Cancun has a long history as one of the best places to celebrate Spring Break with college students flocking to its white-sand beaches. But there are plenty of things to do in Cancun besides strutting down the beach or partying into the wee hours of the morning. We’ve gone back to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula again and again since the year 1999 and we always find something new to see and do.
Cancun is the gateway to the Mayan Riviera with endless hotels sprawling along the coast of the Caribbean Sea looking out at its clear turquoise waters. There is an endless list of Cancun activities to be had and we have done our best to try them all!
Top Things to do in Cancun
If you are planning a trip to Cancun make sure to get out of your luxury hotel to explore the beauty and culture of this little slice of heaven in Mexico. So let’s get started to help you find all the best activities in Cancun that will make your trip a vacation to remember.
Looking for transportation from Cancun Airport to your hotel? Check out eTransfers for the best prices. They offer shuttles to the Hotel Zone, Playa Del Carmen, Tulum, and all along the Mayan Riviera.
There is no doubt that most people book at least one of many day trips from Cancun. With easy access to the Mayan Riviera and southern Caribbean Coast, many of the top things to do in Cancun are while out on excursions that leave from the Hotel Zone. We are going to talk about our favorite day trips from Cancun as well as the best things to do in the Hotel Zone.
For day tours in Cancun, we use Get Your Guide. We use them for all our day trips around the world and have used them for many of our Cancun travels. It offers transfers, tour guides, and access to many of the top places to visit in Cancun with full refunds if canceling within 24 hours of excursions. Plus, they take last-minute bookings too. We’ll be recommending the Cancun tours that we have done to help take the guesswork out of bookings for you.
If you are looking for recommendations on where to stay in Cancun, we have an entire post breaking down all the best areas. Read more at: Where to Stay in Cancun: Best Hotels and Areas For Every Budget
Best Things to do in Cancun – Hotel Zone
The Hotel Zone, (Zona Hotelera) is one of the most popular places to stay in Cancun and with good reason. It is an endless stretch of sand filled with hotels lining the beach. These are the best things to do near Cancun to enjoy a day out where you don’t need to get on a tour bus or book an excursion from your hotel. From watersports to a natural theme park, Mayan ruins to underwater rivers, you are going to fall in love with Cancun.
1. Stroll the Hotel Zone
Just walking along the hotel zone of Cancun is an adventure unto itself. This zone is 22km (14 miles long) and filled with restaurants, bars, shopping malls, and all-inclusive mega-resorts.
You don’t have to stay at an all-inclusive to have a fun time, we once stayed in a budget hotel in downtown Cancun and had so much fun exploring by foot, enjoying the nightlife, and having a more immersive experience.
2. Maya Ruins of El Rey
It may not be as massive as Chichen Itza or as famous as Tulum, but the El Rey Ruins is a proper Mayan archeological site near downtown Cancun. There are 47 ruins to explore with a burial site and ancient murals.
The star attraction of this site is the colony of iguanas that inhabit the ruins. They are used to people so the chances of seeing one is very good! Not all visitors to Cancun will want to take a bus ride for hours to see Mayan Ruins, so this is the next best thing.
3. Coco Bongo
If you are looking for fun things to do in Cancun at night, you can go to a club and tear up the dance floor all night long. Cancun is known for its party scene and there are a lot of clubs to party in but Coco Bongo is a nightclub offering entertainment including acrobats, a light show, and gogo dancers. It’s truly an extravaganza with a circus on steroids vibe. It’s an all-night event so be prepared for a hangover in the morning.
Coco Bongo is only one of the many bars downtown. Other places to visit for nightlife are Mandala, Congo Bar, Palazzo and of course, you can never miss an opportunity to party it up at Senor Frogs!
4. Playa Delfines
Cancun beaches are is famous for their endless stretches of white sand. From the Cancun Riviera to Playa del Carmen, and Playa Mujeres, you’ll find some of the best beaches in Mexico here. The beaches right in front of the hotel zone are fantastic with soft white sand that goes on for days. Chances are when you visit Cancun, you’ll be staying at an all-inclusive resort with its own beach. But some of you may be at a hotel on the lagoon and others may want to get off the resort.
Playa Delfines is the only public beach that is completely void of hotels and restaurants. It gives you that local experience offering a quieter day out in the sun. There are free beach umbrellas to use and lifeguards on duty. It’s name says it all, Playa Delphines translates to Dolphin Beach and you’ll have a great chance of spotting dolphins here.
Best Cancun Beaches
There’s nothing we love more than walking on the soft white sands for our morning stroll. What I love is how long the beaches are in Cancun, we can walk for hours. Hotels have beautiful beaches right off of the property and you can walk from hotel to hotel to enjoy the gorgeous setting. If you want to go beach hopping around Cancun, here are some of the best beaches to soak up the sun near and around Cancun. Some of the best beaches besides Playa Delfines are are Playa Tortugas, Playa Forum and Playa Marlin.
Best Beaches Near Cancun for a day trip
Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres – regular Cancun Isla Mujeres ferries will take you to this beautiful beach. Or you can book an Isla Mujeres day trip. This is a great island to visit from Cancun. This Isla Mujeres Tour takes you to the “Island of women to snorkel in its clear blue waters. Playacar Beach in Playa del Carmen – a great day trip from Cancun is to hang out in Playa del Carmen and it has a fantastic beach!Tulum Beach – When exploring the Mayan Ruins of Tulum, you often have a chance to relax on its beautiful beach. It has some of the most spectacular views in the Mayan Riviera.
5. Cancun Scenic Tower
If you aren’t blessed with a high hotel room facing the water, make your way to Torre Escenica (Aka Cancun Scenic Tower) for one of the best views in Cancun. Located just in from the Hotel Zone near Playa Tortugas, it has panoramic views where you’ll be able to see the rows of all-inclusive resorts, Cancun and the Caribbean Coast
6. Visit the Cancun Sign (Letras Cancún)
There’s no doubt that one of the most popular things to do in any destination these days is to get a selfie in front of the destination’s sign. Well, you’ll find a colorful Cancun sign like everywhere else on the planet waiting for you. It has fast become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Cancun and is a must when checking off your list of Cancun activities. The famous Cancun sign is located on Playa Delfines. We have it pinned on our map above.
7. Museo Maya de Cancun (Mayan Museum)
If you want to add a little culture to your trip but don’t want to spend time on a bus going on a day trip to Tulum or Chichen Itza, you can get the Mayan ruin experience closer to the Hotel Zone at Museo Maya.
The Museo Museum in Cancun is a great place to learn about the history of the pre-Columbian Maya. As we get older, we enjoy going to museums be it in Cancun, or Paris France. We have learned that museums are a great complement to visiting places in real life.
If you are planning on visiting places like Tulum or Chichen Itza, this will help you understand the Mayan history and culture better before you go.It is a newer attraction opening in 2012 and is located right in the hotel zone.
8. Downtown Cancun
If you want to experience some real Mexican culture, make your way to downtown Cancun. The great thing about this area, is that hotels are much cheaper and most tours will pick you up at your hotel. This Modern 2-bed Apartment offers easy access to local markets, shopping districts, and restaurants from this modern apartment.
Avenida Tulum is the main street of Cancun that is filled with restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. It is here that you’ll find some of the best markets and shopping for a souvenir from your time in Mexico. If you want an authentic taco, this is the place to try Tacos al Pastor, (shepard style) Taqueria Coapenitos, (pub-style) This gastronomy walking tour takes you to 4 local Taquerias (taco restaurants) to sample local street food from local street vendors and a variety of flavorful tacos. Try a traditional beverage and a dessert.
9. Outdoor Markets Cancun
Cancun is a modern city with shopping malls, a Walmart and even a Costco. I don’t know about you, but when I travel, I want to visit more traditional markets.
One of many markets in Cancun is Mercado 28. It is an outdoor open-air market that sells souvenirs, crafts, and jewelry. It is a covered market so you won’t be scorched by the sun, but it has that traditional feel of an old flea market. Sharpen your bargaining skills and get ready to buy some Mexican souvenirs at discount prices. Market 23 is one of the most visited markets in the city as well.
Water Activities in Cancun
10. Tackle a Flyboard
If you are ready for a thrill of a lifetime, try flyboarding in Cancun’s hotel zone. There are only a handful of operators in Cancun that will let you fly over the water like a snowboarder.
Head out with an instructor on a wave runner for 30 minutes to help you get the hang of flying through the air! We didn’t have the nerve to do this, but we loved watching the crazy travelers try their hand at it.
11. Go Kayaking
Believe it or not, you don’t have to go far from downtown Cancun to experience a bit of nature. Nichupte Lagoon is a natural reserve near Cancun that has mangrove forests and seven lakes that you can go kayaking through its mangrove jungle.
There are also plenty of water sports to be had from taking boat tours through the jungle lagoon, snorkeling, and scuba diving. Nichupte Lagoon is a great way for visitors to experience a bit of the jungles of the Yucatan without having to go far.
12. SUP – Stand Up Paddleboarding
Most hotels in Cancun offer free stand-up paddleboarding with their packages and SUP along the coast is one of the best affordable activities in Cancun. The waters at Cancun’s hotel zone are calm making it a great place to give it a try. Stand up paddleboarding is a fun way to explore the coast and get a little exercise in.
You can even do some organized tours into the mangroves. When looking for fun activities in Cancun on the water consider as SUP trip, you may discover your new favorite hobby!
Part 2 Cancun Excursions
Some of the top things to din Cancun are actually day trips from Cancun. The waters surrounding Cancun are a playground for scuba divers, snorkelers and sailing trips. Whale sharks migrate through the area, and pristine islands are just short boat trips from the mainland.
13. Go Scuba Diving
The coral reef off the shore of the Riviera Maya and Cancun is one of the best in the world. In 1961 Jacques Cousteau discovered the magnificent diving here and declared the area as one of the most beautiful dive sites in the world. Thanks in part to the popularity of diving in these waters, they were declared a national marine park in 1996. This has allowed the reef to thrive and the wildlife to flourish, making for one of the most sensational diving experiences you’re likely to ever have.
Cozumel is the top spot in the Yucatan Peninsula for scuba diving, but you can book scuba diving tours from Cancun to explore its crystal clear waters with visibility reaching over 100 feet. Even if you are a beginner you can try scuba diving in Cancun. Many resorts offer PADI certification and explore dives.
14. Snorkeling with Whale Sharks and Sea Turtles
If you aren’t ready to go diving, snorkeling is one of our favorite things to do in Cancun. There are so many snorkeling experiences near Cancun. Isla Mujeres is one of the best places in the world to see sea turtles and just off the Yucatan Coast is one of the best places in the world to spot whale sharks. Swimming with whale sharks is hands down one of the most exciting activities in Cancun To see these gentle giants up close is one for the bucket list.
Swimming with Whale Sharks – This seasonal activity is a must. If you are in Cancun between May and October, be sure to book a tour to swim with Whale Sharks.
15. Rio Secreto Cenote
One of our favourite things to do in Cancun is to explore its many cenotes. The Riviera Maya is known for its underground rivers flowing through limestone caves, known as Cenotes and intrepid travelers will want to make sure to get into at least one on their visit to Cancun. There are so many Cenotes to visit near Cancun. One of the best Cenote tours is Rio Secreto and we highly recommended it. But Rio Secreto is only one of many Cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula.
During our last trip to Cancun, we stayed near the lovely Puerto Morelos located between Playa del Carmen and Cancun and there are several Cenotes in Puerto Morelos. Verde Lucero Cenote is a cenote you can visit on your own and do some zip lining too. You can book a four Cenotes tour through Viator.
Lu’um Cenote was our favorite with a full day of water sports from Rappeling into the Cenote, and doing many adventures like a zip line over a cenote, swimming in a Cenote and kayaking through the underground rivers. Read more: 15 Fun Facts About Mexico
16. Zip Lining through Jungles and Cenotes
If you are looking for adventurous things to do in Cancun, add zip lining to your list. The people who brought you Xcaret, have created an adventure theme park that houses the most visited in the world! Zip lining is a thrill to soar above the jungle. Mexico is the only place where we ever had a wet water landing and Xplore has two of them!
There’s not only ziplining here though, you will have a blast on the ATV adventure, rafting through the Cenotes and swimming through underground caves.
Book this highly rated tours – ATV Tour, Zip line and Cenotes Tour all in one. The great thing about the Maya Riviera is that many tours combine the top attractions all in one day.
17. Isla Mujeres
A great day trip from Cancun is spending a day at Isla Mujeres, it is just a short boat ride from the mainland. Isla Mujeres, aka the “Island of Women”, got its name from the many images of Goddesses on the Island. The island was sacred to the ancient Mayans who worshipped it as the goddess of childbirth. This Catamaran cruise to Isla Mujeres is a beautiful escape just a short 30 minute boat tour from downtown Cancun.
Many people spend the day at the Garrafon Natural Reef Park. This natural park is filled with water sports like snorkeling in the coral reefs, at Gararafon Natural Reef Park, kayaking, hiking and even ziplining. Just a 15 minute ferry ride from downtown Cancun, this is a popular place to visit.
18. Catamaran Cruise
Getting on the water is our top recommendation for travel to Cancun. The water is crystal clear, warm, and beautiful. Sailing along the coast really gives you an understanding as to why this area was developed into such a tourist Mecca. This complete customizable catamaran cruise lets you choose your own itinerary as you sail aboard a 32 foot yacht. It holds up to 25 of your closest friends and family with open bar. We suggest, asking to visit the turtle conservation center located on the island too where you’ll be able to witness sea turtles being hatched! The center is making great strides in its sea turtle conservation efforts.
Book this highly rated tour – all-inclusive Isla Mujeres Catamaran cruise – Includes an open bar, food, and stops at El Meco coral reef, downtown Isla Mujeres and beautiful views of the Riviera Maya coast.
19. Isla Contoy
Another Island not to be missed is to go bird watching at Isla Contoy. This island is often combined with trips to Isla Mujeres and it is a lovely protected area to spy thousands of birds and sea turtles.
Isla Contoy has been designated a National Park and they only allow 200 people on the island a day. After exploring the island, it’s time to get in the water to do some snorkeling in Mexico’s gorgeous coral reefs. This small island is only 3.7 square km but it is a protected national park. Only 200 people are allowed on Isla Contoy a day. It is a bird sanctuary with more than 170 bird species migrating through the island and its crystal clear waters are protected as well. It is a great place for snorkeling, and bird watching and you can spy loggerhead turtles as well.
Trips to Isla Contoy are often combined with stops at Isla Mujeres. You can book this combo tour to enjoy the crystal clear waters and white san beaches of both islands.
Book this island combination tour – Isla Mujeres and Islan Contoy tour where you’ll discover two of the most beautiful islands in the Yucatan Peninsula. Easy cancellation within 24 hours of activities.
20. Chichén Itzá
I think the very first day trip everyone books when visiting Cancun is a trip to the ancient Mayan Ruins of Chichén Itzá. Chichen Itza is the most famous of all the Maya Ruins in the Yucatan and it is the largest ancient city where you can tour its ancient pyramids most notably El Castillo – the Temple of Kukulkan) and ball courts, the beautiful sprawling grounds and there is even a cenote.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is so wonderful that it was named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. See them all at 7 Wonders of the World – the New, The Natural, and the Ancient
No trip to Cancun would be complete without a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Trust me, the first time we went to Cancun, everyone asked us up on our return “did you go to Chichen Itza?” yes, yes we did! We actually visited Chichen Itza years ago when you could still climb to the top of El Castillo. See our list of favorite 42 Amazing Ancient Ruins of the World
If you can rent or hire a car to visit before the tour buses arrive, we highly recommend it. This place gets busy. Chichen-Itza – Chichen Itza is a long drive from Cancun, so combine it with a full tour stopping at a Cenote, and the Colonial City of Valladolid.
Tulum is not at the top of our favorite of the Mayan Ruins, however, it’s the spectacular setting that makes it worth visiting. There are archaeological sites all over Mexico giving a glimpse into Ancient Mayan culture. Tulum is one of the most easily accessible from Cancun.
Sitting high on a cliff overlooking the miraculous turquoise waters will take your breath away. A popular backpackers haunt, Tulum also has wonderful beaches. If you want to escape Tulum there is a lot of accommodation there. And it is fast becoming more than a day trip from Cancun, it is now a popular vacation destination in Mexico.
Combine a tour of the ancient maya ruins of Tulum with a cenote adventure on this top ranked tour.
22. Explore the Underwater Museum
You don’t have to go far to have a unique underwater experience. One of the best things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula is to go scuba diving. And the underwater art museum of Cancun is a unique scuba diving experience.
This artificial reef consists of 45 statues making it the largest underwater artificial reef system in the world. Locals posed for these statues that were submerged to create a base for coral to grow on.
Whether you scuba dive, snorkel, or just want to go out on a glass-bottom boat, you can see this museum on a three-hour trip from the Hotel Zone.
Even beginners can dive at the underwater museum – Book this beginner’s scuba diving experience where you’ll have a brief introduction before heading out to see the underwater statues and artificial reef.
23. Playa del Carmen
We actually prefer to stay in Playa del Carmen more than Cancun, but if you are staying in Cancun, you really must at least head over to Playa for a day to check it out.
The beaches white sands are soft and inviting to go for a stroll at sunrise. There are plenty of walking streets, nightlife, shopping, and cafés. If you want to experiences Coco Bongo, you can do it here in Playa as well as in Cancun. It is a great place to make a base.
Hot tip: Each excursion that is offered in Cancun can be booked from Playa del Carmen too!
Where to Stay in Cancun
Besides Cancun, anywhere along the Mayan Riviera from Playa Del Carmen to Tulum is a good location to stay. We have stayed in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cancun Riviera, Cozumel, Puerto Morelos, and Playa Mujeres. All of these locations work as tours, and transfers will pick up and drop you off here. (save for Cozumel which we feel is more dedicated to diving. That was our goal when we stayed on the island)
Check out our article dedicated specifically to Where to Stay in Cancun for more suggestions!
There are literally thousands of hotels in the area, and we can’t break them all down ourselves. You should check out TripAdvisor and Booking.com for rates, reviews, and locations of hotels in Cancun that suit your budget and needs.
There are countless hotels in the Mayan Riviera and everyone has a favorite. But these are hotels we have stayed at in Cancun and trust.
Excellence Cancun Riviera – This all-inclusive adults-only hotel is perfect for a romantic getaway or special occasion. We had a private pool on our rooftop and enjoyed the incredible spa. Moon Palace Grand – We spent a week here and enjoyed the different levels for families and couples. Check TripAdvisor and Booking.com for reviews and ratesHyatt Zilara – We love the Hyatt Zilara resorts and they also offer different levels of hotels for families and couples. Check TripAdvisor and Booking.comBarcelo Maya – We loved our stay here on the Mayan Riviera. Check out TripAdvisor and Booking.comThe Fives Azul Beach Resort – All-Inclusive Luxury Resort – 10 Minutes from Playa del Carmen. Check out TripAdvisor and Booking.com
When to Visit Cancun
We have been to the area at all different times of the year and for the most part, anytime is a good time to visit Cancun.
The high season in Cancun – December through to the end of April is the best time to visit Cancun for the best climate. It is when the weather is optimal and most stable. Especially from January – March. It is the dryest season, but it is also comfortable with humidity at its lightest making for a very comfortable trip.
Summer Season – We have been to Cancun in the dead of summer and it was fantastic. It’s a little more humid and you may get a little bit of rain each day but nothing to stop you from enjoying the sun.
These months are the rainy season in Cancun which means that there is the occasional afternoon shower. Rates are cheaper and crowds are fewer in the offseason of Cancun. Summer is also a great time to swim with whale sharks. The season is from June to September.
Shoulder Season – During September and October, Cancun is just starting to gear up for the winter season, so this is where you’ll find the best deals. But some tours are not operating, you may come across construction at your hotel and you may be in the middle of hurricane season. Cancun does see fewer hurricanes than the Caribbean though.
When to Visit Cancun for Diving and Snorkelling
We have done a diving trip to Cancun in the Spring, we swam with whale sharks in the summer and gone diving and snorkeling in the dead of winter.
Anytime is a good time to enjoy the water in Cancun. But as we said above, whale shark season is from June to September. (September is getting late, but we were once on the last trip of the year and saw plenty)
Sea Turtles are nesting in May and October, so you have a good chance of seeing them on the beach. (Don’t disturb them though, they are laying eggs and are very endangered.
And these are the very best things to do in Cancun. What adventures will you try when you go to Mexico next?