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.
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.
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.
The Coba Ruins, built long ago—sometime between the years 500 and 900—lie deep in the heart of the Yucatan jungle. Visitors can rent bikes or hire rickshaws to travel among the knobby paths and thick forest that link the groupings of ancient pyramids and historic sites to one another.
A climb to the top of the Nohuch Mul pyramid, the tallest in the Yucatan, affords visitors a spectacular (if nerve-wracking) view of the jungle, as well as the astronomical observatory and game courts that surround it. From this vantage point, travelers can also check out the Mayan’s version of an interstate highway: elevated roads called sacbeob, that lead from the ruins to other Mayan cities.
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.
Cenote Ik Kil is a tropical cenote located in the Yucatan region of Mexico, just a few miles away from Chichen Itza. A sinkhole filled with water, Ik Kil is one of the most popular cenotes for travelers to the eastern coast of Mexico thanks to its lush surroundings and easy accessibility. Cenote Ik Kil is not partially covered by earth like many cenotes but is instead open to the sky; sunlight streams down and hits the water, making it a bright teal color, from which it gets its nickname: Sacred Blue Cenote. Vines hang down from the rock walls, and gentle waterfalls also make their way down the sides of the encompassing circular wall, which stretches up 85 feet around the surface of the water, giving the cenote a more exotic feel.
Stairs down one side of the rock wall lead to a ledge from which you can get in the water to swim. The water stretches down 130 feet; while swimming, keep an eye out for the catfish that call the cenote home.
More Things to Do in Riviera Maya & the Yucatan
A small beach town between Playa del Carmen and Tulum on the Yucatan Peninsula, Akumal is known for its wide, white sandy beach. Meaning “land of turtles” in the Mayan language, Akumal to this day remains one of the most popular places in the area to spot sea turtles in their natural habitat. It’s also known as one of the most peaceful spots in the Riviera Maya with its clear waters, shallow bays and secluded beaches that attract visitors seeking a more private experience.
From town there are three local dive shops that will take you snorkeling or scuba diving out on the nearby reef, and there are also some clearly marked private beaches and several palm trees that provide refuge from the sun. While here, be sure to check out Half Moon Bay (famous for turtle sightings) and Laguna Yaiku, a protected snorkeling area.
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.
Xplor Adventure Park is an exciting, thrill-inducing amusement park in the Riviera Maya that creates its “rides” from the environment around it. At the park you'll get the chance to raft or swim through underground river rapids with cave stalactites hanging above you; jump in an off-roading amphibious vehicle and explore large underground caverns and jungles; and zipline high above tree canopies. Xplor allows visitors to experience the natural habitat of Mexico and all it has to offer in one place, and there's even an after-dark option to explore the land and river once the sun goes down.<//p>
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.
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.
It’s hard to miss Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida) in Playa del Carmen as it is the city’s main street running through the downtown area. Fifth Avenue stretches parallel to the ocean and serves as both a street for cars and a pedestrian walkway for visitors exploring the city. Fifth Avenue is a popular place to rest your head while in Playa del Carmen as the hotels on the street boast an ideal location that provides easy access to the beach as well as being easy walking distance to shops, clubs and restaurants. The shops that line Fifth Avenue are aplenty and visitors can find local artisan crafts, clothing and other fashion accessories, fine jewelry and cigar shops (you can find Cubans here). It’s also not uncommon to see street performers entertaining the masses on Fifth Avenue.
This minor archeological site on the Puuc Route south of Merida is worth visiting to see its Palace of the Masks, an ornate structure covered with hundreds of masks of the same figure: the rain god Chaac. This repeating motif is rare in Mayan art and perhaps illustrates the importance of water—or the lack of it some years. There are no underground cenotes in this area, so rainfall was the only source of water.
Artifacts have been found here going as far back as the third century BC, but most of what remains was built between the 7th and 11th centuries AD. It was abandoned soon after and was empty when the Spanish conquistadores arrived.
Some of the sculpted elements of the site have been whisked off to various museums, but several low stone buildings and pyramids remain. Since Kabah is in a region dotted with other ruins, it’s usually a quick stop as part of a multi-site tour.
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.
Ek Balam is one of the largest Mayan ruins in Mexico and is what’s left of an ancient town. The ruins date back from 100 BC to 1,200 BC and are remarkably well preserved. Situated about 100 miles from the popular tourist destination of Chichen Itza, Ek Balam isn’t quite as popular as its massive neighbor, making it less crowded and giving you more of a chance to experience the wonder of the Mayan culture as it was thousands of years ago. The focal point of Ek Balam is the 96-foot-tall Acropolis, which served as the temple for the ancient Mayan village. Note the large monster at the entrance to the pyramid; this is said to be guarding the underworld. Climb to the top of the Acropolis for views of the surrounding jungle, and learn why Ek Balam wasn't discovered for so many centuries. Many more buildings are on the grounds and ready to be explored as well. The name Ek Balam translates to "black jaguar," and you can see motifs of the animal on the sides of some of the buildings.
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