Snorkeling in Cancun is up there with the bucket-list experiences of Mexico, no questions. This land of crystal-clear seas and shimmering beaches is fringed by one of the largest coral systems in the world. That’s the mighty Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which clocks up a length of 700 miles from tip to toe. It actually starts at the end of the Yucatan Peninsula (where Cancun itself is located) and runs all the way into the depths of Central America.
But snorkeling in Cancun isn’t just about getting salty. You can also go searching for hidden cenotes and underground riverways, which carve through the misty jungles of the Yucatan by the bucket load. They offer a whole other underwater world, filled with strange stalactites and stalagmites, and curious cave creatures that you just don’t get in the Caribbean.
This guide runs through seven of the very best places for snorkeling in Cancun. It’s got resplendent reefs that brim with brain corals and parrotfish. It’s also got secret sinkholes in the woods. Some of these are best visited as part of an organized Cancun snorkeling tour. Others can be done on your own, with rented equipment and a sense of adventure!
Okay, so the hardest thing about snorkeling on the Isla Contoy will be getting there. This long, thin dash on the map of the seas just off the Cancun coast is heavily protected for environmental reasons. Only 200 people are allowed to visit each day, and only a handful of companies are accredited with the right license to offer trips.
If you are one of the lucky ones. Great. Isla Contoy actually marks the join between the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s fringed with lush green mangroves and waters that are positively teeming with marine life. Some of the best snorkeling tours in Cancun make their way to the island for a pitstop at the Ixlache Reef. It’s considered to be one of the most pristine corners of the Mesoamerican Reef, so expect glimpses of lionfish, zebrafish, sea turtles – there’s loads.
Trips usually cost upwards of $80 for the whole day and will culminate with a landing on the Robinson Crusoe-esque Isla Contoy itself. That’s something you won’t forget in a hurry. The entire place is a designated wildlife refuge and hosts over 150 species of bird, including flamingos, crested cormorants, and pelicans.
No list of the best destinations for snorkeling in Cancun could possibly be complete without a mention of Cozumel. This island, set out in the Caribbean Sea some 48 miles to the south of the great resort city, is known as one of the top scuba spots in all of Mexico. With that comes epic snorkeling. Come on, just look at the location – the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef dashes by to the west and the east! It’s the obvious choice.
Let’s start with the Palancar Reef. It’s probably the most treasured of snorkel spots on Cozumel. We asked around and EVERYONE said to head here with the pipe and goggles in tow. We took the advice and made the 30-minute trip to Palancar Beach on the south-west end of the island. It’s a stunning place with cloud-white sands and overhanging palms; true Carib stuff. There were snorkel rentals offering all the gear for $10. Once you’re kitted out, it’s just a case of paddling out and ducking under, where we found oodles of strange multicolored fish. A boat trip to the reef itself will reveal more, in the form of manta rays and sea turtles and strange jellies.
Cozumel also boasts some of the best Cancun snorkeling park options. Top of that list is probably the Chankanaab Park. Just a few miles off the Cozumel port, it has some vibrant patches of coral garden and famous submerged statues of the Virgin Mary. Be sure to bring the GoPro for that!
Punta Nizuc is probably the closest Cancun snorkeling park to the heart of the town. Situated at the far south end of the Hotel Zone spit, it’s really easy to reach from any of the major resorts. What’s more, there are loads of organized tours ready to take you there, often with a boating outing on the shimmering Nichupté Lagoon thrown in for good measure.
The Punta Nizuc reef itself has plenty to keep the eyes busy on a snorkel trip. There are over 30 individual types of coral. It sprouts forests of seaweeds and soft corals. More than 100 fish make an appearance, as do four different types of sea turtle. However, the piece de resistance of this spot – and what puts it up there with the best snorkeling in Cancun if you ask us – is the strange array of submerged sculptures. Some of those belong to the MUSA Cancun Underwater Museum – think haunting human figures slowly being overgrown by sea mosses.
If you’ve got some cash to splash, you could also opt to bed down at the Nizuc Resort that’s right next door. We’d say it’s among the most luxurious on the whole Cancun Hotel Zone. Infinity pools with swim-up bars meet designer spas and sprawling villa suites within – honeymoon, perhaps?
The Machones Reef is arguably the finest snorkeling in Cancun’s Isla Mujeres. Around a kilometer off the shoreline on the south-western edge of the island, it’s one to visit on an organized tour. The area is known for its vibrant and colorful coral life, but also for a selection of underwater artworks. They are related to the MUSA museum in Cancun and can be pretty darn quirky. Yep, there’s even one that mimics a life-size VW Beetle!
Trips to the Manchones Reef typically last a whole day or half a day. Some operators ask visitors to stay attached to the boat by rope for the whole duration. Others simply request that lifejackets be worn – that’s compulsory this far off the coast anyhow. When it comes to wildlife, you’ll want to keep the eyes peeled for strange elkhorn coral structures and big barracuda, both of which are known to exist at this reef.
Akumal is wedged between the bustling towns of Playa del Carmen and Tulum on the stunning Riviera Maya. It’s about 65 miles or so south of Cancun but is a cinch to reach on a day trip, or – even better – if you’ve got your own wheels. A resort center, it’s got lovely, whitewashed cabanas and a smattering of deluxe hotels that front up against the sky-blue waters of the Caribbean Sea…
Talking of the sea…Akumal boasts some of the top snorkeling in Cancun. There’s no doubt about that. The best part is that you won’t need to join any organized tour to make the most of it. Simply pull on the breathing pipe and de-mist the goggles. Viola: You’re good to go. Head for the main beachfront and dive right in. The area around that might not be shimmering coral reefs like you get in other parts of the Yucatan, but it is known as a grazing ground for sea turtles.
And there’s more, because just to the north of the town itself is the Cenote Y Laguna Yalku reserve. That’s a huge cleft in the coastline that carves through the Yucatan jungles with uber-clear waters, and a great place to snorkel in the company of turtles and tropical fish.
If you’re looking for an all-round fantastic Cancun snorkeling park, we think Xel-Ha has the bases covered. Situated deep down the Riviera Maya, past the buzzy resort of Playa del Carmen, it encompasses a veritable wonderland for budding snorkelers. We’re talking a huge coastal inlet of perfectly blue waters, along with a couple of rugged headlands threaded by mangroves and stooping palm trees.
When it’s time to get in the H2O, go straight for the Xel-Ha lagoon. It’s known to contain a whopping 90 separate species of exotic fish, from striped zebrafish to formidable pufferfish (don’t be touching those!). On top of that, you might be lucky enough to spot some bigger beasts of the Caribbean Sea, in the form of massive barracuda and even manta rays.
On top of excellent snorkeling, the Xel-Ha park is a doozy of a family day out. There are attractions like the Scenic Lighthouse, which offer 360-degree panoramas of the Quintana Roo shoreline and a corkscrewing waterslide right back down to ground level. Hungry? Check out the on-site Xula Vista Restaurant. It’s got a smorgasbord of international food and cold cerveza for capping off your snorkeling in style.
Cenote Dos Ojos
The Cenote Dos Ojos is a bit of a trek down the Riviera Maya from Cancun – expect to drive for about 1.5 hours before you even arrive. But boy is it worth it! This one’s 70 meters deep and brimming with crystalline water. They’re probably among the most famous cenotes in the whole of the region and are a real favorite among the Instagrammers looking for that perfect shot.
Dos Ojos literally means the ‘two eyes’. The name refers to the fact that you actually get two water-filled sinkholes for the price of one at this site. The reason that they’re so great for snorkeling is that they’re actually connected by a 400-meter cavern that is totally traversable. You’ll start your session in the main holes enjoying visions of craggy underwater rock formations. Then, you can challenge yourself to move between them, through shadowy tunnels where the submerged light shows are something else. Sometimes, when the waters are rising high enough, it’s also possible to enter the so-called Bat Cave, where you can observe huge bat colonies as you swim.
Cenote Dos Ojos is one of those places that’s uber popular with snorkeling tours in Cancun. Packages typically last a full day and include all the equipment, not to mention transfers down from your hotel in Cancun itself. There are also fully-fledged diving outings for the more advanced folk looking to practice their scuba skills.
Can you think of any more top spots for snorkeling in Cancun? If so, we’d love to hear about them in the comments below. Anything goes, whether it’s deep cenotes in the shadow of mysterious Mayan ruins or gleaming beach destinations on the Riviera Maya.