Cancun: What to See and What to Skip

PHOTO: A Pelican sits on small fishing boat by the ocean in the island of Holbox, Mexico.

Cancun's allure is world-famous. A tropical oasis accented by a rich history, Cancun is as popular with day tripping cruisers as with sun worshipping vacationers, in large part for the warm weather it has to offer year-round. But don't think Cancun is little more than beaches, bars and tourist traps. Alternative experiences abound, and here are a few.

See the Museum, Skip the Beach

How about a little culture between tanning sessions on the shore? After a six-year, $15 million investment, the Maya Museum opened in November 2012 in Cancun's hotel zone. Ancient Mayan culture is promoted through hundreds of artifacts, including 14,000 year-old skeletal remains discovered in the underwater caves of Tulum. The adjacent San Miguelito archaeological site is open to the public as well.

See Isla Holbox, Skip Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres was so named by Spanish conquistadores, and it's been a wildly popular visitor destination ever since. But consider the island of Holbox for a more remote island experience. Don't expect to find many phones or cars here. It's all about unspoiled beaches, instead, as well as mangroves, coconut plantations and flamingoes, which are readily seen flying overhead. Feel like relaxing? Lounge on a hammock knit by the locals. Hungry? Fresh local seafood abounds. Want to explore? Rent a bike at friendly Holbox Village. To get to this 25-mile-long exotic island, board the public ferry in Chiquila.

See Tres Reyes, Skip Chichen Itza

For many tourists – more than a million a year – the day trip to ancient Mayan archaeological epicenter of Chichen Itza is a no brainer; it's why it was crowned one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. But for a genuine taste of Mayan culture, consider a visit to the community of Tres Reyes, instead, where indigenous families display aspects of ancient village life, natural conservation and religious rituals for their visitors. And why not get blessed by a shaman while you're there? For insights and relevant info, consider taking a tour from Cancun with a bona fide company, like Alltournative (which offers discounts of up to 15 percent if you book online).

Swim with Whale Sharks, Skip the Dolphins

Swimming with dolphins can be magical. But Cancun offers something unique: the chance to swim with whale sharks, which are more abundant here than anywhere else in the world during the summer months. With a 50-foot span, a 15-ton heft and a jaw-span of up to four feet, these are large creatures to say the least. But gentle. And several accredited, licensed guides lead tours out to sea – from Isla Holbox or Punta Sam – to swim with them. Each June, Isla Mujeres hosts the Whale Shark Festival.

See Xel-Ha, Skip the Beach

The beach will most likely be your favorite spot to lounge and relax. But if you're ocean-bound in search of tropical underwater wonder, but would rather avoid battling the incoming waves, pay a visit to Xel-Ha, a natural aquarium located near Tulum, south of Cancun. This lagoon attraction is home to hundreds of species of tropical fish and natural fauna, making it an ideal spot for snorkeling and diving; the underwater limestone caves are a big draw. The ecological park is also home to exotic birds, lizards, a turtle park, a shark zone and dolphins. Adults get the run of Xel-Ha for $79, and kids for $40, although tickets pre-bought through the park's website come at a discount.

Do the Cooking School, Skip the All-Inclusive

You won't go hungry if you spend all day trolling the myriad dining options at your all-inclusive resort. But how about savoring a meal you made yourself, with the added bonus of taking newfound skills home with you? The Cancun region is home to a growing number of cooking schools, like the popular Little Mexican Cooking School, located a cab's ride south of Cancun in the small fishing town of Puerto Morelos; classes are capped at 12 people and, for $99, introduce students to indigenous ingredients and culminate in a multi-course late lunch of dishes they've prepared themselves. In the hotel zone, the Ritz-Carlton Cancun offers cooking class sessions every Wednesday, priced at $120 per person; their culinary center features state-of-the-art Viking cooking equipment, a residential-style kitchen with 12 counter seats and sweeping views of the sea.

See Merida, Skip Cancun

One of the neat things about Cancun is that it puts you close to other historically and culturally rich cities worth discovering, like Merida, which was founded in the mid-1500s. This city is an important political and financial hub, but it's also worth visiting for the museums, markets and parks it has to offer. There are fine dining restaurants and sidewalk cafes, as well as nighttime discos. And you can get around town in a horse-drawn carriage. For a unique experience, visit one of Merida's many cenotes – natural fresh water sinkholes – that are scattered throughout.

Drive a Ferrari, Skip the Cab

On a relaxing Cancun escape, getting behind the wheel may be the furthest thing from your mind. Unless, of course, it's the wheel of a Ferrari F430, a Mercedes SLS or a Camaro SS. The new company, Exotic Rides, is getting a lot of buzz for its 1.2-mile speedway and its lineup of luxe wheels, some of which allow speeds of up to 150 mph. Depending on your ride, the five-lap experience, with coaching from pro racers, ranges from $99 to $699.

Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo. For deals on Cancun vacation packages, hotels and attractions, check out http://www.travelzoo.com/vacations/mexico/ and http://www.travelzoo.com/hotels/caribbean-mexico/.

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