The Yucatan peninsula in Mexico is a geographical treasure and nature lover’s paradise. It’s a massive segment of limestone said to have been born out of the same asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. The Yucatan peninsula’s most famous destination is Cancun. Full service resorts in the city ensure travelers never have to leave their hotel lobby, but there are several unique sites along the Riviera Maya that you shouldn’t miss.
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
This is one of the most breathtaking parts of the peninsula, by far. The area is made up of lagoons, canals made by ancient Mayans, a tropical forest, various species of birds, a Maya ruin and different kinds of mangroves. You can easily join a tour by booking it through your hotel or arriving at the visitor center. A boat or canoe will take you on scenic ride through the lagoon, canals and mangrove forest, and it makes a few stops for guests to take in the surroundings and visit a Maya temple. The lagoon has clear water, which is rich in minerals, so be sure ask if you can take a swim. The water is shallow, so you don’t have to be a strong swimmer. A highlight of the tour is the floating experience where you lie back in the canal and let the current float you along. The tour usually ends with a traditional Maya lunch. More details can be found at http://www.siankaantours.org/en/.
Akumal is a small beach community with growing hotel development in the area. However beautiful the beach is, people tend to visit to snorkel with marine turtles in the warm turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. It’s a protected area, and conservation is evident. If you decide to snorkel, you’ll definitely see turtles, an occasional sting ray and schools of fish. Most of the coral has been damaged by hurricanes in the area, but they’re still impressive to see. Booking a tour with an experienced guide is the best way to go. Your tour will include all the equipment you need. There’s a good cantina called Imelda’s Ecocina next to the ecological centre on the beach that serves delicious fried fish. Any colectivos or shared passenger mini vans will take you to Akumal for about 30 Mexican pesos from Playa del Carmen. Expect to pay a bit more from Cancun.
Cenotes, or sinkholes, are dotted all over the peninsula, so a visit to at least three is a must. Cenotes were a big part of ancient Maya life and their importance becomes apparent as you explore these hidden worlds. Kantun-Chi eco-park stands out, as it has four cenotes. You can easily explore one or all four in a day. Each cenote is shaped differently and the limestone formations are unique. Visiting Kantun-Chi is an easy trip from Playa Del Carmen and is inexpensive via colectivos. Taxis are also an inexpensive option, but they will cost considerably more from Cancun. Location details and more information can be found at www.kantunchi.com.
Further down from Kantun-Chi eco-park is the impressive Rio Secreto. This will definitely be one the most unusual experiences you’ll come across. Rio Secreto is a maze of underwater filled caves with crystal clear waters and stunning rock formations, including stalagmites. Upon arrival, you’ll be given a wetsuit and headlamp. You’ll explore the caves with an experienced guide, swim through water and clamber over rocks. It’s a well-organized tour and worth the 70-80 US dollars it will cost you. It’s pricey but a lot more authentic than some of the nature parks in the area. Rio Secreto’s natural setting and out-of-this-world environment will leave you awe-struck. You can find more information at www.riosecreto.com.
Tulum is a sleepy, super chilled beach town with its own dose of hip. Eco-chic is the buzz word here with open/outdoor kitchen restaurants like Hartwood, The Papaya restaurant of the Papaya Playa Project and El Tabano. Good food is everywhere, along with boutique shops selling printed kaftans and bare footed tourists walking along the street. People come here for yoga getaways, endless beach days and views of the stunning Tulum ruins close by. It’s about a 2 hour drive from Cancun and 1 hour drive from Playa Del Carmen.
Ria Celestun Biosphere Reserve
Another exceptionally beautiful destination of the Yucatan peninsula is Celestun, a small fishing village located about a 5 hour drive from Cancun (so it’s worth staying a few nights to explore the surrounding area.) The reserve, which is filled with crocodiles and natural springs, is known for its flamingo population that make this area their feeding ground from November to May. Upon approaching the birds, you realize how closely related they are to dinosaurs; it’s a Jurassic park experience. A visit to Ria Celestun can easily be combined with a visit to colonial city Merida and Uxmal Maya ruins. Make Merida your base and explore Ria Celestun and Uxmal on day trips. You can easily get around with first class coach buses to Merida and then second class buses from Merida to Ria Celestun and Uxmal. All trips are easily arranged from the main bus station in Merida and daily first class buses depart from the main bus stations in Cancun and Playa Del Carmen to Merida. Prices vary and change quite often. www.ado.mx is a useful reference for costs.