While it’s true that Mexico is a top destination for Spring Break partiers, there is so much more to the heartland of the Aztec Empire. Nature-lovers will find truly unique experiences in Mexico’s hideaways that they won’t find elsewhere in the world. Mexico is one of the 17 “megadiverse countries” in the world, with over 200,000 different species. The Yucatan Peninsula is home to manatees, spider monkeys, jaguars, sea turtles, and humming birds. Besides resort-perfect beaches, there are jungles, freshwater canals, underwater caves, mangroves, lagoons, inlets, mountains, and swimming holes to discover. Here are just a few of the adventures that attract nature-seekers to Mexico from around the world.
Swimming with whale sharks
Whale sharks grow from 18 to 40 feet long and weigh up to 20 tons – about the size of a school bus. With leopard spots and wide catfish-like mouths, these gentle giants enjoy the warm tropical seas of Mexico, where they feed off plankton.
“I’m not sure what it is about being so near a creature so large,” said Gina DeFerrari, a WWF expert on whale shark tours. “On the one hand, it was thrilling, and yet on the other hand, I felt a palpable sense of calm.” Tourists have called the experience “breathtaking” and a “once in a lifetime experience” – a “must-do” on a Mexican vacation.
The mangroves of Isla Holbox used to be the most popular place to swim with majestic whale sharks, with boats leaving from the port village of Chiquilá a few hours northwest of Cancún. In recent years, more whale sharks have migrated toward the Caribbean Sea havens of Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy. The whale-spotting season runs from May through September, with the largest populations in July and August, when it’s common to see 30-40 whales together. Isla Mujeres holds a week-long Whale Shark Festival in July that attracts over 5,000 people each year.
It’s recommended that you book your excursion in advance, since the number of outings are limited to protect the health of the whale shark population. In addition to swimming with the whale sharks, visitors to Isla Contoy can also spend the day bird-watching, swimming with manta ray, and taking nature walks through the island’s interior.
Of course, you don’t necessarily have to summon the bravery to swim with enormous sharks to dive down and explore the colorful coral reef formations and biodiversity of the Mexican seas.
Each year, up to one billion Monarch butterflies make the 2,500-mile journey from eastern Canada to the Oyamel fir forests of western central Mexico. They begin arriving in mid-November, where they cluster on tree trunks for the winter. Their visit coincides with Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos celebration, and it’s believed they represent the spirits of deceased relatives returning home for the feasts that honor them. As the weather warms from late January through March, the monarchs begin to flutter around the forests.
Expedition Guide Astrid Frisch explains: “The monarch migration is different from any other wildlife viewing. It’s a more peaceful, almost spiritual experience.” Similarly, travelers who have come to see the monarchs have called it “truly a mystical time with Mother Nature.”
The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (northwest of Mexico City) is the most commercial, but most populous place, to see the butterflies among 200 square miles of protected land. El Rosario is the most well-known part of the reserve, situated at an elevation of 10,000 feet above sea level, reached via a steel hillside climb. You may set up camp in the nearby towns of Angangueo or Ocampo in the state of Michoacan. Each February, the town of Angangueo hosts the Festival de la Mariposa Monarca to draw awareness to conservation efforts.
If you’re looking for a more private, remote viewing of the butterflies, you can hike or ride a horse through the thick vegetation of Piedra Herrada, the newest and wildest sanctuary, where you can see millions of monarchs just an hour southeast of Mexico City
While you’re here, tour the colonial architecture of Morelia, Michoacan’s UNESCO World Heritage City. Visit the charming highlands of Patzcuaro, a beautiful town that is home to the indigenous Purepecha people, with their vibrant markets, customs and foods.
No trip to the Yucatan Peninsula would be complete without considering the ancient humans of Mexico. Chichen Itza is the most well-known and best-preserved Mayan ruins of Mexico, not to mention one of the Seven Wonders of the New World. You can reach the site, which dates back to 300 A.D., by traveling two hours southwest from Cancun. Here you can see the famous stepped pyramid, the sacred Temple of Kukulkan; the Observatory, where Mayans were said to have tracked the stars and held important rituals; and the cenotes, where human sacrifices were made to the rain god Chac.
Tulum is a picturesque set of ruins atop a cliff overlooking the turquoise Caribbean waters. The earliest inscription dates back to 564 A.D. and had a population of up to 1,600 at the height of its popularity. The major architectural structures include: El Castillo, with its port and small shrine; the Temple of the Frescoes, an observatory for tracking the sun; and the Temple of the Descending God, which includes murals of a diving god the Mayans worshipped. You’ll encounter iguanas, pelicans, and flamingos in the surrounding area, which includes miles of relaxing beaches and wetlands prime for exploration.