When most people think of Cancun, they instantly envision thousands of drunk, obnoxious college students during spring break. Or they turn their nose up because they visited once and hated the hotel zone. Well, Cancun is very different than spring break and the hotel zone. There are a lot of interesting things to do in Cancun, and it’s also a great jumping off point for some wonderful attractions and experiences.
Being a popular destination, you can often find some great discounts on airfare. We flew with Thomas Cook from Manchester, England to Cancun, and I was pleasantly surprised. Knowing they’re a low-budget airline, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. It’s a 10-hour flight from the UK, but it was a great experience. I would definitely fly with them again.
Getting around the city is easy via cheap buses and colectivos (mini vans). Routes are painted on the windows, but feel free to ask your hotel staff or Airbnb host for more info. Taxis are fairly inexpensive as well. Most trips around the city center only cost 25 pesos (less than $2 USD). Just remember to confirm costs before getting into a taxi. Unfortunately, some drivers will try to take advantage of you being a tourist.
Things to do in Cancun involving water
The beaches and the beautiful Caribbean Sea are probably the biggest reasons people flock to Cancun. But they aren’t the only activities you can enjoy that involve water.
- Whale sharks. The world’s largest fish also loves Cancun. They come in great numbers typically between May and September. The idea of swimming with a shark may be a bit scary, but you have nothing to fear. They are filter feeders, and humans aren’t on their menu. It’s an amazing experience. Definitely one of those things you’ll remember for your lifetime.
- Scuba diving. There are lots of diving opportunities in the area. The Caribbean water is usually crystal clear, providing amazing visibility. Its temperature is pretty pleasant year round, which makes it the perfect place to visit in the winter if you’re trying to escape rain and snow.
- Water park. If you’re traveling with kids, you’ll probably want to include a visit to Wet ‘n Wild. It’s not as large as many similar parks found in the US, but it’s enjoyable enough to make spending a day here quite pleasant. It’s also all inclusive, so your drinks and food are included. It is located in the dreaded hotel zone, but there are very cheap buses from the city center to the water park, so you can stay elsewhere (which I highly recommend).
- Isla Contoy. Several providers offer tours to Isla Contoy, a national park which is an important nesting spot for at least 152 species of sea birds. There is also some great snorkeling. You can visit mangroves as well. It’s an interesting trip that is pretty affordable.
There are several important Mayan sites on the Yucatan Peninsula, where Cancun is located. While the city does have some sites nearby, it’s also easy to visit some of the others that are much more well known.
- Chichen Itza is probably the most famous site on the peninsula. You can easily rent a car and drive yourself, take the bus ($36 USD roundtrip with ADO), or visit the ruins as part of a tour. If you happen to be in Mexico around the spring or autumnal equinox, this would be a great time to visit the ruins as you can watch the shadow serpent descend from the temple.
- Ek Balam. This is my favorite of the ruins. While it may not appear as spectacular as some of the others, this site has far fewer visitors, and you can climb to the top of the temple for some wonderful views. In addition, some of the friezes are extremely well preserved.
- Coba is another temple that can be climbed. It is quite steep with very narrow steps, though, so it isn’t for the faint of heart.
A lot of travelers think Cancun lacks a great deal in culture. It’s hard to compare the Yucatan with other areas of Mexico. Cancun is a rather young city (officially established in 1971). While it is quite different, if one leaves the hotel zone it really isn’t hard to get a taste of local culture.
- Parque de las Palapas is one of the best places to visit to sample local culture. It was an integral part of Cancun’s design and was meant to be a gathering place. It’s especially lively at night. This is a great place to visit to get a different taste of Mexican life and to try some wonderful street food. Kids will have a great time here as well.
- Mercado 23. If you google about Cancun, you will no doubt see many references to another market called Mercado 28. That is a major tourist attraction, and it feels and is priced like it. Instead, I recommend this market. Mercado 23 is for the locals, and it’s very typical Mexico. How many tourists visit it? Well, when we walked around it people stared at us because we were the only gringos around. You probably won’t find a lot of English speakers here, but you’ll find lots of local flavor.
- National Folkloric Ballet of Mexico. This is a show highlighting the diverse Mexican culture and is extremely well rated on TripAdvisor. Check out their reviews for some good tips if you plan on adding this to your itinerary.
- Food. Mexican cuisine is one of the most famous in the world and with good reason. Make sure to try the various offerings at street food carts. They often offer some of the best food you’ll find in Cancun. If you’re in Mexico in September, you’ll want to sample the dish known as chiles en nogada. This traditional food celebrates Mexican independence and is only available from late August through September. It’s absolutely delicious!
This is really just a short list of all the things to do in Cancun. It’s really worth a visit. Just avoid the hotel zone.
Have you been to Cancun? What’s your favorite activity or site to visit?