In the last decade, Cancun has become famous as one of the planet's most relaxing destinations. A relatively recent arrival on the map of Mexico (it barely existed until the 70s, when its location was ear-marked as the ideal place for a new tourist enclave), this sunny hotspot on the north-east corner of the Yucatan Peninsula delivers everything you would expect of an easy-going oceanfront resort-town – soft sands lapped by warm waves, endless good places to eat, and nightlife that keeps going well into the early hours. But there is much more to this laid-back Latin American hideaway than long beaches and late-night bars. You can also find glorious historical monuments and excellent sites for scuba diving and snorkelling – while several family-friendly theme parks lie within easy reach. Flights to Cancun are also in good supply. Many airlines fly to the ultra-modern Cancun International Airport, with several operators offering direct services from European cities.
Cancun is the gateway to a world of genuine historical wonder. Some 2000 years ago, the Yucatan Peninsula lay within the realm of the Maya, a civilisation whose golden era lasted from around 200 AD to 1000 AD. And evidence of this advanced people's presence is still writ large across the Riviera Maya – the coastal strip that ebbs south of Cancun. Most notable is Tulum, a Mayan port 80 miles distant, where ruined fortifications are gathered on cliffs above a picture-perfect beach. These sturdy defences reportedly impressed the Spanish conquistadors who came ashore here in 1518 – as did the towering structures at sister site Coba, 25 miles inland, where lofty temples rear amid rainforest foliage (especially the 140ft Nohoch Mul, the tallest temple on the Yucatan Peninsula). Then there is the celebrated Chichen Itza, which, 100 miles west of Cancun, issues a siren call to intrepid travellers. With its epic buildings – the poster image being the four-sided temple El Castillo – it was voted one of the 'New' Seven Wonders Of The World in 2007.
The Riviera Maya stretches out for 75 miles – and much of it is adorned with the sort of powdery beaches that you might think only exist on cinema screens or chocolate-bar commercials. But more importantly for those who love the feel of life under the ocean waves, this dreamy shoreline also provides many fabulous opportunities for scuba diving. The Riviera plays host to the northernmost part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest coral system on the planet (after the Great Barrier Reef) – which flows south for 600 miles, down the Yucatan Peninsula, before continuing along the coasts of Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. This diverse ecosystem is abuzz with sea life, not least off Cozumel, an island that lies 12 miles east of the Riviera – as well as near Playa Del Carmen and Puerto Morelos. Dive operators – and breath-taking moments – are numerous.
Go with the Theme
Cancun and the Riviera Maya are not only fertile turf for sun-seekers or those who wish to stroll hand-in-hand on the beach. Families are also well catered for – especially in the 'eco' theme parks that make use of the Riviera's jungle-clad landscape and waterfront beauty. These include the popular, child-centric Xcaret Park where a clutch of water rides (lazy rivers and water slides) are laid out around Mayan archaeological ruins – and a host of exotic creatures, from sleek jaguars to blubbery manatees, are on display. Xel-Ha Water Park plays a similar card, catering for adventurous youngsters who want to splash about with dolphins, go snorkelling with sea turtles, or even pet stingrays. Xplor Adventure Park meanwhile, focuses on energy and activity. Visitors here can keep low to the ground, exploring limestone caves and underground waterways – or hit the heights, taking to the treetops and rushing back down to earth by uber-speedy zipline.
This guest post on Cancun has been written by the Virgin Atlantic Airways editorial team.