With approximately 3.3 million annual visitors, Cancun ranks among the most popular travel destinations in the world. But while this paragon of sun/sand/surf tourism may appeal to the mainstream masses, savvy adventurers know that Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula also offers more than its fair share of amazing outdoor attractions. And the best part is that most of these gems are located within a two-hour drive of Cancun’s bustling Hotel Zone.
Akumal Beach Resort (Photo: Jennifer Feuchter/Flick)
Located 60 miles south of Cancun between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, this tiny resort community’s name means “place of the turtles” in the Mayan language. To understand how the area earned its moniker, hit the secluded white-sand beach at Half Moon Bay, which offers exceptional swimming with sea turtles and rays in crystal-clear waters right offshore. For a nominal fee, you can visit the privately owned Yal-ku Lagoon, where fresh water and salt water combine to create a nutrient-rich habitat for a colorful array of marine life. Protected from the ocean by limestone rocks, it’s a tranquil paradise for snorkelers.
Cancun Underwater Museum (Photo: 2il org/Flickr)
Part art exhibit, part marine conservation initiative, this innovative attraction was conceived by artist Jason deCaires Taylor as a way to allay damage caused by the 150,000 people who swim Mexico’s Mesoamerican Reef (the second-largest reef system in the world) every year. Taylor makes lifelike statues of local people from marine-grade materials, sinks them at depths of 15 to 30 feet, and then grafts coral nubbins on them to create gorgeous artificial reef art. There are nearly 500 statues in two sections now (one near Cancun, the other in Isla Mujeres), with plans to install thousands more in years to come.
Cenote in the Yucatan Penninsula (Photo: Rodolfo Araiza G./Flickr)
Cenotes are subterranean sinkholes that were considered sacred by the Mayan people, who used them for sacrificial offerings and believed them to be passageways to the afterlife. Many of the Yucatan Peninsula’s ancient civilizations were built around these natural freshwater pools, which continue to be the region’s primary source for drinking water. Cenotes such as Dos Ojos (in Tulum), Ik Kil (near Pisté) and the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza are also popular swimming spots, while cave divers are attracted to the Sac Actun river system, which stretches over a hundred miles underground.
Want to immerse yourself in Mayan history but avoid the crowds at Tulum and Chichen Itza? Head to this lesser-known pre-Columbian site two hours southwest of Cancun, which is estimated to have been home to 50,000 people by the seventh century. The ancient city is expansive enough to make renting bikes a good idea, and archaeologists estimate that 80 percent of it remains to be excavated. Highlights include two pok-ta-pok ball courts and several pyramids, the most impressive of which — Ixmoja — is the tallest in the Yucatan Peninsula, at 138 feet. Climbing its 130 steep steps is a pulse-pounding adventure that reveals stunning views.
Bird Island (Photo: Doug Finney/Flickr)
Isla Pájaros (Bird Island)
It’s a two-hour drive and a 20-minute ferry ride to get to Isla Holbox from Cancun. But more and more nature lovers are being drawn to this sleepy, remote fishing village, and Bird Island is one of its main attractions. Located on the picturesque Yalahau lagoon, the island is protected by mangrove swamps and cactus, with just two observation points and walkways. It’s a birdwatcher’s paradise, with over 150 species including cormorants, ducks, reddish egrets, frigate birds, herons, and pelicans taking sanctuary. Visit in summer or early autumn for spectacular flamingo sightings.
Punta Laguna Nature Reserve (Photo: eric molina/Flickr)
Founded by Mayan brothers Domingo, Ignacio, and Marco Canul back in the 1950s, this community-run ecotourism attraction near Coba was declared a national protected area in 2002. Its official Mayan name, Otoch Ma’ax Yetel Kooh (the home of the spider monkey and the puma), offers a taste of the wildlife that can be found on its 5,367 hectares, along with howler monkeys, white-tailed deer, the raccoon-like coatis, and numerous tropical bird species. There are also hiking trails, ziplines, rappelling, canoeing, and a small archaeological site whose ruins date back to the Late Preclassic period (300 BC-250 AD).
Rio Secreto (Photo: Courtesy of Rio Secreto Reserva Natural/Facebook)
This nature reserve, located three miles from Playa del Carmen, is a remarkable system of caves carved out over the centuries by an underground river. Stretching about eight miles, with 15 natural outlets, it’s the longest partially flooded cave on the Yucatan Peninsula. But what makes Rio Secreto special is the fact that it’s semisunken, which means you can hike or float through most of it. The guided eco-tours are kept small, with different tours going to different sections of the caves. But if you’re afraid of the dark, beware: A highlight includes floating in a pitch-black cave, savoring the sounds of the underground.
WATCH: Diving in a Sacred Mayan Cave: