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Cancun is best known for its powder-soft beaches and turquoise-blue waters, but there are plenty of great reasons to roll up your beach towel and head inland, at least for a few hours. Here are five fascinating experiences beyond the beaches of Cancun.
Floating Fiesta Party to traditional Mexican mariachi music while gliding in a “trajinera” (gondola) through a vast network of canals at Xoximilco Cancun. This watery attraction pays tribute to Mexico City’s legendary Xochimilco floating Aztec gardens with its festive colors, folklore and cuisine. Along the way, sample traditional Mexican specialties such as grilled corn or “chapulines” (toasted grasshoppers sprinkled with chili sauce and lime), and wash it all down with shots of tequila. When the gondola’s rooftop rolls open to reveal the indigo night sky, you’ll be awestruck enough to join your fellow passengers in some late-night dancing under the stars.
A Day at the Museum Set in the heart of the Hotel Zone but a world away in atmosphere, the sophisticated Museo Maya de Cancun, designed by Mexican architect Alberto Garcia Lascurain, offers intriguing insights into the culture and practices of the ancient people of the Yucatan Peninsula. Spend an afternoon exploring precious alabaster, obsidian and jade burial masks, weapons and artifacts collected by the National Institute of Anthropology and History. But this isn’t a stuffy museum where you feel shut away indoors. Airy walkways and latticework connect you to the neighboring archaeological site of San Miguelito, which dates back to 1250 A.D.
Go Underground As you descend down a ladder into the vast caverns at Ecopark Kantun-Chi, it’s easy to imagine how the ancient Maya believed “cenotes" (underground bodies of water) were portals to the underworld. Visitors can experience four of these natural pools in one day during the Xenotes Oasis Maya excursion. Stalactites hang suspended over mystic waters and pre-Hispanic artifacts lie submerged on the limestone floor. Strap on a snorkel mask and explore the underwater gardens, or get an adrenaline rush during a zipline through the jungle canopy that ends with a refreshing splash. More laid-back options in the cenotes include kayaking or simply bobbing in a life vest in the crystal-clear waters.
Joya Theatre Show Located in Riviera Cancun (midway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen), Joya is a Las Vegas-style theatrical production showcasing the history and culture of Mexico, from the asteroid believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs to modern-day masked “lucha libre” wrestlers. Produced by the acclaimed Cirque du Soleil entertainment company, it’s an immersive dinner show featuring gasp-inducing feats of athleticism, the rhythms of Mexico and memorable culinary experiences such as edible menus and an amuse-bouche that causes “dragon’s breath” smoke to billow from each diner’s mouth. The theater itself is set in the jungle, offering a jaw-dropping experience that merges artistry and architecture.
Market Gastronomy Experience the flavors of authentic Mexico during an excursion to Mercado 23 in downtown Cancun. Top finds at this public market include hand-painted Hidalgo pottery, embroidered blouses and mementos festooned with images of the revered Virgin of Guadalupe, all at a fraction of the price you’d pay at a gift shop. But the real highlight of Mercado 23 is its dizzying array of exotic produce, from sticky-sweet “caimito” (star apple) to brilliant-green nopal cactus. If you’re ready to cook up a few of your culinary discoveries, a full-day Mexican cooking class with chef Claudia at Can Cook in Cancun will help you master the basics of Yucatan cuisine.