Places to Stay in Cancun:
At the south end of the island, Club Med surrounds the best snorkeling site on the Cancun strip. Getting in is difficult because they patrol their streets and paths relentlessly. You can (quite legally) walk in along the sand from the Westin Regina to the north. Otherwise it's necessary to take an excursion by boat. If you want handy snorkeling, Club Med is the place to stay, or the nearby Westin Regina.
Westin Regina and Club Regina
This elegant hotel/timeshare combo is located just to the north of Club Med. Swimming is usually OK in front, but for snorkeling walk south on the beach through Club Med. Cross the point and snorkel the ocean side where a long stretch of reef is protected by an outer reef. The current often takes you to the right so you can have a slow drift snorkel and hike back if necessary -- being ever alert for guards. You'll see a number of boats at the end of your long snorkel. In heavy seas, waves and swells can make this inner area dangerous since it's all fairly shallow (3-15'). Do NOT risk getting caught between a wave and some coral.
This point at the south end of Cancun surrounded by Club Med is the best Cancun snorkeling. A long outer reef protects the inner area and provides a large shallow snorkeling area. Enter anywhere from the north end (if arriving from the northern hotels), the south (if by boat). Depth ranges from 3' to 15' with an excellent variety of coral and fish. The southern half is probably the more varied. Do not snorkel here in weather that causes waves or large swells to cross the outer reef. Getting in and out can be hazardous at those times. When calm, it's easy to find steps and little sandy spots to enter.
While not abundant, the coral was in good condition and quite varied. We saw plenty of brain coral, deep purple fan corals, even some soft corals. Some of our favorite fish sightings included the dramatic midnight parrotfish (shades of deep blue only), large vividly colored parrotfish, queen and French angelfish, and a few stately scrawled filefish.
XCARET (pronounced Shcar-et)
This large and fascinating park offers something for everyone. The entrance fee ($39 US, 1998 for adults) is high by Mexican standards, but well worth the price. Be sure to come early and stay late for the show. For an extra fee, you can show up at the Xcaret terminal in the center of the Cancun strip. Reservations are not required and several buses leave in the morning. Other tour operators also sell packages to Xcaret.
There's no way you can see and do everything in one day, so check the possibilities carefully and arrange your time to make sure to see what interest you most. Among the offerings are: snorkeling an underground river (best very early before the crowds arrive), snorkeling the inner lagoon, swimming with dolphins (extra charge), natural salt water aquarium, butterfly pavilion, jaguars, turtles, crocodiles, riding horses or watching the display, visiting a Mayan village with ruins, watching both Mayan and regional Mexican dances, snorkeling or diving on a short excursion (extra, but reasonable, cost), dining in a variety of restaurants, and staying for the show featuring music and dance from all over Mexico.
For the snorkeler: head straight to the underground river and be the first person in the water. Life jackets are required. Sign up for their snorkeling excursion later ($12 US each, 1998) to view some beautiful reef outside the park. Snorkelers are accompanied by guides. Beginners are taken to calm water; advanced are treated to several reef crossings.
Somewhere in your busy day, find time to visit the fascinating aquarium where you can see the coral that has been born right in the display. Also snorkel the lagoon and out toward the sea as far as safe. You'll see numerous large angelfish and parrotfish in calm, clear and clean water.
We recommend the traditional Mexican restaurant near the entrance. It offers outstanding homemade (kitchen open to view) food at a very reasonable price. (large meal for four was about $40 US total) Be sure to try the strange-looking but utterly delicious green drink called Chaya, and their scrumptious fresh mushrooms grown right at Xcaret.
The people at Xcaret are very proud of their achievement. While some compare this to Disneyland or DisneyWorld, that isn't a very helpful comparison. The educational opportunities and the fact that these lagoons and rivers are primarily natural makes Xcaret quite special. Of course, they have altered the landscape to allow about 16,000 people to enjoy this area each and every day, but they are succeeding in their effort to save this special place and make it enjoyable, sustainable and accessible.
Entering Akumal from the highway requires driving through a large arch that resembles a hotel entrance. You can park in this area for shopping, restaurants on the sand, or snorkeling toward the point to the left. This is a lovely white sand beach with excellent swimming and some snorkeling.
If you take the road to the north, you will pass a number of hotels and condos lining Half Mile Beach. At the end of this road (after it turns back toward the highway) is the paid parking for Yalku lagoon. When washed by the tides, this can offer nice snorkeling with schools of fish and some huge parrotfish. The day we snorkeled it appeared polluted and was not something we'd recommend. Parking, showers and restrooms are all available here IF you pay to park.
CASA CENOTE area
Driving south on the highway toward Tulum, you'll see a sign for the Casa Cenote restaurant and a little, bumpy dirt road. Take this road toward the ocean, then wind to the left until you see the restaurant, about one mile off the Tulum road. Their food is excellent and they're right on the sand of a pretty beach. While there, snorkel the cenote directly across the street from the restaurant. You can't miss it. Cenotes are a very unique experience with clear water, views of mangroves along the edge, and sounds of birds overhead.
Also snorkel the ocean directly in front of the restaurant. You can wander about in this large protected bay as long as it's fairly calm due to the barrier reef about 300 yards offshore. Close to shore you'll notice holes where the fresh water enters the sea. These holes are like skylights in a vast underground river system. Nearly all of the Yucatan's rainwater flows underground to the sea.
Tankah Inn: This small inn is located just a quarter mile north of the restaurant. It has 6 elegant, comfortable units with ocean view and a beautiful restaurant on the top. The inn is operated family-style with guests able to help themselves and order individually. Rooms are all $120, except for the end unit that is $140 and very popular. They also have a full Scuba operation downstairs.
XEL-HA (pronounced Shell-Ha)
Any snorkeler will love this park with its wandering lagoons and cenotes. Admission is $15 US (1998), well worth the price. This beautiful lagoon area had been nearly ruined by tourists, but was brought back to life by the people who developed Xel-Ha and continue to care for it with great diligence. The park is open from 8 till 6, but you can stay till 7. Facilities close at 5. Admission is not charged after 5 so you can come then for a chance to look around.
Xel-Ha is dedicated to snorkeling and a perfect place for beginners and children. All gear (including inner tubes, life vests) are available. Broad wooden steps are scattered throughout the park so you can snorkel from these steps in secluded areas if you prefer the quiet. The vast lagoon area is all interesting, calm and clean. Staff members snorkel early each day to pick up any pieces of trash. Snorkel down the river, see giant parrotfish right near the restaurants, or snorkel toward the open ocean as far as your abilities allow, check out the caves on the far side. We saw large pelagic fish near the ocean; rays, butterflyfish, tangs, parrotfish, angelfish, wrasses, damselfish and much more in the lagoon.
Showers, restrooms, and restaurants are located in several areas. Beach chairs and superb hammocks provide a welcome rest. Snorkeling with dolphins is available (at an extra cost). Hiking the trails in this protected area is beautiful and often shady, but warm. You'll encounter plenty of large iguanas along the trails. Bring a hat because sunscreens need to be checked at the entrance to avoid harm to the fish. Lockers are available for your belongings.
Children will enjoy rafting down the river in big blue tubes and the older ones will want to jump off the cliffs in designated spots.
These beautiful ruins are located right on the sea and include a popular tiny beach. Wear your bathing suit under your clothes and have a swim here after a hot day of touring the ruins. Late in the day everyone leaves and a swim at this little cove is delightful.
The ruins can be entered from the main road, but require either a hike or catching a ride on the "train" located at the "shopping center" next to the parking lot. From the south, you must hike north along the dirt road to the entrance.
For meals here, try Tulum pueblo nearby. Tourist hang-outs like Don Cafeto offer gourmet food while basic grilled chicken stands provide excellent and very cheap meals. There are several tiny stores in the town as well as a bakery that is easily missed--we thought it was closed at first. Walk in, and someone will come out from the baking area to serve you.
From the main highway, just north of Tulum Pueblo, take the road towards Coba and you will see the sign for Grand Cenote at 3 1/2 km. There is an entrance fee now and stairs are provided to get down to this crystal-clear water about 50' below. Eerie blue water colors and big stalactites hanging down into the water. Haunting and beautiful. Divers heading into the caverns often provide lighting so you can see deeper into the cavern. Go early since it isn't large and snorkel or swim into the cave area for an unusual experience. It's a very short walk from the parking lot.