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Things to Do in Cancún

Sea turtles in Cancun

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Beaches

This is why you visit, right? For Cancún’s 14 miles of warm-water beach bliss. The Hotel Zone’s north-facing beaches along the top of the “7”-shaped island are protected by a calm bay, while east-facing beaches along the leg are pummeled by the Caribbean. Though lacking the intense turquoise hues, tranquil waters off the northern beaches are ideal for swimming, especially for novices, children and those less steady on their feet. East-facing beaches have no buffer from the sea’s wind, treacherous currents and crashing waves, but they are unmatched for sunbathing and camera-ready scenic beauty. Just take lifeguards' signals and the color-coded warning flags seriously.

You don’t have to stay in a big resort or join a beach club to enjoy the beaches. By law, they’re all public property, including those claimed by resorts; 11 are designated public access beaches.

Food, drink and water-sports rentals are available at most beaches, though chairs or sand umbrellas may belong to individual resorts. Seven strands are considered Blue Flag beaches, certified for water quality, safety andaccessibility; they provide bathrooms, changing rooms, showers, ramps, palapas and playgrounds.

One of these, the never-crowded Playa Delfines, is Cancún’s most beautiful beach and the only one not blocked off by a resort. Another, Playa Las Perlas,became the city’s first fully accessible beach in 2017. It has access ramps, amphibious beach chairs, accessible bathrooms and spaces designed for the mobility-challenged. The Cancún tourist website lists the Blue Flag beaches.

Standout Riviera Maya beaches include Puerto Morelos, whose pristine coral reef offers superb snorkeling and diving; Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres’ stunning (but often crowded) swimming beach; and roomy Xpu-Ha, on a wide bay mercifully free of huge resorts. Playa Punta Esmeralda in Playa del Carmen has accessible bathrooms, showers and beach wheelchairs to lend. Though Tulum’s sublime swath of sand is typically packed cheek-by-jowl, Playa Paraíso­­, between the ruins and the hotel strip, is rarely crowded and rewards a short swim from shore with a view of ancient temples. Sun beds with parasols are available for rent.

Archaeological sites

All over the Yucatán, thousands of green “hills” are in fact vestiges of the ancient Maya’s advanced civilization, now reclaimed by jungle. You can visit excavated sites that recall their past grandeur, even in Cancún.

El Rey may be the Hotel Zone’s most tranquil spot, its broken columns and palace stairs to nowhere standing in surreal juxtaposition to the Iberostar Cancún’s faux pyramid next door. The tallest pyramid in the area (climbing prohibited) is hidden in deepjungle at sparsely visited El Meco, just north of the Centro. Its resemblance to Chichen Itza is striking.

In the Riviera Maya, the beautiful if overly reconstructed walled city of Tulum is famous for its perch above the Caribbean. Hilly, sandy terrain in spots poses challenges for some wheelchair users, but the information center lends out a special wide-tired chair. Most of the enormous site of Cobá,in the jungle east of Tulum, slumbers under vegetation, creating a sense of ancient spirits undisturbed. It would daunt visitors with mobility issues if not for the squadron of triciclos (traditional Mayan tricycles), whose drivers will pedal you around for a small fee.

Archaeological sites have bathrooms and sometimes a picnic table or food concession near the entrance, but there are no benches or other anachronistic structures. A shaded foundation remnant or other stonework can sometimes serve for a rest stop. Though wheelchairs might not be able to navigate every corner of these sites, they are mostly walkable even by those with walkers or canes except for some buildings located off the main paths.

Nature sites

The Yucatán harbors more natural marvels than one person could explore in a lifetime, but some simply should not be missed. Topping that list is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a 1.3 million-acre tract of protected jungle, beaches and cenotes (natural sinkholes) barely changed over the millenniums. You can explore some of its beaches on your own, but to find the secret jungle paths that plunge you into the Maya’s world, book a tour from Visit Sian Ka’an or Community Tours Sian Ka’an. They take special care to enable people with mobility issues to enjoy their natural treasure.

Xcaret eco-archaeological park corrals bits of the Yucatán’s best offerings, from snorkeling to wildlife watching (butterflies, jaguars, manatees) to nightly cultural shows. You can get a massage in a cavern lagoon; swim with sharks, dolphins or stingrays; and even walk on the bottom of the sea using an innovative Sea Trek helmet. The park is accessible except for a few steep, rocky passages. The visitor center rents wheelchairs and will help people with disabilities plan their day.

The water-oriented Xel-Hápark features activities in cenotes, lagoons and caves where freshwater underground rivers meet the Caribbean Sea; maps with wheelchair access points are available. Both parks have active kids’ programs, great for multigenerational families.

Ways to save: Xcaret and Xel-Há offer online or advanced-booking discounts of up to 15 percent.

Snorkeling/diving

The world’s second-longest barrier reef beckons just offshore. A variety of operators, such as Scuba Cancún or Solo Buceo, provide snorkeling and diving excursions to this marine wonder, as well as to inland cenotes. You can also snorkel off many beaches, though most of Cancún’s reef is too damaged to be rewarding except at Punta Nizuc, at the island’s southern end. But if you want to be astonished by a kaleidoscope of fish and turtles and rays, drive 35 minutes south to Puerto Morelos. The reef here, which runs close to shore and to the water’s surface, is protected in a national marine park, and the water is calm. The fishermen’s co-op at the foot of the pier is a good place to book an excursion.

For a unique underwater experience, the Museo Subacuatico de Arte (MUSA),or Underwater Museum of Art, boasts nearly 500 submerged life-size concrete figures being “colonized” by marine life. The goal is to form an artificial reef to take pressure off of natural reefs damaged by too much love from snorkelers and divers. Local outfitters such as Aquaworld arrange for access for snorkelers and divers.

Isla Mujeres day trip

The 15-minute ferry crossing to Isla Mujeres lands you in a world where sunbathing, snorkeling and diving are life’s priorities. Though it can get crowded during school holidays, it remains an easygoing tropical island at heart.

When postcard-perfect Playa Norte gets too crowded, head for Garrafón Natural Reef Parkand Punta Sur, nature reserves at the island’s southern tip. Or walk among young sea turtles, from little flippers to Frisbee-sized adolescents, at the Tortugranja hatchery. In summer, “Isla” is also a popular departure point for whale shark tours.

Ferries to Isla Mujeres depart from Puerto Juárez north of Cancún Centro, at both the original dock and the newer Gran Puerto dock. More expensive, less frequent Hotel Zone ferries depart from Playa Tortugas, El Embarcadero at Playa Linda and Playa Caracol in the Hotel Zone.

Tours­­­­­­­­

Smaller companies run by locals who are committed to preserving Mayan culture and the environment, such as EcoColors and Alltournative,offer intimate, well-run tours to archaeological sites, cenotes, eco-parks and traditional villages. Ecocolors also offers whale shark tours in summer.

Ways to save: Create your own tour by hiring a taxi by the hour or day. The per-person cost is considerably less than a packaged tour, and drivers often make decent guides.

Art/museums

In a destination better known for its high-octane club scene than its high-minded cultural attractions, a few venues stand out. The excellent (and accessible) Museo Maya de Cancún, a beautiful contemporary space in the Hotel Zone, features Mayan archaeological artifacts found throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. It incorporates the small archaeological site of San Miguelito in a shady setting among mangroves.

Playa del Carmen offers several options for a rainy day or a case of sunshine overload. The interactive 3D Museum of Wonders, full of optical illusions, gives new meaning to the old saw, “I can’t believe my eyes.” The Sayab Planetarium emphasizes kids’ programs (great if grandkids are in tow), but is fun for all ages. And the Riviera Art Gallery features a cross section of the galleries along northern Fifth Avenue, exhibiting an eclectic mix of contemporary Mexican, pop and international art.

Live performances

The big ticket here is Cirque du Soleil’s "Joya," located between Puerto Morelos and Playa del Carmen. A Mexican folkloric fantasy underpins the troupe’s dazzling acrobatics and illusions, presented to pulsing Latin music.

Though Cancún’s rah-rah nightlife aims squarely at the under-30 set, Coco Bongo is a great night out for anyone over 18. The spectacular show is equal parts Broadway musical, Vegas revue and, well, Cirque du Soleil. Avoid weekends, though; Mondays and Tuesdays are the least crowded. The club is accessible, with ramps and a lift available for those who need it.

Ways to save: Shave about $45 (depending on seating) off your “Joya” ticket by choosing the show without dinner.

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