Cancun offers natural preserves unknown to many visitors

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CANCUN -- There's a lot more to this resort destination than high-rise hotels, although you may have to venture out a bit to find it.

Most visitors are, or should be, aware of the magnificent nearby Mayan ruins of Uxmal and Chichen Itza.

But few visitors realize that within a couple hours' travel on a good network of roads are some of the best nature preserves in the entire Mexican/Caribbean region.

Miguel Borge Martin, head of the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, "Modern Cancun, with all the quality and variety that it offers, is also the gateway to a thousand years of Mexico's archaeological history -- and to a natural history that is even older."

In recent months, three new nature parks have opened -- Xpu-Ha, Tres Rios and Actun Chen, each within an hour's drive of Cancun.

A little more than 50 miles south of Cancun, Xpu-Ha offers close contact with nature. Of its 91-plus acres, approximately 3% has been developed, including roads, bathrooms and a seaside restaurant called La Palapa. There also are sunbathing areas and a scuba diving operation.

Xpu-Ha is a sanctuary for rare birds, some of them endangered, and for protected species such as crocodiles, sea turtles, deer and snakes.

Walks along nature trails are led by expert guides.

Tres Rios, stretching inland from a milelong beach about 25 miles from Cancun, encompasses subtropical jungle and mangroves in a 370-acre area with a number of cenotes, the pools where the area's underground rivers break through the surface.

Tres Rios is the only place in Mexico where the cenotes are at ground level, found in the shallow rivers which run to the sea.

Visitors can walk or bike through the jungle, ride horseback along the beach and snorkel and swim in the river.

The newest of the trio is Actun Chen, about an hour's drive from Cancun on the road to Tulum. The park's name means "cave with an underground river inside."

The main cave, more than 600 yards long, has been illuminated and supplied with paths for easy walking.

There are thousands of stalactites, stalagmites and natural sculptures as well as a 40-foot-deep cenote. Tours are led by expert guides.

The surrounding jungle offers trails that reveal some of the local wildlife: white-tailed deer, badgers, howler monkeys, iguanas and wild turkeys.

Aside from a restaurant and rest rooms, the 988-acre site remains pristine.

For Cancun information, call (800) CANCUN8 or visit the Cancun Web site at www.gocancun.com.

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