For many people, a vacation to Mexico conjures up imagines of sandy beaches, sparkling infinity pools, and fruity, frozen drinks with little umbrellas in them – basically everything you need for a vacation that involves little more than lying around, relaxing and attaining the perfect shade of tan.
But beyond the beach chairs and margaritas, Mexico offers up plenty of activities for the adventurous and not-so adventurous traveler. About 1/5 the size of the United States, Mexico is home to diverse mountain regions, vast coastlines, lakes and rivers, making it a great place to explore and touch base with nature. No matter which region of Mexico you visit, you can find some way to put a little adventure into your trip. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Snorkeling the cenotes in the Mayan Riviera
In Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the stretch of road between Cancun and Tulum is identified as the Mayan Riviera. Known mostly for its large all-inclusive resorts and white sandy beaches, this area is also a popular eco-adventure destination, mostly because beneath the parched desert landscape lie thousands of miles of underground waterways. These waterways join together in large, underground fresh-water caves, called cenotes.
With over 2000 cenotes in this area alone, there are many to choose from. Some just offer snorkeling while others include zip-lining, rappelling, kayaking and diving. Some cenotes are within the confines of resorts and large eco-parks such as Xel-Ha, while others are marked only by a cardboard sign along the highway.
The Hidden Worlds eco-park is located just north of Tulum and offers two large caverns for snorkeling -The Church and Tak Be Hal. At the Tak Be Hal Cavern you can zip-line directly into the cave. Be sure to take mosquito repellant as you’ll be traipsing through the jungle to get to the cenotes. If you don’t like cold water (the water temperature is a chilly 72 degrees year round) wet suits are available for rent. Then don a snorkel, mask and fins and have fun navigating over, under and around stalactites and stalagmites.
Four-wheeling in Cozumel
Join an Eco Jeep tour in the town of San Miguel on Cozumel and you are promised a “Mexican Massage.” Adventure seekers are given the keys their own jeep after signing an insurance waiver and are instructed to listen to the Guide Leader over the loudspeaker for instructions and alerts for the road ahead.
The journey starts as a convoy of jeeps racing down the Mexican highway towards the coast, going through mostly dry creek beds, across small boulders and some very rough terrain – but that’s all part of the four wheeling fun. The jostling you receive is the promised “Mexican Massage”.
The Cozumel Water Sports tour includes a stop at the Punta Sur Ecological Park where you can view old Mayan ruins and salt water crocodiles that are indigenous to the area. You will then be able to lounge on the beach or snorkel the second longest reef in the world, the Palancar Reef.
Diving and snuba in Acapulco
Certified divers as well as first timers can experience the world beneath the waves at La Roqueta Island. There are several dive operators in Acapulco and all offer trips to this small island in Acapulco Bay, only accessible by boat and 30-minutes from shore. If you have your own equipment and are comfortable diving on your own, ferry boats depart from Playa Caleta about every 20 minutes or so.
Dive operators also offer excursions, with one and two tank dive as well as nighttime diving. For less experienced folks or those who just want a change a pace, try Snuba. On a Snuba dive you are connected to an air hose from the boat and can descend up to 23 ft. There are no heavy tanks to carry around and no gauges to try to make sense of, making this a great way to get acquainted with diving.
La Roqueta Island has a rich, underwater ecosystem of coral and abundant sea life. There are sunken ships, walls, and pass-through rock formations. With more than 20 different dive sites to choose from, it offers some of the best diving in Acapulco.
Surfing in Puerto Escondido
Known as the Mexican Pipeline, Puerto Escondido is one of the best surfing spots in the world. It hosts international competitions and draws top surfers from around the globe.
Zicatela Beach is the most popular surf spot. The surfing gets better (and more treacherous) right after the rainy season which begins in early May and ends in October. Die hard surfers know to bring multiple boards with them as the water breaks so hard that they can damage several boards in one day.
The Point is a little tamer and is better suited for less experienced surfers. There are still rip currents possible so make sure to check the conditions before you head out.
If you’ve never surfed before or even if you have only a little bit of experience, it’s advised to take a surf lesson. You’ll learn not only the surfing basics but you will also get some in-depth knowledge about surfing in this particular area. Both Central Surf Shop and Oasis Surf Factory offer lessons for all ages and experience levels.
Kayaking in Baja
Each year, from January to March, thousands of gray whales take refuge in Western Baja’s protected lagoons for winter breeding, making this one of the top spots in the world for whale watching.
And on the Eastern shore of the Baja Peninsula, the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) attracts a greater variety of whales and other marine mammals than any other sea on the planet.
Kayaking gives you a glimpse up close at these magnificent mammals that cannot be experienced from shore or even by boat. Kayak tours are offered on both shores and can ranges from a couple of hours to several days.
Zip-lining in Tulum
A popular activity in many cities and countries, zipl-lining in Tulum offers the added bonus of descending directly into cenotes (underground water caverns). Adventurers of all ages and skill levels can zip through the trees at high speeds while observing the jungle around them.
Safety is an important factor when choosing where to zip-line so be sure to check out the safety regulations the company follows. Xplor, the newest eco theme park in the Mayan Riviera, offers two separate zip-lining courses, with one dropping you directly into a cenote (so be sure to wear your bathing suit).
The Hidden Worlds Eco Park will open the world’s first roller coaster zip-line called the Avatar One in April 2010. This new zip-lining adventure is on a steel track that takes adventurers over dips and curves at high speeds.
Mountain climbing in Central Mexico
Expert climbers head to Mexico for their high altitude training. Both Iztaccihuatl (17,343 feet) and Orizaba (18,850 feet) provide not only the perfect training for the experts, but novices can also do these climbs with an experienced guide. Orizaba is the third-highest mountain and the highest volcanic summit in North America. Total Climbing, A Colorado based firm, provides an itinerary with enough time to get acclimated to the altitude changes as well as experiencing some of the local culture.
If Orizaba seems a little daunting and you’d like a little less altitude, then check out International Alpine Guides’ treks to La Malinche, where the summit is 14,600 feet. They also combine this climb with a visit to the pyramids of Teotihuacan before heading to Iztaccihuatl.
Both climbs offer spectacular views and glimpses in Mexico’s culture that you won’t get anywhere else.
Sport fishing in Zihuatanejo
A fisherman’s paradise, Zihuatanejo offers some of the calmest waters and steadiest water temperatures (between 75 and 86 degrees year-round) in the Pacific. That’s just one of the reasons why it was named as the second-most popular fishing destination by ‘Saltwater Sportsman Magazine’. Anglers are almost sure to bring in a catch – sailfish are abundant year round and (depending on the time of year), yellow-fin tuna, striped marlin, blue marlins and Dorados are plentiful.
For the best experience, hire a guided charter boat. While this isn’t a requirement, the captains of these vessels frequent the best spots and know where the fish are biting.
River rafting near Mexico City
About two hours South of Mexico City is the 600-mile long Usumacinta River, which defines the border between Mexico and Guatemala. It begins in the Sierra de Santa Cruz (in Guatemala) and empties into Campeche Bay.
Along its beaches lie ancient cities, hidden Mayan temples and forgotten tombs. The river winds through tropical forests filled with howler monkeys, iguanas and toucans. There are waterfalls near El Encanto, rapids along the way and spectacular canyons.
Due to Mexican Government regulations, it’s best to take an organized expedition if you want to see the river. These expeditions usually run seven to ten days and offer all meals, camping and supplies needed for the journey.
Photos by: cenote – babblingdweeb, jeep – Dave Benson, snuba – jdurham , surfing – rosswebsdale, kayaks – Bobcatnorth (Away), ziplining – Hidden Worlds , climbing – Andre Jaquez, fishing – happyfunpaul, river raft – Cvillamayor