When people think of Cancun, they might mistake this popular beach destination as nothing more than an endless party. That may be true, but it also serves as an easily accessible gateway to a wealth of different underwater experiences. Regulated taxis, private transfers (highly negotiable for the savvy) and, for the budget-minded, somewhat adventurous traveler, local colectivo small buses costing a few bucks all offer safe options to venture out of the hotel zone.
Listed below with travel times, one can easily build a fabulous snorkel vacay with daily dips to explore the ocean’s treasures.
Cancun—Punta Nizuc and The Underwater Museum of Cancun
Punta Nizuc, the closest offshore reef from the Cancun Hotel Zone, is home to turtles, starfish, lobsters and tropical fish. But the true draw is The Underwater Museum of Cancun, an eco-project designed to provide habitat for fish and other reef creatures, as well as compelling entertainment for snorkelers and divers.
Punta Nizuc houses 17 of Jason DeCaires Taylor’s statues, which are part of the second “hall” of the underwater sculpture museum (see Manchones Reef next).
Isla Mujeres—Manchones Reef
Ranked as one of the top 35 snorkel spots in the world, this vibrant stretch of coral with abundant sea life is also home to an underwater MUSA life-sized sculpture exhibit of hundreds of life-sized sculptures (including the Silent Evolution collection).
The diverse reef formations of colorful hard and soft corals play home to an impressive array of tropical fish favorites. Cruz bay is of particular interest for the poignant bronze sculpture that lays under the water, a symbol for people who lost their lives at sea. (Best enjoyed on a tour, try Pocna Dive Center.)
Akumal—Place of Turtles
Akumal, an approximately 1-1.5-hour drive, means “place of turtles” in the Mayan language, due to the hundreds of turtles who arrive every summer to lay their eggs on the soft white sands south of Playa del Carmen. More than just a turtle nesting area, exotic coral reef surrounds protected Akumal Bay.
Aqua Excursions is one top area company making the most of the unique waters surrounding the reserve, with daily trips to snorkel amongst dozens of free-swimming turtles and plentiful schools of brilliantly colored tropical fish.
Isla Mujeres—Whale Sharks and Pelagics
Historically, Isla Mujeres has not always been known for its snorkeling. But in recent years, a rather large visitor has changed that and made the sleepy little island a hotspot for the finned folk. The annual whale shark migration from June 1-September 15 welcomes gentle giants for a bucket list-level experience.
Reaching up to 50-feet in length, the docile sharks and largest fish in the sea come to the waters around Isla Mujeres, Contoy and Holbox to feed. Since they do this at and near the surface, snorkelers have the edge on divers for spending quality time with the amazing creatures. Even outside of the season, these sites offer excellent odds of spotting turtles and other pelagics or larger sea roaming fish life.
Tulum—Dos Ojos Cenote
While this is a bit longer of a trip—a roughly 1.5-hour drive—many visitors head south to explore the Tulum ruins anyway making it a perfect “surf and turf” option. Known for an indy laidback vibe compared to much of the Riviera Maya, Tulum is home to a number of cenotes. These caverns and cracks in the earth lead to an underwater river system, offers refreshing swimming, incredible reflective natural lightshows and views of unique formations.
Cenote Dos Ojos—filled with stalactites and stalagmites—is made of two 70-meter diameter sinkholes connected by a 400-meter passageway. Brave snorkelers can swim through a narrow passage to reach the very dark “Bat Cave” (underwater flashlights are often used), inhabited by hundreds of bats.