Cancun is known for it’s wild vacations; typically for its tequila-feuled days, and dancing on table tops by night; the nightlife and party resorts have long drawn crowds looking for a loose time.
Though for those who aren’t sleeping off a hangover during the day, Mexico’s biggest party destination is an ecotourism delight; surrounded by lush parks, verdant jungles, and waters teeming with life, Cancun is a fantastic base for encountering actual wildlife.
Part of the Riviera Maya / Yucatán Peninsula, prolific for mammals, repitiles and amphibians, Cancun has a rich variety of animals which live throughout its surrounding jungles, savannahs, coral reefs, and coastal lagoons.
From turtles nesting on the white sand beaches, to iguanas sunbathing on the rocks, and whale sharks swimming offshore, you might think of Cancun as a party destination, but nature tourists can have a wild time too!
This is an overview of the wildlife you can experience in and around Cancun, if you’re a nature tourist looking for things to do.
Nature Tourists Can Have a Wild Time Too: Wildlife to See in Cancun
The Caribbean Waters of the Riviera Maya are among the best place to spot sea turtles in the world. And you can have some truly unique experiences with them here in Cancun.
The three species here are the Green Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle and Loggerhead Turtle. Endangered due to poaching, habit destruction, and the rubbish in our oceans, all species are protected in Mexico, meaning it’s illegal to hunt, capture, or steal their eggs.
There are plenty of snorkeling and scuba diving tours which take you out for time in the water (we recommend snorkeling in Akumal), though for hygiene reasons do remember to pack your own gear including swimming goggles with nose cover.
You can also spot them on the beaches at night as they come ashore to lay their eggs. Between May and October, female turtles come ashore across the many beaches in Riviera Maya, and as long as you keep your distance, and don’t use flash photography so not to disturb them, you’re welcome to sit and watch.
The sand where the nests are are marked by volunteers, and there are usually guards around the most popular beaches to make sure they’re not distubred, and are able to hatch.
From July until October their eggs start to hatch, and the baby turtles start setting out on their journey back to the ocean. Cancun and Riviera Maya have many turtle release events where the baby turtle hatchlings are released into the ocean.
There are plenty of local preservation groups, conservation programs and sanctuaries throughout Riviera Maya, like Isla Mujeres Tortugranja (turtle farm), who organize public viewings and turtle releases.
Many hotels in the Hotel Zone also have turtle protection programs, protecting the nests of turtles who lay eggs on their property. Hotels like CasaMagna Marriott Cancún Resort and Sun Palace allow guests to participate in releasing the hatchlings.
While there are many dolphins in and around the waters of Cancun, it’s the presence of Whale Sharks which makes for a truly extraorindary experience if you have the opportunity to see them.
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea, and while they are classified as a shark, they are gentle giants, completely safe to snorkel and dive alongside (they exclusively feed on plankton, and don’t care for us!).
Their sheer magnitude and size is breathtaking; they are the relative size of a bus, often reaching lengths of 40 feet, and weighing up to 20 tons.
While they can be found in all tropical oceans, the clear Caribbean Waters around Cancun mean you have some of the highest visibility here vs anywhere else in the world. You can take whale shark tours all throughout Riviera Maya from June through September.
Of all the exotic animals and wildlife around Cancun, bird watching is one of the most underrated things to do.
Among the incredible range of tropical birds you can encounter / see here is the American Flamingo; the beautiful pink bird inhabiting coastal lagoons and estuaries, most common around Celestun, but can be found closer to Cancun in Sian Ka’an sometimes too.
Bird nerds can tick off species such as the Yucatan Woodpecker, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Great Curassow, Black-throated Bobwhite, Yucatan Parrot, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Barred Forest-Falcon, and Yucatan Jays, just to name a few.
Though the most famous bird of the Riviera Maya, and birding’s biggest attraction, is the Keel-billed Toucan, with their large and colorful bill.
Toucans are one of the noisiest jungle birds, so you’ll definitely hear them if they’re in the area. They inhabit the forest, so for the best chance of spotting them, head into the many Ecological Parks and Preserves, and keep your eye out!
Isla Contoy National Bird Sanctuary is about three hours from Cancun, and is the most important bird sanctuary in the Caribbean. You can spot up to 120 species of birds on this tropical island; an uninhabited island and dedicated nature preserve. Day trips are easy to organize.
Black Spiny-Tailed Iguana
There are plenty of Iguanas throughout the Riviera Maya, though the Black Spiny-tailed is our favorite, with its distinctive spikes along its back and tail.
This is a lizard that is native to Central America and Mexico, and they are excellent rock climbers, so you’ll easily spot them along rocky habitats near the coast.
There is a permanent population who enjoy sunning themselves around the rocky ruins of Tulum.
While other big cats like Jaguars, pumas, and ocelots may attract all the fame and attention, the Margay is a smaller wild cat, also known as a tree ocelot (called so becayse they can rotate their hind legs 180 degress, and therefore race down a tree headfirst).
It’s native to Central and South America, and has a beautiful beige fur, with dark stripes down the back. They hunt lizards, insects, birds, and even small monkeys, through the forest canopy at night.
Being noctural, and a threatened specis (their beautiful fur has made them a target for the exotic pet trade), numbers of Margay’s around the Riviera Maya have dwindled, so it’s best to head to Akumal Monkey Sanctuary to see one, an hour and a half from Cancun.
Other wildlife you can spot in and around Cancun include the Tapir (visit the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve about 10 km south of Tulum), the Yucatan Black Howler Monkey, the West Indian Manatee (lagoons of Sian Ka’an), and the Red-Eyed Tree Frog.