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The Beaches

Cancún recently added significant stretches of sand to its beaches as part of a $71-million beach recovery project to counter the amount of sand eroded by various storms in recent years. Big hotels dominate the best stretches of beach. All of Mexico's beaches are public property, so you can use the beach of any hotel by walking through the lobby or directly onto the sand. Be especially careful on the east-facing beaches fronting the open Caribbean, where the undertow can be quite strong. By contrast, the waters of Bahía de Mujeres (Mujeres Bay), at the north end of the island, are usually calm and ideal for swimming. Get to know Cancún's water-safety pennant system, and make sure to check the flag at any beach or hotel before entering the water. Here's how it goes:

  • White - Excellent
  • Green - Normal conditions (safe)
  • Yellow - Changeable, uncertain (use caution)
  • Black or Red - Unsafe -- use the swimming pool instead!

In the Caribbean, storms can arrive and conditions can change from safe to unsafe in a matter of minutes, so be alert: If you see dark clouds heading your way, make for the shore and wait until the storm passes.

Playa Tortuga (Turtle Beach), Playa Langosta (Lobster Beach), Playa Linda (Pretty Beach), and Playa Las Perlas (Beach of the Pearls) are some of the public beaches. At most beaches, you can rent a sailboard and take lessons, ride a parasail, or partake in a variety of watersports. There's a small but beautiful portion of public beach on Playa Caracol, by the Xcaret Terminal. It faces the calm waters of Bahía de Mujeres and, for that reason, is preferable to those facing the Caribbean.

Watersports

Many beachside hotels offer watersports concessions that rent rubber rafts, kayaks, and snorkeling equipment. On the calm Nichupté lagoon are outlets for renting sailboats, jet skis, sailboards, and water skis. Prices vary and are often negotiable, so check around.

Deep-Sea Fishing

You can arrange a shared or private deep-sea fishing charter at one of the numerous piers or travel agencies. Prices fluctuate widely depending on the length of the excursion (there's usually a 4-hr. minimum), number of people, and quality of the boat. Marinas will sometimes assist in putting together a group. Charters include a captain, a first mate, bait, gear, and beverages. Rates are lower if you depart from Isla Mujeres or from Cozumel -- and, frankly, the fishing is better closer to those departure points.

Scuba & Snorkeling

Known for its shallow reefs, dazzling color, and diversity of life, Cancún is one of the best places in the world for beginning scuba diving. Punta Nizuc is the northern tip of the Gran Arrecife Maya (Great Mesoamerican Reef), the largest reef in the Western Hemisphere and one of the largest in the world. In addition to the sea life along this reef system, several sunken boats add a variety of dive options. Inland, a series of caverns and cenotes (wellsprings) are fascinating venues for the more experienced diver. Drift diving is the norm here, with popular dives going to the reefs at El Garrafón and the Caves of the Sleeping Sharks -- although be aware that the famed "sleeping sharks" have departed, driven off by too many people watching them snooze.

A variety of hotels offer resort courses that teach the basics of diving -- enough to make shallow dives and slowly ease your way into this underwater world of unimaginable beauty. One preferred dive operator is Scuba Cancún, Bulevar Kukulcán Km 5 (tel. 998/849-7508; www.scubacancun.com.mx), on the lagoon side. Full open-water PADI certification takes 3 days and costs $410. A half-day resort course for beginners with theory, pool practice, and a one-tank dive at a reef costs $88. Scuba Cancún is open daily from 7am to 8pm. For certified divers, Scuba Cancún also offers PADI specialty courses and diving trips in good weather to 18 nearby reefs, as well as to cenotes (9m/30 ft.) and Cozumel. The average dive is around 11m (36 ft.), while advanced divers descend farther (up to 18m/59 ft.). Two-tank dives to reefs around Cancún cost $68, and one-tank dives cost $54; those to farther destinations cost $140. Discounts apply if you bring your own gear. Dives usually start around 9:30am and return by 1:30pm. Snorkeling trips cost $29 and leave daily at 1:30 and 4pm for shallow reefs about a 20-minute boat ride away.

The largest dive operator is Aquaworld, across from the Meliá Cancún at Bulevar Kukulcán Km 15.2 (tel. 998/848-8300; www.aquaworld.com.mx). It offers resort courses and diving at a reef barrier -- including a visit to an underwater sculpture project designed to promote the growth of coral reef and marine life -- as well as snorkeling, parasailing, jet-ski "jungle tours," fishing, day trips to Isla Mujeres and Cozumel, and other watersports activities. Aquaworld has the Sub See Explorer, a boat with picture windows beneath the surface. The vessel doesn't submerge -- it's an updated version of a glass-bottom boat -- but it does provide nondivers with a worthwhile peek at life beneath the sea.

BOB Submarines (tel. 998/849-7284) offers an unforgettable underwater experience involving individual propelled "submarines" with breathing observation bubbles (BOBs). This is like scuba diving, but easier. The shop sits at El Embarcadero next to Playa Linda, and a boat takes groups from there to a nearby reef where the BOBs are deployed into the water. These personal minisubs let you discover the Caribbean at 6m (20 ft.) below the surface with a big air bubble over your head (supported by oxygen tanks) and operate much like a very slow scooter would. The tours include instruction, soft drinks, and a 30-minute assisted dive (with videos and photos of the dive available at extra cost). The price is $85 per person and the minimum age is 12, with departures at 9am, 11:30am, and 2pm. The same company also offers WaveRunner jungle tours.

Besides snorkeling at El Garrafón Natural Park, travel agencies offer an all-day excursion to the natural wildlife habitat of Isla Contoy, which usually includes time for snorkeling. The island, 90 minutes past Isla Mujeres, is a major nesting area for birds and a treat for nature lovers. You can call any travel agent or see any hotel tour desk to get a selection of boat tours to Isla Contoy. Prices range from $50 to $80, depending on the length of the trip, and generally include drinks and snorkeling equipment.

The Great Mesoamerican Reef also offers exceptional snorkeling opportunities. In Puerto Morelos, 37km (23 miles) south of Cancún, the reef hugs the coastline for 15km (9 1/3 miles). The reef is so close to the shore (about 460m/1,509 ft.) that it forms a natural barrier for the village and keeps the waters calm on the inside of the reef. The water here is shallow, from 1.5 to 9m (5-30 ft.), resulting in ideal conditions for snorkeling. Stringent environmental regulations implemented by the local community have kept the reef here unspoiled. Only a select few companies are allowed to offer snorkel trips, and they must adhere to guidelines that will ensure the reef's preservation. Cancún Mermaid (tel. 998/273-4257; www.cancunmermaid.com), in Puerto Morelos, is considered the best -- it's a family-run ecotour company that has operated in the area since the 1970s. It's known for highly personalized service. The 8-hour tour typically takes snorkelers to two sections of the reef, spending about an hour in each area. When conditions allow, the boat drops off snorkelers and then follows them along with the current -- an activity known as "drift snorkeling," which enables snorkelers to see as much of the reef as possible. The trip costs $95, which includes boat, snorkeling gear, life jackets, a light lunch, bottled water, sodas, and beer, entrance to the park, and round-trip transportation to and from Puerto Morelos from Cancún hotels. Departures are Monday through Saturday at 9am. Reservations are required at least 1 day in advance; MasterCard and Visa are accepted.

Jet-Ski/Fast Boat Tours

Several companies offer the thrilling Jungle Cruise, in which you drive your own small speedboat (called a lancha) or WaveRunner rapidly through Cancún's lagoon and mangrove estuaries out into the Caribbean Sea and a shallow reef. The excursion lasts about 2 1/2 hours and costs $60 to $80, including snorkeling equipment. Many people prefer the companies offering two-person boats rather than WaveRunners, since they can sit side by side rather than one behind the other.

Jungle Cruise operators and names offering excursions change often. To find out what's available, check with a local travel agent or hotel tour desk. The popular Aquaworld, Bulevar Kukulcán Km 15.2 (tel. 998/848-8300), calls its trip the Jungle Tour and charges $66 for the 2 1/2-hour excursion, which includes 30 minutes of snorkeling time. It even gives you a free snorkel and has the WaveRunner-style one-behind-the-other seating configuration. Multiple departures happen daily from 9am to 4:30pm. If you'd prefer a side-by-side boat so that you and your partner can talk or at least look at each other, try Blue Ray, Bulevar Kukulcán Km 13.5, next to Mambo Café (tel. 998/885-1108), which charges $66, with departures every hour between 9am and 3pm. Expect to get wet, and wear plenty of sunscreen. If you just want to rent a WaveRunner, Aquaworld offers them for $45 per half-hour or $82 per hour.

Other Outdoor Activities

Dolphin Swims -- On Isla Mujeres, you have the opportunity to swim with dolphins at Dolphin Discovery (tel. 998/877-0207 or 849-4757; www.dolphindiscovery.com). Groups of eight people swim with two dolphins and one trainer. Swimmers view an educational video and spend time in the water with the trainer and the dolphins before enjoying 15 minutes of free swimming time with them. Reservations are recommended (you can book online), and you must arrive an hour before your assigned swimming time, at 10:30am, 12:15pm, 2:15pm, or 3:30pm. The cost is $129 per person for the Dolphin Royal Swim. There are less expensive programs that allow you to learn about, touch, and hold the dolphins (but not swim with them) starting at $69. Ferry transfers from Playa Langosta in Cancún are available.

La Isla Shopping Village, Bulevar Kukulcán Km 12.5, has an impressive Interactive Aquarium (tel. 998/883-0411; www.aquariumcancun.com.mx), with dolphin swims and shows and the chance to feed a shark while immersed in the water in an acrylic cage. Guides inside the main tank use underwater microphones to point out the sea life, and even answer your questions. Open exhibition tanks enable visitors to touch a variety of marine life, including sea stars and manta rays. The educational program and dolphin swim costs $85 and the shark-feeding experience runs $60. The entrance fee to the aquarium is $10, and it's open daily from 9am to 6pm.

Golf & Tennis -- The 18-hole Cancún Golf Club at Pok-Ta-Pok (tel. 998/883-0871; www.cancungolfclub.com), located at Bulevar Kukulcán Km 7.5, is a Robert Trent Jones II design on the northern leg of the island. Greens fees run $175 for 18 holes in high season, $145 in low season, including breakfast or lunch and golf cart (discounted fees after 2pm), with clubs renting for $45. A caddy costs $20 plus tip. The club is open daily from 6:30am to 5pm.

The Hilton Cancún Golf & Spa Resort (tel. 998/881-8016; www.hiltoncancun.com) has a championship 18-hole, par-72 course around the Ruinas Del Rey. Greens fees during high season for the public are typically $179 for 18 holes and $99 for 9 holes; Hilton Cancún guests pay discounted rates of $129 for 18 holes, or $79 for 9 holes, which includes a golf cart. Low-season and twilight discounts are available. Golf clubs and shoes are available for rent. The club is open daily from 6am to 6pm and accepts American Express, MasterCard, and Visa. The Gran Meliá Cancún (tel. 998/881-1100) has a 9-hole executive course; the greens fee is $35. The club is open daily from 7am to 3pm (last tee time is 1pm).

The first Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course in the Cancún area is at the Moon Palace Spa & Golf Club (tel. 998/881-6000; www.palaceresorts.com), along the Riviera Maya. The $260 greens fee ($160 for twilight) includes cart, snacks, and drinks.


Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.