Learn all about Cancun amusement parks plus get ready to explore the Mayan ruins and take a trip to Isla Mujeres. Here is everything that you need to know before you go.
Cancun is one of the best beach vacation destinations in the world offering beautiful resorts, high end restaurants, world class shopping and fun attractions and activities at a very reasonable cost.
Located on the Yucatan peninsula, between the Gulf of Mexico and western Caribbean Sea, Cancun is an adventure of a lifetime with numerous exciting things to do for all ages. Visit the ancient Mayan Ruins, snorkel and dive in some of the most beautiful water in the world. There are all Cancun amusement parks that are all inclusive such and Xel-ha, Xcaret and Xplor that combine fun for the entire family with nature's beauty. The islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres are easily accessible for a day trip adventure. Plus there are the beautiful talcum powder like sand beaches with water temperature in the 80s all year long.
If you like caves and
natural beauty, Xplor is one of the best things to do in Cancun for the entire family. Xplor
is located off of highway 307 about 60 km (37 miles) south of Cancun
and 6 km (4 miles) south of Playa del Carmen. The trip from Cancun takes
about one hour. Similar to Xel-Ha, Xplor is one of the most popular Cancun adventures.
The entrance to all Xplor activities start and end at the "heart" and take you down a trail of underground caves to begin your adventure. There are four main activities, 1) zip lines, 2) amphibious vehicles, 3) underwater rafts and 4) swimming the underwater river. One of my favorite Cancun adventures is to go to Xplor and swim the underwater river.
The zip lines are a big attraction too. Xplor has done a great job at integrating them with nature.
Xplor has 2
zip line trails, one taller and faster, the other just as much fun, but not quite as tall or fast. Hint! - the zip line activities are great fun and the staff ensures
that all safety precautions are followed, however, you need to make sure
that you like zip lines. Once you start, there is no way back and you have to
complete the entire course to return to the "heart". Also,
you will get wet on the zip lines, either from the water slides, needed
to transition from one zip tower to the other, or by the final zip line water landing. This turned out to be one of my favorite Cancun adventures.
There are two underwater rivers that run more than a mile each and are 30 to 40 feet underground. One or two people can paddle on a raft.
Or on the other river, you can swim and walk through the water.
Water depths range from 3 to 7 feet. Either by rafting or swimming, you will gently flow though some of the most beautiful underground stalactite formations anywhere in the world. Hint ! - The water is underground and is not heated by the sun. It will be much cooler than you expect. Don't let the initial shock deter you from completing one of the most amazing activities that Xplor has to offer.
Hint! - Bring water shoes ! They are available for sale at Xplor but you will get a better deal if you bring them with you, not to mention saving time not having to pick out a pair for you and the family.
The per person entry fee covers all activities, all you can eat buffet, fruit juice and soda drinks. Unlike Xel-Ha, Xplor does not serve alcohol due to the physical activities required.
Similar to Xel-Ha, Xplor is an all inclusive theme park that is integrated into nature. All of the activities involve water, in one way or another. Xplor differs from Xel-Ha in that many of the activities are underground.
The amphibious adventure allow you to drive a 4 wheel drive vehicles
through dirt trails, into underground tunnels, through rivers and over a
suspension wooden bridge. This it not one of those courses that automatically keeps you on the tracks so one must be careful....but it is really fun. This is definitely one of the must do Xplor activities.
Xel-ha is one of the top Cancun amusement pakrs if you like the water and enjoy lounging on the beach. Exploring the waters of Xel-ha is one of the best activities for the entire family. Xel-ha is located on highway 307, 110 km (68 miles) south of Cancun, 44km (27 miles) south of Playa de Carmen and 13km (8 miles) north of Tulum. Xel-Ha is a lagoon made up of a freshwater river joining the Caribbean sea. Xel-ha is an all inclusive nature's theme park. One admission fee covers all food and alcohol plus the following activities - snorkeling (including gear), swimming, cliff jumping, kayaking, float down a lazy river and explore caves. Optional activities, for an additional charge, include swimming with the dolphins, massages, sting-ray encounter, snuba and a sea-trek adventure. For snorkeling and general beach relaxation, Xel-ha is one of my favorite Cancun adventures. I make a point to spend an entire day each time I visit. Unlike Xplor, Xel-ha is one of those Cancun adventures that has something for everybody, even if you just want to park yourself in a chair or hammock and enjoy the natural beauty.
Xel-ha is open 365 days a year from 8:30am to 5:30pm (6pm during summer). Facilities include restaurants, bars, lockers, restrooms and showers.
There are very comfortable wooden lounge chairs adjacent to the water
entry points plus a few hidden along the shoreline that are more
private. There is also a lounge area with several hammocks between the
palm trees that are off the main trail. I love to find that special
secluded two chair spot adjacent to the water and under a palm tree
where you have immediate access to the water for snorkeling.
Hint! - For those entering the water, all sun-screen products must be bio-degradable. You cannot bring your standard sunscreens such as Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropics, etc. into the park. Bio-degradable sunscreens are available at the Xel-Ha store near the main entrance. These products protect from the sun very well but are more difficult to apply.
One of the most popular things to do in Cancun is snorkeling. Because Xel-ha is a
lagoon, there are very little currents or waves. You can island hop
while you swim and snorkel and be far off shore yet close to land. The
sea life is amazing and the water is extremely clear and warm. It is
probably one of the best places to learn how to snorkel in the world. You can see large fish everywhere, even right where you enter the water. Snorkeling Xel-ha and "island hopping" is one of the best Cancun amusement parks for the entire family.
Exploring the ruins of the Yucatan are one of the most popular Cancun adventures. While there are hundreds of Mayan Ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula, the three most popular and accessible are Coba, Chichen Itza and Tulum. While all three are within a hundred or so miles of each other, each is very unique and has something special to offer.
This is one of those Cancun adventures that may not be for everyone. You climb to the top of the main temple with the aid of a rope that runs in the center from bottom to top. While you can use the rope to climb up, most use it on the way down. The photo above does not do justice to the small, steep steps, that bow outward about half way down and intensifying the sensation of height.
Coba was the main city before 1000 A.D. and is the only Mayan Ruin that you can still climb to the top.
Coba is located about 65km (40 miles) northwest of Tulum. Coba is spread out over a large area and inter-mingled within a dense forest canopy. Much of the 67 square km ( 26 sq mile) site remains untouched and still buried underground.
Many people have no problem
getting to the top but struggle to get back down without crawling. Hint
! - make sure you have hiking or tennis shoes - no sandals! If you
don't like heights, this is not for you and it fast will become one of the
scariest Cancun adventures.
The photo below shows the view from the top. It is just above the tree top canopy allowing you to lookout over the jungle for several miles.
Bikes are available to rent at a nominal charge or you can choose to rent a bike taxi that holds two and be escorted from place to place. Another option is to hire a guide. Hint - In Mexico, guides for the Mayan Ruins must complete a series of classes and they are licensed. They are very knowledgeable, friendly and speak very good English. The cost for a guide usually ranges between $20 and $40 USD and is well worth the investment.
Coba is open daily from 8am to 5pm. Make sure to bring sunscreen and water. There is a small store and restaurant adjacent if you need additional refreshments or supplies.
Chichen Itza is by far one of the most popular things to do in Cancun. Many people travel from around the world to visit and it has become the most visited Mayan ruin in the Yucatan peninsula. It is located about 179 km (111 miles) west of Cancun. The best way to get there is via the very nice 180 toll road that begins just north of the Cancun airport. The drive takes about 2 1/2 hours. Once on the toll road, it is non-stop until you reach the toll plaza. The cost to drive the toll road is $22 USD and is well worth it.
Chichen Itza is an all day event. Leave early in the morning so that you have time to explore the 6.5 sq km (2.5 sq miles) of ruins. The cost to enter is $10 USD for adults and free to children under 12 years of age. Parking is extra.
Hint ! - Very important - for the first time Chichen Itza visitor, hire a tour guide. They are very knowledgeable, friendly and speak English. Without a guide you will miss out on some of the special things and not so obvious detail that Chichen Itza has to offer.
Once inside, you will find a very modern visitor center, museum, restaurant and bookstore. This is the area where you can hire a tour guide. Guides typically charge $40 - $50 USD for groups up to six. There are generally no discounts for smaller groups.
Inside you will immediately see the Pyramid of Kukulkan rising into the sky. Kukulkan was based on the Mayan calendar. The four separate stairways leading up to the temple, each have 91 steps, which adds up to 364. If you add in the top area it makes 365 days that equate to a solar year.
On each side of the pyramid are 18 terraces, 9 to the left and 9 to the right of the stairway, which is the number of months in the Mayan calendar. Each terrace has 52 panels, which represent the 52 year cycle period where the solar and religious calendars become realigned.
Kulkulkan was designed so that on the spring and fall equinox, March 21 and September 21, the sun aligns itself perfectly with the corner of the pyramid, from top and bottom, and as the sun sets, casts a diamond pattern (snake) on the ramp of the northern stairway. Hint ! - This event can attract 10,000 + people on each of these days. Unless you want to witness this specific event, it is better to visit on another day.
Since Chichen Itza is inland, in the middle of the jungle, summer temperatures and humidity can often be excessive. Hint ! - Visit between the beginning of December and the end of April, or early May at the latest. For the weather at Chichen Itza, plan on adding 10 degrees F to the Cancun averages.
Always make sure to wear light clothes, comfortable shoes and a hat plus bring plenty of water and sunscreen. Don't forget the camera !
Chichen Itza is one of the must do Cancun adventures, at least once.
Tulum is one of those Cancun adventures that are often overlooked but is well worth the tip. The city of Tulum and the Mayan ruins are located directly off of highway 307 about 130 km (80 miles) south of Cancun. Tulum is only 13 km (8 miles) south of Xel-Ha so combining these two Cancun activities is easily accomplished in one day as long was you head out early. Tulum also intersects with the road that takes you to Coba.
The ruins are perched high above the cliffs overlooking a magnificent Caribbean beach. Hint ! - bring your swimming suite because there is a stairway that takes you from the ruins to the beach.
Tulum is open from 7am to 5pm in the winter and 8am to 6pm in the summer. Admission is $4 USD and parking is $3 USD. If you want to take the shuttle from the visitor center to the ruins, it will cost another $1.50 USD.
The Tulum ruins were built initially as a fortress and later became a central area for maritime commerce and trade. The largest building in Tulum is called the Castillo or castle.
Walking around the site is easy as most paths are very flat.
Hint ! - Due to their close proximity, a great day trip is to combine the Cancun amusement park Xel-ha with a visit to Tulum. Arrive at Tulum right when it opens,
spend 2-3 hours before the larger crowds arrive and then drive north for
10 minutes and visit Xel-ha for the remainder of the day. Both Xel-ha
and Tulum are directly off of highway 307. Tulum is about a 90 minute drive from Cancun's Hotel Zone and about an hour from Playa del Carmen. Tulum requires lots of walking, and if it is hot, a visit to Xel-ha is the best way to cool off, relax and end the day.
Isla Mujeres (Island of women) is a great day trip and one of the most relaxing of all Cancun activities. It is located about 13 km (8 miles) off of coast of Cancun. This is a very casual, laid back island, a step back from mainland Mexico and Cancun. The island has beautiful white sand, talcum powder like, beaches and beautiful turquoise water. Nothing is really fancy on the island, and by many, is considered the best for your money that Mexico has to offer.
The two most convenient ferry landings in Cancun that will take you to Isla Mujeres are Puerto Juarez (downtown Cancun) and Playa Tortuga located at the northwestern end of the Zona Hotelera (hotel zone). Boats from Puerto Juarez run more frequently and cost less than from Playa Tortuga, however, if you are taking a cab from the hotel zone, the cab ride to Playa Juarez may cost more. The trip to Isla Mujeres takes between 20 and 30 minutes.
Hint ! - go to Puerto Juarez and take the Ultramar boats.
Isla Mujeres has a lot of great attractions and activities. Once you arrive in Isla Mujeres you will be greated by numerous street vendors trying to sell you everything from clothes, jewelry to snorkeling and fishing trips. Plan ahead and know what you are doing. Look and walk straight ahead without looking too lost and confused.
Most people get around the island by taxi or golf cart. Isla Mujeres is only 8 miles long and 2 1/2 miles wide with slow winding roads throughout the island. Downtown is only 3 or 4 blocks long. A taxi ride to anywhere on the island won't cost much more than $8 USD. Golf carts rent by the hour or for about $45 per day.
March 2018 update
Garrafon de Castilla is a small hotel with a private beach and restaurant, that at one time, was one of my favorite places to visit. The hotel is adjacent to the Garrafon Natural Reef Park.
The hotel has a small number of simple rooms, a bar and restaurant with outdoor seating and a very small, half moon beach, in a cove with chairs and umbrellas. The cost is enter is about $4 USD and this gives you access to the private beach. Snorkel rentals, fish food, beverages and food are extra. Coolers are not allowed.
During my March 2018 visit, I noticed that things have changed. While the beautiful turquoise Caribbean water remains calm with abundant fish to feed and/or snorkel, the quality of the facilities has diminished greatly.
A few years ago you could purchase beer for about $1 USD or bring your own cooler. Coolers are no longer allowed, the price of the food has increased significantly and a 15% tip (propina) is automatically added to your bill with a very small, in spanish note, that most people will miss and probably leave an additional tip.
Now here is the bad part. The restrooms were the worst that I have ever seen. Toilet seats missing and each toilet full because none of them would flush. In addition, several of the plastic beach chairs and umbrellas were broken and dirty.
Sadly, I can no longer recommend Garrafon de Castilla. With that said, below are some highlights of the surrounding beauty.
There is great snorkeling directly off of the beach with sunken cannons and boats just feet away. IMPORTANT! - The entrance to the snorkeling area is a mixture of rocks and sand. Bring water shoes.
fish are abundant and friendly, especially when you feed them with some
of the fish food provided by the hotel staff. One of the most fun
Cancun activities for the entire family is to feed the fish as shown
below. Hundreds gather in less than 2 or 3 feet of water. The silver
fish in the middle weighs about 4 to 5 pounds.
Hint ! - Don't miss the last ferry back to Cancun. If you do, you will spend the night in Isla Mujeres!