When you think of Mexican Caribbean travel, one place should spring to mind: Cancun. This is where travelers go to relax on powdery white sand beaches, snorkel among vibrant coral reefs, and pamper themselves at some of the best resorts in Mexico. Cancun has a wonderful blend of pristine, natural beauty, intriguing cultural sites, and all the comforts of home.
Most visitors to Cancun want to spend some time relaxing at the beach, so plan to spend a day or two near the turquoise waters. For those staying outside of the hotel zone, Playa Delfines is a popular and easily accessible public beach. Then, when you’re ready to explore further, you’ll find more than enough to keep you busy for the rest of your trip.
Here are some of our favorite things to do in Cancun.
1. Enjoy The Peace on Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres (literally translates to the “Island of Women”) can be found just a few miles off Cancun's coast. Here you'll find calm crystal clear waters, white sandy beaches, and a vibrant community of locals and ex-pats.
To reach Isla Mujeres, you will need to take a 20-minute ferry ride from Cancun. You can buy your ticket at the ferry port (Puerto Juarez) or purchase them online if you prefer having them in advance.
While day trips can be fun, the abundance of things to do on this island makes Isla Mujeres the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of Cancun and relax in peace for a few days. So be sure to pack your snorkel gear to enjoy the marine life, beautiful coral reefs, and a rare underwater museum of art!
Island life generally tends to mean two things: fewer fumes and pedestrianized streets! As such, the most popular and arguably most exciting way to explore the island is by renting a golf cart.
Upon your arrival, you will find many local businesses renting golf carts. The key is to shop around and haggle for a while to get the best price. You should expect to pay around MXN 1000 per day (around $50 US).
Isla Mujeres has done well to keep the charm of a small lazy beach town. Few houses, noisy street vendors, eclectic trinkets and souvenir shops, and delicious seafood restaurants make up the town of Isla Mujeres.
On the southern tip of the island, you will find the symbolic statue of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility. Whether you prefer cliffside ocean views, magnificent sunsets, or early morning sunrises, you can enjoy it all from the sculpture garden. After your trip here, consider visiting the popular beach Playa Norte.
2. Visit Downtown Cancun
A visit to Cancun would not be complete without experiencing the local lifestyle. So wander down to Avenida Tulum to get a taste of Mexican culture, try mouthwatering Mexican street food (obviously tacos al pastor!), and enjoy browsing through local shops.
If you love visiting local markets, Market 28 is the perfect way to experience an authentic Mexican Mercado. Be prepared to haggle with vendors as you enter the fast-paced yet friendly world of local exchanges.
However, if you are looking for a more relaxed environment, Mercado 23 is your best bet. While smaller than Mercado 28, this market is known for the quality of its local goods, crafts, and lower price points. It’s the perfect place to pick up some funky trinkets to take home with you.
Wander down to Cancun’s central plaza, and you will find even more things to do in Cancun! Start at the outdoor food court and try some delicious Mexican snacks from local vendors. Chicharon (fried pork rinds) and chapulines (grasshoppers) are some of the most exotic favorites.
On your way to the main stage, admire the vibrant murals and colorful Mexican street art. Then, enjoy Cancun's fun social vibe and community atmosphere and some of the city’s best bars and restaurants (and their lower prices).
3. Marvel at Chichen Itza
As an important Mayan archaeological site and one of the new seven wonders of the world, it is no surprise that Chichen Itza is one of the most visited places in Mexico for history and culture lovers.
It is recommended to take a guided tour to delve deeper into the traits of the Mayan culture and hear the stories behind these impressive structures. As you admire the 98-foot tall pyramid Temple of Kukulkan, learn about Mayan civilization and how their mathematicians, astronomers, and orders of society continue to influence the modern world today.
Chichen Itza is only two and a half hours from Cancun by car. Organize a paid tour and guide combination, take a commercial bus, or arrive with a car rental. Regardless of how you get there, visiting Chichen Itza will leave you feeling inspired by human creation and its accomplishments.
4. Experience a Temazcal Ritual
Let a Shaman guide you through a pre-Hispanic ritual intended to purify the spirit and the body. Enter the Temazcal: a round building with a low ceiling resembling a steamy sauna. Hot rocks and water help maintain the tiny hut's special energy.
The ritual consists of pouring water over hot rocks while chanting and using different herbs to summon spirits. Get lost in the Shaman’s voice and allow the vapors to sink into your pores as you embrace new, invigorating energies.
5. See The San Miguelito Ruins
Grow your understanding of Mayan civilization with a trip to the San Miguelito archaeological site. Be sure to allow yourself ample time to explore these Mayan ruins. There are four distinct areas of the ruins: the Chaak Palace, the North Complex, the South Complex, and the Dragon Complex.
Chaak Palace is the first significant site you will see. Consisting of four houses and two temples, this structure was initially built for the veneration of the Mayan rain deity Chaak. The largest structure of the San Miguelito ruins is the pyramid which stands at four meters high, compared with Chichen Itza's 30 meters!
In addition to the many preserved pyramids and small intricate structures, visitors can enjoy a pleasant stroll through beautiful paths shaded by indigenous trees, palms, and flowers.
For MXN 80, you can visit the Mayan Museum in tandem with the ruins. This museum-archaeological site combo offers you the chance to explore an excellent modern museum featuring an expansive archive of Mayan artifacts from the entire Yucatán Peninsula.
6. Discover Nichupte Lagoon
Covering the entire hotel zone of Cancun and a small part of downtown, Nichupte Lagoon measures more than 3,000 hectares. Come to experience the precious ecosystem that is nurtured in the lagoon. Exotic birds, dolphins, spawn fish, live mammals, and reptiles (including crocodiles) coexist in this beautiful natural environment.
Enjoy watersports such as stand-up paddle boarding, snorkeling, diving, or the famous Jungle Tour. Hop into your kayak and cruise around the mangroves. Expect to stop often to admire the crusade of birds flying above you. Pick between a sunrise or sunset tour for a fantastic show of nature, and remember to keep an eye out for dolphins and crocodiles as you kayak.
If you are not into water sports, enjoy a luxurious and delicious breakfast, lunch, or dinner at one of the many restaurants facing the lagoon.
7. Explore The Hotel Zone
Whether you are staying in one of the resorts or not, a trip to Cancun's Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) should be on your to-do list.
Expect to walk along a 15-mile-long sandbar with one of Mexico's most popular resort areas, bursting with malls, nightclubs, restaurants, and, of course, the city's most charming all-inclusive hotels.
8. Take a Dip in a Cenote
Full of mystery and magic, cenotes are undoubtedly some of the most stunning jewels of the Yucatan Peninsula. The natural beauty of these pools, formed when limestone bedrock collapses to create a natural groundwater pit, continues to dazzle visitors from all over the globe.
Cenotes are much more than crystal clear water pools – they were believed to be the entrance to the underworld of the Maya. In the past, these sacred pools were the most crucial drinking water supply for a vast community as well as being a safe place for Mayan gods to visit (especially Chaac).
Today, visitors can enjoy all of this history and more. On top of restful swimming experiences, cenotes offer a unique opportunity to practice watersports: kayaking, snorkeling, and even deep-water diving.
If you are visiting Chichen Itza, stop at the nearby Cenote Ik Kil to cool down on a hot day. Otherwise, cenotes near Cancun include Cenote X-Cajum, Cenote lik’, Cenote X-keken, Cenote Zaci, and Cenote Suytun.
You can visit cenotes without paying for a tour operator and guide if you are keen to travel independently. However, keep in mind that you may need to rent a car as some of the most spectacular cenotes are hidden away in remote areas.
This article was produced by Wealth of Geeks.
Roxanne is a travel writer, guidebook author and the founder of Faraway Worlds, a travel and culture website. She has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet and The Culture Trip. Roxanne has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.