Despite being known the world over for its colourful Day of the Dead festivities, this vast and varied land once ruled over by the Mayans and Aztecs is actually brimming with life
Take the plunge with gentle giants
Mexico truly spoils sealife lovers as it faces two different oceans: the Atlantic to the east and the Pacific to the west. This affords it an incredibly rich marine biodiversity, with year-round opportunities to observe some of our blue planet’s rarest inhabitants.
Another ace that Mexico keeps up its sleeve is the Great Mayan Reef lying off its Caribbean coast. Continuing south past Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, the entire system stretches just over 1,000 kilometres (621.4 miles) in all, making it easily the largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere and second only to the Great Barrier Reef globally.
The mega-reef hosts all manner of sealife, from turtles and manatees to rays and dolphins, plus many different types of coral. However, for many the biggest attraction (in more ways than one) is the chance to hang out with Earth’s largest fish. Adult whale sharks can reach the length of a school bus and weigh heavier than three elephants combined, but being filter feeders and very docile, they pose no danger to us. Just be sure to respect their privacy: it’s not as if you have to get very close for a decent photo of these aquatic leviathans.
From June to September, head to the Caribbean waters off the Yucatán Peninsula, where these ocean giants arrive en masse to mate and feed over the summer months. If you want to steer clear of the Cancún tourist trap, Isla Holbox a few hours to the north is a much more chilled-out option. If you’re visiting from November to May, on the other hand, the Sea of Cortez in the west is your best shot, as these warmer waters off Baja California are where many whale sharks like to while away the winter.
Sign up for turtle patrol
With its warm seas, extensive tropical reefs and thousands of miles of beaches, Mexico is a haven for sea turtles, offering plenty of opportunities to encounter them in the wild. In fact, its waters can lay claim to six out of the seven total species, including leatherbacks, hawksbills and loggerheads. But just because Mexico ticks a lot of the boxes for turtles, that’s not to say their life here is all plain sailing; sometimes they need a helping hand.
That’s where you can come in. There are several turtle-focused conservation projects that are always on the lookout for volunteers, such as El Tortugario near the town of Cuyutlán on the Pacific coast. Duties at sea turtle sanctuaries can include everything from monitoring nursery sites at night and releasing newborns into the sea to cleaning tanks, weighing resident turtles and assisting with local education initiatives.
Marvel at millions of monarchs
If you’re thinking of timing your trip to coincide with this butterfly bonanza, which plays out from around November through to March, you won’t be disappointed. And if you’re not, it’s seriously worth reconsidering. Although it’s estimated that numbers of monarchs were down by more than a quarter in 2017 (probably because of heavy storms in 2016), this event remains one of the planet’s most spectacular sights, and one that should be on every nature lover’s bucket list. Looking at these delicate bugs, it’s difficult to comprehend how they could undertake a journey of up to 4,800 kilometres (2,982.6 miles), the longest migration of any insect.
Indeed, they have a rather complex lifecycle involving several generations. While most monarch butterflies only live for around five to seven weeks, those born around September/October are somehow genetically wired to live much longer — as much as eight months longer! This enables them to cover the huge distances from North America down to the fir forests of central Mexico, where they blanket the pine trees like living lava. For a hike you will never forget, head to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site just a few hours west of Mexico City. As conservationist Charles Gottfried put it, “When you stand in a monarch sanctuary, your soul is shaken and your life is changed.”