Cancun’s beaches are famously gorgeous, and there’s a whole other world below the surface of the water that is just as amazing. A great way to explore and learn about the ocean and its inhabitants is to go snorkeling. This activity doesn’t require any prior training, and you don’t have to be a strong swimmer.
The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia) runs parallel to the coast of the Mexican Caribbean. The reef starts at the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula near Isla Contoy, and extends south along the coast for nearly 700 miles, down to the Bay Islands of Honduras. Needless to say, from Cancun, there are many excellent snorkeling spots where you can see abundant and colorful coral, fish, sea turtles, and other marine life. There are also mangroves and freshwater cenotes to explore. Here are some of the best spots for snorkeling on your trip to Cancun.
Note: When you go, remember to use a reef-safe sunscreen (widely available for purchase in Cancun area) so you don’t damage the reef. Try to keep a healthy distance from sea turtles and other marine creatures and be very careful not to touch the coral—not only will it damage the reef, but you can also get hurt! If you go on a snorkeling excursion with a tour or dive company, a reef preservation fee of about $12 US per person is charged (usually included in the cost of the excursion) and you’ll be given a bracelet as proof that you've paid this fee. Snorkeling tours include equipment rental, but if you want to go on your own, you can rent or purchase gear at any dive shop in the area.
An underwater museum may seem like a wacky idea, but these under-the-sea sculptures are good for the environment: made of coral-friendly materials, they promote the growth of natural coral and also help reduce the impact of visitors on other dive sites in the area. Founded in 2009, there are galleries in three different locations: at Punta Nizuc, Punta Sam and Manchones. The first two can be enjoyed from the surface by snorkelers, Manchones, which is near Isla Mujeres, is usually recommended for SCUBA divers because it’s too deep to see well from the surface. Plan an excursion through MUSA or book a Cancun Underwater Museum Snorkeling Tour with Total Snorkel Cancun.
If you don’t want to travel far to get to your snorkeling location, the best spot for snorkeling in the Cancun hotel zone is at Punta Nizuc, which is the southernmost point of the hotel zone, between the Club Med Cancun and Nizuc Resort. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to access overland unless you're staying at one of the aforementioned resorts, so your best bet to get there is to take the Nizuc Reef Snorkeling Excursion with Aquaworld which includes a speed boat tour of the Nichupte Lagoon before heading to Punta Nizuc to do some snorkeling. There’s a floating platform that you’ll use as a base while exploring the reef and you’ll also be able to see some of MUSA's sculptures which are located here, including "Understanding" by the artist Elier Amado Gil.
Puerto Morelos is a small town about 12 miles south of Cancun. The reef is closer to the shore here, and the conditions for snorkeling are generally excellent. You can drive to Puerto Morelos on your own if you rent a car, or take the ADO bus, and snorkel on your own from the shore—a good spot is between Hotel Amar Inn and Day & Night Beach Club. Stay within the area demarcated by the buoys for safety. You may spot sea turtles and rays as well as barracuda and colorful smaller fish as well as coral. If you’d rather join an excursion that offers transportation from your hotel and a boat trip farther out on the reef, there are several tour companies that offer trips, including Cancun Mermaid’s Reserve Snorkeling in Puerto Morelos
Xel-Ha is a natural water park operated by the same company that runs Xcaret Park. It’s located 65 miles south of Cancun where freshwater inlets and lagoons meet the ocean, creating a unique environment where you can spot a wide variety of marine life. It’s a great place to spend a whole day because you can snorkel, float down a lazy river on an inner tube, swim in a cenote, and even jump off a cliff (if you dare!). Xel-Ha also has there are lockers and towels, restrooms and changing rooms, as well as restaurants.
Cozumel Island has a reputation for being Mexico’s premier diving destination, and it’s also a great location for snorkeling. Located 12 miles off the coast, you can take a ferry from Playa del Carmen to get there or join an organized day trip. There are some good spots for snorkeling from the shore. Cozumel beaches on the west side of the island (facing the mainland) generally have calmer waters and more sea life. There are a few parks offering special snorkeling experiences such as Chankanaab park which claims to have the world’s only inland reef.
Another island off of Cancun’s Caribbean coast, Isla Mujeres is smaller than Cozumel and closer to Cancun. The best option for snorkeling here is on a boat trip—Isla Mujeres Cooperative is a good option—and you can even take an excursion to go swimming with whale sharks (between May and September). If you want to snorkel from the shore, the best spots are at Garrafon Reef Park or near the bridge to Mia Reef Hotel.
The village of Akumal is located about 62 miles south of Cancun and is well known as a spot where you can swim with sea turtles. You can snorkel on your own from the beach—keep an eye on the seagrass for a chance to spot turtles grazing. Once you spot them, give them their space and enjoy the view from a distance. To improve your chances of spotting sea turtles and other sea creatures, hire a guide at the Akumal Dive Shop. While in Akumal, also check out the Yal-Ku lagoon, a tranquil lagoon where seawater and freshwater merge.
Located 18 miles north of Isla Mujeres where the Caribbean Sea meets the Gulf of Mexico. It will take about two hours by boat to arrive at Isla Contoy, but this protected natural area is worth the trip. The number of visitors to the island is restricted to 200 people per day to reduce the effects of tourism on this pristine location that is home to 152 bird species, as well as three species of sea turtles. On the way, you can stop to snorkel at Ixlache Reef, a coral system bursting with life, where you may see sea turtles, nurse sharks, and all manner of tropical fish. Only a few tour companies are allowed to take visitors to the island, among them Caribbean Connection.
Cenotes are sinkholes that have formed in the limestone which forms the bedrock of the Yucatan Peninsula. There are lots of them, and many of them are fun to explore with snorkel gear, but one of the best spots is Dos Ojos, which means “Two Eyes” in Spanish because this formation is made up of two caverns. This cenote is located just south of Akumal. Not only can you enjoy seeing a variety of fish here, but the interesting geological formations with sunlight shining through in certain spots makes it a very interesting place for snorkelers to explore.