Crystal waters and golden sands make Cancún a gorgeous piece of paradise on the tip of the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico. Historic ruins, swimming with dolphins, tequila-fueled nightlife and plenty of Latino culture await. Plus there’s snorkeling in an underwater museum, centuries-old Maya temples and swimming with turtles – all in the same day. Here’s our guide to what to do and see.
Try watersports in Nichupté Lagoon
Cancún is the home of watersports, particularly in Nichupté Lagoon, where you can get surfing lessons, sail on a speedboat or try your hand at jet skiing. You can also go snorkeling or kayaking in the clear blue waters here; the excellent visibility and warm temperatures of the Caribbean Sea increase the chances of spotting marine life.
Not scuba certified? Don’t worry, there’s still a chance to get close to marine life in Cancún by arranging to go swimming with turtles in the Riviera Maya. This is a great way to interact with the gentle marine life of the Caribbean Sea in a safe environment, not to mention an unbeatable photo op. Perfect for young families, parents and children alike can bond over this activity, which will remain a lifelong memory.
Explore the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá, an excavated Mayan ruin on the Yucatán peninsula, is among the most visited sights in Mexico and was a thriving city from around the 5th to the 13th century. It comprises several structures, the most famous of which is the step-pyramid El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcan. Full-day tours of Chichén Itzá are easily bookable from Cancún.
Absorb centuries of history at the Cobá ruins
The Cobá archeological site is another great way to gain some insight into Yucatán history. Although it’s a full-day trip from Cancún (about a two-hour drive each way), it’s well worth it. You can climb the tallest of the Mayan ruins, or rent a bike and cycle around the site. There are dozens of other structures within the complex, each with a unique history, so it’s a wonderful way to blend an outdoor adventure with an intellectual quest.
Experience the Cancún Underwater Museum
Founded in 2009, the Museo Subacuático de Arte is an underwater art museum on the coast of Cancún in the water off Isla Mujeres and Punta Nizuc. Dedicated to the art of conservation, it was designed to draw vacationers to less-visited parts of the reef so that other, highly disrupted parts have a chance to recover. The two exhibits are made up of approximately 500 sculptures, with one side suitable for divers and the other side just for snorkelers. All the artwork is made from materials designed to promote biodiversity and the growth of different types of kelp and underwater plants. You can visit the museum by yourself or join a guided snorkelling tour, departing from Cancún by speed boat, to see it in style.
Stroll down Avenida Kukulkan
The Avenida Kukulkan is the hub of everything there is to see and do in Cancún. A bustling and dynamic walkway in the Hotel Zone, it’s a hotspot for restaurants, bars and shopping. You can stroll down the street and try different food from vendors, or go to the variety of restaurants and bars with live music situated on the strip. A safe, busy place to be, day or night, it’s accessible to everyone.
Get some sun on Playa Delfines
This beautiful beach is a picturesque spot in which to spend a lazy day on vacation. A bit secluded from the distracting hustle and bustle of the tourist hangouts, Playa Delfines is located at the end of the Hotel Zone. Boasting white sand and crystal-blue waters, as well as being free from city noise, this is the ideal place to get lost in a daydream. Be sure to bring snacks and lunch; this beach does not have the jumble of tourist restaurants and food stands that others do.
Explore Parroquia de Cristo Resucitado
This beautiful Catholic church is a spiritual retreat offering peaceful respite from the frenetic action of the city. The stunning architectural design invites light and openness into the large floor plan, and the shrine to the Mexican religious figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a highlight. You can also visit the bookstore and shop for a variety of religious paraphernalia or rosaries, for yourself or as a gift.
Lose yourself in the Museo Maya de Cancún
The Museo Maya de Cancún acknowledges the influence of the Mayans in Mexican culture, both in the ancient world and the present day. The exhibits are quite small, making it possible to see everything the museum has to offer in a few hours. The building spans centuries to reveal the Mayan influence today, and houses some particularly beautiful ancient Mayan architecture.
Visit the ruins at Tulum
After exploring Chichén Itzá and Cobá, try visiting the ruins at Tulum. Perched on the edge of the Caribbean coastline, the setting makes for a very different experience to other pyramids. Spend the rest of the day checking out the town before heading back to Cancún. If you’re looking for a quick visit, there’s a smaller site in town called El Rey, dating back to 1,300CE-1,500CE. You’ll find it at the south end of the Zona Hotelera.
Spot whale sharks
The calm, Caribbean waters off the Cancún shoreline are the perfect environment to see some rich marine biodiversity. Among manta rays, parrotfish and grouper, the whale shark inhabits these waters. If you’re up for a swim or snorkel alongside dozens of the filter-feeding fish, venture into the waters just off the coast between July and August – or join an ethical tour company group.
Party at the largest nightclub in Latin America
Cancún has a reputation as being party central – and that’s not exactly inaccurate. You will find 24/7 fun here in the bars, beach clubs and even the largest discotheque in Latin America. Coming in at a whopping 4,000-person capacity, the City in Cancún’s Hotel Zone is a multi-level mega-venue that you have to visit at least once. The club blasts hit music from all over the world, making you want to dance the night away.
Eat Mexican seafood at La Bamba
Mexican food isn’t just chile, mole and pozole; along the coasts, seafood is king. Being so close to the sea, you know it’s freshly caught. Try some Mexican mariscos at La Bamba in the Hotel Zone for dishes like camarones a la diabla (spicy tuna tostadas) and aguachile (shrimp marinated in lime juice with onion, cilantro and chillies).
Just northeast of Cancún, Isla Mujeres is a tiny atoll that definitely runs on island time. Ferries come and go throughout the day, but it feels a world away from the big city. All around the island are prime spots for shore and boat dives, where you can spot such wildlife as anemones, angelfish and sea turtles. Some dives go deep, including shipwrecks now housing barracudas, reef sharks and moray eels.
Go bird watching in Puerto Morelos
Head into the thick jungle, less than an hour’s drive from town, for a stop at a 124-acre (50ha) nature reserve in Puerto Morelos. Avid birdwatchers can spot dozens of rare species, including parrots, hummingbirds and woodpeckers. The reserve also offers kayaking, swimming in cenotes and a traditional temazcal, or sweat lodge, experience.
Visit Xcaret Park
Xcaret is part water park, part theme park and part archeological site, just down the highway from Cancún. It has been a must-visit in the area since it opened in 1990, packed with dozens of activities, from snorkeling through an underground river to festive pre-Hispanic dances in the Mayan Village. You’re free to plan your day as you want – and you won’t come close to covering the whole park – but make time for the evening show, the Xcaret México Espectacular.
Swing by Xel-Há Park
Xel-Há is one of the sister parks to Xcaret, just outside of Tulum. On land, you can zipline through the trees, but the real highlights can be found on the water. Dive into the covered cenotes, swim with manatees and try your hand at cliff jumping. It’s also all-inclusive, meaning you can chow down at the breakfast buffet upon arrival, grab pizza and beer at lunch, plus tuck into snacks all day long.
Kylie Madry contributed additional reporting to this article.
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