First time in Cancun? I am happy to share with you all the things you can do in and from Cancun and a few other practical tips to help you have the best vacation ever, beyond basking on its mind-blowing beach.
One of the most appealing destinations in Mexico for its 15 miles white sand beach, a vibrant nightlife, an unbeatable array of all-inclusive hotels, and the vicinity to many interesting places to visits and attractions, a Cancun holiday won’t certainly disappoint you. Especially if you read this guide. 🙂
After living for 7 years in this vibrant tourist destination and having explored every bit of it, I am sure I can offer you a good insider guide to help you organize your next trip to Cancun.
But before moving forward with the canonical list of the most amazing things to do in Cancun, I wanted to surprise you with this old picture of how Cancun was in the 7os before all the hotels have been built. I wish I had seen Cancun when it looked like this, but it was before but I wasn’t even born. It must have been an uncontaminated paradise compared to what it is now (see the main picture – courtesy of Wikimedia).
I always ask myself if progress is a good thing… it certainly is if you think about all the employment it creates, but I wonder if whether this the only possible way or there is a more sustainable option.
CANCUN AT A GLANCE
That said, to be totally honest with you, the city of Cancun in itself is other than charming, especially compared to a historical city such as Merida o Valladolid or all the other colonial cities in Mexico.
Cancun, on the contrary, is a very recently built city, the downtown buildings, and streets make no sense at all and there’s little to see; the hotel zone is a skyline of gigantic hotels, and although the majority of them offer a luxury experience they are still blocking the stunning view of the powdery-white sand and multiple shades of blue of the amazing water.
Luckily there are some entrances to the beach that are of public access. Here is a list of my favorites beaches in Cancun.
The hotel area also offers a huge variety of nightclubs and bars for party lovers, touristic shops, and delicious restaurants.
Yet somehow, even without the historical feeling, I still reckon Cancun has its charm…
Living here was a blessing. Cancun is known among the “mystics”, to be one of the most energetic centers of the world, and to be honest, even if you cannot touch it, you can totally feel it. I do.
Here is where I found my love for yoga and meditation, for vegan nutrition and a healthy living style.
This is what is living here is for me.
Furthermore, Cancun is located at just a 10-minute drive from Cancun International Airport, which makes me feel connected to the rest of the world.
For those visiting, I would definitely suggest stopping over for a couple of nights before heading southwards.
If you wish to stay for a week or longer, chill out at the hotels and beautiful beaches by all means, but please do yourself a favor, get out of the golden cage and explore around.
There is so much to see and do in Cancun and its surroundings, therefore without any further ado, here is the list of my favorite things to do in Cancun.
Read the full Guide to Cancun
THINGS TO DO IN CANCUN
Bask on the Cancun beach
One of the most amazing things Cancun is renewed for is the beach. Why wouldn’t it be? if you have seen the header picture you understand why.
Whether you love to bask in the sun, take a swim (be careful though), snorkel, practice any watersport or take a walk, the beach in Cancun will be perfect for any of that.
In this post, I am sharing in all the details which are the best spot and how to get there.
Explore the archeological sites and the museum
Among the most unique things to do in Cancun, few people know about the existence of two archeological sites in Cancun.
El Meco and El Rey, one is in the hotel zone the other a little far away in Puerto Juarez (on the way to Isla Blanca).
They are not breathtaking like Chichèn-itzà but still interesting to visit. And the museum of archeology will give you an overview of the Mayan culture, besides having a nice garden with a few small structures as a reminder of the old civilization.
If you are interested you can check out this post where I talk more in-depth about it.
Enjoy the Nichupte’ Lagoon
I would have never thought that it was so enjoyable until I found out about organized kayaking and paddleboard tours either at sunset or sunrise. After I tried those, I was hooked. The best way to admire the local fauna and paddle while the sun is setting beyond the Cancun skyline. You really don’t want to miss it if you love nature. Also, The Nichuptè lagoon is one of the few places in the world to see the bioluminescence phenomenon.
The mornings are much better for bird watching though. And don’t be surprise if you spot a dolphin as well, very rare, but it happened.
Check out my post about the Nichuptè lagoon.
Take a trip to Isla Mujeres
You cannot leave Cancun without visiting Isla Mujeres, whether you get there on a boat tour or on your own, it’s an unmissable spot to visit at only 30 minutes ferry ride from Cancun beach. Obviously if you join a tour, it will take longer as you will spend time snorkeling in the bright turquoise waters and dancing on the boat. As an introvert, although I reckon a tour would be fun, I prefer to go on my own and I am happy to avoid the noisy & drunk crowd of the boat.
Escape to the deserted beach of Playa Blanca
I have never imagined such a place existed so close to Cancun. The dirt road to get there makes it even more exciting. It’s been a paradise for kite lovers, now it has become a paradise for everyone. But if you go in weekdays you will still see a deserted unspoiled beach. In the post I wrote on Isla Blanca I will tell you how to get there and what to expect.
Take a refreshing dip in a cenote
The closest cenotes to Cancun are located in Puerto Morelos, a lovely fishing town located at about 30 minutes’ drive. But the village is certainly worth a visit, the cenotes are situated a little far away from the center, many of them, along a paved road that takes you in the heart of the Yucatan peninsula, off the beaten track.
I love to go on my own by car, and a few years ago it was the only way to get there as local busses were not going and private tours were still not available. Now it is possible to join an organization with a guide or you can simply hire a taxi. Just make sure you fix the price before.
Take a tour in the Colonial Yucatan
I wrote extensively about the colonial part of Mexico, while we can’t deny the appeal of the Riviera Maya and Cancun beach life, I am fascinated more by the local culture and the colonial cities such as Merida (about a 4-hours drive away), Valladolid (just an hour away),Izamal, the archeological sites of Chichen-Itza, Uxmal and the Ruta Puuc and much more.
If you are like me and are planning to rent a car, you will find these itineraries that I wrote very useful.
Otherwise, if you have limited time and you don’t want to spend so much on the road, I am with you as well, and I have selected specific tours that will take you to those amazing places, maybe with little time for yourself but they will give you a glimpse of the highlights of Yucatan.
Also, in organized tours, although it’s not really my thing, I appreciate having a guide that gives you precious information (always make sure you ask if it’s included)
Izamal is a yellow colonial town at about 2h 30” from Cancun and Cuzama is an old village renewed for the “Anillo de los cenotes”, a ring-shaped route lined with the spectacular sacred cenotes to visit. If you don’t have much time, or you don’t feel like driving around Yucatan on your own this tour is perfect to have a glimpse of each of them.
After this full day tour you will be exhausted, but also refreshed and happy to have covered so much in just one day.
Mingle with the locals
One of the most exciting things to do when I get to a new place to hang out where locals go. As I was mentioning before, Cancun downtown, where locals live, has nothing exciting to see. Cancun is a relatively new town founded just for tourism business purposes, and in the downtown, there are no historical buildings or interesting things to see, except for a couple of places that I enjoyed exploring.
In the popular and picturesque Mercado 28 you can find local potteries and various objects of the colorful local art and crafts. It is allowed to bargain although don’t be surprised if some of them don’t even bother to go a cent down in order to sell the product. It might look a little touristy but although the souvenirs stands are actually there for tourist, the surroundings and the small plaza behind it, Plaza Bonita, is a nice corner of the city where locals hang out and meet.
My favorite though is Mercado 23, which offers local fruits and vegetables, seeds of every sort, local food, and other kinds of stuff. That’s super local and where I used to go for my veggies to support the local business.
Take a tour to Las Coloradas
I am sure that while scrolling through your Instagram feed, you have seen at some point a surreal pink lake fading into the blue horizon. That’s Las Coloradas, a place that you cannot miss, and while you are there, you should take a boat tour in the nearby Rio Lagartos. An incredible ecosystem, home of the beautiful American flamingos, and many other bird spices. You can get there either by car or local busses and then take a boat tour from there. If you do so, I would recommend contacting William, an amazing naturalistic guide, he’s local and the only guide who is also a biologist and a photographer and speaks English. He will take you to the best spots and share so much interesting information about the local ecosystem and culture. I had a blast with him.
When you should book a tour to Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas
If, and only if, you don’t want to be bothered taking the busses or driving, then you can join an organized tour. There are many different kinds of trips that combine more visit sites. This is what I recommend
✅Book your tour to Las coloradas Rio Lagartos and Ek Balam
Like the one I mentioned before it’s a full day where you can cover some of the highlights of Yucatan. And if you want to save time and get a glimpse of everything this is just perfect. You wouldn’t be able to do so much in one day if you are using public transportation. You would if you rent your own car.
Visit the spectacular Mayan archaeological site of Chichen-itzà
One of the seven wonders and UNESCO World Heritage Site Chichen-itzà was one of the most important and largest Mayan centers of the Yucatán peninsula. It has unfortunately become a hub for local vendors who want to take advantage of the hordes of tourists to sell their goods, so what was a sacred place has now turned into a market place.
I am sorry to say it has lost the usual mysticism and spiritual vibes that usually the Mayan sites bestow.
However, rant apart, I still believe that if you have never been there, you should see it at least once in your lifetime.
How to get to Chichen Itza
You can get there on your own by ADO busses from the Cancun bus station or you can book an organized tour that comes with a certified guide.
Open every day from 8 am to 5 pm
Entrance fee: 480 MXN per person (Free on Sundays for Mexicans and Residents)
Guide Service available at the entrance for about 1000 MXN negotiable
Chichén Itzá suggested tours
✅Private tour to Chichén Itzá
This tour would look costly if you are alone but you are traveling with a small group or you meet other people along the way it would be the perfect choice to travel in comfort with your own guide.
✅ Sunrise tour in Chichén-itzá
This is quite a unique and unusual tour which allows you to enter the site before the crowds and before the vendor, and admire the sacred temple in all its majesty at the sunrise.
✅ Chichèn-itzà, Ik-kil and Coba tour in one
I am not sure about visiting two archeological sites in one day, as it can be exhausting, however, it’s perfect if you have limited time and want to see as much as possible.
‼️ Insider tip – before booking a tour make sure you read well what’s included and not included in the price and check the reviews. Take them with a grain of salt but still use them as a reference.
Swim with the whale sharks
It’s an extraordinary experience and if you love nature you must take this tour.
However, it’s only available from June through early September when these gentle giants of the sea are passing by the Yucatan coasts during their migration in search of food. No, human beings are not their favorite food, so you are safe, even though we would completely fit in their huge mouth.
✅ Book a tour to swim with the whale sharks from Cancun
Among many tours, I have selected this one for its many 5 stars reviews for the excellent service. The experience in itself is breathtaking but the minutes you spend swimming with the giant mammals are very limited while the hours on the boat are relatively long so it’s better to be comfortable. The prices for this trip are normally from 150 to 200 USD. I would not trust those who offer it for a lower price unless it’s somebody you know already.
Take a day trip to the Riviera Maya including Tulum archeological site
You might have noticed I love archeological sites. I am actually a little obsessed and I have visited all of them in the Yucatan Peninsula.
If you are not so crazy like me, I understand and I forgive you 🙂 but Tulum cannot be missed. I wrote extensively about the magic town of Tulum so if you wish to spend there more time you should check my guide. It will help you find your way around and enjoy it like a local.
Although I always suggest you should spend a few days in Tulum to be able to live the full Tulum experience, luckily you still have the chance to get a quick pick in one of the organized tours, if you don’t want to rent a car of course.
Check out the available tours to explore the spectacular Tulum and the surroundings
✅ Tulum, Coba and a sacred cenote
This tour will take you to visit the most interesting archeological sites in the State of Quintana Roo and to visit one of the 300 cenotes scattered around the Yucatan Peninsula in one of the Mayan communities.
✅ Tulum, Playa del Carmen and a sacred cenote
This tour combines the history and mysticism of the archeological site of Tulum with the modern party vibes of Playa del Carmen where you will have time on your own to enjoy the colorful and noisy Quinta Avenida. (5th avenue).
Visit the spectacular and protected island of Contoy
Contoy island has always been inaccessible for being a protected area only open for investigation purposes. The CONAP, a governmental institution for the Protection of the Natural resources in Mexico used to release only a few permissions per year, and they were very difficult to obtain.
I had the privilege to visit the island at that time during a company workshop.
It was totally wild and unspoiled and only a group of volunteering biologists were living there for some research purposes. Lots of birds were there for nesting and a manta ray that paid us a visit by the beach shoreline, so friendly. It was paradise. They say that manta ray has died but there is his son (or daughter) coming over. Be prepared for the funny encounter.
I am not sure if this is good or bad but they have now opened the doors to tourism, and although in a limited measure, many tour companies are now allowed to take tourists to visit this little piece of paradise.
Normally tours combine the visit to Contoy to Isla Mujeres. I would personally choose a full day in Contoy and then do Isla Mujeres in another day, just because I don’t like to rush things. However, if you are short of time, the combo would be perfect.
In both cases, it will be a full day in paradise!
To Isla Contoy you cannot go on your own so here below are the tours I recommend:
Take a day trip to Holbox
Although I normally suggest you should stay in Holbox for at least 2 nights in order to appreciate it, and enjoy it fully, you can still visit this beautiful island in one day, by joining an organized tour. Consider that Holbox Cancun will take about 2h 30 minutes, from there you will get on a fishing boat and you will get to explore the local wildlife, jump in a cenote and visit the town of Holbox and its spectacular beaches. In the 1-day tour you will miss the spectacular sunset, but you will definitely be able to see most of the island and surroundings.
Dive in the underwater museum (bouns tip)
Even if you have never dived before, it’s an experience that I would totally recommend. It’s a shallow dive that even beginners can do. The dive schools will give you the fundamentals of diving and you will be good to go. The MUSA (Underwater Museum of Art) is in the waters surrounding Cancun and Isla Mujeres and has a collection of over 500 life-size sculptures from different artists and a VW beetle, created with the ultimate goal to promote coral life.
Even if you cannot dive, you can still admire this spectacular and surreal exhibition by snorkeling or on a glass-bottom boat tour.
✅ CANCUN TRAVEL TIPS
- WHAT IS THE BEST MONTH TO VISIT CANCUN? November to April is the best time of the year to visit Cancun because it’s less humid and lower chance of rain, while September and October are the rainiest months. However, I wouldn’t really bother. You never know about the weather.
- May through September is when you should travel if you want to swim with whale sharks
- Cancun it’s a great destination for everyone, family, and couples, or solo travelers. There’s everything for every taste and budget. And it’s a great hub for daily tours
- Watersport lovers will fall for Cancun
- WHERE DO I CHANGE MY MONEY IN CANCUN?Don’t change your money at the airport, or hotels. Find banks or Casa de Cambios. Credit cards are commonly accepted except for markets or street food, where Mexican pesos are much more convenient.
- Tipping is not mandatory in Cancun but is very welcomed and definitely expected. From 10 to 15% is a good tip.
For Further Reading
- How to get from Cancun to Isla Mujeres, Mexico – the ferry and other options
- Isla Mujeres Golf Cart Rental: where to find it, costs, and practical tips
- 15 gorgeous VRBO vacation rentals and Airbnb in Isla Mujeres Mexico
- Top 7 Aldea Zama Tulum rentals and practical tips
- Bacalar Restaurants – The top 7 places where to eat in Bacalar
Your Basic Travel Resources
- Book your transfers between destinations on the trusted booking platform Bookaway
- Store your bags in the main cities and walk around freely hands and weight free with Bounce
- Check if you need a visa and get help processing it with iVisa
- Never ever leave without travel insurance. Get complete coverage from World Nomads or long term insurance from Safety Wing
- I find all of my flights on Skyscanner, Kiwi.com, Google flights, Scott’s Cheap Flights, and always remember to compare
- Book your daily tours locally to support local businesses, or if you don’t find any reliable company, or you prefer to book in advance, check out GetYourGuide or Viator. Some of their tours are refundable up to 24h in advance.
- I rent my long and mid-term apartments on VRBO
- Book hotels with Booking.com or Hotels.com
- Compare car rental prices at Auto Europe, Discover Car Rentals
- Check out my travel planning guide if you are planning your trip and feeling overwhelmed