Cancun has become famous all across the world as one of the most popular places to visit in Mexico. And a quick glimpse at the picture-perfect beaches will tell you exactly why that is!
Cancun has over 13 miles of coastline to explore, made up of stunning white-sand beaches lined with luxury resorts, beach clubs and bars. Venture into the turquoise sea and you’ll discover the second-largest coral reef in the world. And when the sun sets, the city turns into one of the best nightlife destinations in North America. Whether you chose to spend your night in one of the high-end restaurants or at the (in)famous clubs, Cancun will deliver an unforgettable night.
To many, this place is the perfect oasis to escape all your worries.
In a way, Cancun has formed its own bubble. It has everything you could possibly need. Exactly the reason why so many travellers spend their entire trip to Mexico in Cancun, barely poking their nose out to do a day trip.
Get your bucket list ready. In this guide, we’ll show you the best things to do in Cancun and how to experience them.
Need help planning your trip? Check out our tips for visiting Cancun — you’ll find the best restaurants, where to stay, how to get around and more!
#1 Spend the day on one of Cancun’s beautiful beaches
With 13 miles of coastline, there are plenty of beaches to explore in Cancun. For most visitors, a beach holiday is exactly what they came for. So why wouldn’t you start your first day lounging on the beach?
Pretty much wherever you go along The Hotel Zone beachfront you’ll find a nice beach, but here are our three favourites:
Playa Forum — is a long stretch of perfect white sand just behind the popular club Coco Bongo. The beach is backed by lots of restaurants and hotels.
Playa Delfines — is one of the longest beaches in Cancun, but unfortunately, due to the current swimming isn’t advised. It’s still a nice beach to lounge on and paddle your feet.
Playa Tortugas — one of the safest places to swim around Cancun thanks to the calm ocean. It’s perfect for families with small kids.
#2 Party the night (or day) away on the strip
It wouldn’t be a real Cancun guide, if we didn’t include nightlife at the start.
Cancun is known worldwide for its crazy nightlife, particularly around Spring Break when thousands of Americans descend on the city. The city is well and truly prepared for these party-goers with its huge choice of bars and big clubs.
If a party is what you’re looking for, then head to the Punta Cancun area of The Hotel Zone. Here you won’t be able to walk 5 metres without being hounded by a club promoter with unbeatable deals.
Where should you go?
A popular choice in Cancun is Coco Bongo (there’s also a Coco Bongo in Playa del Carmen). The club is more than just a party, it’s an experience. There are acrobats hanging from the ceiling, performances and musical tributes.
A busy and great place to start your night is Botanero Nacional. Everything is 21 MXN ($1.10)! The perfect place to pre-drink, but it’s hard not to get too carried away.
#3 Snorkel around the second-largest reef in the world
When you’ve finished rejuvenating on Cancun’s white sand beaches and are looking for something more active besides partying the night away, we’ve got you covered!
To start with, Cancun is one of the best places to go snorkelling in Mexico. Just off the coast, you’ll find the Mesoamerican reef, which is the second-largest reef in the world. You’ll find a thriving underwater world that will undoubtedly wow you.
One of the best places to go snorkelling in Cancun is Punta Nizuc. As the resorts in front of the area make it difficult to reach the snorkelling point, you’ll have to join a tour. One of the recommended organisations is Aquaworld, which provides amazing snorkelling trips, with over 30 years of experience taking people out to Cancun’s reef.
Top tip: If you don’t mind travelling a bit further from Cancun, then head to Puerto Morelos. Only 12 miles south of Cancun, the reef is closer to shore and the conditions are perfect! You may even spot sea turtles, rays and barracuda here.
Another ideal place to snorkel is Cancun’s underwater museums which can be found at three different locations. You can find out more about this in the point below!
#4 Dive or snorkel at Cancun’s Underwater Museums
Punta Nizuc doesn’t just provide a perfect opportunity to explore the reef, it’s also home to one of Cancun’s underwater museums. Here, you’ll find several sculptures that have been submerged underwater, ready for snorkelers to explore. The museum offers snorkelling tours from $47.
This particular one has 33 sculptures only 2-4 metres deep, making snorkelling an ideal way to view them.
If you’re an avid diver then you should head to the Manchones reef situated around the coast of the nearby Isla Mujeres. This museum has more than 450 sculptures submerged at a depth of 8.5 to 10 metres. It’s also possible to snorkel here, but to really admire the sculptures, diving is the best way.
Punta Sam Gallery in Cancun is another option, but this museum only has 2 sculptural sets at 3.5 metres.
Did you know that each of the scenes is sculpted from coral-friendly materials? They actually facilitate coral growth and have now become home to a variety of sea life.
#5 Take a day trip to Isla Mujeres
Going to Isla Mujeres is a must if you’re staying in Cancun. It’s a small island 13 km off the coast from Cancun and only a 30-minute ferry ride away.
Isla Mujeres is the epitome of paradise, with its white-sand beaches and crystal-blue seas. It’s a great place to go snorkelling thanks to the great visibility and underwater museum.
Once you’re done lounging on the famous Playa Norte beach, you can grab a bite to eat in one of the many restaurants and bars on the island. Or simply peruse through the souvenir and clothes shops.
We’d recommend staying a night or two on Isla Mujeres. Whether you’re there for one or three days, a great way to explore the island is to hire a golf cart.
#6 Spend the day enjoying one of the 50 activities at Xcaret Park
Situated 1 hour from Cancun, Xcaret is one of the largest theme parks in Mexico. The park attracts over 1 million visitors each year and covers over 250 acres with around 50 attractions.
As this is a lot to cover in a day, a lot of people opt for a multi-pass to keep coming back for more fun.
How to spend your day at Xcaret Park?
Xcaret lets you get a taste of Mexico all in one go through its large number of attractions. You can visit Mayan towns, churches, explore archaeological sites, see a traditional Mexican cemetery and even taste some Mexican wine. And that’s only a few of the things available.
One of the most popular activities is swimming in one of the three underground rivers. You can explore the maze of caves and tunnels, only lit by natural light from air vents. You’ll see stalagmite formations fossilised over millions of years!
Nature lovers can spend their time either at the butterfly farm, aviary or coral reef aquarium.
There are a number of packages starting at $100 that can be bought online via the Xcaret site.
#7 Visit Chichen Itza, one of the new 7 Wonders of the World
Want to tick off one of the new 7 Wonders of the World?
Chichen Itza receives over 2.5 million visitors every year, each one eager to explore the Mayan complex dating back to 600 AD. The complex of Chichen Itza offers a total of 26 Mayan ruins, with El Castillo taking centre stage as the main pyramid of the complex.
Chichen Itza is about 2.5-hour drive from Cancun which makes it perfect to visit as a day trip. To get the most out of your day, you can also visit the colonial town Valladolid and end the afternoon with a refreshing swim in a nearby cenote.
The easiest way to visit Chichen Itza from Cancun would be to join this tour. For only $24, you will get to experience a super fun 12-hour day that includes:
a visit to Valladolid
swimming at a secret cenote
During the day you’ll also get to enjoy a free lunch meal, and be accompanied by a knowledgeable guide who can tell you everything you want to know about Mayan history.
Where’s the best place to visit Chichen Itza from?
If you’re planning on visiting multiple destinations along the east coast of Mexico, then you’ll get more choices of where to visit Chichen Itza from.
Here are the distances and prices for the best tours from 3 of the main destinations along the Riviera Maya:
(Chichen Itza entrance fee of $30 is not included in the tour price)
Top tip: If you’re visiting Chichen Itza, use it as an opportunity to also explore some of the nearby cenotes. Cenote Ik-kil is only an 8-minute drive from Chichen Itza, and is a stunning underground pool of water surrounded by hanging vines and vegetation.
#8 Explore the many cenotes in Yucatan
If you don’t already know, cenotes are sinkholes that result from the collapse of the bedrock exposing crystal clear groundwater. And they’re beautiful!
Yucatan, the peninsula where Cancun is situated, is full of them! To visit the best cenotes you may have to travel further afield to places like Valladolid, Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
Cenotes in Valladolid
2 hours away from Cancun is Valladolid, a small colonial city surrounded by cenotes. Cenote Zaci is popular with locals as it’s within the city centre and super cheap. It acts like a fancy community swimming pool. Edit: As of 2022, it’s not allowed to swim in this cenote anymore. But you can view it from the restaurant above.
Both Tulum and Playa del Carmen have a wide selection of cave cenotes and open-air ones, giving you a variety of options to visit.
You can reach Playa del Carmen by car in 45 minutes and Tulum in 1.5-2 hours from Cancun.
Our top 3 favourites are Gran Cenote, Cenote Azul and Cenote Dos Ojos. Only have time to visit one? We recommend the Gran Cenote for the chance to swim in some crystal clear waters with lots of turtles.
#10 Visit Tulum for its stunning beaches and cenotes
Tulum is 1 hour further south from Playa del Carmen, but still entirely doable in one day from Cancun. Driving from Cancun to Tulum takes between 1.5-2 hours.
Tulum has plenty to offer, including a visit to Tulum’s archaeological site. It’s quite a sight to see, with the ruins cast against the backdrop of the ocean, precariously perched on a cliff.
Alternatively, you can spend the day at one of Tulum’s beach clubs, just soaking up the bohemian vibe that has made Tulum famous with celebrities over the past few years. It’s a very popular place but in a totally different way than Cancun.
#11 Spend the night partying on a boat at Xoximilco
Looking for a night out that’s slightly different? Then head to Xoximilco!
It’s a theme park based on the real Xochimilco in Mexico City. It’s essentially a series of canals that you float down on a boat called a trajinera.
It’s way more fun than just that, though! There’s live music, lots of Mexican food, an open bar of tequila, rum, vodka — you name it — and of course dancing!
Tickets aren’t cheap though, starting at $90 or $130 including transport. If you’re heading to Mexico City later on, we recommend you go to the real Xoximilco for an authentic experience at a lower price.
#12 Go on a shopping spree at Mercado 28
If you want to buy something to remember Cancun by, then Mercado 28 in downtown Cancun is the place to go.
The market has over 600 vendors selling all sorts of things: jewellery, souvenirs, paintings, clothes. You name it, someone will be selling it there.
Make sure to haggle for anything you try to buy. They’ll want to make you pay the tourist price, so stand your ground!
#13 Go on a crazy adventure ziplining through the jungle
An adrenaline-filled activity close to Cancun is ziplining at Selvatica.
The park has 10 world-class zip lines for you to fly through the jungle. By the end of the day, you’ll understand what it feels like to be as free as a bird.
That’s not where the fun stops though! Selvatica has a unique ‘human rollercoaster’ style zipline called Tarzania. If you like rollercoasters, you’ll love this ride. Though it’s slightly different: you’re the roller coaster car this time!
If you opt to join a tour to Selvatica, you’ll also get to hop in a safari truck and visit a private cenote for a swim. The perfect way to relax after your thrilling day. The tour lasts 3.5 hours and costs $94.
#14 Volunteer with animals at Tierra de Animales
If you’re an animal lover or just missing your furry friend at home then you can head over to Tierra de Animales, an animal rescue centre outside of Cancun.
The centre rescues, protects and cares for animals in need. They have more than 500 animals, including 250+ dogs, horses, bulls, cows, sheep, turtles, goats and many more.
Situated just behind the Hotel Zone, and covering over 3,000 hectares, is Nichupte Lagoon. The mangrove ecosystem that thrives within the lagoon has become home to a variety of animal species.
The lagoon is the perfect chance to escape the concrete jungle of Cancun for a while. The best ways to explore the lagoon are by kayak, paddleboard or on a boat tour.
#16 Explore Coba’s Mayan ruins
Coba ruins are some of the biggest in Yucatan, covering over 80 km².
These ruins aren’t as busy as some of the others in Mexico, making them even more enjoyable to visit. Set amongst the jungle, you can explore the large network of stone streets which connect the pyramids and structures within the site.
COVID-19 UPDATE: A big draw of Coba used to be that you were able to climb the pyramids, something you can’t do at many sites, including Chichen Itza. Unfortunately, due to COVID, climbing the pyramids is suspended. If you want to fulfil your Indiana Jones dreams, you can climb pyramids in Palenque.
Visiting Coba ruins
Coba is a little over a 2-hour drive away from Cancun. If you rather join a tour than drive yourself, you can combine Chichen Itza, Cenote Ik-Kil and Coba all in one day! It’s a busy day, but a great way to tick everything off your list, plus have everything organised for you.
Coba is a huge site! If you visit independently, we recommend renting a bike to cover more ground. You’ll find bike rental at the entrance to the ruins.
Top tip: If your trip to Mexico involves a stay in Tulum, then it may be better to visit Coba from Tulum rather than Cancun, as it’s much closer.
Entrance fee to Coba is 100 MXN ($5), bike rental costs 60 MXN ($3.15).
#17 Discover the pink lakes of Las Coloradas
Las Coloradas is potentially more than just a day trip as it’s a 3-hour drive away from Cancun, but it’s definitely worth a visit.
Las Coloradas aren’t just any kind of lakes. They’re pink and stunningly beautiful! You may be wondering how they’ve developed to be this colour.
The pink hue is caused by the abundance of red and pink marine life in the lake such as red algae, brine shrimp and plankton.
You won’t be able to swim in the lakes, but they’re a sight to see. Then once you’re done admiring, you can explore the 150,000 acres of wetland that the lakes are set within. If you’re lucky, you may be able to catch a glimpse of flamingos, crocodiles, birds and even jaguars.
Joining a tour to Las Coloradas which also includes a visit to cenote Hubiku is one of the easiest ways to visit the pink lakes from Cancun.
The Cancun Scenic Tower is a great way to get a bird’s eye view of Cancun and the Caribbean ocean.
It’s a pretty short elevator ride, only 5 minutes up. Once you’re at the top, the tower slowly spins, giving you a 360-degree view of the city. The tower is 100m tall, so you get a pretty good perspective.
Resorts in Cancun can cost you a bomb! Sina Suites gives you that resort-style feel without the high prices. Ever wanted your own private marina in a hotel? No? Well now you probably do, and Sina Suites has one. It also has a large swimming pool set amongst gardens that overlook the lagoon.
Every day, enjoy a continental breakfast and delicious Mexican food in their poolside restaurant/bar that sits underneath a traditional thatched hut! You’ll also get more than just a room here, most suites also offer a kitchenette and balcony.
Viento Suites is an escape from the busy and hectic Cancun. Once you’re inside the walls of this hotel, chilling in the garden beside the swimming pool, you’ll forget about the outside world.
The location couldn’t be more perfect. It’s situated within Downtown Cancun, but also very close to the Hotel Zone and beaches. The rooms look like those found in a high-class hotel, but without the extortionate prices.
Looking for a unique sleeping experience? The Yellow Capsule Hotel will definitely give you that. Instead of traditional rooms, you sleep in a pod. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to the future when you clamber into your bright and spacious pod.
The capsules are clean and include everything you need for a comfy stay, a mirror, outlets, a safe and storage space. When you’re done hanging around in your pod, you can chill at the hotel’s terrace and enjoy their free breakfast.
If you’re looking for a more homely feel than a to hotel, then definitely stay at Estancia. The owners will instantly make you feel welcome and are always there to offer advice.
The homestay offers a very convenient location, close to the local markets and not too far from the ADO bus station. The rooms are clean and spacious, plus a steal for the price. If you fancy doing some cooking whilst in Cancun, you can make use of the communal kitchen.
Kate is a writer, (ex)Management Consultant and avid traveller. She recently returned from a 2-year career break exploring the world and decided corporate life wasn’t for her. She’ll soon be testing life as a digital nomad. She’s visited over 40 countries and fell in love with Latin America in particular. Her travelling has inspired a passion for yoga, salsa, hiking and Spanish.
Aleksandra is a writer and editor who recently moved from Hong Kong to London. She’s worked and studied in four countries (and counting) and picked up a new hobby in each of them. She’s a big fan of long train journeys so you can count on her to take the scenic route, finding a few hidden gems along the way.