Looking for the best things to do in Cancun? We can help!
Over the years, we’ve spent many months in and around Cancun, and have done just about everything there is to do.
Cancun is best known for beautiful beaches and great nightlife, but there are plenty of fun cultural things, family fun, and there’s even great food.
Cancun, found in Mexico’s Mayan Riviera, is an area of beautiful beaches, stunning scenery and is teeming with a range of activities.
Some of our fondest memories of Cancun include lazy afternoons on the beach, mornings exploring cenotes and Mayan ruins with visiting friends, and sunny days snorkeling as a family in underwater wildlife sanctuaries and visiting eco-theme parks.
We loved spending evenings watching amazing shows, hanging with the locals downtown on Sundays, spending warm days in parks and cooler days in malls, as well as going to far flung restaurants all along the coast and even over to Cozumel.
We’re even so enamored with Mexico’s beautiful gulf coast that we’ve seriously considered buying property in Mexico on numerous occasions. Once the kids are on their own, Mexico’s Mayan Riviera area will likely be our winter home. We’re also always one click away from hopping on a plane to Cancun any time we see a hint of snow here in Canada.
With all that said, we’ve discovered more than a few of the best things to do in Cancun, Mexico, along with the Mayan Riviera. Let us know which ones are your personal favorites!
Best things to do in Cancun Mexico
Hit the beaches
It might seem obvious, but if you’re visiting Cancun, you’re likely here for the miles and miles of beautiful white sand beach and warm azure waters. Before all the other once sleepy fishing beaches along the coast followed suit, Cancun was welcoming visitors from all around the world to enjoy its 14 miles of pristine paradise. It’s not hard to see why – you can be on a beach within the hour of landing in Cancun airport and taking a shuttle to your hotel.
The most popular beaches in Cancun include Playa Delfines (Dolphin Beach), Playa Forum, Playa Caracol, Playa Chac Mool, Playa Tortuga and Playa Del Nino. Generally, the waves are calmer on the northern side of the Hotel Zone, and the powder soft sand in Cancun can’t be beat.
There’s been a dramatic increase in the amount of sargassum (seaweed) on the beaches in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum in the last couple of years, and it looks like it might be here to stay. At best, it’s a mild annoyance, but at worst it’s a stinky mat that can make beaches unusable. That said, you should be able to avoid a lot of the sargassum if you visit a resort with a groomed beach. If not, then check sargassum beach conditions via this sargassum forecaster.
Playa Delfines is a beautiful spot nestled away from the bustle of the regions many hotels. Located at km 20 of the Hotel Zone, and home to the always busy Cancun sign you see in every other selfie coming out of Cancun, there are also many amenities, water sport rentals and a playground for kids here. You’ll find the iconic Cancun sign here, making it a perfect spot for a selfie.
Playa Tortuga and Playa Del Nino are two family favorites since they’re on the far northern reach of the hotel strip. Both are protected by Isla Mujeres meaning the water is some of the calmest in Cancun – great for the little ones.
Playa Forum, situated at the northeasterly tip of hotel row, is famous for its party scene. While nearby Playa Chac Mool (Chac Mool Beach) has a nice set of free palapas to hide from the afternoon sun. The water at both places can be pretty rough, so make sure to watch the flags and lifeguards are letting people in the water.
Playa Caracol, slightly north and around the corner of Playa Forum, is another popular beach in Cancun. There aren’t a lot of amenities, but it’s a great place to stretch out on the public beach.
Note: All beaches are public in Mexico so you can walk anywhere along them. However, getting from the street to the water or finding parking can sometimes be a hassle. Most of the beaches in Cancun have hotels with private loungers set up everywhere, however you’re always free to pay for a seat in one of the many beach clubs or just drop a towel anywhere you want to be. They can’t stop you.
Go deep sea fishing
Cancun is a great jumping off point for deep sea fishing, with tons of options from which to choose. There’s always something biting no matter the season in Cancun, with Atlantic Sailfish, Blue and White Marlins, Grouper, Wahoo, Tuna and Red Snapfish all calling the waters around Cancun home. If you’re interested in deep sea fishing in Cancun, check out this handy chart to let you know which fish is in season.
Take a day trip to Isla Mujeres
The closest of Cancun’s neighboring islands, Isla Mujeres is only a 15 minute ferry ride away, but it feels like another world, with roads filled with golf carts, smaller beaches and quaint eateries strewn about the island.
Journey to Isla Mujeres in the morning, and then rent a golf cart and drive the entire length of the island checking out the turtle sanctuary, Mayan ruins, some of the nicest ocean side cliffs in Mexico, as well as some unique snorkeling. Or experience the islands on a exhilarating zip line or a watercraft that circles the island to gain a unique and fun view.
If you’re looking for an activity park, plenty of visitors to Isla Mujeres stop by Garrafon Park. There’s a zip line, swimming pool, snorkeling, restaurants and kayaks here. We haven’t made it to Garrafon ourselves, but we’ve stopped our golf cart by the side of the road to watch people on the zip lines at Garrafon. It looks like a lot of fun!
We usually take an hour and visit Punta Sur, on the tip of Isla Mujeres, wich has a lighthouse & large sculptures on a path overlooking the ocean.
Thirty foot long whale sharks migrate past Cancun from early June to mid-September. The whale shark is the largest known fish in existence, and are filter feeders that feed almost exclusively on plankton and small fishes.
There are several tour operators who will take you, and most tours visit nearby Isla Holbox to see the sharks.
Visit Isla Contoy
Only 200 visitors a day are allowed to this protected National Park and Ecological reserve. Isla Contoy is uninhabited, and boasts stunning blue green waters and great snorkeling. You’ll need to take a tour to visit.
With Cancun’s gorgeous temperatures, why would you want to hit a mall? Well, besides for the occasional rainy day, and when that sunburn takes hold and you just can’t handle another hour in the sun, Cancun is accustomed to its global visitors boasting a ton of international shops to accommodate them.
As well as high end malls like Plaza Las Americas, La Isla Shopping Village and Luxury Avenue Cancun, there are outlet malls like Las Plazas Outlet Cancun, as well as handicraft stores like Ambarte, which feature gorgeous locally made hand crafted items. For the thrifty, or those looking for unusual finds, there are also plenty of flea markets and local handicraft markets all around Cancun.
As far as local markets go, Mercado 28 flea market is a fun visit. If you’re looking for local produce, cheese and meat, Mercado 23 is your place.
El Centro (Downtown Cancun)
El Centro (Downtown Cancun) is an entirely different world than the Hotel Zone.
Downtown is where you’ll find Mercado 28, the Malecon Americas Shopping Center, as well as Parque Las Palapas, which is Cancun’s main plaza complete with food carts, playgrounds and a stage. Avenida Tulum is the main street.
We’ve visited downtown Cancun as a family several times, and even stayed in a hotel in the Centro, and were totally comfortable there. That said, use the same precautions you would if you were visiting any new city, and check any current travel warnings. It has many familiar food locations like Subway, McDonald’s, Hooters and more.
Myan Museum of Cancun
The Museo Maya de Cancún y Zona Arqueológica de San Miguelito, or Myan Museum of Cancun, is a spot of culture in Cancun.
The museum houses a nice collection of Mayan archaeological artifacts and has ruins on site as well. It’s a sleek, modern, air conditioned building. Most descriptions are in Spanish, but some are in English.
You can visit from 9:00 to 6:00, but doors close at 5:30. Admission is 75 pesos.
Go snorkeling or scuba diving
Want to get away from the beaches, but love being in the water? Cancun offers snorkeling and scuba diving trips right from the town center. Most head out towards Isla Mujeres while some go south towards Playa del Carmen. With warm clear blue waters, it’s easy to spot fish and coral.
Looking for more tours and activities? There are many things to do in Playa del Carmen. Snorkel at secret lagoons of the Yucatán Peninsula and swim with turtles. Take a scuba diving lesson in Riviera Maya and explore the deep limestone sinkholes known as cenotes. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, swim alongside whale sharks or blue sharks on Playa del Carmen coast.
If you want something a little different, consider going scuba diving to the MUSA Underwater Sculpture Museum in Isla Mujeres. This is the largest underwater museum in the world, and seeing fish and coral make their homes among the hundreds of works of art is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Take a catamaran cruise
Prefer the water topside? There are plenty of ways to get out on the ocean that don’t involve getting your feet wet. Taking a catamaran cruise is one idea. There are plenty of boats to choose from family friendly boats to party boats. There’s even a pirate cruise featuring a live action pirate adventure. Most Cancun boat cruises include meals and alcohol so it’s up to you to decide if the party booze cruise, the family cruise or if a always romantic sunset cruise is more your speed.
Party the night away at Coco Bongo and enjoy Cancun’s wild nightlife
Love to party? Cancun is generally regarded as the party capital of the Mayan Riviera and as such it has a thriving night scene. From wild shows and antics at Cancun’s Coco Bongo’s to early morning nachos and cervezas at Carlos and Charlie’s there’s surely something in Cancun for the night time party animal. Cancun really gets wild during college Spring Break so if madness and mayhem are your thing, then book accordingly.
While Coco Bongo is definitely the most iconic of Cancun’s nightlife, there are plenty of other hotspots like Forum By The Sea, The City, and Daddy o’s Nightclub. Cuncrawl gets pretty good ratings if you’re looking for a nightclub crawl.
You legally need to be 18 years old to drink alcohol in Cancun.
Visit Señor Frogs
Yes, we know it’s touristy and expensive. But there’s no denying that Señor Frogs is a Cancun institution. If you lean into it, Señor Frogs can be a really fun time!
Rent a jet boat in Cancun
Catamaran not fast enough for you? Then maybe you want to rent a jet boat in Cancun and go on a jungle expedition. There are several companies in Cancun that rent two seater speed boats and take you on a follow the guide, hold onto your hat and ride with mad dashes through mangrove lagoons and rivers. You’ll also get a chance to snorkel along a gorgeous coral reef. We haven’t done this one yet, but rest assured it is on our list.
Ventura Park Cancun
Fans of amusement parks and families with children will enjoy a day in Ventura Park.
The facility is made of seven different worlds and provides free meals and beverages for the visitors.
Visitors keen on adventure can go zip lining, fans of water activities can enjoy the water slide park, the Fun World offers entertainment for the kids, the Grand Prix surprises with a spectacular go-kart track, the Underworld gives visitors the opportunity to enjoy Virtual Reality.
Captain Hook Cancun
Captain Hook Cancun is a dinner cruise and pirate show featuring three 18th century Spanish galleon replicas. We haven’t visited this one ourselves, but it gets pretty good ratings.
There are lobster, steak, chicken and even vegetarian options, with prices ranging from $75 to $95 for adults, which includes dinner and the show.
Take the Columbus Lobster Dinner Cruise
The Columbus Lobster Dinner Cruise makes the most of Cancun’s magical atmosphere, adding a romantic vibe and fresh local food.
The ship sails the Nichupte Lagoon and sunset serves as a romantic backdrop for a romantic lobster dinner with the wine and soothing music.
Swim in the closest cenotes to Cancun
Generally, most of the nearby cenotes start in Puero Moralas, and run down the coast. We’ve listed a couple of the cenotes that are closest to Cancun here, along with a couple of our favorites and don’t miss cenotes near Cancun.
There’s a small cenote at Cenote Park in Cancun itself. We won’t swim there because people often throw garbage in the cenote, and it’s small with little water. That said Cenote Park itself is fairly nice. There’s a small playground, lots of vegetation, and some nice paths. We suggest traveling outside of Cancun to visit a cenote.
Cenote La Noria
La Noria is a deep cenote that’s close to Puerto Morelos. It’s great for diving, and also has a run cave swing, and a floating platform.
Verde Lucero is an open cenote, meaning that it’s easy to access from a central pool like cenote. There are small caves off to the side, and a zipline and cliff for jumping.
Cenote Azul is one of the best known cenotes for Cancun visitors. It’s close to Playa del Carmen, with crystal clear water and even a cliff jump.
While you’re there, stop by the beautiful Cenote Cristalino and Cenote El Edén, which are both nearby.
Ik Kil Cenote
If you research cenotes on Instagram, Ik Kil is likely the image you’ll see most often. It’s a spectacular view from the top, with a view of a deep hole surrounded by vines.
The downside is that it’s often overwhelmingly busy, especially as it’s popular with tours.
Cenote Dos Oyos
Cenote dos Oyos is closer to Tulum than Cancun, making it a bit of a drive. That said, dos Oyos is one of our favorites. It’s a beautiful, crystal clear cenote with plenty of fish. We’ve only snorkeled and swam there, but dos Ojos is famous for underwater caves that draw SCUBA divers year round.
Take an ATV tour
If you’re outdoor adventure minded, then an ATV tour in the jungles outside Cancun may be perfect for you.
Most ATV tours from Cancun include (optional) zip lining, a cenote swim, and lunch.
El Rey Archaeological Zone
The El Rey Archaeological Zone is in the heart of the Hotel Zone in Cancun. There are 47 buildings here that date to about 250 A.D, with a pyramid shaped temple. El Ray is close to the beach and famous CANCUN sign you’ll see on social media.
There’s not a lot of signage, but you’ll see plenty of iguanas and the location in the hotel zone is incredibly convenient. It costs 55 pesos (kids under 11 are free), and most people can see the entire site in about an hour.
If you’re going in the middle of the day, bring water, sunscreen and a hat as it can get quite hot.
El Meco Archaeological Site
Most tourists miss El Meco Archaeological Site, which is a short half hour taxi ride from the Hotel Zone. Like the El Rey Archaeological Zone, there’s a central pyramid and plenty of iguanas. However, because El Meco is further from the Hotel Zone, it’s much quieter than El Ray.
You can see almost everything in about an hour, and it’s much less crowded than El Ray, or Chitzen Itza.
The Interactive Aquarium Cancun
The Interactive Aquarium Cancun is one of Cancun’s most popular family attractions. You’ll find almost 2,000 aquatic species here. The aquarium is inside La Isla Shopping Mall.
Many tours from Cancun include a tequila tasting, or stop by La Destilleria restaurant, where you can sample 3 types of tequila.
Things to do outside of Cancun
We’ve done almost everything there is to do in this part of the Yucatan, from enjoying the beaches of Cancun with the kids, golf carting around Isla Mujeres, and walking along Quinta Avenida in Playa Del Carmen, to swimming with turtles in Akumal, wandering the ruins down in Tulum, and crossing over to the lovely city of Merida. The list goes on.
A favorite of ours was when we took a ferry to Cozumel, and a bus then a high-speed ferry to Belize. All of these paradises originating from the Cancun and Playa Del Carmen area.
With so much happening all along the Mayan Riviera, limiting yourself to just staying in Cancun will mean you’re missing some of the best things to do on this side of Mexico. Playa del Carmen is only a forty minute drive from Cancun and even Tulum can be easily reached for a day trip.
Of course, you have the pyramids of Chichen Itza, the island of Cozumel, swimming with turtles down in Akumal and dozens of cenotes within easy reach of Cancun as well.
If you like the comfort of knowing when you’re starting and when you’re returning on your excursions, there are hundreds of day tours available that will get you to where you want to be and save you the hassle of figuring it all out for yourself.
If you want to jump on one of the nice long distance buses or even one of the ridiculously cheap local buses, you can do that too. We’ve also rented cars to tour the peninsula and have taken both collectivos (local mini buses) as well as taxis on many occasions.
Chichen Itza is a complex of ruins that date back to the Mayan civilization, and one of the most popular day trips from Cancun.
Chichen Itza’s pre-Columbian ruins are remains of what was once one of the largest, most developed cities in the region. The ruins have been restored now occupy around five square kilometers.
The site attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, especially on the days of the equinoxes, when the site shows its most mysterious face.
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve UNESCO World Heritage Site
Nature lovers will love a trip to the 120,000-hectare Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve. It’s a UNESCO site that lets outdoor enthusiasts visit tropical forests, mangroves, even the barrier reef. Visitors report sightings of birds, jaguars, ocelots, pumas as well as marine wildlife like sea turtles and hundreds of fish species.
Valladolid is a smaller city that’s rich in local culture and history, combined with natural attractions. The city’s atmosphere is vibrant and cozy at the same time.
Take time to visit colonial era cathedrals and convents, piazzas with friendly restaurants and bars, or natural sites like Cenote Zaci.
Cenote Zaci is in the middle of town, and it’s walking distance from the main plaza. There are small cliffs you can jump off of, and crystal clear water for swimming.
In the city itself, a local mercado makes shopping a unique experience.
Tulum is quickly becoming one of the hottest destinations for Cuncun day trippers. Tulum is arguably best know for its long stretches of white sand, Instagram-worthy scenery, and relaxed beach vibe.
One thing I’ve never loved about Tulum is that the main highway winds through the town, dividing the town from the beach. That said, it’s still a fun place to visit, with plenty of beach bars, restaurants and small shops to keep you busy.
The Myan ruins in Tulum, while much smaller than Chitzen Itza and others nearby, are definitely blessed with the most beautiful setting over the clear Caribben sea. See how our day visiting the ruins in Tulum went here.
Quick recap of some of the best things to do outside Cancun
We've been traveling around the world since 2003, first as a couple and now as a family of four. We love sharing our adventures and the lessons we've picked up on the road. Contact us or check our About page for more info.