Where to go near Cancun that’s not Cancun.

I love that I can get on a plane at JFK in the morning and be on one of the prettiest coastlines in the world by noon, feeling warm and happy. The flights to Cancun Airport are so frequent and budget-friendly, it’s an easy getaway from most U.S. cities.  While appropriate sometimes, I don’t always want to stay in one place with everything catered for. I like getting off the beaten track and experiencing local places, knowing it will be a unique experience. Below are my favorite local recommendations for where to go in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Mexico waters near Isla Mujeres

See: Isla Mujeres

This small island, about an hour’s boat ride from Cancun, has some of the clearest waters I’ve ever seen. The turquoise waters should have a Pantone chip named after them. What was once a small fishing village, Isla Mujeres, or “Island of Women”, feels untouched with its natural beauty and local feel. It also has plenty of coral reefs and marine life for exploring. Paradise!

Nizuc Resort sunset

Stay: NIZUC Resort & Spa

Setting foot into NIZUC you’re immediately transported into a delightful world of exquisite design and comfortable luxury. This beautiful resort located about 10 minutes from the Cancun Airport is tucked in the enclave of Punta Nizuc, a private oasis far from the other hotels with her own private beach, mangroves and coral reefs. The resort design and architecture is Asian-inspired, but wholly integrated into its natural surroundings. My favorite parts about staying there were the stand up paddle-boarding, the scallop dish at their Peruvian restaurant, Ni, the impeccable service and the magnificent sunsets.

El Camello restaurant

Eat: El Camello

All the locals recommended coming here on the way to Tulum and getting the ceviches. Not only are they giant portions, but they have their own fishing crew so it’s guaranteed fresh, and it’s also reasonably priced. My favorites were the shrimp ceviche and fish tacos.

Whale Sharks in Mexico

Swim: Whale Sharks

This is one of my all-time favorite travel moments. Here’s a recap of my experience. “As we approached the pod of whale sharks I got really excited but slightly nervous at the thought of getting into the ocean with these giant 40 feet long sea creatures. They are half SHARK after all. I was reassured they eat plankton, not humans, and they’re quite gentle. Before I knew it, I was swimming alongside this one mamma whale shark, looking directly into her eyes, trying my hardest to keep up. For a few moments, I forgot what I was doing and just experienced her presence. It was surreal. Soon after, she bid adieu as my arms became jello.”

Peak whale shark season in Mexico is July to August. Be sure to go with an eco-friendly tour company like Cancun Whale Shark Tours and bring your Go-Pro for a quick selfie.

Relax in Tulum, Mexico

Relax: Tulum

Tulum is a beach town about 2 hours south of Cancun. The vibe is really chill and relaxed with hammocks all over the white sandy beaches. There are also plenty of delicious restaurants to eat at and activities to do like exploring the Mayan Ruins, swimming in cenotes or hanging out in town. Popular with many New Yorkers, it’s at the cusp of becoming a bit too hipster for me, but well worth it for the views.

Explore in Izamal, Mexico

Explore: Izamal

This Yellow City was pure magic! Yes, it’s a bit of drive (2.5 hours from Cancun) but worth experiencing authentic Mexican culture through its history, local artisans, food, architecture and all the yellow buildings! Do not miss walking around the San Antonio de Padua convent, eating at Kinich restaurant or climbing to the top of Kinich Kakmo! Definitely wear yellow so you feel like you’re a part of the town. And for some cool photos. Tip: stop by the other magic city, Valladolid, on your way home.