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Eco-Tourism in Cancun: Exploring Sustainable Travel Options

Cristal D
10 min read

Fed up with the same old holiday grind? Cancun is more than your typical beach destination. Sure, you’ll find all the beachy-ease of the Hotel Zone and the glitz and glam of its famous nightlife, but the region also has a lot to offer those who want to leave a positive footprint on the planet.

For those in the know, Cancun is actually a gateway to transformative travel experiences that leave a positive footprint on the planet. Picture yourself diving into the azure waters of the Caribbean, not just as a tourist, but as a guardian of its pristine coral reefs.

As a local to the area, I’ve come to know that Cancun’s eco-tourism side makes it easy to plan a vacation that intertwines adventure with the vital mission of conservation. Read on to dive into the heart of eco-tourism in Cancun, and let's explore how travel here can go hand in hand with environmental stewardship.

Understanding Eco-Tourism in Cancun

Cenote Eco-tourism, by definition, is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel. This means that those who implement and participate in eco-tourism activities should follow certain principles, such as minimizing impact, building environmental and cultural awareness, and providing positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.

In Cancun, this concept isn't just beneficial. For the people who live here, it's seen as essential. The region's coral reefs, mangroves, and cenotes are crucial ecosystems that sustain local wildlife and communities.

Cancun faces significant challenges due to the historical use of conventional tourism practices. It’s undoubtedly a popular place to visit, and the sheer volume of visitors, if not managed with sustainability in mind, threatens the very beauty that attracts them. Overdevelopment leads to habitat destruction, water pollution, and a strain on resources.

The delicate balance of Cancun's ecosystems, such as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-largest coral reef system in the world, is at risk. This reef is a diver's paradise. But it's also a vital barrier against storms, a nursery for marine life, and a draw for eco-conscious tourists.

The need for sustainable alternatives in Cancun has never been more pressing. Unsustainable tourism can erode the natural and cultural heritage. We’ve seen this in places like Venice and Mount Everest, where their popularity has led to serious environmental concerns and damage to ecosystems.

Eco-tourism offers a pathway to preserve these treasures while still enjoying them. It's about making responsible choices, like:

  • Choosing tours that respect the environment
  • Staying in accommodations that prioritize sustainability
  • Engaging with the community in ways that promote conservation and cultural respect

Eco-Friendly Activities in Cancun

Ray Swimming Underwater Whether you're up for snorkeling in vibrant eco-parks, wandering through sustainable Mayan ruins, or paddling through the serene waters of ancient cenotes, Cancun has an eco-friendly activity for you. Here are my top choices for adventures that are both unforgettable and responsible.

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

I had been visiting Mexico for around 10 years before I finally decided to move here, and it wasn’t until I’d laid down some roots that I learned about Sian Ka’an. Luckily, you get to hear about it without having to move to another country!

The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is regarded as one of the most significant natural reserves globally. It’s a mosaic of ecosystems, including rainforests, wetlands, and coral reefs. It's a sanctuary for jaguars, tapirs, manatees, and more, encapsulated by a network of underground rivers and cenotes unique to the area.

Tours here are immersive experiences that highlight the importance of conservation and the interconnectedness of ecosystems. You’ll feel like you’re getting off the beaten path while getting a peek at what the region would have looked like before we all fell in love with it.

Isla Contoy National Park

Isla Contoy National Park is an island paradise located north of Isla Mujeres. This untouched gem is far removed from human activity. In fact, visitor numbers are restricted to 200 people per day and only through authorized tours.

Contoy features the Ixlaché Reef at its southern coast, which marks the Great Mesoamerican Reef's beginning. The island's interpretive trails and bird-watching viewpoints offer a peaceful retreat into nature and emphasize the importance of marine conservation and ecosystem preservation.

Chankanaab National Park

On Cozumel Island, Chankanaab National Park is a treasure trove of biodiversity. It boasts a coastal cenote with an in-island coral formation, a rarity in the world. The park is alive with over 60 species of tropical fish, crustaceans, and corals, complemented by lush botanical gardens. A visit here is a journey into the heart of Cozumel's marine and land biodiversity. You can opt for a snorkeling tour here for a deep dive into the conservation of these unique ecosystems.

Bacalar Lagoon

I’ll be honest. This one is a bit of a trek, but if you’ve got the time, I promise it’s worth it. Bacalar Lagoon is known as the Lagoon of Seven Colors. It’s a spectacle of nature's beauty located in southern Quintana Roo.

The lagoon's mesmerizing hues are a backdrop to a rich array of animal and plant species. Dubbed “Sian Ka’an Bakhalal” or “where heaven is born” by the Mayans, this site offers a serene escape into nature, where activities like kayaking and swimming complement the tranquil surroundings.

Also, did I mention there’s an underwater cenote?

Sea Turtle Sanctuary at Xcacel-Xcacelito

Nestled in Tulum, a mere 90 minutes from Cancun, lies a haven for sea turtles: the Sea Turtle Sanctuary at Xcacel-Xcacelito. This sanctuary is a pristine stretch of beach, home to lush kuká and chit palm jungles, as well as a diverse mangrove ecosystem.

It's an important nesting ground for white and loggerhead turtles and offers a rare opportunity to witness these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. Visiting supports conservation efforts and provides an insight into the delicate balance of marine life.

Isla Mujeres Catamaran Tour

Sailing to Isla Mujeres on a catamaran blends relaxation with eco-conscious travel. These tours use the wind as their primary propulsion to reduce fuel consumption and minimize their ecological footprint.

It's a great opportunity to enjoy the Caribbean's azure waters sustainably, complete with onboard amenities and the charm of Isla Mujeres. Personally, whenever I have any visitors, a catamaran tour is one of the first tours I’ll book, followed by the next option.

Snorkeling at Puerto Morelos

Snorkeling at Puerto Morelos offers an intimate glance at Mexico's Great Barrier Reef, a vibrant underwater ecosystem. This activity not only highlights the beauty of marine life but also stresses the importance of reef conservation.

Guided tours here focus on minimizing impact so visitors can enjoy the wonders of the reef while supporting efforts to protect it. You’d be surprised at how much you can see so close to the shore. With just a short boat ride, I’ve been swimming with sea turtles and stingrays, and I even saw a spotted eagle ray once!

Sustainable Accommodations

A beautiful view Cancun certainly has more than its fair share of hotels, so it can be downright challenging to find your way through all the options. To help, here’s a spotlight on some stellar accommodations where luxury meets sustainability.

Sandos Caracol Eco Resort

Nestled right on the beach, Sandos Caracol Eco Resort is a paradise for families and eco-warriors alike. Imagine waking up to monkeys and coatis as your neighbors, exploring sprawling gardens, and learning about the local ecosystems through hands-on eco-tours.

This place is serious about fun, education, and sustainability and offers everything from river adventures to snorkeling, all with a green twist. It’s a spot where your vacation vibes meet eco-friendly strides. I’ve stayed here many times, and my friends and family love it so much that my sister even got married here.

Eco-Hotel El Rey del Caribe

Tucked away in a tranquil corner of Cancun, the Eco-Hotel El Rey del Caribe is an urban oasis of sustainability. This stylish spot harnesses the power of the sun to heat your shower and collects rainwater like it’s going out of style.

Waste recycling? Check. A spa, yoga classes, and a pool to unwind after a day of adventure? Double-check. Walking distance to the beach with a commitment to the planet? You got it.

Hotel Xcaret Mexico

Step into Hotel Xcaret Mexico, and you're stepping into Riviera Maya itself. This isn’t just a resort. It’s an homage to the natural and cultural heritage of Mexico, designed to blend seamlessly with the landscape.

From rivers winding through the property to secret coves and blissful beaches, it’s sustainability on a silver platter. With the first EarthCheck Certification in Planning and Design in the Americas, it’s a testament to luxury that loves the earth.

Palmaïa, The House of AïA

Palmaïa - The House of AïA is where luxury meets a deep commitment to the environment. Located between the sea and the jungle, it offers guests a chance to reconnect with nature in the most opulent way.

Think wellness programs, yoga, and sound therapies, all wrapped up in an all-inclusive package that respects the earth. Zero plastic bottles, protection of native mangroves, and striving for carbon neutrality? They’re not just talking the talk; they’re walking the walk.

El Dorado Royale, a Spa Resort by Karisma

Karisma’s El Dorado Royale takes the cake when it comes to sustainable luxury. With a “Passion for Sustainability” program that touches every aspect of its operations, this resort lives and breathes eco-consciousness.

From waste management to water and energy efficiency, every detail is designed with the planet in mind. Boasting EarthCheck Silver and Green Globe certifications, it’s a place where your vacation leaves a positive mark on the world.

Eating Green in Cancun

Food Cancun's dining scene is as vibrant and diverse as its coral reefs, and it offers a bounty of options for those looking to eat green and support the local ecosystem. Here are some of my top picks, where the flavors are as rich as the commitment to sustainability.

Mar de Miel

For those exploring the heart of Cancun, Mar de Miel is your go-to for organic, vegan delights. Their spicy chickpea bowl is always a crowd-pleaser, especially with an extra drizzle of their signature sauce.

This chic spot also serves up brunch with flair, with local dishes like enmoladas that will have you in a blissful food coma. Trust me, it’s a feeding frenzy worth joining.

Hacienda Sisal

Hacienda Sisal marries tradition with the freshest local ingredients to create a menu that's a tribute to Mexico's culinary heritage. Dining here is like attending a family feast, with recipes passed down through generations and a setting that exudes romance and warmth.

If it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, their tequila selection is top-notch. It pairs perfectly with bold flavors that'll dance on your palate.

Bocados Steak House

This isn’t your average steakhouse. With a focus on dry-aged meats and a selection that includes plenty of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options, there's something for everyone.

Bocados’ commitment to locally sourced ingredients shines through in every dish, from the succulent steaks to the fresh seafood and signature salads. The atmosphere? Pure sophistication with a side of volcanic intrigue. Save this one for a special occasion, and you won’t be disappointed.

La Orgánica

When health is your top priority but flavor is a close second, La Orgánica answers the call. This organic eatery offers a variety of vegan options amidst a meat-inclusive menu to ensure everyone leaves satisfied.

From oatmeal and fruit salads to vegan wraps and pizzas, each dish is a testament to the power of plant-based eating.


Xkatik is where Mayan cuisine gets a modern makeover. Tucked away with stunning lagoon views and spectacular sunsets, it's a hidden gem that promises an unforgettable dining experience.

The menu is a love letter to Mayan flavors, with dishes that are as enticing as they are sustainable. And with performances like the Caribbean show on Thursdays, your meal is guaranteed to be accompanied by a side of culture.

Contributing to Conservation Efforts

A beautiful view of the beach Heading down to Cancun isn't just about soaking up the sun on those gorgeous beaches. If you’re looking for an opportunity to give back, here's how you can play a part in conserving its natural beauty.

Join a Beach Clean-Up

Participating in a beach clean-up is a hands-on way to contribute to the health of Cancun's coastal ecosystems. Organizations like Snorkeling4trash offer volunteer programs that are easy to join and make a tangible difference in combating ocean pollution.

Plus, you get that warm, fuzzy feeling of knowing you've left the beach better than you found it.

Adopt a Coral Fragment

Diving a bit deeper, adopting a coral fragment is a unique way to contribute to marine conservation. Various local initiatives allow tourists to fund the replanting of corals to help restore and protect the reefs that are vital to marine biodiversity.

Support Local Environmental NGOs

For those looking to make a broader impact, supporting local environmental NGOs through donations or volunteer work can be incredibly rewarding. Centro Ecológico Akumal and Saving Our Sharks are two great options to get in touch with.

These organizations work on numerous fronts, from wildlife protection to habitat restoration, and your support can help fuel their efforts. Whether it's a financial contribution or hands-on volunteer work, every little bit helps in the fight to preserve Cancun's natural wonders.

Tips for Sustainable Travel in Cancun

Inspired to start your holiday planning? Here are some practical tips to ensure your trip is as kind to the planet as it is fun for you.

Slather on Reef-Safe Sunscreen

First things first, let's talk sunscreen. Not all sunscreens are created equal, especially when it comes to protecting our marine buddies.

Opt for reef-safe sunscreen to keep those gorgeous coral reefs vibrant and healthy. Since there’s no clear standard, it’s not always easy to pick out the marketing from the actual reef-safe sunscreen, so here’s my favorite guide to help.

Stick to the Path

Whether you're exploring ancient ruins or trekking through lush jungles, staying on designated paths is a must. It's not just about safety here. It's about preserving the natural habitats and ecosystems that make Cancun so unique. Plus, it's the best way to spot wildlife without disturbing their natural routines.

Choose Eco-Friendly Tour Operators

This might be a given, but when booking tours, go for operators who wear their green hearts on their sleeves. These are the folks who know how to show you a good time while respecting the environment.

They're usually full of local knowledge and keen to share the beauty of Cancun in a way that ensures it stays beautiful for generations to come.

Eco-Conscious Departures

Travel often leaves behind a heavier footprint than we'd like, but with a few simple choices, you can holiday guilt-free. Choosing eco-tourism in Cancun means you can discover the heart of Cancun and the Riviera Maya while also preserving it.

Tourbase’s curated tours are designed with the planet in mind to ensure that your adventure contributes positively to the local ecosystem and community. With over eight years of expertise and a commitment to sustainability, we guide you towards experiences that are not only unforgettable but also responsible.

If you’re ready to start planning your next holiday, check out our full range of tours.

Cristal D
Local Writer, Global Traveler
Cristal Dyer was born in the Caribbean and has spent the last several decades travelling and writing, including several stints in Latin America. Currently based in Australia, she owns and operates her own travel site tofutraveler.com and is an expert travel writer, editor and photographer with a focus on solo budget travel and food tourism.

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