the Riviera Maya is replete with these natural swimming holes, considered by the ancient Mayan people to be sacred passageways to the underworld where their spirits would reside after death. The freshwater pools are very deep and are filled with crystal clear, mineral-rich, aquamarine water–enchantingly surreal treasures hidden within lush foliage.
There are hundreds of known cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula and thousands yet to be discovered. Some of the pools are entirely underground and visitors can swim through subterranean caves from room to room, surrounded by ghoulish stalactite and stalagmite formations. Other cenotes are partially or completely open to the outdoors with stone platforms from which swimmers can plunge into the pool and tiny fish to observe while snorkeling. Visitors can obtain maps that feature many popular cenotes and some local companies will take travelers on excursions along the Cenote Trail. There are also eco-parks with several cenotes in one area. Some of these offer guided cave tours, which can be slightly harrowing but ultimately remarkable experiences. If you’re prone to claustrophobia, you may want to stick to the sunlit, open-air pools.
Visit the Island of Women
Located a 20-minute ferry ride east from Cancun is a tiny island called La Isla Mujeres–the Island of Women. The island was used by the Mayans as a temple to Ixchel, the goddess of fertility, medicine and the moon. Once thought to be a place where Caribbean pirates sought refuge, the island was later given its name by the Spanish for the many stone statues of the female goddess they discovered around the island.
Today Isla Mujeres is a bustling spot for day trippers. Passenger ferries drop visitors on the island’s north end, a short walk from its famed Playa Norte. Much of the action takes place on this side of the island and the main pedestrian drag, Avenida Hidalgo, is lined with shops selling traditional Talavera-style ceramics (I can’t speak to its authenticity, but I did come home with a pretty bowl) as well as every variety of souvenir tchotchke. An abundance of eateries are also sprinkled throughout the “downtown” area’s little streets, and a cold beer or margarita is always close at hand.
For some off-the-beaten path exploration, the best way to get around the island is a golf-cart rental. I’m a big fan of renting bikes when our family travels, and Isla, being only 5-miles long and 1/2-mile wide, not to mention pretty flat, seemed like it would lend itself perfectly to cycling. Still, the two short taxi rides I took convinced me that biking around Isla wouldn’t be the safest option for kids. There are numerous cart rental joints steps away from the ferry terminal and carts rent for 1/2 and full days.
Once you’ve got your own wheels, the island is yours to explore. A great place to visit with kids is Tortugranja, the island’s sea turtle hatchery and refuge. Run by a division of the Mexican government, the turtle farm works to release rescued hatchlings into the wild and care for injured adults. A sandy area is home to protected nests as well. A small donation admits you to the facility where visitors can learn all about these endangered beauties and the conservation efforts involved in protecting them.
Swim with the Whale Sharks
There’s been plenty of controversy over the ethics behind resorts, theme parks and tour companies that offer dolphin swim experiences. Fortunately, although there are dolphin encounters in and around Cancun, visitors have an alternative to getting into the water with captive cetaceans. Whale sharks are the biggest fish, and sharks, in the world. They are gentle creatures and are, for the most part, solitary by nature. In contrast, during the summer months from June through September, the area just north of Isla Mujeres attracts a huge number of whale sharks gathering together to enjoy the plankton-rich waters.
The growing ecotourism industry, including one involving whale shark swims, has been beneficial in protecting sharks from being hunted and mutilated for their fins. Swimming with the sharks can be an incredible experience; however, it is important to choose your tour operator wisely. Ceviche Tours, based out of Isla Mujeres, is committed to sustainable shark tourism, which focuses on conservation and education rather than entertainment.
Taking part in these adventures during your next trip to beautiful Cancun ensures that you’ll spend less time surrounded by Cuervo shots and thongs and a lot more time immersed in the natural beauty and culture of this fascinating city. Of course, enjoying a margarita and a delicious bowl of guacamole by your resort’s pool, a view of the white sand and sea stretched out in front of you, is the perfect way to end a day of unplugged adventure.