The cenotes around Cancun are spectacles far beyond the ordinary.

It’s easy, right? All you have to do is show up. Cancun all-inclusive vacations take the hassles out of planning.

They pick you up, they feed you, they entertain you, You never even need to leave the resort. If you’re just looking for a pool and unlimited drinks, you might be happy with that vacation.

If your tastes run for a little more adventure, then Cancun offers lots of excitement outside those local-proof gates. Within a two-hour drive, there’s an opportunity to explore world-class ancient ruins, dive in pristine waters, explore the local culture and even feed iguanas.

Many Cancun visitors have never heard of a cenote, for instance. Cenotes are sinkholes that are unique as well as ubiquitous to the Yucatan peninsula. If you don’t read Spanish, chances are you might drive past a half a dozen of them and not even realize it. Cenotes are the little hidden oases of Mexico and offer a nice excursion to cool off, snorkel, or explore the nature in the area.

A couple of years ago I arranged a diving trip to the Dos Ojos cenote and was amazed by the beauty of these little watering holes. They’re filled with crystal clear spring water and although there’s not a lot of big colorful fish like you would see in the neighboring Caribbean. It’s a surreal experience unlike any diving or snorkeling out there. They’re created through a system of caverns honeycombed together by visible lagoons. The openings in the ground make it easy to dive a cavern without the need for an advanced SCUBA license or flashlight. The water couldn’t be any clearer. Cenotes are located lower than ground level so sometimes half the adventure is climbing down inside it via a cave entrance or zip lining into the water.

An underwater view of the cenotes reveal hidden passageways, ancient artifacts and spectacularly vibrant fish.

Outside of the water, did someone say zip lining? Selvatica Tours is just an hour south of Cancun and offers an adventure package that allows guests to zip line through the Mayan jungle, drive a Polaris wheel buggy through muddy paths, and then swim in a local cenote. If you haven’t been on a canopy tour (the eco-friendly description of zip lining), you’ve been missing out! It’s the ultimate jungle rush.

Your guides strap you into a harness and send you zinging through the trees upside down, backwards or whatever direction you choose within their guidelines. There’s someone on the other side to keep you from plunging to your death and it’s the closest you may ever get to actually flying. It’s more fun than petting a dolphin and makes great Instagram photos to send to your jealous friends.

If you’ve got a little historian in you, there’s some impressive Mayan ruins within driving distance of Cancun. Chichen Itza is the biggest draw in the area and gives visitors a chance to see what Mayan pyramids look like as well as the ever popular Chacmool statue.

If you’re heading south instead, Coba gives you some impressive pyramids, but in a jungle setting. For a small fee, you can rent a bicycle to get from one area of the park to the other. Although it’s not as big as Chichen Itza, it’s a lot less touristy and you’ll be able to dodge the souvenir sellers a little easier.

The pyramids at Coba are a little smaller but also tucked away in the jungle for a more intimate experience.

Image: Holiday Force

Most agree that the most picturesque ruins are found in Tulum. Perched on a cliff above blue green water, the views can’t be beat. Bring some crackers or pork rinds with you. There are hungry iguanas lounging on rocks everywhere and you’ll feel like Doctor Dolittle when they come running to you. The ruins aren’t as impressive, but your pictures will be amazing.

Cozumel is only a 35-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen and offers SCUBA diving at some of the best coral reefs in the world. It’s a little bit of a trick to get to Playa, which involves taking a ferry, diving and getting back in one day, but it can be done with a little planning.

If you don’t feel like making the hour drive back to Cancun, Playa del Carmen has a great area full of cool bars, interesting hotels and restaurants. It’s got more of a local “real Mexico” feel than Cancun. Cancun was created just for tourists in the mid-70s and as hard as it tries, has an artificial feel that makes you wonder if you ever left America. Playa del Carmen’s streets make a great relaxed vacation away from your vacation. It’s quieter, more romantic and less of a party scene that you find in Cancun.

If partying is your thing, you HAVE to experience Coco Bongo. It’s in the busiest area of Cancun and is advertised as sort of a night club. Like most night clubs you may have to wait in a line to get in, you’ll be offered unlimited “local” drinks and you’ll probably have to wade through throngs of people filling up every available square foot. However, the club is a spectacle of impersonators, costumed characters, confetti, giant video screens and it never slows down. 

Coco Bongo is not the kind of place where you go to dance or meet people. It’s the kind of place where you just find yourself staring at the action around you wondering what crazy thing will come next. You might see Spiderman and Green Goblin ziplining around the room, Beetlejuice with mini-Beetlejuice (a little person clone), the Mask mugging for his fans, and even a Lady Gaga impersonator prancing around; The real question is: Who isn’t there?

So next time you’re planning your Cancun trip, allow a little time to see some of the sights that many people miss. Rent a car. Eat someplace local instead of your hotel. Swim in a cenote. It will make your international vacation feel a little more, well, foreign.

Bill Wiatrak is an avid international traveler and renowned local entertainer. To see more of his worldly adventures, tune into Wanderlust for his weekly contributions or check out his personal blog, www.thetravelingwizard.com.

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