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Ecotourism in Cancun and Riviera Maya

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Last update: Sep 30, 2021

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Ecotourism in Cancun and The Riviera Maya

Tourism is one of the main human activities in the world. Traveling is one of the best ways to get to know other cultures, take a look at new landscapes and create new memories. In the last years, the increase in air connections between different countries (and destinations), as well as technological advances in transportation services have made it easier to move around the world. In this way, tourism has become a motor of economic development for communities of all sizes. This activity has an important impact anywhere from largest cities to regions with just dozens of inhabitants.

Like any human activity, tourism involves the use of different resources in order to satisfy the needs of those who temporarily move from one place to another. Although the impact of this activity is less visible in cities where human activity is at it fullest, in destinations surrounded by natural areas such as beaches, forests, mountains, etc. the consequences of tourism and related activities are often much more visible and, in the long run, have a negative impact on them. In this way, the concepts of ecology and sustainability have become a fundamental part of tourism development.

The population, businessmen and local governments of different tourist destinations have realized that in order to maintain their main source of livelihood in the future, it is necessary to preserve the natural wealth that surrounds them. What would beach destinations be without a crystalline sea full of life? Or, mountain destinations without forests and lakes to shelter them? They would simply lose much of their appeal.

Ecotourism infographic

Thus, the concept of Ecotourism has become relevant in recent decades. The objective of this type of tourism is to achieve a balance between the human enjoyment of natural areas and their conservation. It is a form of sustainable tourism. Therefore, by including the concept of sustainability, ecotourism also links local populations, so that tourist activity can be the motor of their economies and can contribute to their development without compromising the natural wealth that surrounds them.

Another relevant approach to ecotourism is that it seeks to preserve the culture and traditions of the local populations where it takes place. Although its foundation is in the conservation and exploration of natural environments from different regions, the approach to native populations is also essential. It is possible to achieve a greater understanding of the positive relationship between humans and nature, as well as contributing to the preservation of customs and traditions. 

Ecotourism in Mexico

Due to its geographic location and its diverse relief, Mexico has a great diversity of ecosystems. There’s the cold top of mountains surrounded by forest and there’s exotic beaches in the Caribbean, but you can also find hot deserts and coral reefs, cloud forests and coastal lagoons. This diversity makes it an ideal country to get lost in the nature, explore it and enjoy different landscapes. In addition, Mexico has a rich history of indigenous populations that have managed to live in harmony with nature from ancient times. Traditions and culture also make up a relevant attraction in different regions of this country. 

Among the ecosystems present in Mexico, you can find:

  • Cloud forest.
  • Temperate forest.
  • Tropical moist forests.
  • Dry forests.
  • Coastal dunes.
  • Sandy and rocky beaches.
  • Macroalgal forests.
  • Seagrass meadows.
  • Rivers and lakes.

This makes it clear that the diversity of climates and landscapes is wide in Mexico, increasing the attractiveness of various regions of the country considerably. In addition, we are not only talking about landscapes composed of vegetation, mountains, seas, lakes, rivers or deserts, we must also consider the impressive fauna present in each of these ecosystems. In fact, wildlife observation and conservation activities are one of the bases of ecotourism.

Biodiversity in Cancún

Ecosystems in Cancun and the Riviera Maya

Now, Let’s talk about the region of the Yucatan Peninsula and the Mexican Caribbean, specifically, Cancun and Riviera Maya. There, you can find the following ecosystems:

  • Tropical moist forests: Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (State of Campeche).
  • Coastal dunes: Puerto Morelos National Park (Quintana Roo) and Río Lagartos Biosphere Reserve (Quintana Roo).
  • Sandy beaches: Puerto Morelos National Park (Quintana Roo), Tulum National Park (Quintana Roo), Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve (Yucatán), Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve (Quintana Roo), Cozumel National Park (Quintana Roo), Xcalak Reef National Park (Quintana Roo), Isla Mujeres Occidental Coast National Park, Punta Cancun and Punta Nizuc (Quintana Roo); Isla Contoy National Park (Quintana Roo) and Sian Ka´an Biosphere Reserve (Quintana Roo).
  • Mangroves: Nichupté Lagoon in Cancun.
  • Islands:Yum Balam Flora and Fauna Protected Area (Quintana Roo), Isla Contoy National Park (Quintana Roo), Cozumel Reef National Park (Quintana Roo), Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve (Quintana Roo), “Alacranes” Reef National Park (Yucatán).
  • Coral Reefs:Puerto Morelos National Park (Quintana Roo), Cozumel Reef National Park (Quintana Roo), Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve (Quintana Roo), Xcalak Reef National Park (Quintana Roo) and Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve (Quintana Roo).
  • Macroalgal forests.Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve (Quintana Roo)

Without a doubt, the Yucatan peninsula and, therefore, the State of Quintana Roo have a natural wealth that makes them stand out from other Mexican regions. Although the majority of national and international tourists are attracted to Cancun and the rest of the Riviera Maya by the stunning beaches surrounded by the turquoise blue sea, there are even more natural attractions to explore. Beyond the hotels and resorts, the bars and restaurants, the traditional tourist areas, there is a whole world of flora and fauna to discover in the Riviera Maya. This makes the destinations of the Mexican Caribbean ideal for ecotourism.

In addition, it is worth noting that natural wealth in this region is also accompanied by cultural wealth since Cancun and the rest of the Riviera Maya were part of the ancient Mayan Empire. Today, there are still Mayan communities that keep alive many of their ancestral traditions, as well as the close bond with nature that has been forged over centuries of life in the jungle, in the mangroves, on the islands and in other natural areas.

Protected areas in the Yucatan Peninsula 

Cancun and the Riviera Maya belong to the area of the Yucatan Peninsula. As we have previously mentioned, a wide diversity of ecosystems coexists in this area. Its location, close to the sea; the tropical and humid weather as well as its limestone soil have set up perfect conditions for the proliferation of exuberant vegetation that has become home to many animal species. 

In 1997, the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor initiative was signed. This initiative included the governments of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Mexico. The main objective of this project was improving the connectivity of the landscape and ecosystems as well as reducing their fragmentation and introducing sustainable production processes to improve the life of local populations that use, manage and conserve biological diversity. In this way, the conservation of protected areas in the states of Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Yucatán, Campeche, Tabasco and Oaxaca was ensured.

In the area surrounding Cancun and the Riviera Maya there are several protected areas, among them are: 

  • Sea Turtle Sanctuary at Xcacel-Xcacelito. Located in Tulum (about 90 minutes from Cancun), this reserve has beaches of more than 17 yards wide surrounded by vegetation. Among the vegetation you can find the kuká palm jungle (Pseudophoenix sargentti), the chit palm jungle (Thrinax radiata) and various types of mangrove. It is also home to 64 coral species. It is the preferred nesting place for white and loggerhead turtles. 
  • Manatee Sanctuary at Chetumal Bay. It is located in the South of Quintana Roo. This protected area is home to more than 300 plant species as well as many other animals such as jaguar, ocelot, wild boar, ocellated turkey, crocodiles and, of course, manatees. If you explore this reserve, you can go across different places such as Punta de Estrella, Bahía de Caderitas, Tamalcab Island and the Guerrero Lagoon (Xcalak). 
  • Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. This reserve is one of the most important not only in Mexico but in the world. It is located in the municipalities of Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Tulum. There, you can find up to nine ecosystems, including rain forests, wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs. It is home to animals such as the jaguar, the tapir, the manatee and the peccary. One of the most outstanding characteristics of this area is the system of underground rivers that connects various cenotes and “petenes”, it is something unique in the world. 
  • Isla Contoy National Park. Unlike the rest of the parks, this one is located in the sea, completely away from human contact and activity. It is located about 19 miles (30 kilometers) North of Isla Mujeres. In the southern coast of the island, we can find Ixlaché reef, which marks the beginning of the second longest barrier reef in the world: The Great Mesoamerican Reef. The island has two interpretive trails where you can learn about the local flora and fauna, as well as a viewpoint for bird watching.
  • Chankanaab National Park. This park is located on the Island of Cozumel. It has coastal cenote that is home to a coral formation inside the island, something unique in the world. In this park it is possible to find more than 60 species of tropical fish, crustaceans and corals; in addition to having various botanical gardens.
  • Bacalar lagoon park. It is one of the most popular parks in recent years and is located in the south of Quintana Roo State, about 220 miles (350 kilometers) from Cancun. This place is famous because of the Laguna de los Siete Colores (Seven colors Lagoon), a body of water with a hypnotizing view. It is home to a large number of animal and plant species. Just add to the mysticism of this place, the Mayans used to call it, “Sian Ka’an Bakhalal”, the place where heaven is born. Besides the lagoon, there are also cenotes and mangroves.
  • Xcalak Reef Park.This park is located in Othón P. Blanco municipality, 125 miles (190 kilometers) from Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo. It is home to the second largest coral reef in the world. You can also find an atypical coral formation called La Poza that goes deep into Belize’s territory.
  • Chinchorro Bank.It is a reef formation that belongs to the Mesoamerican Reef System. It is located about 19 miles (30 kilometers) from Xcalak and Mahahual. It is an ideal place for diving and watching different marine species, including turtles and crocodiles.

It is clear that in the areas surrounding Cancun and Riviera Maya there are a large number of parks and nature reserves where you can live unique experiences and contemplate unforgettable landscapes.

Ecotourism activities in Cancun and Riviera Maya (Quintana Roo)

Now that we a clear idea of where it is possible to apply ecotourism in Cancun and Riviera Maya, let's take a look at the activities that are common within this type of tourism. Most of these activities can be done in any of the parks that have been previously mentioned: 

Ecotourism activties in Cancun

Bird and wildlife watching

Cancun and the Riviera Maya are surrounded by a wide diversity of ecosystems. Each is home to a large number of animal and plants species. Achieving bird and wildlife watching in these places is relatively easy. However, it is important to carry out this activity with trained guides, it is important to not forget that exploring the wild requires experience to guarantee safe conditions as well as to determine the best and fastest routes to move around nature. 

Speleology and geologic interpretation.

The seabed off the coast of Quintana Roo and, in general, of the Yucatan Peninsula offer a large number of areas for exploration. If we add the vast quantity of cenotes that can be explored, the possibilities of exploration increase considerably.

Water activities in the wild.

There are a specialized canoe and kayak tours to the lagoons and cenotes in the nature reserves.

Observation of Flora

It is about walking through the wild to see and know more about the characteristics of the vegetation of a certain area. In this case, the flora is not only possible to be observed, but in many places, it can also be collected: seeds, flowers, fungi, leaves, etc.

Flora and fauna conservation programs.

The rescue and relocation of flora and fauna is considered a recreational activity in a natural environment. Its objective is to protect endemic or endangered species and promote their conservation from sustainability.

These programs are designed by trained and habitat-aware staff, and they are usually very attractive ecotourism activities for youngsters and nature lovers.

Some communities near the national parks and reserves have breeding sites for animal species such as crocodiles or turtles.

Adventure lovers will find in this ecotourism activity the opportunity to get closer to the environment. It takes place in natural areas shaped like paths, through which travelers will ideally walk. Although it can also be done on bicycles or on horseback.

Ecotourism activities infographic

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Nature Tourism

Cancun and the Riviera Maya are located in such a privileged area for activities that are part of nature tourism. The sea and the jungle are the perfect setups.

Adventure Tourism

Cancun and the Riviera Maya are perfect places for adventure tourism. With such a diversity of ecosystems, they have an ideal setting for this type of tourism.