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Sightseeing Adventures in Cancun and Cozumel

By Diana Rowe Martinez, Contributor

There's more to do than golf in Cancun and Cozumel. Experience Mexico by scuba diving and snorkeling all within Mayan culture themed adventure parks and Mayan historic ruins.

Mayan Archeological Ruins

If your visit doesn't include the Mayan archeological ruins of Chitzen-Itza or Tulum, you've missed a great cultural adventure.

Chitzen-Itza, the best known and most visited of the Mayan ruins due to its extraordinary architectural beauty that blends two cultures: Mayan and Toltec. This complete city was founded in 445 BC and inhabited until 1204 AD when it was mysteriously abandoned. From the 11th to the 13th centuries, it was the most important city on the peninsula.

The sound and light show in the evening-one performance in Spanish and a later one in English-vividly portrays the life and problems the ancient Indians faced. Another light show, this one Mother Nature's own, occurs during the Spring equinox on March 20th and 21st, and the Autumnal equinox on September 21st and 22nd.

The play of light on the El Castillo creates the illusion of the serpent god Kukulcan descending the steps of the north staircase and disappearing into the ground below. Bus tours can be booked at the hotels and arrive at noon at the ruins. Plan on a whole day for these tours.

Tulum, meaning "City of Dawn" or "City of Renewal" in Mayan, to the south of Cancun is the only major Mexican ruins to overlook the Caribbean. Although not as large in comparison to Chitzen-Itza, the walled citadel is perched on a 40-foot cliff overlooking the sea and will take your breath away. After touring the ruins, you can rejuvenate yourself by taking a dip in the small bay below.

Or visit the smaller and closer with less time commitment, but no less awe-inspiring, archeological site of El Rey Ruins located conveniently on the edge of the Hotel Zone. For those wanting yet another cultural option closer to the Hotel Zone with less walking, the Cancun Museum is located next to the Convention Center in the Hotel Zone.

A quick hop to the island of Cozumel's historic Mayan ruins of San Gervasio, built as a sanctuary for the fertility goddess, Ixchel is another trip worth taking.

Ecological Parks

Cancun serves up Xcaret, an ecological adventure park, or a smaller more ecological scale, visit Xel-Ha. Another ecological park, Chankanaab Lagoon, is a quick water hop to the island of Cozumel.

Xcaret, .45 miles south of Cancun, available by drive or tour bus, a 220-acre Eco-archeological theme park, where history, tradition, nature and technology fuse to create one fun-filled day. At Xcaret, environmental preservation in a tropical paradise melds with Mayan culture. And beauty abounds. Take a horseback ride through the tropical rainforest to secluded white-sand beaches.

Get up close and personal with a monarch butterfly, a sanctuary for species like sea turtles and their eggs, crocodiles, dolphins, macaws, coral reef aquariums of brightly colored marine life, wild bird breeding aviary, and so much more.

See Hercules the manatee living peacefully in a lagoon in Xcaret, drinking three baby bottles of milk every day, eating 10 pounds of lettuce and carrots, to work his way up to measuring 13 feet in length and weighing up to 3,000 lbs.

Not only do you get to see; you get to "do" in Xcaret. This is your chance to jump into the crystal clear waters. Literally. Xcaret, which means "little inlet" in Maya, owes its name to the small body of water and hundreds of tropical fish who daringly approach swimmers, a snorkelers fantasy. A snorkel tour (lessons available) can help you discover more of the rich underwater life in Mexico.

Experienced divers can opt for one of the area's best reefs for diving, known as Xcaret Caves or Barracuda Reef. Always wanted to try diving? How about trying what I call the "mini-dive," or Sea Trek. Donning oxygen supported bubbles, the trip down into the magical waters is only about 15 feet, but you get a glimpse of the fascinating colored reefs and marine life found underwater. Or you might want a partner in the water?

How about swimming with the dolphins-a not to miss experience? (Note: Many of these activities are not included in the $39 adult/$24 child ticket price and may require advance reservations.)

But Xcaret is more than a tropical theme park and zoo. Built around Mayan archeological sites, Mayan caves, and underground rivers, beaches, lagoons and sea pools, and when nature' s lights goes down, Xcaret comes alive.

Mayan culture finds its way from hidden crevices and transforms Xcaret into mysticism, tradition, legend and history, all wrapped up into Mayan rituals and ceremonies, to transport you back into the days when Xcaret served a more important purpose than for your amusement.

A motley of ancient culture and adventure at your fingertips, maybe a day isn't quite enough to enjoy Xcaret.

More of the same is available at Xel-Ha, "where the water is born" and is another option to quench your ecological thirst in Cancun. In prehistoric times Xel-Ha was used as a port and safe harbor for navigating the coasts. Again, water sports are available here: from a refreshing dip in sacred, Mayan waters to snorkeling to aquatic games. All inclusive park admission including most activities is $45 adults/$31 children. Check out their web site at xelha.com.mx for details.

Cozumel's park is Chankanaab Lagoon's natural preserve, created to protect Cozumel's ecologically sensitive regions, offering visitors the same range of water activities, from snorkeling to a glimpse at the nature's creations. A nominal entrance fee covers the park entrance; additional pricing for activities such as swimming with the dolphins.

For those travelers with limited time, any one of the three parks offer up many activities for a sampling of Cancun or Cozumel all in one place.

Traditional Mexican Culture

Wanting a more traditional Mexican flavor to sightseeing? Take an afternoon and visit the Plaza de Tores in downtown Cancun. Every Wednesday at 3:30 pm a real bullfight occurs in the arena. Bullfighting was introduced to Mexico by Spain in the 16th century and is one of this country's oldest traditions.

At half time visitors are entertained with regional dances, games and charreria exhibitions (rodeo riding). Cancun's Plaza de Tores is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records because of its unique year-round season.

And this is only just the tip of the entertainment and sightseeing available in Cancun and Cozumel. A great marketing ploy to entice you to keep returning to take in just one more sight of this tropical paradise.

Images courtesy of the author and the Cancun Convention & Visitor's Bureau.

Diana Rowe MartinezDiana Rowe Martinez, Contributor

A Denver-based freelance writer, Diana Rowe Martinez is a member of Colorado Travel Writers and writes for other publications, both print and online, in the industries of travel, nonfiction, and business. She writes a monthly column for a Denver based newspaper, Singles Entertainment.

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