Last Updated on March 14, 2023 by Nellie Huang
Planning a trip to Mexico’s most popular beach destination? We live just 1 hour from Cancun and have scoured the area to come up with this comprehensive list of things to do in Cancun, Mexico.
With the signature Caribbean white-sand beaches and world class resorts, Cancun is a crowd puller in the Yucatan Peninsula. Yes, Cancun is highly commercialized and artificial, but veer off the tourist-clogged hotel zone and there are actually plenty of outdoorsy activities to do in Cancun.
I live an hour’s drive from Cancun and come here often on weekend trips. To help you plan your Cancun holiday, I’ve compiled this long list of things to do in Cancun and a detailed travel guide.
Table of Contents
- Things to do in Cancun, Mexico
- Things to do in Cancun Hotel Zone
- 1. Relax at Playa Delfines
- 2. Kayak Nichupte Lagoon
- 3. Explore the Mayan Ruins, El Rey
- 4. Visit the Cancun Maya Museum
- 5. Go Snorkelling and Scuba Diving
- 6. Admire the Sculptures at the Underwater Museum of Art
- 7. Go Stand-Up Paddle Boarding at Sunrise
- 8. Take in the Views from the Cancun Scenic Tower
- 9. Take a ride on SkyWheel Cancun
- 10. Wine and Dine at Puerto Cancun
- Things to do in Downtown Cancun
- 11. Stroll along Avenida Tulum
- 12. People Watch at Parque Palapas
- 13. Taste Local Produce at Mercado 28
- 14. Eat Authentic Mexican Street Food
- 15. Experience Temazcal Ceremony
- 16. Drive a Race Car
- 17. Visit Planetario de Cancun
- 18. Discover Mexican Street Art
- 19. Visit Malecon Tajamar
- 20. Relax at Kabah Urban Park
- Things to do around Cancun, Mexico
- 21. Visit Chichen Itza
- 22. Visit Isla Mujeres
- 23. Explore Isla Contoy
- 24. Snorkel at Puertos Morelos National Reef Park
- 25. Discover the Eco Parks along Ruta de Los Cenotes
- 26. Have a Wild Time at Xcaret Park
- 27. Swim in Incredible Cenotes
- 28. Go Caving at Rio Secreto Nature Reserve
- 29. Take a day trip to Playa del Carmen
- 30. Take Your Kids to Croco Cun
- Things to do in Cancun Hotel Zone
- Cancun Travel guide
Things to do in Cancun, Mexico
I’ve divided the list of things to do in Cancun based on zones to make it easier to plan your trip. Towards the end, I’ve also included top things to do around Cancun that you can visit on day trips.
Things to do in Cancun Hotel Zone
To be honest, the Cancun hotel zone isn’t my favorite place: expect to find tacky souvenir shops, American restaurant chains, and raucous nightclubs. But as most hotels are concentrated here, this is probably where you’ll find yourself. Fret not, there are definitely enough things to do in Cancun hotel zone that will make it worth your while!
1. Relax at Playa Delfines
If you’re not staying at an oceanfront hotel, the Cancun Hotel Zone actually has a few public beaches that are just as spectacular and uncrowded. Playa Delfines or Dolphin Beach is one such stretch of coastline featuring the quintessential spearmint water and powdery white sands of the Caribbean Sea.
The gloriously white sand beach has no hotels, shacks, or restaurants. Just miles and miles of golden sand with large waves. There are days when the waves are so big that swimming isn’t advisable, so always check the tidal waves before going.
2. Kayak Nichupte Lagoon
Nichupte Lagoon, separating downtown Cancun from the hotel zone, is one of the most under-rated Cancun attractions. The lagoon is formed by seven lakes and is an ecosystem of both fresh and salt water in the mangrove area.
You’ll find a lot of operators running motorboat and jet-ski tours in the lagoon, but I suggest going for a kayak eco-tour experience. I recommend either the sunrise or the sunset guided kayak tour in Nichupte Lagoon where you get to paddle into the mangrove forests and canals and spot herons, cormorants, and even starfish.
3. Explore the Mayan Ruins, El Rey
One of my favorite things to do in Cancun is to explore the Mayan Ruins in the Cancun hotel zone. Cancun is a relatively new city created by the Mexican government some 50 years ago. Before that, the Mayan culture flourished here for centuries (that got wiped in the 9th Century). The town has a long Mayan history backing it that can today be witnessed in the ancient Mayan ruins.
The ruins of El Rey are located right behind Playa Delfines beach, and the site houses 47 odd temples and dwellings that were once thriving pre-Columbian Mayan settlements. El Rey is nowhere nearly as impressive as Chichén Itzá, but it’s well worth a visit if you’re staying in Cancun. Opt for a guided tour to understand the structures and the history.
Located 20 minutes away, the El Meco ruins are far more isolated, meaning you get to see the ruins without the crowds. Dating back to 200 AD, El Meco used to be a small fishing village. Today, the well-preserved ruins are home to El Castillo – a 40-feet tall pyramid, the tallest archaeological structure and a famous Cancun attraction.
4. Visit the Cancun Maya Museum
For history buffs, the Cancun Maya Museum provides a crash course in the history of the Mayan civilization. The museum is small, but pretty interesting especially for those with kids. Book a guided tour here.
Right behind the Cancun Maya Museum lies the ruins of San Miguelito, which was once a flourishing community that strategically built its dwellings behind sand dunes along the shores of the Caribbean Sea. San Miguelito Archaeological Site is split into four sections: North, South, Dragon Complex, and Chaak Palace. The South Complex houses a well-preserved 3-story pyramid that is noteworthy.
5. Go Snorkelling and Scuba Diving
Cancun is one of the best places in Mexico to snorkel and scuba dive. The Mesoamerican Reef, the world’s second-largest barrier reef, starts in Cancun and runs south across the entire Riviera Maya down to Honduras.
Of all the dive sites in Cancun, the C58 Minesweeper Wreck Site is the most popular. It used to be an old Navy Vessel from WWII that eventually sank to become an artificial reef. Eagle rays, barracuda, manta rays, and a variety of groupers frequent this site. Book your dive or snorkeling trip here.
Some tours combine scuba dives and snorkeling with whale sharks off the coast of Holbox too. From June through September, whale sharks swim through the Gulf’s phytoplankton-rich waters. Swimming with whale sharks is an incredibly humbling experience. This is one of the best things to do in Holbox, especially for adventure seekers.
6. Admire the Sculptures at the Underwater Museum of Art
The Underwater Museum of Art MUSA is located underwater between the Cancun hotel zone and Isla Mujeres. MUSA features over 500 underwater statues that have transformed into part of the coral reef in an artistic combination of art and nature.
The museum can be explored by diving, snorkeling, or a glass-bottom boat ride. You can directly book such tours to MUSA from their website.
7. Go Stand-Up Paddle Boarding at Sunrise
The best time to see Cancun in its full glory is undoubtedly at sunrise when the calm water is tinted in a golden hue, and the beach is clear of sun beds and peddlers. Rise early and go on a sunrise stand-up paddle board session, and you’ll see why Cancun is at its most appealing at the golden hour.
If you are a newbie to the activity, book a SUP lesson from an experienced instructor who will provide you with a board and teach you how to go about it.
8. Take in the Views from the Cancun Scenic Tower
Located close to the hotel zone, the Torre Escenica or the Cancun Scenic Tower is a great place to visit for the best views of Cancun. It takes you 250 feet (76m) up and slowly rotates for several minutes, providing you with the best panoramic views of Cancun city as well as the Caribbean Sea. For families, this is easily one of the best things to do in the Cancun Hotel Zone.
The price is $15 for the 10-minute ride, but if you intend to take the ferry to Isla Mujeres, this is included in your ferry ticket so you can head up there for free.
9. Take a ride on SkyWheel Cancun
La Isla Shopping Village is a large, open-air entertainment complex in the heart of the Cancun hotel zone. Winding canals run through the bright colored buildings, where you can take a boat ride. There’s an Interactive Aquarium here, which my daughter loved (but we strongly advise against swimming with dolphins).
The SkyWheel Cancun, a giant Ferris wheel located at La Isla Shopping Village, is amongst the best things to do in Cancun with kids. The Ferris wheel has air-conditioned cabins that take you 60 meters high in the sky. From up there, you get spectacular views of Nichupte Lagoon, beachfront, Caribbean Sea, and the entire hotel zone of Cancun.
10. Wine and Dine at Puerto Cancun
If you’re looking for somewhere swanky to impress your loved one, the best date night spot is Puerto Cancún. The marina is a new oceanfront mall in Cancun, with an IMAX theater, lots of high street shop brands (like Zara), and a series of upscale restaurants.
It’s definitely an area for the well-heeled, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend a lot to visit! There’s also a food court on the second level with affordable Vietnamese, Mexican, and French food, as well as great sea views. And for those traveling with kids, there’s even a rock climbing tower and indoor zipline!
Things to do in Downtown Cancun
For curious travelers, you’ve got to venture out to Downtown Cancun and take a deep dive into the local culture here. Downtown Cancun is a world away from the Hotel Zone; it’s surprisingly Mexican, brimming with outdoor markets and outrageously good taco carts.
11. Stroll along Avenida Tulum
Avenida Tulum is the main artery of downtown Cancun filled with shops, restaurants, and bars. It’ll give you a glimpse of modern Mexico, while offering a more authentic experience than the Hotel Zone. If it’s your first time in downtown Cancun, Avenida Tulum is a good place to orientate yourself.
12. People Watch at Parque Palapas
Located just a short walk away from Avenida Tulum, Parque Palapas is the central park in downtown Cancun. It is a popular picnic spot for Cancun families and tourists alike. The park houses a playground, small stores selling artisan-made souvenirs, and holds weekly entertainment shows on its outdoor stage.
Local vendors sell cheap Mexican food in and around the park, making it an excellent spot to sit, relax, eat, watch people go about their lives, and get a feel of local Mexican life.
13. Taste Local Produce at Mercado 28
Mercado 28 or Market 28 is a one-stop flea market with many shops offering souvenirs, apparel, and food stalls selling authentic Mexican cuisines. A big food court in the center of Mercado 28 houses several popular Mexican restaurants.
The market sells a bit of everything and is an excellent place to purchase fresh local produce like vegetables, fruits, seafood, seeds, meats, and much more. It is a popular local market for residents and tourists alike.
14. Eat Authentic Mexican Street Food
Downtown Cancun is where you will get to taste traditional Mexican food, unlike the Americanized version of Mexican food in the hotel zone.
One of the most-loved taco joint in downtown Cancun is Tacos Rigo, which has been serving up tacos here since 1988. It is said that tacos are made of 50% filling and 50% salsa, and you can bet that the salsas here definitely pull their weight. Tacos Rigo has every type of taco you can imagine from suadero (beef), tripa (tripe), cabeza (cheeks), and lengua (tongue).
Taquería Coapeñitos is another hot favorite among locals, offering authentic favorites and funky combos. You can’t go wrong with the house specialty, Taco Coapeñito, layers of flavors and textures that will blow your mind .
15. Experience Temazcal Ceremony
Take a deep dive into Mayan culture by signing up for a temazcal experience, an ancient Mayan ceremony that involves cleansing negative energy from your body.
Temazcal actually translates to ‘house of heat’. The ceremony is conducted in a hut where volcanic rocks are heated, and the hut is allowed to replicate a sauna. You have to sit back surrounded by aromatic herbs, medicinal plants, and candles, and soak in the varying heat levels.
A shaman performs the temazcal ceremony to fill your soul with positive energy which is believed to purify your spirit and body. You can book an authentic Temazcal session in Cancun, where you visit a local home in a Mayan village and participate in the ceremony.
16. Drive a Race Car
On a previous trip to Cancun, my husband booked a Cancun Speedway experience and got to drove in a sports car. He said it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
The experience comes with coaching and safety training. Along with that, you also get a chance to be a co-pilot with a professional driver who screeches around and turns at full speed. If you have ever dreamt of being in a high-end sports car, this is one of the best things to do in Cancun.
17. Visit Planetario de Cancun
Learn more about the wonders of this universe by visiting the Planetario de Cancun Ka´Yok´, which houses an astronomical observatory, a museum, digital domes, an eco-technology workshop, and a water museum. It is definitely one of the best things to do in Cancun with kids. My daughter absolutely loved it.
18. Discover Mexican Street Art
Colorful, large-scale murals created by renowned Mexican street artists like Cutiot, Paola Delfin, Areuz, and Farid Rueda adorn the streets of Cancun. One of the best spots to see them is Avenida Bonampak, where ocean-themed massive murals are painted on the walls of the towers. You can also find other artwork in Fovisste and Avenida Uxmal. These graffiti provide great photography opportunities. Join a street art tour.
19. Visit Malecon Tajamar
Located in front of the Nichupte Lagoon, Malecon Tajamar is a newly built boulevard in Cancun. From here, you can see the skyline of Cancun’s hotel zone. In the evenings, you’ll find many locals either roller skating, jogging, or hanging out along the malecon.
20. Relax at Kabah Urban Park
Kabah Urban Park is called the lungs of Cancun. It is a protected natural area that preserves a variety of flora and fauna. Those seeking refuge from the big city will enjoy treading the trails through the park and spotting lizards, coatis, and iguanas. There’s also a sports circuit and playgrounds for the little ones.
Things to do around Cancun, Mexico
Most attractions in the Yucatan Peninsula are just a half-day trip or a day trip from Cancun. Here, I’ve included a list of things to do around Cancun that are not very far from the city.
21. Visit Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza, the most well-preserved Mayan site in Yucatan Peninsula, is a 2.5-hour drive (125 miles/ 200 kilometers) inland from Cancun. This Mayan ruin is one of the world’s seven wonders of the modern world and a UNESCO world heritage site.
Chichen Itza features an impressive Mesoamerican step pyramid, the Temple of Kukulkan, representing a snake deity. It definitely gets crowded with people, but get there when it opens at 8 AM and you’ll have the place to yourself. Apart from the pyramid, I also loved knowing the history behind the Temple of Warriors, the Great Ball Court, and El Caracol.
Find out how to get from Cancun to Chichen Itza.
22. Visit Isla Mujeres
Located just 8 miles (13 kilometers) off the coast, Isla Mujeres is a paradise island that is a 20-minute boat ride away from Cancun. The small island is known for its empty, pristine white sand beaches and scuba diving sites.
There’s so much to do at Isla Mujeres than just spend the day on the beach. Rent a golf cart and explore the island, watch the sea turtles at the turtle sanctuary, participate in water sports, or stroll the island streets to find unique art and architecture.
23. Explore Isla Contoy
Dreaming of a castaway island with pristine waters and empty beaches? Isla Contoy is an uninhabited island just a few miles off Isla Mujeres. It is a highly protected reserve; a maximum of 200 guests are allowed to visit daily to preserve the island’s natural habitat.
To get here, you need to book a tour with a boat company that picks you up from your hotel in Cancun; you can’t visit the island on your own as it’s a protected area. The tour often included a visit to Isla Mujeres as well. Book your tour here.
24. Snorkel at Puertos Morelos National Reef Park
Just 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Cancun, the Puerto Morelos National Reef Park is a part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-largest barrier reef in the world. The reef’s proximity to the shore of Puerto Morelos provides an incredible opportunity to snorkel in the area.
Snorkeling tours in the reef are available from several dive shops in the seaside town of Puerto Morelos. If you are lucky, you might get to spot sea turtles and anemones and sea fans. Book your snorkeling tour.
25. Discover the Eco Parks along Ruta de Los Cenotes
One of the best places to experience cenotes near Cancun is Ruta de Los Cenotes in Puerto Morelos, where more than 60 cenotes are located along a road. The route lies about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from Cancun and it’s just a 20-minute drive away.
Some cenotes have been turned into eco adventure parks with activities like zip lining, mountain biking, quads, and so on. Amongst all, Cenote Kin-Ha and Cenote La-Noria are my favorites at Ruta de Los Cenotes. If you don’t have a car, book a day tour to Ruta de Los Cenotes.
26. Have a Wild Time at Xcaret Park
If you are looking for fun things to do in Cancun with kids, head to the famous Xcaret Park. It is an eco adventure park that’s been ethically and tastefully designed to let you experience the lush nature of the area. I’m not a fan of theme parks, but I actually like Xcaret and come here often with my kid.
Entry is not cheap (at US$80-100/person) but there’s really a lot to do here: from snorkeling in the inlet to cultural shows and hands-on workshops. Our family favorite activity was floating in the underground river, through waterfalls, ancient canals, and mangroves!
Stay for the evening show where you get to watch a performance highlighting the history and music of Mexico with impressive costumes, lighting effects, and live music.
27. Swim in Incredible Cenotes
Hundreds of cenotes line the Riviera Maya stretch, but my favorite are Cenote Azul and Cenote Jardin del Eden. These cenotes are surrounded by dense jungle and are excellent natural playgrounds with crystal clear fresh water and underwater cave systems.
I often visit these with my 7-year-old daughter, who has a blast splashing around in these natural pools. There are shallower ends for kids and some deeper ones for me to go snorkeling. Located 57 miles (92 kilometers) away from Cancun, these cenotes make up for a great day trip from Cancun.
28. Go Caving at Rio Secreto Nature Reserve
Adventurers alert! Rio Secreto, or the Secret River, is a natural underground cave system filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and crystal-clear fresh water for you to swim or snorkel. Located 48 miles (78 kilometers) from Cancun, the nature reserve is the longest semi-sunken cave system in Yucatan Peninsula.
Read our review of Rio Secreto here. You have to join a guided tour at Rio Secreto, where you watch a quick introduction to caves, put on wetsuits, follow the guide to the caves, and float through the underground system while admiring the limestone passageways. Book your tour here.
29. Take a day trip to Playa del Carmen
Located 42 miles (68 kilometers) south of Cancun, Playa del Carmen is another beach town on Mexico’s Riviera Maya. There are plenty of things to do in Playa del Carmen, ranging from outdoorsy activities to family-friendly parks, weekend markets and museums. I might be biased as I live in Playa del Carmen, but it’s definitely much more charming than Cancun. Here’s how to get from Cancun to Playa del Carmen.
Visit Playa del Carmen for its small beach-town charm, for a more laidback crowd, and its proximity to gorgeous cenotes. You will fall in love with Playa’s beaches, which are some of the best beaches of Riviera Maya, such as Xpu-ha and Playacar. And while you’re here, the boho beach town of Tulum is just 1 hour away. Check out my Tulum travel guide.
30. Take Your Kids to Croco Cun
Croco Cun is a hands-on reptile shelter where you and your kids get to interact, feed, and touch all sorts of reptiles and other animals. It is located 21 miles (34 kilometers) from Cancun, near the village of Puerto Morelos. The tickets include a guided tour where you can hold, touch, and feel the reptiles.
My daughter was very excited to touch baby crocodiles and snakes, hold macaws and parrots in their hands, and feed the monkeys. This is one of the best things to do in Cancun with kids.
Cancun Travel guide
How to Get to Cancun, Mexico
The gateway to Cancun is the Cancun International Airport. You can find cheap flights to Cancun from many major cities in the U.S. and Mexico. There are flights as cheap as $188 from New York to Cancun roundtrip.
Flying from Europe to Mexico is also affordable, especially from London and Madrid. We took a direct flight from Madrid to Cancun on Iberojet for just $350. You can get really cheap deals off season.
Best Time to Visit Cancun
Cancun enjoys pleasant weather year-round, but the winter months (December to April) are considered the best time to visit the city. We recommend visiting Cancun during the shoulder season (September to November) when there are fewer tourists.
June through November is also Cancun’s hurricane season. There are chances of a hurricane striking during your vacation, with days of heavy rainfall and storms. Check the weather forecast before your trip and as always, we recommend getting travel insurance in case of any incident.
TIP: It’s important to have travel insurance whether you’re traveling for weeks or years. Safety Wing is the most popular travel insurance company for COVID19-coverage. I use their Nomad Insurance plan, which covers worldwide travel. Refer to my travel insurance guide for more details.
Is it Safe to Visit Cancun?
Cancun is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mexico and is generally safe for tourists. Most crimes in Cancun don’t involve tourists; and they are usually drug-related. As long as you steer clear of drug cartels and drugs in general, you should be fine.
I highly recommend avoiding deserted streets (especially during nighttime), keeping your personal belongings in a safe place, and steering clear of dodgy company.
How to Get Around Cancun
Cancun is rather spread out and you’ll need to rent a car if you want to head out to explore. An economy rental car in Mexico averages just $200 for a whole week, which is less than $25 a day. The current price for gas is 16.50 pesos per liter (about $2.50 per gallon), though this varies throughout the country.
It’s generally easy to drive in Mexico, especially outside of the cities. I drive in Playa del Carmen everyday and find it quite easy. The roads in the Cancun Hotel Zone are excellent, just watch out for portholes and crazy drivers in downtown Cancun!
Colectivos (shared minibus or minivan-like vehicles) run all around Cancun. The colectivo fares are cheap, and you just need to flag them down along when you see one. Be sure to have Mexican pesos in hand to pay the fares.
Cancun also has an efficient city bus system, which connects the hotel zone to downtown Cancun. Catch route R1 or R2 to downtown, and it’s a flat fee of just M$12 (US$0.50). It’s also easy to catch an Uber, a safer and cheaper option than flagging down a taxi.
You can easily flag down a taxi from anywhere in Cancun, but taxi drivers tend to jack up the price when they hear a gringo accent. Make sure you negotiate and agree on a rate before starting the ride. We recommend booking an Uber instead.
Where to Stay in Cancun?
There are countless hotels and resorts in Cancun, but these are the ones that I recommend. For more detailed area-wise stay options, head to my article on where to stay in Cancun.
Budget – Ibis Cancun Centro
Bright, airy, and centrally located, Ibis Cancun is a great base for your time in the city. This budget-friendly hotel has two on-site restaurants, a café, and a bar. It is an excellent affordable stay option for digital nomads as each room has a work desk and unlimited Wi-Fi. Check rates here.
Mid-Range – Hotel Marina El Cid Spa & Beach Resort
One of the best places to stay on the beach in Puerto Morelos (20 minutes from Cancun), this hotel is affordable and offers comfortable rooms. It features an outdoor pool with water slides for kids, an adult-only pool, and four on-site restaurants serving Mediterranean and Mexican cuisines. Check rates here.
Luxury – Hyatt Ziva Cancun
Situated at a prime location in Punta Cancun, Hyatt Ziva is amongst the best hotels in Cancun. They have luxurious rooms with private balconies, 3 infinity pools, and an oceanfront spa. With the beach just a few steps away, it is the best all-inclusive in Cancun. Check rates here.
All-inclusive – Dreams Playa Mujeres Golf & Spa Resort
Set in the Playa Mujeres Complex, with its world-famous golf course, this all-inclusive, family-oriented resort will spoil you for choices with 2 infinity pools, 4 hot tubs, 2 kid’s pools, and multiple FnB outlets. Adults can access the amenities of their adult-only resort next door. Check rates here.
Is Cancun Worth Visiting?
Even though Cancun is tourist-oriented and overdeveloped, there are definitely lots of things to do here whether you’re into nature, beaches, or nightlife.
I hope you’ve found this list of things to do in Cancun useful. Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions about traveling to Cancun.
For those who are planning to travel more of Mexico, check out other articles I’ve written on Mexico:
- 30 Fun Things to Do in Tulum
- 30 Things to Do in Playa del Carmen
- Where to Stay in Cancun
- 15 Things to Do in Cozumel
- 35 Fun Things to Do in the Yucatan Peninsula
- 20 Things to Do in Valladolid
- 10-Day Yucatan Road Trip Itinerary
Cancun looks absolutely gorgeous! I’d love to visit Mexico one day, and this area will be top of my wish list.
Thanks for sharing all this information, Nellie.