4 Must-Do Activities near Cancun
Updated: May 11
Headed to Cancun? Some adventure-seekers may want to leave their all-inclusive resorts to check out Cancun from under the water. From whale sharks to giant sea turtles, explore the underwater world up close with fantastic creatures. Above ground, don't miss the party boat of your dreams at Xochimilco or a National Park with an incredible "dry cenote" cave system. Whatever playground you like to play in, there are activities near Cancun for everyone.
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1) Whale Shark Tour
Please don't pay an arm and a leg to swim with dolphins or tube through a lazy river. XCaret, XPlor and all the other XPand your wallets options are tourist traps. Don't waste your money. Instead, try nature's swimming pool - the ocean!
Are you into diving or snorkeling and tired of just seeing reef fish? This activity is one of the most stimulating underwater experiences I have ever had.
Starting on a 15 foot open top out-board cruiser, me, my dad and about half a dozen other thrill-seeking tourists set out in the morning for a long multi-mile journey off the coast of northern Cancun. The waves were several feet high and we pounded them wave after wave, battering our tiny vessel.
Exhaust fumes engulfed us after multiple mid-journey engine checks. Wobbling, bouncing with the waves, we needed to reach our destination soon or I was going to hurl. And hurl I did.
Never have I been sea sick before, but as I watched the man in the rear of the boat look on in horror, all my chilaquiles breakfast came surging at him at 15 knots. My only option for reprieve from the sickness was to jump in the water upon arrival where the pod of whale sharks was waiting.
Three or four of these massive bus-sized creatures swam between our boat and a few others out for the same adventure.
The waves were unrelenting but the excitement was enduring. I jumped into the water.
As I caught my bearings and determined which end was up after getting knocked about, the only thing I could do was squeal and jump as if I was a cartoon hopping out of my skin.
A 30 foot whale shark was approaching me directly, FAST. His mouth was agape to ingest whatever snacks surrounded him and I didn't want to be in his way. The gentle beast slid past me without pause, without worry or care that I was flopping about in the water beside him.
We swam together for about 20 minutes. The colossal creature never leaving my memory. I snapped a couple pics with an underwater camera but he moved too fast to get anything good!
Need to know:
You need to be a strong (or at least decent) swimmer for this activity. This is for snorkeling only, not diving, since they swim towards the tops of the water. Check the right time of year to see them. I went for the 4th of July!
After your swim, the boat takes you over to Isla Mujeres where they whip up fresh ceviche served on a boogie board table in crystal clear waters. Wash it down with a beer and you're on top of the world!
Where To Book A Whale Shark Tour:
The top two rated tours on Viator include:
Whale Shark Tour from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Riviera Maya
Small-Group Eco Friendly: Whale Sharks tour in Cancun & Riviera Maya
I highly recommend making a booking in advance for these tours.
2) Snorkeling with Turtles at Akumal
Akumal isn't well advertised to tourists, but somehow in my searches I stumbled across this gem of a day trip, between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. You can rent a car, take a shared shuttle, a taxi, or arrange for a private driver to get there. This likely to sell out tour gives you a trifecta of fun in one day - featuring a tour of Tulum ruins, snorkeling with the turtles at Akumal, and a swim in a cenote. Including lunch and transportation, this is a huge deal for a fun day exploring away from Cancun.
Once at Akumal, you'll be greeted by the typical overcrowded beach scene, so get there early. There is a little dive shop on site where you can arrange to rent snorkel gear, if you haven't opted into a formal tour. From there, all you do is wade into the clear turquoise waters and bend over.
About waist deep you can stick your face in and see the sublime sea turtles swim harmoniously by while tourists with GoPros and underwater disposable camera can snap a pic or two. It's great fun and something a little off the beaten path.
When you are done swimming, take a 20 minute walk down the road to La Buena Vida. It's a restaurant on the sand overlooking the water. Very casual, you can dine barside on a swing, feet in sand around regular tables and chairs, or for a bit of extra fun you can dine in one of their treehouses! When you need more beer, they use a pulley system to rope a bucket of beer up to you!
I recently described this to a friend as "a drunk fest night time boat ride extravaganza not to be missed",
"It's like a lazy river of lights and mariachi and tequila and tacos!"
I could try to explain Xochimilco (zoh-chee-milk-oh) as a more elegant, fantastical, Coco-esque journey through a river into the dark wilds of the Yucatan, but let's be honest, it's a fiesta on a boat.
Based on the traditional boat ride (trajinera) through Floating Gardens of Xochimilco in Mexico City, this is by far one of the coolest very touristy things you could do in the Yucatan, but you can't bring your kids.
Once you arrive, you are escorted to your boat - each has different names. From there, throw your inhibitions to the wind. You'll be served nachos and salsas, beer, tequila and mixers, and eventually a mixed platter of make your own tacos.
The boat ride takes you on a leisurely float down a man-made path, stopping from time to time for entertainment breaks. You'll see mariachi bands, dancers and many other fun surprises. Drink, eat, and get sloppy. See if you can arrange a bus or taxi for the ride back to your hotel, or it is advisable just to pre-book a transportation tour and ticket combo.
4) Aktun Chen
Aktun Chen is a National Park in Mexico offering a myriad of options for those who seek it out. For my family, we really enjoy 'dry caves'. In the Yucatan you have cenotes for swimming and then cenotes that are dry.
The dry caves are more like what you would expect of a cavern tour like Mammoth Caves with stalactites, stalagmites, the waterfalls, the Jesus face illuminated on the cave wall, the bacon shaped formations, the bats, and all the other classic things tour guides point out on cave tours.