An aerial photo of a resorts pool right next to a coast line.

The 16 Best Things To Do In Cancun According To Locals

The first time I landed in Cancun, I was convinced that I had three main objectives — get some sun, relax in some sand, and sip on an occasional margarita. Simple stuff, right?

An aerial view of Cancun and he surrounding water. There is a boat moving through the water and a sunset in the background.
(Photo courtesy of Grand Fiesta Americana)

Well, Cancun had other plans. Instead of just lounging by the pool, I found myself wrestling with an enthusiastic parrot for my breakfast toast, diving deep with fishes that had a better sense of direction than I did, and dancing with locals who had moves that made my two left feet feel…well, even left-er.

Anyway, several sunburns – and many adventures later – I’ve come to realize that this vibrant slice of the Yucatán Peninsula is much more than just a backdrop for beach selfies and questionable tan lines.

From scouring mysterious Mayan ruins that made me feel like Indiana Jones – minus the whip – to tantalizing tacos that are now the benchmark for all other tacos in my life, Cancun turned out to be an unexpected treasure trove of experiences.

So, for all my fellow wanderers looking to lose – or find themselves – in this Caribbean wonderland, I’ve penned down the 15 best things to do in Cancún! And trust me, by the end of this post, you’ll be booking your ticket, planning your outfits, and maybe – just maybe – practicing your salsa steps in the living room.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

1) Explore Cancun’s Hotel Zone

While the hotel zone is typically not my first choice of where to go in Cancun, if it’s your first time here, or if you’re someone who doesn’t want to think too hard about where to go, exploring Cancun’s hotel zone is a must.

An aerial view of several hotels and the beach and water in the Cancun Hotel Zone.
(Photo courtesy of thebettervacation.com)

The hotel zone, also known as Zona Hotelera, or the tourist zone, is a fourteen-mile strip of almost a hundred all-inclusive resorts, hotels, restaurants, beaches, and shopping malls. There’s a little bit of everything here, so if you want to get a wide taste of what Cancun has to offer, check out Cancun’s hotel zone.

The Cancun hotel zone is brimming with food options, ranging from local Mexican eateries to upscale international dining options.

When the sun sets, the area comes alive with a pulsating nightlife – bars, clubs, and entertainment venues like Coco Bongo offer an unforgettable experience. If you want to get your party on, check out the Cancun hotel zone!

2) Go to See the Famous Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is an ancient landmark of Mayan culture and it’s also just one of the most notable ancient landmarks on the Yucatan peninsula in general. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and also one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Pretty easy to see why it’s on my list of the best things to do in Cancun, right?!

A Mayan Ruin pyramid known as the Chichen Itza. There is a blue sky in the background.
(Photo courtesy of Anthropology News)

The main feature of Chichen Itza is El Castillo, an amazing pyramid-like structure that was a temple to the Mayan god Kulkulan. Chichen Itza is a few hours away from Cancun, but I guarantee it’s well worth the trip! If you’re a person who likes history, beautiful sites, and exploration, seeing El Castillo is an absolute must.

3) Relax at Playa Delfines

Avoid the hotel beaches and crowds and head to Playa Delfines instead. Here, you can enjoy the best of Cancun beaches with their vast sandy shores and turquoise waters without the swarm of tourists. Playa Delfines is located near the El Rey Ruins just a short drive away from the Hotel Zone. You’ll also find the famous “Cancun” sign from postcards here, so you can get your bucket list photo with the Cancun sign on the same day. If you’re looking for a getaway without all the chaotic crowds for a more serene environment, the Play Delfines should be your spot of choice.

A view of the beach with water in the distance and rows of palapas or huts made of dried palm leaves.
(Photo courtesy of lonelyplanet.com)

Take note that while Playa Delfines is one of the most beautiful beaches in Cancun, it is also known for having rough waters. You can still have the perfect blissful beach day here, just be mindful of the water, especially if you’re visiting with kids.

4) Visit the El Rey Ruins

On your day trip to Playa Delfines, you can also visit the El Rey Ruins. While on a significantly smaller scale than Chichen Itza, the El Rey Ruins are less crowded and more conveniently located. The ancient ruins date back to 1250 and give visitors a glimpse into Mayan history on the Yucatan peninsula.

An old ruins with stacked rocks on grass to make a structure. It is known as the El Rey Ruins.
(Photo courtesy of Expedia)

Aside from being known as notable Mayan ruins, many people visit El Rey because of the numerous iguanas roaming around who have made the area their home. These tame iguanas are quite a sight to see and snapping a photo with them is on many people’s Cancun itinerary.

Also, for what it’s worth, guides are available for hire if you want to learn more about El Rey’s interesting history. If part of your idea of relaxation includes learning about Mayan history and sightseeing ancient ruins, the El Rey Ruins are perfect for your itinerary.

5) Go on a Day Trip to Isla Mujeres

Another one of the best things to do in Cancun is to go on an Isla Mujeres (“Island of Women”) day trip.

You can get to Isla Mujeres via a 30-minute ferry ride from Cancun. You’ll find several ferry terminals that depart from the Hotel Zone and the Cancun center.

While Isla Mujeres is known as a sleepy island, sleepy doesn’t mean being boring! I recommend renting a golf cart to experience the island like a local.

There’s plenty to do on Isla Mujeres. You can head to Playa Norte or drive to Punta Sur on the southern tip. There you can find the Garrafon National Reef Park, where you can snorkel, kayak, or ride a zipline. I recommend opting for a snorkeling tour. The reef is absolutely teeming with fish and marine life. If you’re looking for fun activities more than shopping and relaxing on a beach, Isla Mujeres has plenty for you!

Here’s a pro tip: stay in Playa Norte for sunset and bask in one of the best sunsets you’ll ever see.

6) Dive at the Cancun Underwater Museum

Scuba diving is a big part of the Cancun experience. There’s no better place to go scuba diving in Cancun Mexico, than in the Cancun Underwater Museum or Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA). This unique underwater museum comprises man-made concrete structures spread out on the sea floor. It is located within the Cancun National Marine Park, between Isla Mujeres and the Hotel Zone.

Underwater human statue art pieces that are overgrown with marine life and there is a school of silver fish swimming in between the statues.
(Photo courtesy of anadventurousworld.com)

The underwater museum is divided into Manchones, Punta Nizuc, and Punta Sam. Manchones has hundreds of sculptures only accessible via scuba diving. If you’re not into scuba diving, you can still explore the 33 structures in Pintu Nizuc by snorkeling or go on a boat ride to see some of the sculptures on Punta Sam through a glass-bottom boat.

This isn’t the type of experience you can get just anywhere. Grab your camera or GoPro and be ready for a one-of-a-kind experience you can’t miss!

7) Enjoy Playa Tortugas

Another one of the best things to do in Cancun is to go to Playa Tortugas, another of Cancun’s white sand beaches. If you’re trying to relax in a place where life moves a little slower, check out Playa Tortugas.

A pier on the Playa Tortugas beach. There is a tall structure and a boat at the end of the pier.
(Photo courtesy of hotels.com)

This public beach is known to be a favorite of locals and there are a number of open-air cafes, restaurants, and bars nearby to hang out in. You’ll enjoy clean sands and a more relaxed atmosphere here than the Hotel Zone beaches. The water here is calm, perfect for families with young children. Keep in mind that the beach is smaller than other beaches in the area, but it’s still worth a visit. You can also take a ferry to Isla Mujeres from here.

8) Sail on a Catamaran Cruise

Your trip to Cancun isn’t complete without a catamaran cruise. After all, you’re here to enjoy the sun, sea, and surf; the best way to do this is on a catamaran.

A sailing ship on the water with the words Cancun Sailing on the side. A man in a red shirt is helming the boat.
(Photo courtesy of rivieramayacatamarans.com)

There are many catamaran cruises to choose from, and most of them offer the same itinerary. I recommend combining your Isla Mujeres day trip with your catamaran cruise so you can spend the day enjoying the Caribbean Sea breeze cruising to the island.

On the catamaran, sip drinks from an open bar before jumping into the water to snorkel with colorful tropical fish. Most cruises dock at a private beach club for a bountiful lunch buffet. The last stop is Isla Mujeres itself, where you’ll have free time to explore the small island and everything it has to offer.

Wrap up the day trip back at your hotel, reminisce about the perfect Cancun day you just experienced, and cross off one more item on your ultimate Cancun bucket list.

9) Spend the Day (or Night) in Downtown Cancun

When you’re ready for a break from beaches and boat tours, head to Downtown Cancun. Here, you can view vibrant street art, visit local restaurants, and do some serious shopping. I recommend heading to Mercado 28 (Market 28), a long-running flea market where you’ll see dozens of stalls offering traditional Yucatan meals, jewelry, souvenirs, and handicrafts.

A strip of downtown shops near the water in Downtown Cancun. In the background is a Ferris wheel. Some of the shops include the Argentinian Big Steak House, Tommy Hilfiger, and La Madonna.
(Photo courtesy of mexicancaribbean.travel)

Of course, a trip to Downtown Cancun isn’t complete without visiting a taqueria. Go on a DIY food tour by visiting popular taquerias such as Taqueria Coapenitos and La Parrilla. If you aren’t sure you can choose the right taquerias, book a food tour to ensure you’re experiencing the best food Downtown Cancun offers.

Whether you’re looking for the ultimate Cancun souvenir, the best tacos in town, or the nearest open bar, Downtown Cancun is a must-visit!

10) Explore Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is another town in the Yucatan peninsula, about 42 miles outside Cancun. Yes, I know Playa del Carmen is not exactly in Cancun, but it’s near enough for a day trip. If you’re looking for a more relaxing couple of days, I highly recommend you pay a visit to this picturesque town.

A picture of the Mayan Portal statue and art piece that depicts two people evoking a ball game. It is an entry point to the beach behind it. There are palm trees, a blue sky, and several people wandering around the area.
(Photo courtesy of misshappyfeet.blogspot.com)

Playa del Carmen is more laid back than Cancun, but also offers lots of fun things to see and do. Like swimming in a cenote or an underground swimming hole. The most popular ones are Cenote Azul and Cenote Cristalino, both are less than half an hour’s drive from Playa del Carmen. You can also stroll down La Quinta, the main pedestrian street of Playa del Carmen. Here, you can enjoy doing some shopping while having a delicious snack or two.

I highly recommend a Playa del Carmen day trip when you need a break from the Cancun crowds.

11) Take in the views from the Cancun Scenic Tower

Another one of the best things to do in Cancun is visit Torre Escenica, also known as the Cancun Scenic Tower. Get your camera ready!

A scenic view of the Cancun Scenic Tower with several people inside it staring out over Cancun.
(Photo courtesy of cancuniairport.com)

Enjoy panoramic views over Xcaret Park from the highest point in Cancun Mexico. The tower is located at El Embarcadero Isla Mujeres by Xcaret in the Cancun Hotel Zone, very near most tourist hotspots.

The Cancun Scenic Tower soars 260 feet above ground, and when you ride to the top, you’ll enjoy a bird’s eye view of the Yucatan peninsula, the Caribbean Sea, and the rest of Cancun.

12) Shop at La Isla Shopping Village

If you consider shopping as your cardio, don’t miss a trip to La Isla Shopping Village.

An aerial view of La Isla Shopping Village. There is a canal and a bridge gaping two sides of the village, mural artwork, and several stores to shop at. The roofs of the building are seen. There is a Ferris wheel in the background and palm trees in the distance.
(Photo courtesy of travel.usnews.com)

This outdoor shopping area is conveniently located within the Hotel Zone and is the best place to shop in Cancun. You’ll find everything you need, from popular retail brands to high-end luxury items. When you tire of shopping, you can catch a movie, visit the Interactive Aquarium, or explore the Cancun Wax Museum, all located within the shopping village. I suggest allotting one day of your Cancun itinerary here to make sure you have enough time to experience everything it has to offer.

13) Play golf at Iberostar Golf Club

Cancun has become a golfer’s paradise, and if you’re a golf enthusiast, playing golf at Iberostar Golf Club is one of the best things to do in Cancun.

An aerial view of a golf course at the Iberostar Golf Club. There are many trees (including palm trees), water, golf bunkers, and greens. There are two men playing golf and a view of the golf club.
(Photo courtesy of golfpass.com)

This scenic 18-hole golf club is located at the heart of Cancun’s Hotel Zone and situated between the Caribbean Sea and the Nichupte Lagoon. Iberostar Golf Club lies on over 150 acres of subtropical paradise, putting you in the middle of natural beauty.

Whatever your skill level is, whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned golfer looking for a challenge, I’m sure you’ll enjoy playing here. You can book different green fee packages directly on the Iberostar website. Fore!

14) Spend the day at Xcaret Theme Park

If you have your kids with you, spending the day at Xcaret is a must!

An aerial view of the Xcaret Theme Park. There is a dense forest in the background. There are lots of buildings in the forefront that make up the theme park. The beach is shown on the bottom.
(Photo courtesy of travelawaits.com)

The park describes itself as a “theme park, water park, eco-archeological site all in one place.” In my opinion, the best parts about Xcaret are the water park features which lets you snorkel in underground rivers, wade in cenotes, and splash around lagoons. You’ll also have the opportunity to witness Mayan ceremonies, enjoy a fiery night show, and watch Mexican dances.

Here, you’ll experience a day-long adventure with a side of history. What more could you want? The park is located about one hour away from Cancun International Airport and Downtown Cancun.

15) Snorkeling and Scuba Diving with Whale Sharks and Sea Turtles

Visiting Cancun isn’t complete without a scuba diving or snorkeling experience.

If you’re a nature lover, you’ll want to make time to swim with sea turtles and view majestic whale sharks up close. Like the catamaran cruises, you can choose from a number of tour operators for this unique experience. Whale Shark Tour Cancun is one of the most popular ones.

This once-in-a-lifetime experience begins with an early morning pick-up from the Hotel Zone, often before sunrise. Then you’ll take a 45-minute boat ride to where whale sharks congregate and get ready to jump in to see these amazing gentle giants up close. You might also see sea turtles, dolphins, and manta rays.

Most tours don’t stop there! After seeing the whale sharks, the boat will take you to a reef near Isla Mujeres or Contoy Island where you can continue snorkeling. Snacks like sandwiches and ceviche are also provided by the boat.

Whale shark season begins in May and peaks in July and August, so plan your trip accordingly!

16) Visit Nichupte Lagoon

Nichupte Lagoon is a natural paradise on the east side of Cancun, between mainland Cancun and the Hotel Zone. It comprises seven different lakes and has become a popular attraction for locals and tourists.

If you love nature, take a wildlife tour around the lagoon, where you can spot local animals like migratory birds, seabirds, and even crocodiles. For those who prefer being active, you can paddleboard, kayak, and snorkel in this beautiful natural attraction. The lagoon invites visitors to experience a more peaceful and underrated side of Cancun’s natural beauty.

Final Thoughts on Cancun Mexico

There you have it!

A large and colorful sign that spells "Cancun" on a beach with the water in the background.
(Photo courtesy of tampaairport.com)

There’s plenty to do in Cancun – whether you’re looking for a relaxing day on the beach, fun water activities, exploring historical sites, vibrant nightlife, or a luxurious shopping experience.

I hope you enjoyed these 16 things to do in Cancun, according to locals. While I included my own must-do’s, like visiting Chichen Itza, exploring the Hotel Zone, and sailing on a catamaran cruise, the fantastic thing about Cancun is that it offers different fun things for everyone.

Whether you want do dance to live music all night long or swim with whale sharks, you can do all these and more in Cancun Mexico. Enjoy!

“How boring would the world be if everywhere and everyone were the same. Safe travels and good adventures.” Scuba Jay

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