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The Absolute Best Things to Do in Cancun Mexico

The Absolute Best Things to Do in Cancun Mexico

Cancun may be best known for its all-inclusive resorts and stunning blue waters, but there are actually a surprising number of things to do in Cancun to keep even the most adventurous travelers happy.

Cancun is the place to base yourself if you coming with a big group of friends. You can party all day and night. You can soak up the year-round sunshine. You can go shopping or simply chill by the pool. 

There are also tons of great things to do in Cancun with kids. There are water activities, theme parks, boat trips, and cool museums to check out.

If you’re looking for romantic things to do in Cancun, you’ll no doubt find them here, too. But for a true luxury experience, consider heading further south to the newer Tulum hotels that offer some truly special couples experiences. 

Read: What to Pack for Cancun

Things to Do in Cancun That You Don’t Want to Miss

There are so many awesome things to do in Cancun in the downtown area, around the hotel zone, and within a short drive from Cancun.

Thanks to easy and cheap flights from Mexico City (where I live) to Cancun, I’ve been able to enjoy this slice of beachy paradise many times in the last few years.

If you’re looking to create a whole itinerary for this region of the country, towards the bottom of this post I’ve also added some suggestions for extending your trip around the Yucatan Peninsula.

1. Relax at one of the many beaches

If you’re coming to Cancun, it’s likely that one of the main things you want to do while you’re there is to enjoy the beach!

There are actually quite a few great beaches along the Cancun coastline worth checking out. These are some of the ones you won’t want to miss. 

  • Playa Forum: This is the beach to head to if you want to be around lots of restaurants. Restaurants line this beach which is perfect if you want to have a few cocktails or some lunch without having to totally relocate. If you’re not sure how to find this beach, just head to Coco Bongo and you can’t miss it.
  • Chac Mool Beach: Head to Chac Mool Beach in Cancun if you want to enjoy all of the different water sports. This is where people will approach you to go on banana boats, jet skis, snorkeling tours, or to go parasailing. 
  • Playa Delfines: This is one of the largest stretches of sand in Cancun and where you’ll find the Cancun sign if you want to pose for a picture in front of it. It’s not the best swimming beach because it’s very open and the waves are quite strong here.
  • Playa Langosta: This is actually one of my favorite beaches for swimming in Cancun. It’s much more sheltered than the other beaches, so the water is incredibly calm. It’s sort of away from the hustle and bustle of the main strip and there aren’t any restaurants, so it’s mostly a place for the locals to head away from the masses of tourists near the resorts.  

lay on the beach and look up at the sunny palm trees as one of the things to do in cancun

2. Go souvenir shopping at Mercado 28

If you’ve never been to Mexico before or you’re looking for a place to get some cheaper souvenirs, Mercado 28 is the place to head.

This is less of a traditional Mexican Mercado and more of a free-for-all flea market. 

They literally have everything here from blankets and beach towels to t-shirts, leather shoes, and pottery.

Don’t be afraid to haggle here. While in most parts of Mexico, haggling isn’t really the done thing, the vendors here prey on tourists not knowing the real cost of things, so they literally make up numbers.

3. Explore the ruins of San Miguelito, El Rey, and Yamil Lu’um

I was absolutely shocked to learn that there are archaeological ruins right in the hotel zone in Cancun. You don’t have to trek all the way to Chichen Itza to see some history while you’re in Cancun.

Seeing these three different ruins is one of the easiest and most interesting things to do in Cancun if you enjoy history. Much like Tulum, these ruins were set up along the coast for a pretty spectacular backdrop.

All three sites are Maya ruins, but if you only have time to go to one, I recommend the San Miguelito ruins. They are the most substantial with a few different buildings to see.

one of the many things to do in Cancun is to enjoy the long strip of beach

4. Go to the Museo Maya

Before you head to any of the ruins around the Yucatan, it’s definitely worth learning a little bit more about the Maya culture. 

The Museo Maya de Cancun is located conveniently in the hotel zone so you don’t have to travel far to get to the museum. It’s not huge, so kids won’t get bored.

Entry costs 80 Pesos (about $4) and is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9am-6pm.

5. Swim in the Cancun Underwater Museum

This is one of the most popular things to do in Cancun. The Cancun Underwater Museum is great for adults and children. Whether you want to dive or snorkel or head out in a glass-bottomed boat, there are a few options for exploring this underwater world.

You have to pre-book a tour at least a day or two in advance through their website, but you can read all about each of the options to see which is the best for you. 

I really think getting up close to the different statues is a great way to explore it, so snorkeling is my number one pick. It’s also one of the cheaper options. 

swimming in a cenote is a thing to do in cancun that you don't want to miss

6. Swim in a Cenote

The Yucatan is positively riddled with these fascinating sinkholes. They’re pronounced seh-no-tays, not see-nots or see-notes.

If you rent your own car, you can drive south along the coastal road to Playa del Carmen and you can check out Cenote Azul or Dos Ojos Cenote.

If you don’t want to rent a car, I highly recommend taking a tour on a half-day or day trip from Cancun.

This Get Your Guide tour includes pick up at your hotel in Cancun, stops at three different cenotes, snacks, and lunch. It has great reviews and costs about $150 per person.

Alternatively, you can go on a tour that packs a ton into a day including Tulum or Playa del Carmen and cenotes like this full-day Tulum and Dos Ojos Cenote Tour.

You can wait to book your tours until you arrive in Cancun. There are so many tour companies that will offer you these options, but in my experience, they are always far more expensive and you end up on huge group tours.

visiting playa del carmen

7. Day trip to Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is really easy to get to by bus, colectivo (shared taxi), renting a car, or by hiring a tour guide or driver for the day.

It’s about an hour if you self-drive or about two hours if you take an ADO bus.

The ADO bus station is in the downtown Cancun area and you can check the times and prebook tickets on the ADO website. You can also download the ADO app to your phone so you have your tickets on your mobile device.

If you speak a little bit of Spanish and want to travel for much cheaper, right across from the ADO bus station you will see a colectivo stand. There is a little wooden shack and lines and lines of white vans. Ask which ones go to Playa del Carmen and hop in.

These tend to cost about $1.50-$2 USD per person. They will drop you off on the main street in Playa del Carmen and you can walk to the beach from there. 

isla mujeres

8. Take the ferry to Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres, or the island of the women, is perhaps one of my favorite things to do in Cancun. 

Grab a taxi to the ferry terminal in Cancun (there are also buses that run between the ferry terminal to the downtown area and then from there to the hotel zone if you’re short on money and not on time). 

Ferries run every 15-30 minutes, so you can easily hop over in the morning and back in the evenings. Just know that the evening ferries are very busy so you may wait up to an hour if you try to leave between 5pm and 7pm. Most of the people who work on the island live on the mainland, so they commute back at this time.

There are so many great restaurants and beaches on Island Mujeres worth checking out. It’s also a bit quieter tourist-wise than the hotel zone in Cancun, so you can have a little bit of a quieter day.

Rent a golf cart to head to the other end of the island and check out the super quiet beaches and the lighthouse. There’s also a turtle sanctuary worth visiting.

snorkeling is one of the most fun things to do in cancun

9. Get adventurous at Xcaret Park

Xcaret Park alone is packed with some of the most exciting things to do in Cancun. They own several of the other adventure and theme park spots on this list, so if you plan to visit more than one, be sure to grab a combo-ticket.

You could quite easily come back here for a few days in a row and do something different each time. It’s perfect for kids and kids at heart.

According to their website, they are a “water, theme, amusement, eco-archaeological park and more.”

There are shows to check out, there are rides to go on, an underwater river to float along, boat rides to take, and so much more. If you want to have a fun day out while you’re in Cancun, then I highly recommend checking out Xcaret. 

10. Party at Coco Bongo

Coco Bongo is without a doubt the most famous party spot in Cancun. If partying is one of the top things to do in Cancun for you, then be sure to get yourself to one of the shows here.

It’s definitely not a cheap party at about $80 per head, but once you’re in everything you need is included. The price includes drinks, the shows that take place all around you (musicians, bubbles, lights, and so much more depending on the night). 

Do not bring anything valuable to the club besides your phone, an ID, and a little bit of extra cash.

Watch your drink, never put it down, and try to stay with your group. The area outside of this club, especially after dark, isn’t where you want to end up drunk and alone. 

how to get to Xochimilco

11. Learn some Mexican culture at Xoximilco

If you can’t make it to the real Xochimilco in Mexico City, this is a good alternative option. 

Xoximilco is just like its namesake in Mexico City. It’s a canal where you can hop into a colorful trajinera (boat) and enjoy mariachi music, street food vendors, and a little party. 

I would only recommend this if you are with a group. It’s a really fun evening out, but if it’s just you or you’re a couple, sharing a boat with strangers may not be the most exciting or romantic evening.

12. Explore Tulum

Tulum has nearly surpassed Cancun for visitors. It’s become a real haven for beach lovers who want luxury while still feeling close to nature.

There are gorgeous hotels in Tulum and you still get that colorful water, but it’s not quite as close to the airport and it doesn’t have quite as many things to do there are Cancun.

However, the ruins that sit along the coast here in Tulum are well worth a visit. You can easily drive here from Cancun in about three hours with a rental car.

Alternatively, there are tons of tours from Cancun to Tulum that take you there for the day. This day trip includes the ruins as well as a cenote stop. 

This tour includes Tulum, Coba, and a stop at a nearby cenote. It’s a great way to pack in several different things to do in Cancun into a day trip.

Read: First Timer’s Guide to Tulum

what to do in tulum

13. Take a tour to Chichen Itza

I’ve been to over a dozen ruins around Mexico, and Chichen Itza is still one of the few that has actually taken my breath away.

There’s nothing quite like seeing the main temple as you turn the corner and come face-to-face with this building you’ve seen a million times in photos.

You can get to Chichen Itza by taking a tour like this one (with lots of great reviews) or you can rent a car and drive yourself. 

I really recommend going with a guide. It will allow you to really get a better understanding of what used to take place here and if you only go to one Mayan ruins site while you’re visiting the Yucatan, then you may want to get to know what the culture is all about. 

This tour allows you to see the sunrise which is pretty magical, but a very early start. This one is an early start and gets you there before the other tour buses so you miss the crowds.

Check out my guide to Chichen Itza to learn about what other tours I recommend, what to wear, and what you may want to know about the ruins before you go.

chichen itza tour

14. Take a sunset cruise

Cancun isn’t perfectly placed to watch sunsets on the beach, so if you want to catch a magical sunset, you’ll need to get out on the water.

Sunset cruises are incredibly popular and there will be tons of people along the beaches in Cancun trying to sell you a spot on one of the many party boats or dinner cruises.

If you are traveling with a group or as a family, you may want to consider booking a private boat tour at sunset. For $350 you can ride out into the lagoon with a captain and your own boat with space for up to 10 people.

Book that tour here.

If you are just a couple or you don’t mind sharing with other people, book your tour once you arrive in Cancun. 

enjoying the beaches with palm trees is definitely one of the best things to do in cancun

15. Swim with whale sharks

For a few months every year, these enormous creatures migrate through the waters near Cancun.

If you are visiting between June and September, swimming with whale sharks could be one of the best things to do in Cancun.

Please be conscious when choosing a tour company. These animals, though large, are very sensitive. Mexico has regulations about how many people are allowed to be in the water at a time with them and you want to make sure that you find a company that respects that.

16. Experience a Temazcal ceremony

A temazcal is an ancient ceremony that can take many different forms depending on where you are in Mexico.

The most common type is much like a spiritual sweat lodge. 

You go inside a small, very hot room. There is usually a shaman who leads the whole thing. You go in with intentions or things that you want to let go of and during the ceremony you cleanse both body and mind.

Usually when it finishes, you come out and plunge into cold water to refresh yourself. 

The nearest place in Cancun to experience a Temazcal is at Xcaret, but you can also check Airbnb experiences to see if there is a more local option. 

taking in the cancun beach scene from above

17. Zipline at Xplor Park

Xplor Park is an adventure park packed with activities, but the most popular one there is definitely the zip line

You weave your way through the Cancun jungle and get to see high over the tree line.

It’s definitely the place to come for adrenaline loving adults or families with teenagers.

In addition to zip-lining, you can also go on amphibious vehicles, rafting trips, or go caving while you’re at Xplor. 

18. Head up to the top of the Cancun Scenic Tower

To take in 360-degree views of the hotel zone, the Caribbean Sea, and downtown Cancun, get yourself up to the top of the Cancun Scenic Tower.

For $20 USD, you get an elevator to the top where you then go on a five-minute “ride.” The tower rotates slowly, showing you the different sites with an audio telling you what you’re looking at as well as some interesting history about Cancun.

You can stay up there for about 15 minutes before you have to head back down and make space for more visitors.

Multi-Day Things to Do in Cancun

If you only want to spend part of your trip in Cancun and then head off to other parts of the Yucatan, you may want to consider adding these things to do around Cancun. 

beaches at isla holbox mexico

Isla Holbox

Isla Holbox definitely isn’t a secret little island anymore. That being said, it’s still a tiny island with no cars, no roads, and only a few hotels on one side of the island. 

I didn’t totally love Isla Holbox, but it’s mostly because I don’t think people are respecting the beauty as much as they should.

If you do plan to visit, stay in local hotels and clean up after yourself at the beach. There are so many great things to do in Isla Holbox that it’s definitely worth checking out if you’ve never been there before.

Rio Lagartos (Pink Lakes)

Rio Lagartos is a town and estuary about two and a half hours west of Cancun. The best way to get here is to rent a car and add it onto a nice two-week Yucatan itinerary.

When you arrive in Rio Lagartos, head to the pier and grab a boat. You pay for the boat, not per person, so if you’re on a budget, try to find some other travelers in the nearby restaurants to see if they want to share a boat.

Boats cost about 1500 Pesos (about $75) on my last visit. If you want English-speaking guides, it could cost about 2,000 Pesos (about $100 USD).

You’ll see flamingos, crocodiles, and other beautiful birds. You can put mineral-rich mud on your skin. Then you finish with a look at the salt lakes which change color depending on rainfall and season.

flamingos in rio lagartos

Merida

Merida is the cultural capital of the Yucatan. There are so many cool things to do in Merida. There are so many amazing restaurants in Merida.

If you want to learn more about the Maya culture, want to explore more cenotes and ruins, and you want to eat well, add Merida to your itinerary.

Don’t forget Uxmal while you’re there.

merida sign

Calakmul

If you’ve already been to Chichen Itza and now you want to head somewhere off the beaten path, it doesn’t get much more off the beaten path than this.

Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is a haven for some of the most magical creatures on the planet (jaguars! toucans! monkeys!) and it’s also home to some seriously amazing Maya ruins.

swimming at the beach in bacalar

Bacalar

Speaking of getting off the beaten path and finding magical places, let me introduce you to Bacalar Lagoon.

Bacalar is a tiny little dusty town with a body of water unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life.

It’s not the place to head if you want luxury all-inclusive resorts.

It’s the place to head if you want utter peace. If you want to disconnect. If you want to enjoy calm waters, to swim, to be in awe of nature. That’s why you should come to Bacalar

palenque ruins mexico

Palenque

The last spot on this list that you should add to your things to do in Cancun list is Palenque. It’s not too difficult to add this to a trip to Cancun.

You can fly direct from Cancun to Palenque a few times a week, so you’ll need to time the trip right. You need about three days, a day to fly on either end with a full day of exploring the ruins in between.

The town is tiny and there aren’t a ton of hotels. I recommend booking an Airbnb and using the taxi network there to get around. It’s very affordable (much more so than Cancun).

This post contains affiliate links.

polo

Friday 15th of January 2021

Hi Laura! Awesome blog! I'm going to Cancun next month and I can't wait to go to the cenotes and beautiful beaches. I just want to escape the cold north and have a vacation full of culture and activities. Probably I'll need some vacations after Cancun because there is just to many things to do!!! I'm planning to go to Isla Mujeres to swim in the reefs and in the subaquatic museum also taking a speedboat in mangroves of the lagoon. Thanks for all the tips!