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Pleasures and Pastimes
Cancun and the rest of Yucatan offer a wonderful variety of beaches. You'll find white sands, rocky coves and promontories, curvaceous bays, and murky lagoons. Resorty Playa Chac Mool and Playa Tortugas are on the bay side of Cancun, which is calmer if less beautiful than the windward side. Go to the north end of Isla Mujeres to Playa Norte for great sunsets. Beaches on Cozumel's east coast -- once used by buccaneers -- are rocky, and the swimming is treacherous, but they offer privacy. On the relatively sheltered leeward side are the widest and best sand beaches. The Caribbean coast abounds with hidden and not-so-hidden beaches. There are also long stretches of white sand, usually filled with sunbathers, at Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, and especially Akumal.
Travelers to Campeche and Progreso will find the waters of the Gulf of Mexico deep green, shallow, and tranquil. Such beaches as Payucan, Sabancuy, Isla del Carmen, and Yucalpeten are less visited by North Americans; facilities are minimal, but some prefer it that way.
The Yucatan Peninsula is one of the finest areas for birding in Mexico. Habitats range from wildlife and bird sanctuaries to unmarked lagoons, estuaries, and mangrove swamps. Frigates, tanagers, warblers, and macaws inhabit Isla Contoy (off Isla Mujeres) and the Laguna Colombia on Cozumel; an even greater variety of species are to be found in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve on the Boca Paila peninsula south of Tulum. Along the north and west coasts of Yucatan -- at Rio Lagartos, Laguna Rosada, and Celestun -- flamingos, herons, ibis, cormorants, pelicans,and peregrine falcons thrive.
The mystique of Yucatecan cooking has a lot to do with the generous doses of local spices and herbs, although generally the food tends not to be too spicy. Don't miss pollo pibil (chicken baked in banana leaves with a spicy, pumpkin-seed-and-chili sauce); poc chuc (Yucatecan pork marinated in a sour-orange sauce with pickled onions); tikinchic (fried fish prepared with sour orange); panuchos (fried tortillas filled with black beans and topped with turkey, chicken, or pork, pickled onions, and avocado); papadzules (tortillas piled high with hard-boiled eggs and drenched in a sauce of pumpkin seed and fried tomato); and codzitos (rolled tortillas in pumpkin-seed sauce). Achiote (annatto), cilantro (coriander), and the fiery chile habanero are highly favored condiments.
Yucatecans are renowned for -- among other things -- their love of idiosyncratic beverages. Yztabentun, a liqueur made of fermented honey and anise, dates back to the ancient Maya; like straight tequila, it's best drunk in small sips between bites of fresh lime. Local brews, such as the dark bock Leon Negra and the light Montejo, are excellent but hard to find in peninsular restaurants. On the healthier side, chaya is the bright-green juice of a local plant resembling spinach. Yucatecan horchata, a favorite all over Mexico, is made from milled rice and water flavored with vanilla. Also try the licuados, either milk- or water-based smoothies, made from the tropical fruits of the region (but avoid outdoor stands, because they often use unpasteurized milk and unpurified water).
Sportfishing is popular in Cozumel and throughout the Caribbean coast. The rich waters of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico support hundreds of species of tropical fish, making the Yucatan coastline and the outlying islands a paradise for deep-sea fishing, fly-fishing, and bone-fishing. Particularly between the months of April and July, the waters off Cancun, Cozumel, and Isla Mujeres teem with sailfish, marlin, red snapper, tuna, barracuda, and wahoo, among other denizens of the deep. Bill fishing is so rich around Cozumel and Puerto Aventuras that each holds an annual tournament.
Farther south, along the Boca Paila peninsula, banana fish, bonefish, mojarra, shad, permit, and sea bass provide great sport for flat fishing and fly-fishing, while oysters, shrimp, and conch lie on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico near Campeche and Isla del Carmen. At Progreso, on the north coast, sportfishing for grouper, dogfish, and pompano is quite popular.
Amateur archaeologists will find heaven in the Yucatan, where the ancient Maya most abundantly left their mark. Pick your period and your preference, whether for well-excavated sites or overgrown, out-of-the-way ruins barely touched by a scholar's shovel. The major Maya sites are Coba and Tulum and Chichen Itza and Uxmal (Chapter 6), but smaller ruins scattered throughout the peninsula are often equally fascinating.
Oxkintok, just off the main road between Merida and Campeche, is one of the more rewarding "unrestored" Maya sites in the Yucatan. Only a few structures have been excavated at this rarely visited spot, but the magnitude of overgrown ruins is impressive, and the presence of sculptures, pottery shards, and other on-site artifacts lets adventurous sightseers experience a more direct link with the ancient past.
Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
Underwater enthusiasts come to Cozumel, Akumal, Xcalak, Xel-Ha, and other parts of Mexico's Caribbean coast for the clear turquoise waters, the colorful and assorted tropical fish, and the exquisite coral formations along the Belize reef system. Currents allow for drift diving, and both reefs and offshore wrecks lend themselves to dives, many of which are safe enough for neophytes. The peninsula's cenotes, or natural sinkholes, provide an unusual dive experience. Individual chapters will direct you to the dive sites that will best suit you.