Punta Sam & Isla Mujeres


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To the north of Cancún, along the mainland coast, you'll find some of the last wild beaches in the area — a vivid reminder of the resort town's pre-development days.

The coastline is quieter here, and though new resorts and restaurants have popped up in recent years, you can still stumble upon untouched stretches of sand between the fishing village of Puerto Juárez and the Punta Sam marina to the north. From this area, you'll also have unparalleled access to Isla Mujeres, a five-mile-long, 1,584-foot wide spot of sand popular for day trips via ferry from the Punta Sam terminal.

After just a few minutes on and around the island, you won't be surprised to find out that many locals make their living fishing: The waters are positively teeming with wildlife here, from coral reefs and protected sea turtle nesting areas to the awe-inspiring cave of sleeping sharks. It's no wonder Jacques Cousteau loved the place so much!

Flamingo Spotting on Isla Contoy

Isla Mujeres may be a tranquil alternative to Cancún, but the even wilder Isla Contoy makes the island look practically cosmopolitan. The undeveloped key, about 19 miles north of Isla Mujeres, is a national wildlife reserve and a birders' paradise. A haven for pelicans, brown boobies, frigate birds, egrets, terns, cormorants, and about 70 other species, lush Contoy welcomes flocks of flamingoes to the mix every April. Day trips to Contoy leave from Isla Mujeres and Cancún daily.

Mexican Day of the Whale Shark

Mexicans love the whale shark so much, they've actually established an official holiday to celebrate the world's largest fish: Each August 30 is the Mexican Day of the Whale Shark. What better way to honor these gentle giants than by snorkeling aside them? Remember: Though they're massive — at up to 40 feet long and 15 tons, with mouths that open as wide as five feet — they only eat plankton, so it's safe as can be to swim alongside them. The black-and-white spotted behemoths come to the waters off of Punta Sam each summer to feed, from mid-May through September. You can opt for a half-day snorkeling trip with Swim With Whale Sharks or a multiday outing with Natural Habitat Adventures.

Baby Sea Turtles

For years, hunting sea turtles was major sport on Isla Mujeres, especially from May to September, when the giant creatures came ashore to nest. But in the 1980s, a local fisherman helped found the Isla Mujeres Tortugranja (or turtle farm), and now sea turtles are protected by federal law. You can see and pet some of the sanctuary's hundreds of resident turtles, and, in the summer, help local schoolchildren and scientists collect and hatch eggs. But the real treat comes in fall, when guests can assist in releasing baby turtles back into the ocean. All together now: Aww...

Swimming with Bull Sharks

Few marine creatures are as intimidating as the bull shark, which grows up to a whopping 11.5 feet and 500 pounds. If flirting with deep-sea danger appeals to you, then sign up for Deep Life Scuba Diving & Training Center's bull-shark dive day trips for an amazing opportunity to get up close and personal with these massive carnivores. January is peak season for spotting these migratory animals, though they arrive in the warm waters off Cancún as early as mid-November.