When you vacation in Cancun or the Riviera Maya, you really are on the threshold of a world of unforgettable travel adventures. On one hand, you have spectacular white sand beaches, the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, offshore islands and the wonders of the Mesoamerican Reef and on the other you have the ancient cities of the Maya, jungles and wetlands teeming with wildlife and the crystalline waters of the area’s many sinkholes or cenotes. Then there are the famous eco-adventure parks of the Riviera Maya, the traditional colonial towns of the Yucatan, biosphere reserves, Mayan communities and haciendas, among others. There is so much to see and experience, enough for a lifetime of incredible memories. Here are four trip ideas for your next Cancun vacation.

How about an unforgettable eco trip to the desert island of Contoy on your next Cancun vacation?

A two-hour cruise across a sea in impossible shades of turquoise brings you to the untouched island paradise of Contoy or “bird island.” Declared a national park in 1998, the mangrove forest, palm groves and dunes of tiny Contoy are home to 150 species of native and migrant birds. The island has one of the largest populations of brown pelicans in the Caribbean and a 5,000-strong colony of magnificent frigate birds, cormorants, spoonbills, ibis and ten species of heron. The island’s deserted beaches are a refuge for sandpipers, oystercatchers and other shore birds in the winter and a nesting site for sea turtles in the summer.

Spend your day on Contoy swimming in the bay with placid sting rays, snorkeling, sunbathing and bird watching. For an additional fee you can board a smaller boat and explore the mangroves where you’ll see the birds up close. Climb the observation tower for breathtaking panoramic views of the island and the Caribbean.

Sightings of flying fish, sea turtles and dolphins are frequent during the boat trip to Contoy and summer visitors may occasionally catch a glimpse of the manta rays and whale sharks that gather to feed in the waters of the northern Mexican Caribbean.

Contoy’s status as a reserve means that the number of visitors is limited to only 200 a day.

A Mexican night under the stars at Xoximilco

Your destination for the evening is Xoximilco, a jungle park between Cancun and Puerto Morelos that is inspired by the canals and world-famous floating gardens of Xochimilco on the outskirts of Mexico City. At Xoximilco, the mariachis strike up under a star-studded sky, tequila flows and dinner is served on board a colorful trajinera or barge that sails along tree-lined canals. This is a Mexican experience you won’t want to miss on your next Cancun vacation; it’s full of color, music and song, a fiesta to share with family and friends.

On arrival at Xoximilco, you’ll be greeted with a welcome drink and a tasty traditional snack of esquites (corn cooked in lime juice and topped with cream or mayonnaise, cheese and chili powder), then you’ll be ready to board your trajinera. There is a boat for each Mexican state and all are decked out in colorful and unique designs featuring symbols associated with the individual states, for example the monarch butterfly for Michoacan.

During your cruise through the forest, you’ll be serenaded by musicians from different parts of Mexico, such as guitar trios from the Yucatan, harp-strumming jarochos from Veracruz, the banda from northern Mexico and, of course, mariachis. You’ll also see scenes representing life in Xochimilco: canal-side wooden homes, men tending gardens and women paddling canoes filled with flowers, produce and warm tortillas for your meal. You’ll watch traditional dances and try some yourselves, hear ancient Aztec legends and dine on delicious Mexican cuisine.

Visit Izamal, the city of gold

Have you ever visited Izamal, the Yucatan’s very own “city of gold?” If not, go off the beaten track on your next Cancun vacation. Famous for its huge 16th-century Franciscan convent and imposing Mayan pyramid, this peaceful little town all decked out in bright yellow is often called the “city of three cultures,” a reference to its pre-Hispanic and Spanish heritage and the traditions of today’s Mayan inhabitants. It is the perfect spot for discovering the history and traditions of the Yucatan, shopping for handicrafts and sampling regional cuisine.

Inhabited by the ancient Maya as far back as the 3rd century B.C., Izamal became a sacred site with shrines to two deities: Itzamná (the chief god, inventor of writing, medicine and agriculture) and Kinich Kakmo (the sun god). Archaeologists have unearthed more than 20 major Mayan buildings around town, along with ceremonial roads called sacbes, tombs and house mounds. The principal temple is the pyramid of Kinich Kakmo, the third largest building in Mesoamerica in terms of volume.

After the Spanish Conquest, Franciscan friars took advantage of Izamal’s religious importance by building a huge mission on top of the Pap-Hol-Chac temple. The Convento de San Antonio de Padua was founded in 1549 and completed in 1618. Home to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, the patron saint of the Yucatán since 1648, it is one of Mexico’s ten most important shrines. The fortress-like building is also said to have the largest closed atrium in Mexico and one of the largest in the world, with no fewer than 75 arches.

The historic houses, arches, churches and civic buildings surrounding the convent are painted yellow and are part of the charm of this Pueblo Mágico. Explore its tranquil neighborhoods, sample the traditional cuisine, watch artisans at work and call in at the Community Museum in the main square.

Izamal is 158 miles from Cancún and 43 miles from Mérida, take the turnoffs signposted on the toll road or Highway 180.

Submerged sculptures, visit Cancun’s Underwater Art Museum

The Cancun-Isla Mujeres National Marine Park is home to the world’s largest underwater sculpture museum, inaugurated in 2009. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore this famous icon on your Cancun vacation and see the colorful marine life that now makes its home among the statues. Snorkeling and diving trips are available.

More than 500 statues by British sculptor Jason deCaires-Taylor and other artists are submerged in different locations in the park, including Punta Nizuc and Manchones Reef.

In addition to its artistic appeal and the powerful symbolism of the sculptures, the museum has a message of conservation. As another attraction for snorkelers and divers, it takes the pressure off popular reefs in the marine park, giving them a chance to recover and for fish populations to increase. The statues have undergone a “sea change” over the years, transforming into gardens of coral, colorful sponges, sea fans and algae. These new reef communities have attracted damsel and butterfly fish and crustaceans such as lobsters that live among the corals. Large schools of blue tangs and angel fish are also returning to the area.

Go exploring with Thomas More Travel

Whether you want to visit ancient Mayan cities, enjoy a fun day out at the Riviera Maya’s famous nature parks, spend the day zip lining in the jungle or go snorkeling, Thomas More Travel has the tour for you on your next Cancun vacation. Visit thomasmoretravel.com to browse the tour collection.

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