Epic Places in Cancun You Never Knew Existed

The ancient Mayan walled city of Tulum on the Caribbean coast once served as a major port for Coba, whose ruins are one of the highlights of Yucatan.
The ancient Mayan walled city of Tulum on the Caribbean coast once served as a major port for Coba, whose ruins are one of the highlights of Yucatan. | © Wojtkowski Cezary / Alamy
Photo of Jack Guy
7 April 2021

Cancun is famous for its all-inclusive hotels and raucous nightlife. However, there are lots of hidden spots, from remote cenotes to the charming colonial town of Valladolid that you can enjoy within easy reach of Mexico‘s Caribbean resort. Here are some of the best.

MUSA Underwater Museum

Museum
Map View
Underwater house at Musa, Isla Mujeres, Mexico
MDR1AC Underwater house at Musa, Isla Mujeres, Mexico | © Nick Polanszky / Alamy
One of the main reasons to go to Isla Mujeres is to visit this unique underwater museum of more than 500 life-size sculptures created by British sculptor and environmentalist Jason deCaires Taylor. It was designed as a spot for divers and snorkelers to visit in order to take some pressure off of the coral reef nearby.

Rio Secreto

Natural Feature
Map View
Swimming man looks at fantastic rock formations at Rio Secreto, an underground cave that people can visit in Mexico
CTGMX8 Swimming man looks at fantastic rock formations at Rio Secreto, an underground cave that people can visit in Mexico | © Yvette Cardozo / Alamy

The Secret River is the largest non-submerged cave in the Yucatan peninsula, and you can swim through the underground river on a guided tour. There are thousands of stalactites and stalagmites to see, and the tour is a great introduction to the complex geography of the area.

Hacienda El Mortero

Restaurant, Mexican, $$$
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Hacienda El Mortero Mexican Restaurant, Cancun, Mexico
CX6MDN Hacienda El Mortero Mexican Restaurant, Cancun, Mexico | © Carl DeAbreu / Alamy

Cancun’s Hotel Zone is packed with bars and restaurants, but Hacienda El Mortero is worth a visit if you want to get a taste of old Mexico – the restaurant is a reconstruction of the original 17th-century Hacienda El Mortero in the northern state of Durango – without travelling too far. No one will argue that it’s the most authentic Mexican dining experience, but it serves dishes from across Mexico, and it’s hard to resist the in-house mariachi band.

Grand Mambo Café

Nightclub, Mexican, $$$
Map View
Legs of dancing people at the party
T3MWPA Legs of dancing people at the party | © Евгений Вершинин / Alamy

Get down with the locals at this salsa, merengue and bachata club in Cancun. Practice your steps, or just enjoy the live music that starts soon after midnight from Wednesday through to Saturday.

Isla Holbox

Natural Feature
Map View
Birds on a beautiful beach in Holbox island in Yucatan peninsula, Mexico
2E3J5MJ Birds on a beautiful beach in Holbox island in Yucatan peninsula, Mexico | © Delphotos / Alamy

If you have the time, take a charter plane to Isla Holbox, which is far quicker than the four-hour drive. This dazzling island paradise is home to thousands of birds, including flamingos, and it’s largely unspoilt white sands are amazing.

Coba ruins

Ruins, Archaeological site
Map View
COBA, MEXICO - November, 13, 2013: Group of tourists climbing Nohoch Mul pyramid in Coba, Mexico
© Konstantin Kalishko / Alamy

While many people head to the pyramids of Chichen Itza, the ruins at Coba are quieter and more adventurous. Set in lush jungle, a trip here feels more like you’re off the beaten path than following the herd – it’s enough to bring out the inner Indiana Jones as you climb the 120 steep stone steps to the top of Ixmoja, the site’s largest pyramid, to view the lush jungle stretching away towards the horizon.

Puerto Morelos

Natural Feature
Map View
Puerto Morelos beach in Mayan Riviera Maya of Mexico.
RKGGHG Puerto Morelos beach in Mayan Riviera Maya of Mexico. | © Tono Balaguer / agefotostock / Alamy

If you want to get out of the high-rise city of Cancun, take a cab 32km (20mi) down the coast to the quiet fishing village of Puerto Morelos. There are great beaches, snorkeling tours into the Puerto Morelos Reef National Park, cenotes to explore inland, and amazing food as well as a fine craft market just south of the main plaza.

Akumal

Natural Feature
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Green Sea Turtle, Chelonia mydas, Akumal, Tulum, Mexico
© Reinhard Dirscherl / Alamy Stock Photo

Take a day trip down the coast to see the turtles in the bay of Akumal. You don’t need to go on a tour, simply take a snorkel and mask and dive in to enjoy one of the world’s rarer experiences – swimming with turtles. You will be able to see them most days within easy reach of the shore. Remember to treat them respectfully.

Valladolid

Architectural Landmark
Map View
Cenote Zaci - Valladolid, Mexico
HYDDHG Cenote Zaci - Valladolid, Mexico | © Diego Grandi / Alamy

The charming town of Valladolid is only a couple of hours from Cancun, and provides a window into small town life. Check out the colonial center of town, take a dip in the cenote that is just a few blocks from the main square, and have a bite to eat before the drive back to your hotel.

These recommendations were updated on April 7, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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