You Can Do in Cancun: Adventures & Festivals

Photos and text by Lisa TE Sonne

The sounds of waves and tropical birds drift through the slightly open window, and the floor-to-ceiling glass reveals dreamy azure and turquoise Caribbean waters, past powder-white sands. This was my organic wake up call in Cancun, Mexico at the Westin Spa and Resort, a Starwood Preferred Property only 20 minutes from an international airport – which makes it a direct flight away from the Los Angeles or Atlanta airports in the U.S.

For the day ahead, the options included pool and beach lounging, spa time, wonderful eating, and never leaving the property; or heading out for a range of shopping, soft adventure, resort hopping, entertainment, golf, scuba diving, and even great doses of nature and culture. I loved the diversity of options from doing nothing well to creating unforgettable vignettes while on vacation.

Cancun was created specifically for tourism. A snake-infested, desolated area was transformed into an award-winning, popular travel resort mecca, not unlike the concerted, huge-scale human makeovers that created Dubai, Las Vegas, and Waikiki. Cancun is also located near some remarkable natural wonders and the remains of a great Mayan civilization, including an ancient pyramid. For an historic Stair Master workout, I could climb 130 steps to the top for sweeping views.

Whether you want to feel like Indiana Jones on a quest, Margaret Mead witnessing ceremonies and dances, or just enjoy yourself having fun, Cancun can be a comfortable home base.


To be caught up in the spirits of local life, past and present, head to Cancun during a festival. In the land of fiestas, it seems there is always a celebration.


This past spring, I enjoyed a relatively new festival based on millennially old traditions called “The Sacred Journey of the Maya.” More than 300 hand-carved boats paddled from the Eco Park Xcaret to Cozumel, revamping an old pilgrimage to a sacred site to honor the Mayan fertility goddess.

Multiple events for locals and tourists lead up to the sunrise launch. The day before the Paddle, at the Eco Park Xcaret, there was a large, specially-created, outdoor market where goods could be bought for cacao beans, a former currency of the Maya. People come in from different villages to share crafts, food, and lore, providing an interesting mix of authentic moments and touristy stuff for the locals and visitors. Some of the paddlers that had been training for months were walking around, and there was a palpable sense of anticipation and excitement.

The night before the race, at Bahia Dos Playas, Mother Ixchel – the patron saint of fishing and fertility and the goddess of the moon – is honored with dances, theater, and rituals. Ceremonies include the blessing of the turtles and lighting the fire of creation.  The beach, water, and a stage are all used for the story telling and traditions. Visitors are encouraged to wear white when they join locals in witnessing the dramatic pageantry and mystical moments that unfold under the ceiling of stars.

The next morning, in the pre-dawn light of dawn, I joined others in the launch ceremony and rooted for the teams as they went out to sea with the sun.  Then we all scattered to enjoy other activities in Cancun.

As resort tourism was created in Cancun by transforming swamps into fantasies, “The Sacred Mayan Journey” may transform an old heritage into new reasons for people to explore Cancun.


A continuing standard festival experience in the fall, Dia De Los Muertos (Spanish for “Day of the Dead”) and Hanal Pixan (Mayan for “Food for Souls”) honor old traditions at the end of October and in early November. The traditional Mexican celebration of life and death overlaps with Halloween in the US, and it blends Meso-American and Spanish Catholic beliefs.

During this festival time, Alltournative offers tourists a chance to go to a present-day Mayan community, Tres Reyes, to see the decorated graves and altars and to participate with locals in a ceremony for Hanal Pixan that invites the dead to join them.

Eco-Park Xcaret, billed as “the best eco-archeological park,” hosts an entire Life and Death festival with dances, workshops, and some of the “food for the soul” experiences.

With Cancun’s lovely weather, warm waters, and multiple attractions, the other option is to create your own festival in Cancun any time of year. If you do, let me know how it goes! Olé!

RIO SECRETO – the Secret’s Out!  

For an Indiana Jones experience (with a protective guide and without the snakes or bad guys), head to the “secret” underground river for an adventure below the jungles! This truly immersive experience inspires the senses and imagination.

Before delving into the underworld of geologic wonders named “Rio Secreto,” I showered off lotions and bug sprays and was geared-up with water shoes, a wetsuit, and a helmet with a headlamp. I walked along a jungle path with Raul, a very knowledgeable guide, who pointed out birds, flowers, and iguanas. He also led me to a Mayan tradition-bearer, so I could be cleansed with the blessed smoke of copal before we headed into the subterranean world.

Away from the blazing bright sun, I felt cool and saw cool things. We followed a river through cave rooms with gorgeous creative formations of stalactites, stalagmites, corals, columns, and pearls. I floated on clear waters (with a life jacket) to see formations below me, too, and to relax languidly amidst a sphere of beauty.

The guide wove the scientific and sacred. He pointed out blind fish that have adapted to the environment, then he created a moving experience by having us sit in a pool of water and turn off all the lights, for a soothing kind of quieting in about the darkest place possible. Only drips of water from the cave and our breathing could be heard.

The caves were accidently “discovered” in the 21st century, and the underworld river labyrinth is still being explored.  The current owner is trying thoughtfully to balance preservation and tourism in this unforgettable nature reserve, to allow each visitor to make his or her own discoveries.


During the summer months, the largest fish on earth, the polka-dotted whale sharks, swim to waters off the Yucatan, not far from Cancun. Snorkeling with these awe-inspiring creatures on a Cancun trip in 2012 was one of my all time favorite snorkeling experiences.  I recommend going early in the day, before the sites get crowded with other boats and it feels intrusive to be in the whale sharks’ realm.

These behemoths are the largest fish in the sea, but they filter-feed on plankton, so if you are looking for your own safe “shark encounter,” this is a giant experience. The average weight of a whale shark is about 20 tons, and I was within inches of one, eye to eye, but felt safe. Even for those who opt to stay on the boat, seeing these wonders can be awe-inspiring.

For additional Cancun-immersion, you may just walk in the sand, away from your resort. The Meso-American coral reef along the Mexican Riviera is the second largest coral reef on the planet, after the Great Barrier Reef near Australia, and home to millions of tropical beauties.

For year-round terrestrial adventures, AllTourNative takes people from the resorts to the great Mayan ruins of Coba and Tulum, as well as to one of the world’s wonders: Chitzen Itza. Ask questions to make sure you are getting the trip you want. Some include rappelling into cenotes, zip-lining in the jungles, kayaking, and biking around ruin sites with local guides. Others include more guide-narrative and guide-time at the sites of the ruins.

The Mayan sites are well worth seeing if you are interested in history, culture, or just want to be gobsmacked by what humans have done in the past. Then you can head back to the resort-swath of Cancun and see what humans have done more recently.


Lisa TE Sonne can be reached at For one-minute visual trips by her, click to

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With miles of resorts, you can probably find a match for the style and price range you want.

For the spring ceremonies, I enjoyed being a guest at the Westin Resort and Spa on Boulevard Kukulcan.  It’s an easy location for the airport and beaches, and offers luscious views of beach or lagoon.

The on-site  Heavenly Spa adds a soothing layer to the vacation. I am told you can arrange for an “authentic Temazcal sweat ceremony,” as well as enjoy more standard spa temptations. One of their dining options is the Sea & Stones, where you can cook your own food deliciously on hot stones at your table.

On my whale shark trip to Cancun, I enjoyed exploring both the upscale all-inclusive Le Blanc, complete with your own butler (if you want one), and the Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Spa & Resort, which had a myriad of activities including a wonderful turtle-release program.   


Cancun has an active team to help visitors plan:

Facebook (CancunTravel):

Twitter: @CancunCVB,

Instagram: VisitCancun





                                   Enjoy!  Buen Viaje!


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