Headed to Cancun? Some adventure-seekers may want to leave their all-inclusive resorts in the Cancun hotel zone to check out Cancun from under the water. Swim with whale sharks in Cancun, or snorkel curiously with giant sea turtles in Akumal. Explore the underwater world up close with fantastic creatures, then 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 many unique things to do in Cancun for everyone. Here's four to start planning for, and my experiences to drive it home!
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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 Adventure Park 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. This may not be the Cancun underwater museum, but let's call it a living history museum. The whale shark is the largest living fish in the sea, discovered back in 1828 off of the South African coast.
These things are simply, massive.
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:
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.
Note that a lot of people going to Cancun look for lucha libre shows, which can be serious mayhem and party, but that is most common in Mexico City, not Cancun! If you are looking for the party, but want to keep it...you know, a little PG, then Xochimilco is a great and unique thing to do in Cancun.
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.
Besides being a vast underground dry cave system, Aktun Chen also offers a small zoo full of animals from the area including monkeys and even a giant anaconda.
This Cancun cave tour is led in Spanish, but limited English is spoken as well. The tour takes you through muggy, buggy woods so wear bug spray and sneakers.
Once underground you'll see some standard cavern sites and some not-so-standard, like tree roots growing out of the ceiling. A unique thing to do in Cancun, it was very enjoyable and one of the highlights of our trip.
They'll point out different herbs used for medicine in the woods, and even the ayahuasca plant, which is very controversially approached. A Brazilian couple with us told us they drink ayahuasca tea for religious ceremonies and that it is quite safe and reputable, however my knowledge of it is wildly different after having heard the story of a friend from travels who's boyfriend died from drinking it in Peru. In any case, interesting to see in the wild.
Once the tour is done, you are set loose to walk back along a long path with some surprise guests - wild boar, deer and monkeys! It's basically a free range zoo and they walk all around you. Some fencing keeps them corralled, but it was a fun sight to see!
For those wanting extra thrills and more adventurous things to do in Cancun , Aktun Chen also offers swimming and ziplining.
More info: https://aktun-chen.com/
Other Unique Things to Do In Cancun and Beyond
So, for sun-seekers who like to stay at the poolside bar, perhaps consider a day trip while you are in Cancun. These four amazing activities near Cancun are sure to delight travelers old and young, and don't require much effort to arrange. Enhance your poolside vacation with a little bit of adventure and I promise you'll go home with stories to talk about.
And if you are really into adventure, road trips, UNESCO world heritage or archaeological sites of the Yucatan beyond Cancun, consider visiting the colonial cities of Merida, Valladolid and Izamal. Spending a morning or two exploring ancient Mayan ruins at Coba and Ek Balam is a highly suggested activity, and one that you can read about more here.
Renting a car is a great option, and very affordable, but there are numerous tour operators running options to get out and about as well. Whatever you fancy, get out there and see Mexico beyond the resort.