As a leading destination in the Caribbean, Cancun and the Riviera Maya may come off as far too laden with tourists. Though it is primarily known for its amazing beaches and rowdy party scene, this region on Mexico’s Yutacán Peninsula still has plenty left to discover and much to offer in the way of hidden gems.
For instance, the region is full of amazingly beautiful cenotes, or natural freshwater wells that can contain fantastic caves or caverns ripe for exploration. So when packing your bags, we strongly suggest you make sure you have some snorkeling or diving gear. You can also step away from the tequila and learn about Mexico’s fascinating and unique wildlife at its natural parks or its rich Mayan history and heritage at a national museum or archaeological site. Not far off the coast are some islands which may not be on your bucket list but are still gorgeous and worth a visit all the same. If you’re considering a visit to the beautiful city of Cancun and the stunning Riviera Maya nearby, these secret spots are a must-visit.
Not far from Cancun in Playa del Carmen, you’ll find Cenote Chaak Tun, a gorgeous cenote that has three caverns and a large pool of water. Two of the caverns are perfect for snorkelers on account of their clear water. You’ll need a hard hat and a life jacket (included with the entrance fee), as well as snorkeling equipment and a wet suit. Enjoy the beautiful sight of stunningly huge stalactites hanging above you as you explore the cenote, which is even home to a few bats.
Another cenote in Playa del Carmen, Cenote Chikin Ha has an open-air cavern with beautifully clear water in which you can see coral, fish, stingrays, and turtles swimming alongside you. Go snorkeling or scuba diving to explore the surrounding caverns or try zip-lining into the freshwater basin. You can even witness a traditional Mayan ceremony here or picnic out in the wild.
The ruins of the ancient city of Coba aren’t as popular as Chichen Itza, which is exactly why it’s a better place to explore the history and culture of the ancient Mayan civilization. You’re allowed to climb the 130 steps to the top of the ancient pyramid, and in addition to its fascinating structures, the site also has restaurants, a campsite, and a few hotels, as well as local craft shops.
“Dos ojos” means “two eyes” in Spanish, and Cenote Dos Ojos is so named because it is made up of two cenotes connected by a large cavern zone. Located north of Tulum and south of Playa del Carmen, these underwater caves feature beautifully clear water that stays around 77 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, with a maximum depth of 33 feet. You’ll find a few species of fish, as well as a couple kinds of freshwater shrimp, in the water as you go for a cavern dive, cave dive, or for some snorkeling.
Located in the Nothern Maya lowlands about 35 miles northeast of the more famous Chichen Itza ruins, the ruins of Ek Balam are the remnants of what used to be the seat of a Mayan kingdom from the Preclassic until the Postclassic period, dating back to about 1200 B.C. The main temple is one of the largest uncovered structures on the peninsula, and you can climb the Acropolis pyramid to get a fantastic view of the area.
The ruins at El Rey Archaeological Zone in Cancun provide an amazing trip back in time to the ancient Mayan city of El Rey, which was at its height between A.D. 1250 and 1521. The largest archaeological site in Cancun, the complex contains 47 buildings, including a pyramid-shaped Mayan temple, and you can book a tour through your travel agent or your hotel, with many tours being available in multiple languages.
Located in the village of Akumal between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Half Moon Bay is a more secluded beach that’s great for kayaking and snorkeling. Witness the Riviera Maya’s diverse marine life: barracudas, turtles, small (and harmless) sharks, and all other kinds of fish.
Take a trip to Isla Blanca on a weekday, and you’ll enjoy a hidden beach with few to no people. Situated about 12.5 miles north of downtown Cancun, this beautiful beach is on a small peninsula and is known for fly-fishing and kiteboarding, with tours and lessons being given for both.
Just 30 miles north of Isla Mujeres, a popular destination for many people visiting Cancun, the small island of Isla Contoy is just over five miles long and has an area of a little over one square mile. A great spot to visit with beautiful white sand beaches, it’s an important nesting site for sea birds, but for humans, it’s exclusive; only 200 people are allowed on the island every day.Isla Holbox
Just off the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, Isla Holbox is an island northwest of Cancun free of cars and full of gorgeous beaches with amazing marine creatures such as whale sharks and sea turtles. You’ll also find all manner of exotic birds here in addition to flamingos and pelicans. The streets themselves are made of white sand, and because so few outsiders come to the island, it’s a relatively untouched paradise that’s also quite affordable.
Everyone loves a good market, and Mercado 23 is one of the most popular in Cancun. The first market built in the city, this is a local hotspot full of produce, grains, crafts, and more. You’ll find plenty of things here that are both of good quality and inexpensive. Enjoy the best of the Yucatán Peninsula’s cuisine and immerse yourself in the traditional local culture.
Located in downtown Cancun, Parque de las Palapas is the main square of the city where locals gather to socialize among food vendors and entertainment such as live music shows and clowns. Get hold of some super-affordable and super-authentic Mexican street food and browse the stalls full of local arts and crafts.
Adam Baker/Wikimedia Commons
Located in Río Lagartos on the northern shore of the peninsula, Parque Natural Ria Lagartos is an amazing bird-watching destination that anyone will enjoy. You’ll find more flamingos than you’ve ever seen in your life, as well as plenty of other exotic birds — about half of Mexico’s 1,040 bird species — to photograph and marvel at on a guided boat tour, and you may potentially encounter crocodiles.
Punta Allen is a tiny fishing village located within the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve that’s just seven streets wide and has only a few blocks, with just one generator giving its people electricity from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then from 7 p.m. to midnight. It’s located on Ascension Bay, considered to be one of the best fishing spots in the world, and its stunning beach gives you the opportunity to swim, snorkel, or soak up the sun. Visit the lighthouse or the mangrove thickets, or even get in on some great birdwatching.
Also in Playa del Carmen is Río Secreto, which literally means “secret river.” It’s the largest non-submerged cave in the Yucatán Peninsula. Explore the 600-meter underground river with a swim on a guided tour, exploring its many stalactites and stalagmites and amazingly magical spots.
About 20 minutes north of Tulum, Soliman Bay is a truly hidden gem on the Riviera Maya, hidden by a wild mangrove forest. Its impressively pristine sand and gorgeously clear waters make for a stunning sight, and the latter is perfect for snorkeling and kayaking. You won’t find too many people on the shore with you, but you still won’t be too far from more popular attractions either.
If you’re visiting the hidden gem that is Coba, you should also take time to visit CenoteTankach-Ha. You’ll have to go a few meters down a large, wooden spiral staircase to access the underground spot, but once you’re there, the beautiful clear water is a stunning sight and a great place for a swim.
About 20 miles from Playa del Carmen and 60 miles from Cancun, Xpu Há is a small resort village with a stunningly pristine beach. With just two full-time inhabitants and one year-round occupied dwelling, it’s largely full of cabins, hotels, dive shops, and restaurants. Hit the beach for some nice seaside relaxation or explore Cenote Manati, one of the largest in the region, at the north of the bay.
A nature preserve located right outside Akumal, Yal-Ku Lagoon is the perfect snorkeling destination. Its calm and clear blue waters allow you to see all kinds of tropical fish as well as beautiful limestone formations under the water. Sculptures have been placed throughout the grounds to make for an even more picturesque setting, and a snack bar is also available for when you get hungry.
Close to Aktun Ha, Zacil-Ha is a small cenote that stands out due to its zip line, which you can use to jump into the cenote. The cenote also has a ladder to get in, as well as shaded areas surrounding it for you to relax between dips as beautifully colored birds flutter around. You’ll find a restaurant here, as well as an attached hotel and a swimming pool. About 10 feet deep, Cenote Zacil-Ha itself also seems sort of like a man-made pool — but it’s very much a natural cenote, much like the secret swimming holes you’ll find in the U.S.
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