When I think of Cancun, the first thing that pops into my head is a spring breaker dancing topless on a bar while getting tequila poured into her mouth. Accurate? Well not exactly. On my trip to the city, I discovered there is a lot more to see and do besides party and get wasted. Check out my list below of 10 things to do in Cancun (and yes… I did do some partying. But it’s Cancun, how could I not?!)
1. Chichen Itza
Although this is technically not in Cancun (it is about a 2 hour drive to the West), it is something that cannot be missed! This archaeological site of Mayan ruins houses one of the 7 New Wonders of the World and was absolutely stunning to behold in person. I booked an early morning tour with hotel pick up, a boxed lunch, and a guide who was a Mayan descendent and Mexican resident. He was extremely knowledgable and shared many facts with us about the temples and even taught us some Mayan! I had an amazing time after the tour wandering around the ruins until our bus took us back to our hotel in the afternoon. If you do nothing else in Cancun, visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site!
Cost: $65-70 per person through Viator (this includes hotel pick up, drop off, and lunch)
Insider Tip: I would highly recommend booking the morning tour in order to avoid the crowds and the intense midday heat! This will give you a chance to snap a photo without a million people and get back to your hotel by the afternoon and maybe enjoy a swim!
2. Swim in a Cenote
A cenote (which comes from the Mayan word for sacred well) is virutally a very large hole in the ground filled with water that is usually open to the sky after the collapse of a cave; kind of like a pond but way cooler. There are an estimated 7,000 cenotes in the Yucatan due to the limestone, with the most well known and arguably the most beautiful one being Ik Kil. The swimming hole is located 85 feet below ground level and can be reached by climbing the stairs carved into the limestone. The water is cold, refreshing, and reaches depths of 130 feet, so diving is not only allowed but encouraged! Enjoy laying on your back and taking in the view.
Cost: Admission is about $6 USD if visiting on your own. Locker rental, life jackets etc are all extra. The buffet lunch cost around $15 USD but there are other restaurants nearby.
Insider Tip: The Ik Kil cenote is located on the highway to Chichen Itza and can be combined into one day trip. On the way back to Cancun from the Mayan ruins, stop for a swim to cool off from your walk around Chichen Itza. It is easy to find a tour that combines the two together for one price.
3. Isla Mujeres
Located just a 20 minute ferry ride away sits Isla Mujeres, a quiet and more tranquil place than the craziness that can be Cancun. My boyfriend and I spent a whole day there on our trip soaking up the sun at one of the many public beaches that offer great views of Cancun. Grab the first ferry over and plan to stay all day relaxing on the beach. You can rent a lounge chair for very cheap and even get a massage right on the beach! When you get hungry, walk down the main street and stop at any of the restaurants for an excellent seafood lunch!
Cost: A roundtrip ticket from Playa Tortugas is $19 per person. Beach chair rentals are a few dollars. Seafood lunch will average around $20.
Insider Tip: The most popular beach on the island is Play Norte. To get there, take a left out of the ferry station and walk straight to the end! On the way you will pass another beach on your left; it is a little quieter and my boyfriend and I actually preferred it to Playa Norte.
Cancun is known for its nightlife and party atmosphere, after all thousands of spring breakers flock there every year. If you are looking for a good time, simply head to the central area of the Hotel Zone and look for the bars with tons of people. The best way to visit the bars is to find a deal on a wristband. We found one that combined Congo Bar and the famous CoCo Bongo nightclub in one price. With our deal we got unlimited drinks at Congo for a few hours before heading to CoCo Bongo where we received one welcome drink.
Congo Bar is located across the street from CoCo Bongo and was a really good time! They have dancers who perform little skits and the bar will drop confetti, hand out balloons, and of course have a huge long conga line that even goes out into the street! Definitely a cool place to party and start off your night.
CoCo Bongo is unlike any nightclub I have ever experienced and an absolute must for partying in Cancun. If you only want to go to one place, this should be it! They have a DJ who performs sets in between performances that are not only dazzling but visually stunning. The shows include acrobatics, dancing, performances by actors dressed as celebrities that are very convincing! It is nonstop entertainment all night long! You can buy tickets to watch from the dance floor (which is what I did) or pay more for a seat on the side or balcony. If you are on the dance floor you are very close to the action and get the chance to dance on the bar which is super fun too!
Cost: Ranges depending on your bargaining skills. I paid $50 for a ticket to Congo with unlimited drinks and to get into CoCo Bongo (which can range from $65-$75 just to get in) – a good bargain! You can also find tickets for unlimited drinks in CoCo Bongo.
Insider Tip: There are many people who sell tickets to CoCo Bongo; don’t buy the first one you are offered, especially if it is over what you would like to pay. I had to ask around at several ticket stands before finding the combo wristband that was cheaper than just going to CoCO Bongo itself. Some hotels will also sell tickets, and you can sometimes get a deal if enough people from the hotel decide to go. Be a bargain hunter!
5. Eat like a local
When I booked my trip to Mexico, I was most excited for the amazing food I knew I would get to try! Luckily for me, just around the corner from my hotel, the Grand Royal Lagoon, were some local restaurants that were incredibly cheap and amazingly delicious. Although they are farther north in the Hotel Zone than the main central area, these restaurants are worth checking out.
- Los de Pescado: This little local joint specializes in seafood tacos and dishes, specifically shrimp and fish. I stopped by one day for lunch and literally have been dreaming of them ever since. Once you order fish or shrimp tacos, you are given the taco with freshly fried seafood. You then get to go up to a stand and choose what you would like on your taco and how much. I really enjoyed the ‘build-your-own-taco’ set up they had, and everything was extremely delicious!
- El Comalito: This restaurant is located a few doors down from Los de Pescado, next to La Tentacion and the drugstore. The chef there made one of the most delicious burritos I have ever had in my entire life. They serve complimentary chips and salsa with a green guacamole sauce that was incredibly delicious. I literally put a little bit onto every single bite I could. So cheap and so good!
- Mextreme: If you do not want to venture outside of the central hotel zone area, there are several good places to eat and drink there too. One place I visited was Mextreme; while it was not as cheap as the local joints by my hotel, the food was still excellent. I had received a coupon for a free appetizer that was a bit of a sampler. My boyfriend and I shared that and a taco platter which left us stuffed and satisfied. This restaurant is special because they provide live entertainment with a mariachi band and the waiters bring your drinks out balanced on their head. It is a lot of fun!
6. Beach Day
A beach day is an absolute must in Cancun. The turquoise blue waters are so warm and inviting and the pristine white sand will have you dreaming of the beach long after you are gone. Even if you are not in hotel on the beach, you can easily check out these public beaches in Cancun:
- Playa Tortugas – This beach is popular with the locals as it has several beachfront restaurants where you can enjoy some delicious seafood. The dock that has ferries to Isla Mujeres is also here, as well as some water sports, and a bungee jump over the water.(Hotel Zone, kilometer 6.5)
- Playa Delfines – This is one of the largest public beaches in Cancun and home to the famous ‘CANCUN’ sign. Has some facilities like outdoor showers and washrooms. (Hotel Zone, kilometer 18)
- Playa Forum – This beach is one of the most popular public beaches and has a very central location, right by the famous CoCo Bongo nightclub. On the weekends it can get busy and has a very fun social vibe. (Hotel Zone, kilometer 9.5)
- Playa Chacmol – A quieter beach in a central location. While this beach doesn’t have any umbrellas or restaurants, it is perfect for a relaxing beach day without the huge crowds. Public entrance is across from Señor Frogs. (Hotel Zone, kilometer 10)
Insider Tip: Almost all the beaches, even the ones by the resorts, are considered public. The hotels are private so you cannot walk through them to get to the beach. Just look for the public access points.
7. Swim with Whale Sharks
One of the most magnificent creatures of the ocean and an experience like no other, swimming with whale sharks in Mexico is incredible. There are many tour companies that offer tours, but one of the best is Ocean Tours (as evident by the stellar reviews on TripAdvisor).
Cost: Swimming with whale sharks is not a cheap activity, but I included it because it is so amazing. To go with Ocean Tour will cost $182.75 for adults and $152.15 for children when booked at least 2 weeks in advance).
Insider Tip: Swimming with the whale sharks is only available between May 5th and September 17th. If the experience of swimming with whale sharks is not worth the money to you, Ocean Tour also has two other trips available for cheaper: Swim with sea turtles and visit a cenote ($67.15 for adults, $51 for children), or a Paradise tour of two islands off the coast of Cancun ($109.65 for adults, $75.65 for children).
8. Visit the Underwater Museum
This world famous underwater museum consists of over 500 sculptures made from special materials that promote the growth of coral life. The project was begun as an effort to show the connection between art and the environment and surrounds the waters off the coast of Cancun. Currently, there are two galleries: Salon Manchones, which is eight meters deep (scuba diving and snorkeling permitted), and the other, Salon Nizuc, is four meters (only snorkeling permitted).
In order to see the exhibits, you must go with a local guide (according to Mexican marine laws). The best company to go with is Aquaworld, which offers diving for both experts and beginners. For $90 USD, you can train with an instructor at their facilities and then dive and see the underwater sculptures. The price includes the class, all dive equipment, free photos while you descend, and water. They offer dives from both Cancun as well as Isla Mujeres.
Cost: $90 USD; includes training, dive at the museum, all dive equipment (excluding wetsuit, available to rent for $11 USD), free photos and water. Price does not include 16% tax and a $10 marine park fee which goes to help conserve the museum.
Insider Tip: Make sure to bring a towel along for when you finish, as Aquaworld does not provide any. Dives for beginners to the museum are at 8:00 AM and diving begins at 11:00 AM.
The clear blue waters of Cancun are an excellent place to snorkel or scuba dive for the first time!
- Punta Nizuc: This snorkeling spot is the closest to the hotel zone at the southern end (kilometer 24). It is a local beach where it is free to snorkel. You must bring along your own equipment, but just feet offshore, there are many fish! This snorkeling spot is great for kids too since it is pretty shallow.
- Cozumel: The reefs off the coast of the island Cozumel are said to be some the prettiest near Cancun and home to many tropical fish. It is the home of the second largest coral reef in the world and has been attracting snorkelers and scuba divers alike for years. Visiting the island to snorkel makes a great day trip from Cancun!
- Cenotes (see number 2): Experience a different side of underwater Cancun by snorkeling in a cenote. If you are planning on visiting one to swim, why not bring some gear with you to view the underwater world!
- Underwater Museum (see number 8): As one of the most unique attractions to Cancun, snorkeling here will offer you something you can’t find anywhere else. The museum is also an attempt to rebuild coral reefs and sea life while also diverting traffic away from the natural reefs!
Cost: Depending on the tour and company, costs for snorkeling will vary, but will be much cheaper than scuba diving. Some hotels also offer snorkeling equipment for guests to rent. However, it is best to go with a guide who know where the best reefs are as well as the locations to spot sea creatures. The snorkel tours through Aquaworld are reasonably priced and their day trips usually include hotel pick up, lunch, and drop off.
Insider Tip: Unfortunately for those who burn easily, sunscreen is not advised. Even biodegradable sunscreen can come off and negatively affect the sea creatures you will see when snorkeling. When swimming, be sure to avoid kicking or disturbing the reef. Even a minor hit can destroy years worth of growth. Also make sure to bring an underwater camera to capture all the memories!
10. Museo Maya de Cancun
This museum has two parts: an outdoor section where visitors can wander through Mayan ruins and an indoor part (air conditioned!) with artifacts and exhibits. The museum is not large, so only plan to spend a few hours here tops, but it is well worth a visit. Located near the larger resort hotels across the street from Captain’s Cove, it is possible to forget where you are when wandering through the ruins outside since they are in a mangrove forest. Most descriptions include English versions, though some of the artifacts explanations are in Spanish only.
Cost: About $6 per person for access to museum and Mayan ruins. Children under 13 and adults over 60 are free.
Insider Tip: The museum only accepts pesos for payment (no other currency). It is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 Am to 7 PM. Open 7 Am to 10 PM on Thursday.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
What do you like to do in Cancun? Share your experience in the comments below!