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

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