Planning a trip to Cancun? Here’s our ultimate checklist of 21 things to do on your trip
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White sand beaches, all-inclusive resorts, vibrant nightclubs and sparkling blue water — those are probably the first things that come to mind when you think of Cancun. Located in the Yucatan Peninsula on the eastern coast of Mexico, Cancun is known as the party capital of the country. Travelers flock to the city to experience its nightclubs and luxurious all-inclusive resorts. But there’s more to this city than just days spent lying in a hammock and nights partying at Coco Bongo (though you should definitely put both on your to-do list while you’re there).
Whether you stay at an all-inclusive or a standard resort, there are likely plenty of things to do without leaving the property. But there’s also lots to explore in Cancun and the surrounding areas, from museums to nature reserves to nearby small towns and more.
Cancun is one of the easiest places for U.S. residents to visit right now since Mexico doesn’t currently require you to have a negative COVID-19 test or make you quarantine upon arrival. While that comes with its own set of concerns, it does mean it’s a popular summer 2021 destination for vaccinated travelers. If you plan on visiting Cancun this year, make sure you check out everything the city has to offer — both at your resort and off-property.
Visit gorgeous beaches
If you are staying at a resort that doesn’t have beachfront access, or you just want to explore beaches away from your hotel, there are plenty of options where you can enjoy the water in the Cancun area.
This beach is located in the northern area of the hotel zone, but it’s still a popular spot for locals. The area is clean, the water is calm (perfect for kids who want to swim) and the atmosphere is relaxed. Plenty of tourists even prefer it to the strips of beaches in front of their resorts.
You can also grab a ferry to the nearby Isla Mujeres from here, bungee jump from the pier or check out one of the open-air restaurants scattered along the beach.
If you want to escape the resort towers, you should try the soft white sand of Playa Delfines, about seven miles south of the hotel zone. Onsite parking is free, and you can rent chairs and beach umbrellas when you’re there. The water can get rough once you wade out into deeper water at this beach, but you can still swim closer to shore. It’s a great spot for surfing, though you’ll have to make sure to rent a board in town before heading to the beach.
There aren’t any restaurants or resorts located on the beach, but local vendors do sell foods if you get hungry. If you have kids with you, the beach has a playground and palapas available for shade when it’s naptime. There is also a popular photo spot near the beach with colorful letters that spell out “Cancun,” though there is typically a line of people waiting with their cameras.
Playa Marlin is a great beach for water sports such as surfing, parasailing and snorkeling, but the waves and currents can be dangerous for leisure swimmers.
It’s located in the hotel zone about a five-minute walk from the Kukulcan Plaza shopping mall. Lifeguards are on duty, and you can rent beach supplies for the day.
Playa Chac Mool
For a family-friendly beach in close proximity to shopping and restaurants, check out Playa Chac Mool. It gets fewer visitors than some of the other beaches in Cancun since it doesn’t offer parking, so you may find it easier to spread out here.
There is an area where you can rent umbrellas and loungers, and a lifeguard is on duty. The beach is a certified Blue Flag beach, which means it has to meet and maintain a series of environmental, educational, safety and accessibility standards. The waves can get rough here, so it may not be the best place for small children to swim. But from May to October, you might see sea turtles come ashore to nest.
Learn about Mexican culture
One of my favorite things about traveling is learning about the local culture of the places I visit. While Cancun is very tourist-centric, there are still plenty of opportunities to explore Mayan ruins and learn more about Mexican culture during your trip.
One of the more famous archaeological sites in the Cancun area is Chichen Itza, which was an important city-state in pre-Hispanic America. This UNESCO World Heritage site is two and a half hours from Cancun, located deeper in the Yucatan peninsula. If you have a rental car, you can drive yourself there. But there are also plenty of tour options you can book from Cancun to visit the site.
The main attraction of the ruins is the large pyramid called El Castillo, but there are 26 total Mayan ruins you can see while there. Entrance tickets cost $533 MXN for visiting adults (around $27) and $80 MXN for children ages three to 12 (around $4). But you can also book specialty tours.
Right now, Chichen Itza capacity is limited to just 3,000 visitors per day and the entry is closed at 4 p.m. (though you can explore until 5 p.m.), so you’ll want to plan to get there earlier in the day.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site is Xochimilco, and you can take tour to pay homage to the original city on a Mexican floating fiesta. You board a gondola-like boat called a trajinera to experience a floating party. Yes, there are games and dancing, but you’ll also get a taste of Mexican culture — literally. The music and food come from different areas in Mexico to display the different cultures throughout the country.
Tickets start at $90 for adults; make sure to bring long pants and biodegradable bug spray if you plan to participate. You’ll be floating through the jungle, and that means mosquitos will want to join the fiesta.
Temazcal (sweat lodge) ceremonies originated in Mexico and have been practiced for thousands of years. Each ceremony is unique, but they all serve as a cleansing ritual rumored to have healing powers. A shaman or temazcalero will lead the ceremony, performed in dome-like structures made of cement, mud or volcanic stone that act as a steam room. While there are health benefits to a temazcal ritual, for many these ceremonies hold deep spiritual significance.
During the Spanish conquest, many temazcal structures were destroyed, but some were hidden and the ritual was preserved. Now, these ceremonies are continually growing in popularity. Make sure any temazcal ritual you take part in is performed by an experienced shaman or temazcalero to ensure they are qualified to safely carry out the ceremony.
Make sure to check out a Lucha Libre show while you’re in Cancun, Mexico’s version of pro-wrestling. These unique Mexican performances mix wrestling, acrobatics and theatrical moves to show a fight between good and bad. And of course, each fighter will wear one of the infamous masks and costumes.
These events tend to be lively and end with someone getting thrown out of the ring. Tickets are pretty inexpensive (less than $15 per person), and fights are held in downtown Cancun and sometimes the nearby island of Isla Mujeres.
Museo Maya and San Miguelito
The Museo Maya and the adjoining Sam Miguelito ruins is a great place to learn about Mayan history. The museum is filled with some of the most important Maya artifacts, from sculptures to ceramics to jewelry recovered from assorted sites across the Yucatán peninsula. The San Miguelito archeological site was once part of the El Rey ruins (which is temporarily closed to visitors). The ruins feature several small pyramids and other structures you can explore, and you’ll also likely spot an iguana or two (or a dozen) while you explore.
Your ticket to the museum (less than $5) includes access to the ruins, so make sure you check out both while you are there.
Go on fun excursions
If you’re in an adventurous mood, there are plenty of excursions you can book while in Cancun that take you in the water or through the jungle (or both).
Snorkeling just might be the most widely available water excursion in Cancun. Plenty of beaches have places where you can rent equipment so you can snorkel right off the beach, but you can also book special excursions to snorkel with sea turtles, whale sharks or check out the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
Sea turtles are common in the Mexican Caribbean waters — I saw a couple while snorkeling the reef — but to see whale shark you’ll need to book a specialty tours that run during whale shark season. Peak season for spotting whale sharks is typically July and August, though you can sometimes spot them as early as May when weather starts to warm. Whale sharks are the largest shark in the sea, but they are harmless gentle giants.
If you do take a tour, I would highly suggest wearing a rash guard or other long-sleeved swimwear to ward off sunburn. Many snorkel tours won’t let you bring extra sunscreen on the boat, and any sunscreen you put on while at the docks will wear off before your tour ends. Any sunscreen you do wear make sure is reef-safe. Many sunscreens can cause damage to coral and other reef wildlife.
Finally, keep in mind that many snorkel excursions may not be the best activity for young kids. Currents can get strong, and kids who aren’t experienced at navigating through the water around the reefs can accidentally damage the coral.
Cancun is home to an underwater museum called the Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA). This marine park was founded as a way to divert some diving attention away from the coral reefs to help with preservation efforts. Now, nearly 500 statues created by a group of sculptors and artists sit in an assortment of exhibits off the coast of Cancun and the nearby Isla Mujeres — and more galleries
The museum isn’t only for divers. There are plenty of tours you can book through the MUSA website, from snorkeling excursions to diving (both for beginners and certified divers) to glass boat trips to jungle tours. The tour we booked included a guided tour of the gallery of Punta Nizuc and time to snorkel some of the reef — and drinks throughout the day were included complimentary in our package.
Cenote tour on Ruta De Cenotes
If you are in the mood for some adventuring in the jungle, check out the cenotes found along a strip in Puerto Morelos. The area is nicknamed the Ruta De Cenotes, and it’s a quick 30-minute drive from Cancun (about halfway between the city and Playa del Carmen). Many resorts in both Cancun and Playa del Carmen offer tours of this area, too.
Cenotes are naturally occurring sinkholes that form when limestone collapses to expose groundwater. Cenotes are found throughout the Yucatán Peninsula and often have beautifully clear water. I’ve taken a cenote tour in Mexico before (though not in Cancun), and it was easily one of the highlights of that trip. There are many different kinds of cenotes — some are pits that open up to the sky and others are more cave-like in nature. Just make sure to pack your mosquito repellent for your trek through the jungle and plenty of water.
Keep in mind that cenotes are generally off the beaten path and getting into the cenotes themselves almost always requires using shaky ladders or stairs. Therefore, most of them aren’t easily accessible for those with mobility limitations or small kids.
Try scuba diving or surfing
Cancun is a great place to try out scuba diving or surfing for the first time.
For those who want to learn how to surf, Cancun is one of the top beginner surf spots in the world thanks to the warm Caribbean water, sand beaches that make for easy-going waves and consistent two-to-three foot waves year-round. There are plenty of surf schools that offer lessons in the Cancun area for all ages. As someone who took my very first surf lesson last year (though in Hawaii and not Mexico), there is nothing like the sense of accomplishment you feel when you fly through the water on your feet the first time.
If you’d rather dive beneath the water than surf on top of the waves, Cancun is also a great place for both beginner and experienced divers thanks to shallow water areas, its proximity to the second largest barrier reef in the world and the many clear-water cenotes in the area. MUSA (above) offers beginner diving excursions as well as experiences for certified scuba divers, and there are also other schools where you can start your journey to becoming PADI Certified.
There will likely be shopping at the resort you are at, but consider venturing into the city for your souvenir purchases. There are some luxury shopping areas you can check out for high-end boutiques.
This vibrant and colorful market is a great place to shop for souvenirs and local goods. It’s set up like a huge flea market with vendors lining the walkways, and you can easily spend hours walking around. From the hotel zone, take the R-2 bus to Mercado 28; once you get off, you’ll need to walk about six blocks up to an archway that says Mercado 28.
While shopping, you’ll want to negotiate prices down from the first (likely overpriced) offer, and don’t be afraid to turn down a price and continue shopping elsewhere. You can find some great deals on beautiful pottery, clothes and other handcrafted goods.
Tacos on Avenida Tulum
If there is one meal you have that’s not at your all-inclusive resort while in Cancun, it should be tacos from one of the vendors on Avenida Tulum. Taco stands and stalls are dotted along the road, and you can find pretty much every type of taco imaginable. It’s a great way to support local business owners while grabbing some delicious authentic eats. I personally recommend mixing and matching tacos from different stands with friends or family members, walking down to Parque Las Palapas and spreading everything out on one of the tables at the park to sample all the different tacos everyone got.
La Isla shopping village
La Isla shopping village is where you’ll find the aquarium, movie theatre and upscale boutiques. It’s an open-air mall with walkways that line the canals that go through the shopping center and fountains throughout. It’s located in the hotel zone, and there are plenty of well-known American chain stores and restaurants here, but you’ll also find some local gems throughout the shopping center.
If you go in the evening, you can even catch a great view of the sunset over the lagoon.
Mexico is known for its tequila made 100% from blue agave plants in the Jaliscan Highlands in western Mexico. By law, tequila in Mexico can only be produced in handful of municipalities in the state of Jalisco. So while you won’t find Cancun-produced tequila, you’ll find a wide variety of tequilas that were made in the Jaliscan Highlands to taste (and maybe even take home with you).
In Cancun and along the Riviera Maya, there are tequila tours and tastings you can book to try out a variety of tequila types and learn more about how the liquor is made.
Take a day trip
There is so much to do in and around Cancun, but the city is also perfectly situated for plenty of fun day trips to nearby destinations to get away from the tourists or experience a different vibe. These are all places within a few hours of Cancun that you can get to with a rental car or ferry.
A quick ferry ride away from Cancun’s hotel zone is Isla Mujeres, or “the island of women.” This small island town has a much more relaxed atmosphere compared to Cancun. There are places to stay on the island, but it’s also a quick day trip for those staying in the city.
The island has a little bit of everything — pristine beaches, ruins to explore, restaurants, water activities, shopping and more. Divers and snorkelers can check out the MUSA gallery installations off the coast of Isla Mujeres, and those who enjoy an adrenaline rush can take a zipline tour over the Caribbean waters. You can also visit Punta Sur on the southern tip of the island. It’s the first place in Mexico the sun touches in the morning, and the cliffs along the shore are the highest elevation points in the Yucatan. It’s also where the temple of the goddess Ixchel used to be — which used to be used as a lighthouse for ships.
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is a protected area of the Yucatan just south of Playa del Carmen. This UNESCO World Heritage Site covers about 75 miles of coastline and about 988,000 acres. It’s home to hundreds of different wildlife species, from the West Indian Manatee to jaguars and pumas to flamingos to sea turtles to endemic bird species. There are also more than 1,000 different types of flora found throughout the reserve.
You can book ecologically friendly nature tours into the lagoons and wetlands where you can see the (mostly) undisturbed nature and learn more about why the conservation of this biosphere reserve and others like it are so important.
Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas
If you want to escape the non-stop tourist party in Cancun, drive to Rio Lagartos, a small fishing village and natural reserve on the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Hundreds of flamingos can be found in the bay if you take a tour through the mangroves, and you can walk alongside the pink water salt ponds (which make for an excellent photo op) in Las Coloradas just a few miles away.
It’s a birdwatchers paradise, but there is a lot to love about this quaint town even if you aren’t a self-professed ornithologist. You can walk through the town, check out a tour of the reserve to see the flamingos and mangroves, and then see the salt ponds that are open to the public (the larger commercial ones are not).
Tulum is another popular destination in Mexico, and it’s only a couple of hours from Cancun by car. While Tulum is popular, it’s not as touristy as Cancun in nature, so you’ll get a more authentic experience walking through the Pre-Columbian Mayan ruins and cliffs, checking out the local restaurants and shopping and visiting Playa Paraiso (“Paradise Beach”) to relax under the palm trees that line the sand.
There are also outdoor bars and restaurants that host DJs on the weekends for a great nightlife scene that is fun without being quite as crazy as Cancun’s abundance of nightclubs. Spending an evening with friends, a margarita, good music and a hammock? You can’t tell me that isn’t the best way to end a day in paradise.
Featured image by Arthur Fonoretzky/Getty Images
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