If you’re dreaming of a warm and relaxing getaway, Cancun is probably one of the first places that comes to mind. The natural coral reefs and diverse marine life offer opportunities for snorkeling just off the shores of this Yucatan destination’s white-sand beaches.
Snorkeling has a lot of the same appeal as scuba diving because it allows you to get closer to the bucket list-worthy sights that the Gulf of Mexico’s warm coastal waters provide. However, snorkeling is much safer and requires less training, making it an ideal activity for kids, families, novice swimmers, or anyone who wants to take in the beauty of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef systems without devoting weeks to learning how to use their equipment.
We’re going to break down the 10 best spots to snorkel in Cancun and along the Riviera Maya, including those in the desirable “hotel zone,” and those in the more far-flung places that will be well worth the travel time.
Top Ten Snorkeling Spots in Cancun
Snorkeling anywhere in Cancun is likely a breathtaking and memorable experience, these are some of the best of the best spots to explore.
The many bays and beaches of Akumal perch on the edge of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. This habitat has created a sheltered area of calm, warm waters, which provides a refuge for both humans and marine life.
While there are opportunities for scuba diving farther out from shore, the areas closer to the beach have the perfect snorkeling conditions: clear waters, calm currents, and abundant sea life.
Akumal is made up of several smaller lagoons. The main Akumal Bay and South Akumal, Jade Bay, and Aventuras Akumal are all known for their turtle sightings. Sea turtles come to the area to rest, fatten up on seagrasses, and lay their eggs. The site is a refuge for three distinct sea turtle species, including the largest living species, the Green Turtle. This, in addition to the vibrant coral reefs in the area, make Akumal an ideal place to snorkel.
2. Playa Langosta
Playa Langosta is the best location for snorkeling in the coveted “Hotel Zone,” the stretch of Cancun dominated almost exclusively by resorts. While the beaches in this area are well equipped for swimming and soaking up the sun, the water can be choppy, and the sand may get kicked up by the feet of the many other beachgoers. Langosta beach is at the northern tip of this zone, and the water there is some of the clearest and calmest in the city.
This beach’s main draw is convenience because it’s only four miles from downtown Cancun, and there are many resorts practically on the beach itself. However, it’s also highly rated by beachgoers, and the water is shallow with gentle currents.
3. Machones Reef on Isla Mujeres
This natural wonder is only a short ferry ride from Playa Langosta, and there is no shortage of attractions there. Besides being one of the top 35 places to snorkel worldwide, it’s also home to museum attractions, historical sites, and annual whale shark migrations. Most of these sights can only be seen from underwater.
The best place for snorkelers to view the reef is at Garrafon Reef Park, an area specifically preserved for this purpose. You can explore the reef alone or hire a guide to show you the beauty this place offers.
Between early June and the middle of September, the island hosts a breathtaking spectacle- the annual whale shark migration. Some up to fifty feet in length, these docile ocean dwellers will rest in the quiet waters of the island on their way further out to sea. They are the largest known fish in the ocean, but they are harmless to humans, and safe to swim and snorkel with. They’re a rare species, so this is one for the bucket list.
The island’s name, meaning “island of women,” comes from the Mayan statues devoted to ancient goddesses that early Spanish settlers found on it’s shores. Visitors can see more modern art below the waves; MUSA, the underwater museum of Cancun, has a gallery in Isla Mujeres.
4. Punta Nizuc
While the MUSA exhibit in Isla Mujeres lies farther from the surface, making it less ideal for snorkelers, the exhibit in Punta Nizuc is designed exclusively for them. The ocean floor where the original, captivating statues sit is only 2-4 meters from the surface.
This is an art museum like no other. Not only are the pieces gorgeous and unique, but they are also made to promote the growth of coral and exist in harmony with the local environment. They are truly a symbol of the ideal harmony that could exist between nature and humanity.
5. Punta Sam
The third gallery of the MUSA museum is in Punta Sam, but the sleepy hamlet has much more to offer as well. The reefs there are exceptionally well preserved because there is not as much tourist traffic through this area.
This MUSA gallery is also close to the surface, and its exhibits are completely unique from those in Punta Nizuc or Isla Mujeres. Many boat tours will take you through this gallery, but it’s best to view it up close.
However, the real treasure of Punta Sam is its shipwrecks. Forgotten gunboats litter the area, and as the reef reclaims them, they become a safe, but unforgettable snorkeling destination.
6. Isla Contoy
Isla Contoy is a protected habitat and a national park, so only a select few visitors are allowed each day. Tourists often overlook this island because it doesn’t have the comforts offered by resorts. There’s no smoking allowed, to prevent forest fires, and the amenities are very sparse. But under the water and in the shelter of mangrove trees, the true wealth of this paradise is revealed.
While it is uninhabited by humans, the island is home to 150 species of migratory birds and four sea turtle species. The countless brightly colored fish make the reef dance in the sun. Everything is preserved to be as it was hundreds of years ago, and the whole island teems with life.
The Ixlache Reef that stretches along the shore of the island is typically no more than a few meters from the surface, so its easy to see every inhabitant from the surface with your snorkeling gear. Sign up in advance; only a few tour companies are permitted to bring visitors to the island.
7. Puerto Morelos
Off the coast of this sleepy hamlet twelve miles from Cancun, the reef comes alive. From the shore, you can snorkel to spot rays and barracuda, as well as the usual reef dwellers. Marvel at the thriving elkhorn coral and the crystal clear water, before heading into town to soak up the charm of this small hamlet town. Or, a boat tour can take you further, out to the far stretches of the reef where marine life is even more abundant, but the water is deeper.
Guides are available at this location, and 1-2 hour snorkeling tours are easy to find, and more affordable than those in many other locations.
8. Isla Cozumel
If you’re looking for remarkably calm waters, whether because you have children with you or because you’re looking for a relaxing day trip, the beaches off Isla Cozumel have you covered- especially those on the West Side, which faces towards Cancun on the mainland.
Chankanaab Adventure Beach Park, along with it’s zip lines, restaurants, and a tequila factory, has a great snorkeling area. The park stretches onto the beach, where it offers swimming, snorkeling and dolphin encounters to its guests. These areas are highly supervised, making them an extra safe choice for snorkeling adventures.
9. Tulum and Dos Ojos Cenote
This one is a far-flung adventure. The travel time between Cancun and Tulum is one and a half hours. However, it’s well worth the trip- aside from its stunning landscapes and its ruins of Mayan civilization, it’s home to Dos Ojos Cenote.
A cenote is a cavern carved through limestone, which occurs when rainwater wears away the soft stone. The result is a steep drop, often into a deep pool of water. Dos Ojos, which means “two eyes,” is one of the most famous cenotes in the Yucatan. Here, a set of stairs leads down to the pool of water at the bottom.
Though it’s effectively deep underground, this cenote is well lit by the open holes in the rock above, giving it its name. Divers will be able to see more of the cenote, but even a snorkeler will be able to peer into the depths at the intricate rock formations within.
10. Sian Ka’an
This is another nature preserve on the Caribbean Coast. Here, you have the chance to see animals so rare they are almost extinct, such as manatees, turtles, and dolphins. Natural sandbars create secluded lagoons that are perfect for snorkeling.
Unlike Isla Contoy, the amenities here are not as rough. Additionally, traveling there is not as restricted. In fact, you can drive there on your own, without a guide. However, a guide will ensure you see the best that this beautiful landscape can offer.
(Looking for more snorkeling spots near Cancun? Try reading; Best Snorkeling Spots In Mexico)
With its clear ocean waters, private beaches, resorts, and even undersea museums, Cancun is a destination like no other. With this guide, you’ll be well equipped to see the best that the Riviera Maya has to offer, and you’ll come home with Instagram photos that are to die for no matter which of these locations you choose.