Nearly 40 years ago the Mexican government searched the entire country for the most idyllic spot to create a brand new resort town. They chose the area now known as Cancun and the rest is history. Cancun possesses many unbeatable advantages. Its physical beauty is staggering: Pure white sand stretches for miles and a tropical ocean matches the aquamarine of a swimming pool. Its location—near mangrove jungles, lagoons, Mayan ruins, interior lakes and a magnificent Spanish colonial city—seems too good to be true. Now, add to this the impressive resort infrastructure that has evolved over the years, and you truly have an unsurpassed destination. Fine dining restaurants, fabulous spas, high-end or funky shopping, nightlife famed the world over… there’s just no other place like Cancun. For an active vacation, the possibilities are endless: diving, snorkeling, boating, fishing, eco-adventure, golf and swimming in a natural mystical “cenote”... and much more. For the more laid back, there’s a slate of options like a day trip to the offshore island of Isla Mujeres for swimming and sunning. Try an afternoon of indulgent rejuvenation at a gorgeous spa. Or just relax with a refreshing drink and admire a view that can only belong to the premier destination in Mexico. A stay in Cancun ca n be as ac tive or as laid bac k as you’d like. While there’s no dearth of ac tivities and attrac tions, both manmade and natural, there’s alwa ys the choice to simply kick bac k under the shade of a thatched palapa (palm frond) umbrella and wa tch seagulls glide by. Attractions Beaches. Among the most beautiful and most visited seasides in the world, Cancun’s beaches are its crowning glory. The famous talcum-soft sand everyone raves about consists primarily of limestone, whose brilliant white reflects the sun’s rays and remains cool even under the midday sun. From Playa Las Perlas—one of the best swimming beaches—to Playa Marlin, Playa Ballenas, Playa Delfines and Playa Nizuc, the composition of the sand remains the same, but the strength of the waves varies. Those beaches that face the Bay of Mujeres are quite tranquil, but the beaches on the open sea can become rough. (Rule of thumb: windward beaches are calmer; eastern beaches have stronger currents and bigger waves. Warning flags are always posted on the beach in front of each hotel: red or black means “opt for the pool instead,” yellow is for “precaution,” and green or blue signifies “come in and play.”) Nichupté Lagoon. Across the thin strip of sand that separates the area from the Caribbean Sea lie three distinct bodies of water. The largest is Nichupté Lagoon, the smaller Bojórquez Lagoon is on the northern end and Río Inglés Lagoon is on the southern tip. The entire system is ringed with intricate mangrove-lined canals and even smaller lagoons ideal for kayaking or Jet Ski adventures. Fresh water from underground springs mixes with ocean water creating a one-of-a-kind setting for alligator-like caimans, multicolored fish and more than 200 different species of birds. Bring your binoculars! Reefs. Fronting Punta Nizuc lies the world’s second largest barrier reef: the Great Mayan Reef. The area was designated a national park, covering over 20,000 acres of the reef. Xcaret. Www.xcaret.com, 998-883-0470. Just outside Cancun is Xcaret, a thoroughly unique eco-park that showcases the multifaceted magic of Mexico. Swim in underground rivers, enjoy the coral reef aquarium, the manatee lagoon, genuine archeological sites, a butterfly pavilion, deer shelter, jaguar island, mushroom farm and more. There are several beaches, an inlet and natural seawater wading pools. Additional activities include Shark Tour, Swim with the Dolphins, Sea Trek and other watery experiences. The park also features a breathtaking evening show including hundreds of performers in fabulous costumes dating from the time of the Maya and later regional cultures. Xel-Ha. Www.xelha.com, 984-875-6000. A deep lagoon jutting into the Yucatan jungle provides the setting for this most extraordinary attraction. It’s a nearly pristine eco-setting, yet with all the comforts a visitor could want: lockers, bathrooms, showers, wonderful restaurants featuring authentic Mexican cuisine and a mariachi band just for fun. But drop into that aqua water and you are one with nature. A natural river float takes you past a mangrove jungle before depositing you into the calm Caribbean. Safety is first here with life vests and lifeguards. Fins and masks are provided. The gorgeous grounds also showcase native wildlife such as brilliant tropical birds. A dolphin swim program allows contact with these fascinating mammals. Lounge chairs and hammocks abound. GarafÓn Reef Park. Www.garrafon. com, 998-193-3360. This eco-park is reached by a 25-minute ferry ride to Isla Mujeres, a tiny but stunning island protected by reefs. The park is located at the southern tip and offers a full day of activities—exceptional snorkeling, swimming pool, kayaks, dolphin swim, zip line, climbing tower, hammocks and lounge chairs, restaurant, boutique, showers, bathrooms, lockers. Selvatica Adventure Kingdom. Www.selvatica.com.mx, 998-898-4312. See nature from a totally different perspective with a variety of canopy tours that take visitors through a circuit of zip lines across Lush jungle foliage. Go where the birds go to see the Yucatan peninsula from up high and maybe see some birds yourself. Children over three years are welcome. Bike on flat terrain for one mile (or take a van) to a huge cenote (a natural underground watering hole) for a clear, refreshing dip. Afterward, head back for lunch. Parque Nizuc. 998-881-3000. Located just south of the hotel zone, this amusement attraction will make kids’ eyes light up, as well as quite a few adults. The 18-acre Wet n’ Wild water park has all the usual rides, slides, thrills, lazy river and wave pool, as well as something unique in a water park: A dolphin habitat offering several types of interactions with these lovely creatures. New to the park is Swim with the Sea Lions. Museo de Arte Popular. 998-849- 7777. Mexico has a deep culture and heritage that is well worth exploring during a trip to Cancun. This museum provides an insightful glimpse into the crafts of this multifaceted nation. On display are masks used for ceremonial purposes, religious artifacts, ceramic figures, musical instruments, costumes worn by indigenous peoples and more. Cancun Mermaid. 998-843-6517, www.cancunmermaid.com. The only allterrain- vehicle (ATV) tour in Cancun gives you the freedom to operate your own vehicle through verdant jungle or wide-open beach. Instructions are provided, along with helmets and a guide. Alternatively, guests can opt for piloting their own boat through a lagoon and mangrove jungle for snorkeling at a reef. Lifejackets and tour guide provided. SPORTS In Cancun, surf and turf is more than a dinner choice; it also describes the sporting options available to visitors. Water is everywhere and there are many ways to enjoy it. Activities include snorkeling, swimming, paddling a sea kayak, sailing a catamaran propelled by wind or scooting along at high speed on a powerful Jet Ski. Drop a line below the surface and hunt for red snapper, among other delicious fish common to the Caribbean. There are also quite a few big game fish and the chase and challenge is what draws anglers from around the world for annual tournaments. Should you want to get closer to fish, the crystal clear waters of Cancun and the Riviera Maya are ideal diving areas. Dive sites abound along the second longest coral reef in the world. This magical underwater paradise of exquisite coral reefs stretches 600 miles southward off the Caribbean coast of Mexico, providing the ecological balance necessary to support more than 500 species of fish and four species of sea turtle. For the turf lover, what better way to enjoy the wonderful climate and scenery than a round of golf? There are eight courses within a one-hour drive of the Cancun Hotel Zone, as well as two that are accessible within the Hotel Zone. Tennis anyone? Landlubbers will be pleased by the wide range of tennis courts, including municipal courts in town and at various hotels. Runners are sure to enjoy the extensive jogging, walking and cycling trail that stretches for several miles. Every morning and early evening locals and visitors alike can be seen vigorously pursuing physical fitness. SHOPPING Thanks to Mexican government trade laws that have established a duty-free area in the entire state of Quintana Roo, Cancun is a shopper’s paradise. Modern shopping centers and malls host a variety of shopping opportunities, including everything from world-class luxury items to sunglasses and, of course, typical Cancun T-shirts. If designer clothes are your passion, opportunities abound to shop-till-youdrop for favorite labels at reasonable prices. Those interested in furniture, fabric or other home furnishings will not be disappointed. They’ll find handcrafted tableware, fine hand-blown glassware, rustic wood bowls, decorative wall pieces, traditional masks, ceramic suns and moons, tin iguanas and other items unique to this part of Mexico. Cancun is also a good place to find a fine bottle of tequila. Connoisseurs now know that to sip a fine tequila is like sipping a fine wine or cognac. Sit back, relax and enjoy it with a “puro” or Cuban cigar. DINING The dining options available in Cancun are so varied there just doesn’t seem to be enough time to experience them all. The choices run the gamut from international cuisine to the very best in Mexican regional and fusion cooking. Mexican cuisine is quite versatile. An abundance of indigenous ingredients and regional variations combine to create a cuisine of great diversity. Food represents the historic blending of three distinct cultures and several historical influences. Contributing to what is called “Mexican” food are the original peoples of Mexico, who provided a diverse range of seasonings, methods of cooking and ingredients. The Spanish also brought their special touch. For a time, the French added their gift to the mix. In addition to these influences, the subtle flavors of the Far and Middle East, the islands of the Caribbean and a distant hint of Africa can be found. Cancun’s location on the shores of the glistening Caribbean and its long history of harvesting from the sea, dating back to the ancient Maya, have resulted in a tradition of seafood preparation that is unique to this region. Regional favorites include ceviche and Tikin Xic, a mouthwatering blend of diced raw whitefish, shrimp, octopus, chopped onions, chili peppers and tomatoes marinated in lime juice. And there’s always Caribbean lobster, local crab, grouper, red snapper, snook, and mahi mahi, as well as some varieties of fish found only in the waters near Cancun. If you are a seafood lover, Cancun is a gourmet delight. NIGHTLIFE When the sun goes down, the action heats up with ultra-high-energy clubs famous the world over. Cancun’s nightlife is one of its great draws. Referring to these mega entertainment centers as “dance clubs” is an understatement. Rather, they are sensory entertainment experiences with nightly shows featuring flying acrobats in colorful costumes along the lines of Cirque du Soleil, stages that seems to be suspended in air, foam parties, streamers, balloons, stadium-sized video screens, theme events and much more. In the extremely unlikely event the high octane beat doesn’t motivate you to get up and dance, it’s still thrilling to enjoy the music, often performed by well-known groups. If you prefer a quieter evening, there are plenty of lounges for settling in with a cocktail and good conversation. Evenings also offer opportunities for cultural immersion at a folkloric show featuring dancing and costumes native to Mexico. Other venues offer Spanish guitar or gypsy flamenco. Multiplex cinemas play the latest hits, many in English with Spanish subtitles. Dinner cruises in the Lagoon or on the open sea offer lobster, steak, shrimp and other favorites in an atmosphere that can range from family fun with pirates on board to the more romantic, where you and that special someone can sip champagne under a starlit sky. Travel journalist Janine S. Pouliot specializes in Mexico and has spent 20 years writing about the nation she loves for mainstream media and custom publications worldwide. She currently lives in Chelem, Mexico, a fishing village roughly four hours west of Cancun.
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