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Nature Tourism in Cancun and the Riviera Maya

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Last update: Oct 1, 2021

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Cancun and the Riviera Maya: Enjoy nature tourism!

Contrary to popular belief, Cancun and the Riviera Maya are not only places where you can enjoy stunning beaches and an incredible nightlife. Although both are among its main attractions, these destinations located in the State of Quintana Roo has many other possibilities due to the natural wealth of its territory. Of course, the white sand and turquoise waters in the beaches will still be a must see for any tourist.

So, if spending the day relaxing in the pool and wandering around the beach aren't enough to spice up your vacation in Cancun or the Riviera Maya towns (Playa del Carmen, Puerto Morelos, Tulum), nature tourism offers many other activities to satisfy your expectations for a change of scenery with authentic experiences.

In this post we show you another face of Cancun and the Riviera Maya. Through a wide variety of activities in nature, we take you to heart of the wild of the Mexican Caribbean.

Ecotourism activities infographic

Attention explorers who are looking for adventure! Time to take off your flip-flops and sunglasses and put on your hiking shoes, binoculars or even a snorkel mask!

Ready? Follow Odigoo's parrot!

Nature tourism: what is it exactly?

Nature tourism, green tourism, ecotourism, adventure tourism... In the last fifty years, different tourism practices related to the environment and ecology have been developed around the world. Mexico is no exception to such activities.

With such similar terms, it is difficult not to confuse these different types of tourism and understand all their specific features.

Wonders of nature in Cancun

Therefore, before exploring the natural wonders of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, we offer you a brief reminder of the fundamental principles of nature tourism.

According to the definition of the UNWTO (World Tourism Organization): "nature tourism corresponds to all the activities whose main motivation is the observation and appreciation of nature."

Nature tourism is focused primarily on the discovery of ecosystems and natural areas for recreational purposes, without any other intention involved. It is more focused on entertainment; therefore, it is not intended to respond to environmental, socio-economic and sustainable problems.

In this regard, nature tourism differs from another growing trend that has become extremely popular since the 1970s, Ecotourism, also called green tourism.

The Riviera Maya: an ideal destination for nature tourism

Now let's get straight to the point of this post!

It is time to learn more about the different places of interest available in Quintana Roo’s territory if you want to have an authentic experience through nature tourism.

It is through the heart of exciting ecosystems, whether they are on the land, on the sea or even in lagoons and islands; that nature tourism will take you on an incredible ride to see Cancun and Riviera Maya in a way you’ve never thought before.

Cancun and Riviera Maya: Privileged locations to explore the wild

Cancun and the Riviera Maya are usually considered destinations focused on beach activities and an amazing nightlife. But, there’s quite more to see and do in the Mexican Caribbean. Due to its remarkable geographical location, the weather and other favorable conditions like the biggest network of underground rivers in the world, the Yucatan Peninsula is home to hundreds of plants and animals.

As a matter of fact, Quintana Roo has everything to attract nature enthusiasts, those who want to discover a wild territory and explore the places few have dared to see. Perfectly located between the Caribbean Sea and lagoons while also being bordered by acres of jungle and mysterious mangroves, the Riviera Maya has lots of unparalleled natural assets.

Cancun, a region surrounded by nature

A true haven for wildlife, The Riviera Maya is a warm land where many species of flora and fauna still thrive. From jaguars to dolphins, from orchids to huge trees, from tarantulas to colorful fishes, there’s a living treasure almost in every corner of this region.

The geological characteristics of the region have also contributed to the creation of the most incredible places anyone could have thought of. It is not possible to talk about the Riviera Maya and, in general, the Yucatan Peninsula without mentioning its network of underground rivers and, caves as well as the open-air cenotes (sinkholes). This natural phenomenon is the product of the limestone soil that developed millions of years ago in this location. A curious fact about this is that the impact of the meteorite that would cause the extinction of the dinosaurs was key to set these conditions on the area.

Natural reserves where you can enjoy the Mexican Caribbean wildlife

Aware of the uncommon natural wealth of this region, the Mexican government has promoted the conservation of this territory by creating many reserves and other national parks throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.

The protection of the species, both animals and plants, is the main focus of these conservation programs, which seek to guarantee the balance of each ecosystem in the Peninsula.

Wildlife in Cancun

Among the most popular reserves in the Mexican Caribbean, you will find

  • Contoy Island, just a few miles away from Cancun’s coast;
  • The Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve at south Tulum;
  • Ria Lagartos National Park in North Yucatan;
  • Calakmul Biosphere Reserve at the very heart of Campeche State and;
  • Ring of cenotes (sinkholes) reserve in Central Yucatan.

With no doubt, places with charming names that you will be able to discover through nature tourism in the Peninsula; from Quintana Roo to Yucatán via Campeche.

As we have been mentioning, all these protected areas, in addition to being of rare beauty, are home to many animal species. Among the most famous are: the jaguar, the ocelot, the tapir, the manatee, the crocodile; there are also several birds such as the flamingo and the scarlet macaw. Obviously, this is just a short non-exhaustive list of the hundreds of creatures that can be discovered through nature tourism in this region.

As expected, as we turn our attention to the sea, Cancun and the Riviera Maya’s wealth is not far behind from what it’s found on the mainland. Just by mentioning that the shores of this places are bordered by the Caribbean Sea, there’s already a huge precedent of all the living creatures that can be found in these warm and colorful waters.

With the second largest coral reef in the planet, the Caribbean Sea is home to hundreds of marine species, both animal and plant. Just a few yards away from the coast, it is possible to enjoy an amazing live show with fishes, turtles and other animals. Those who enjoy swimming, snorkeling and even diving in the sea will witness a unique experience in the Mexican Caribbean.

Nature tourism in the Riviera Maya will give you the chance to watch closely many sea animals. There you can find several species of dolphins and sharks, including the famous bull sharks.

Amazing landscapes in Cancun

The seven species of sea turtles, countless brightly colored fish, multi-colored corals, and more than sixty species of sponges can also be found along the coasts of Quintana Roo,

Finally, if you choose to travel to the Riviera Maya between June and September, you may have the chance to meet the enigmatic whale shark. It is the largest migratory fish in the world. Every year, they come by the hundreds to the Caribbean Sea to feast on their favorite dish, plankton.

Clear, right? Cancun and the Riviera Maya are calling you to explore and discover dream places where wild beauty reigns. Nature tourism is one of the ways to discover all these secrets.

Nature tourism in Cancun and the Riviera Maya: What to do & what to see?

You can enjoy nature tourism in Cancun and the Riviera Maya in so many ways. The possibilities it offers will depend on who you are traveling with (a big group? A small group?), the cities or towns you are going to visit and even the time of day you want to start your adventure (early morning? Noon? Perhaps at night?). With nature tourism there will always be an activity or tour for you.

Charming landscapes in Cancun

In order to make the nature tourism offer in Cancun and the Riviera Maya more understandable, we will talk about a sample of tours and activities according to the type of environment that you would like to explore.

The Jungle and The Lagoons

If you have passionately followed the adventures of Indiana Jones, dreaming of going into a tropical jungle to discover mysterious places, all the activities and tours in the heart of the Mayan jungle are for you.

Fauna and Flora Observation: Wherever you are staying in the Riviera Maya, from Cancun to Tulum to Playa del Carmen, you can find a tour to discover animals and plants in the wild. Depending on what you are looking for, you can join a small group or a big group of people for this type of adventure.

Most of the tours will be led by a local guide, one who know all about the natural park o reserve you are visiting: the ancient Mayan traditions, the places where the animals can be found, at what time they usually come out, the properties of the plants surrounding the area and many other facts that will catch your attention immediately.

Things to do in Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

Among the most famous tours in the nature, you can find bird watching in the jungle, mangroves and other ecosystems. There are also boat tours to watch crocodiles, dolphins and manatees – the kings of the freshwater lagoons. Most of these tours can be done in the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve.

Another interesting place if you are interested on animal watching is Punta Laguna, a Mayan Community in the middle of the jungle. There you will find a monkey sanctuary.

Nature tourism includes jungle trekking. This activity will let you enjoy nature without disturbing it. However, other means of transportations like bikes are not excluded from this type of tourism.

As we have previously mentioned, boat trips are also an activity in nature tourism. This activity is available in places such as the Nichupté Lagoon in Cancun and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve that is located a few miles South from Tulum.

Exploring Cancun and The Riviera Maya

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If you are planning a tour in a National Park always arrive early in the morning! Wild animals do not wait to show up until visitors arrive. If you want to make the most of your visit, get ready to meet them at the very first ray of daylight! The best time for bird watching is early in the morning.

ATV Tours: If you are a fan of safari-type tours, nature tourism will immediately catch your attention with all the options available to explore the jungle. Get on an ATV. You’ll be able to explore the jungle riding these vehicles.

Nature tourism also includes ATV's and other motorized vehicles as an alternative to explore the jungle in small group.

La oferta de turismo de naturaleza del ATV incluye muchos recorridos en grupos pequeños para explorar la naturaleza por la Península de Yucatán. La observación de flora y fauna está considerada dentro de estas actividades.

FOR THE GREENEST OF TRAVELLERS: You should know that there are also activities and tours in the Riviera Maya that can be done by soft means of transportation (ZERO Emission) like Kayak and paddle in Nichupte and Sian Ka’an Lagoons. And of course, you can always walk through the jungle or maybe ride a bike.

“Cenote” exploration: The Yucatan Peninsula has a huge network of underground rivers and open-air freshwater wells called cenotes. It is the largest freshwater reserve in the region.

The cenotes are one of the most emblematic places of Cancun and the Riviera Maya. Nature tourism allows you to discover and explore these magical and mysterious places. There are some covered by exuberant vegetation, there are others hidden inside caves decorated by amazing stalactites. The common feature is the crystal-clear water and the peaceful atmosphere in them. If you want to relax while contemplating an unparalleled landscape, you must definitely explore as many cenotes as you can.

Cenotes in Cancun

Being a part of a unique ecosystem in the world, these places are remarkable for their geological characteristics and they are also home to plants and animals.

You'll see it! While enjoying nature tourism in cenotes, fishes such as mojarras will come to swim between your feet. River turtles will not be strangers to you either. You can also see bats hanging in clusters from the limestone roofs as well as many birds that nest near water bodies. Some members of modern Mayan communities say that even the jaguars themselves come at night to quench their thirst in the refreshing waters of the cenotes.

In addition to enjoying the beauty of these amazing places, tours to cenotes usually include additional services like transportation and meal service.

Depending on the cenote you are visiting, you can also find zip lines and platforms where you can jump to the cenote from different height, just to make the experience even more exciting.

It is also possible to rent snorkeling equipment to have a better look of all the flora and fauna that are living in the water of the cenotes.

For those willing to explore further and have an unforgettable experience, scuba diving is another way to know the cenotes. Of course, due to the conditions of many cenotes, to do this you must be a certified diver. There can be certified with one of many scuba diving companies in the Riviera Maya, it’s just a matter of planning in the right way what you want to do in the cenotes.

Among the must-see cenotes of the Riviera Maya, we can mention those located on the “Ruta de los Cenotes” (cenotes route). These route runs through the jungle west from Puerto Morelos. There you will find many parks with cenotes.

For those who want to do a one-day tour, the “Dos Ojos” Park is just perfect.

With more than 2,500 cenotes scattered throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, nature tourism will take you on an adventure to the most secret places in the jungle to find these freshwater bodies that have amazed explorers for centuries

Natural reserves: discovering lake environments: Nature tourism is an open window to the natural reserves of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, ideal places to watch flora and fauna.

Between the Nichupté lagoon and its mangroves bordering the city of Cancun, the Sian Ka'an reserve, home to a wide diversity of terrestrial and aquatic fauna (crocodiles, manatees, turtles, dolphins, birds, etc.); the Ría Lagartos reserve in the north of the Peninsula, famous for its pink flamingos, you will have many options to choose the best tours in the heart of the jungle.

Hiking, ATVs, boat rides, kayaking or paddle boarding are some of the most emblematic activities offered by nature tourism in these lake areas.

Beaches

The Caribbean Sea offers many possibilities to enjoy nature tourism activities in total freedom.

Catamaran tours: if you have the true spirit of a sailor, one day (or half day) catamaran tours are a perfect fit for you! These activities will be a chance to take a better and deepr look of the Caribbean Sea.

These tours are usually offered to small groups. Catamaran excursions can be private (just your friends / family and you) but you can also get on board with other people and make new friends.

Through catamaran tours, nature tourism will take you on a sea adventure to discover the beauties of the Caribbean Sea. You will closely enjoy this amazing sea, watching the superb shades of turquoise, blue and crystal-clear water. Most of these tours have destinations such as Isla Mujeres and Cozumel. In catamaran tours, it is common to make several stops to have a chance to swim, snorkel, dive or just take a look to sea animals.

Meal services as well as open bar are some other services available in catamaran tours just to make this unforgettable experience at sea even better, whether you are sharing it with family or friends.

Exploring the islands of the Riviera Maya: According to nature tourism, tours to the islands located close to Cancun and the Riviera Maya are among the must do stuff when visiting the Mexican Caribbean.

If exploring nature in its purest form is appealing to you, then Isla Contoy and its essence of lost paradise will fascinate you. Protected by very strict conservation rules, the access to Isla Contoy is only by reservation and with a certified guide. Only 200 people are allowed on the island each day. Thanks to nature tourism activities, you may be one of the privileged ones to explore this virgin island, a true sanctuary of flora and fauna.

If you are more interested in aquatic activities such as snorkeling, diving and watching the fauna in the ocean, the Islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres are suitable for a full or half day tour. Famous for their beauty and their relaxing atmosphere as well as for their proximity to the great coral reef of Cancun. Both islands can be traveled by golf cart or scooter. An interesting feature is that even they are not as big as other destinations in the Mexican Caribbean, you can also stay there for several days in world class resorts or boutique hotels. There’s a wide offer of accommodation services in both islands.

Cozumel Island

Diving and Snorkeling: The Caribbean Sea is the perfect place to enjoy diving and snorkeling. This is due to its calm waters and the countless species, both animals and plants, that live in it. Watching and exploring the sea is one of the emblematic activities of nature tourism in the Riviera Maya.

Snorkeling is a very common activity in nature tourism. It is about swimming on the surface to watch the seabed wearing a mask and a breathing tube. You can also add fins to your gear in order to swim as easily as a fish and have a better experience exploring the turquoise waters.

No certification is required to snorkel. The equipment is rented very easily for days, half a day or even hours.

Diving is a journey into the world of silence, a universe where gravity recedes and then you just float, like if you were jumping in the space between two different worlds: the one above with all the light, gravity and air; and the one below totally surrounded by water, but still full of life.

In Cancun and the Riviera Maya, there are many diving centers that will welcome you throughout the year. They are run by professionals that are totally passionate about the marine world. By their side, you will be able to know this sport that is also part of nature tourism. From the first dive to the most advanced certifications (PADI, SSI), whether you are a novice or experienced diver, you will be offered all the diving services according to your expertise.

Swimming with sea animals, an extraordinary experience: Probably, everyone has dreamed about doing this, with nature tourism, swimming with sea animals is totally possible! Cancun and the Riviera Maya are privileged destinations to learn about the many aquatic species that live in the calm waters of the Caribbean Sea.

The Sea Turtle Sanctuary in Akumal is one of those world class natural tourism sites. There, you will find one of the iconic wild species of the Yucatan Peninsula, the sea turtle.

The green turtle (Dermatemys mawii) also known as Tabasco Turtle, one of the most common species in this region, feeds exclusively on the algae that grow at the bottom of the sea but not far from Akumal beach. So, It is possible to swim close to these sea grasses and find the turtles while they are looking for food. Strictly regulated by the CONANP (National Commission of Protected Natural Areas), tours focus on watching and contemplating sea turtles can only be done in small groups of 6 people while being guarded by a guide.

Among the other most sought-after activities in nature tourism at the sea, it is impossible not to mention the excursions focused on swimming with the most famous animal of the Caribbean: Whales Sharks. Every year, the largest fish in the world comes close to the Riviera Maya to feast on plankton while enjoying the warm waters. It is possible to watch Whale Sharks and even swim with them between June and October.

These gentle giants share the Caribbean’s spotlight with other “stars”. As a matter of fact, due to nature tourism, you can be (sometimes even swim) as close as you can imagine to dolphins and even sharks. There are some species of these animals living in areas of the coral reefs in the Caribbean. Of course, it is important to notice that these tours are all in the nature with wild animals that are totally free.

Whale Shark Infographic

Cancun and the Riviera Maya are a true playground for those who wants to explore and discover the wild nature of the Yucatan Peninsula. Thanks to nature tourism and its plethora of offers, you will have the opportunity to share the most beautiful experiences in the heart of the Mexican Caribbean’s magnificent ecosystems with your family or friends.

To learn more about all the activities available in the Riviera Maya, check our other articles:

Are you interested in nature tourism? Do you want to add an ecological and responsible dimension to your trip? Visit our Ecotourism site to discover the articles focused on this topic.

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