Nestled on the Mexican Caribbean coast, Cancun is a postcard-perfect picture of idyllic beaches and crystalline water.
If you’re looking for a base for exploring the many treasures the Yucatan has to offer, including the ancient Mayan ruins within the El Ray Archaeological Zone, Cancun is ideal.
But these days Cancun is most famous for its beaches and nightlife. So in between getting your geek on at the historical sites outside the city, make sure you let your hair down within it – and let the ‘loco’ wash over you.
With over a dozen world-class beaches including Playa Chac Mool and Playa Ballenas, there are endless activities on and in them, including snorkelling, diving, parasailing and surfing. Cancun’s nightlife is unique and has a fresh spirit.
But once you accept that Cancun is less cultural hub and more cultural whore, you’ll be able to kick back and go with the flow.
Cancun’s Top 10
10. Coba The site of the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula, this lake in the middle of a lush jungle boasts some of the more intact Mayan ruins.
5. El Centro The most historic district of Cancun has wide boulevards, quaint roundabouts and more parks, landmarks and authentic marketplaces than beaches.
9. Cozumel The most inhabited island in all of Mexico provides an absurdly intense party atmosphere and yet still has the time to be quiet… once the sun comes up and it’s siesta time!
4. Tulum Other archaeological sites are tucked away in jungles. Tulum overlooks the Caribbean, with El Castillo sitting on a 40-foot cliff.
8. Maroma Paradise One of the more isolated beaches near Cancun, it’s also known as the Mayan Riviera.
3. Xcaret South of Cancun is an ecological and archaeological park with facilities including an archaeological site, underground rivers and an island of jaguars.
7. Isa Contoy A small island and national park, with over 150 types of marine birds and exotic sea-life.
2. Chichen Itza These Mayan ruins include one of the most recognisable Mexican symbols (The Castle pyramid, not a drug baron). See them, and you possibly won’t care that the Mayan calendar has the world ending in 2012.
6. Xel-Ha An outdoor theme park with caves and dolphins, as well as a series of outdoor bars and restaurants. For those wanting outdoor fun away from the hustle and bustle of the city, this is for you.
1. Hidden Worlds Cheesy name, awesome experience. Hidden Worlds is a nature park based around the most extensive system of underwater caves and caverns in the world. Snorkelling and spelunking are the only ways to go.
- El Rey Ruins – Ancient Mayan ruins named for the mask of a king seen by the Spanish Conquistadors.
- El Meco Ruins – There is much to learn about the fascinating Mayan culture at this site.
- Temple of the Warriors – This site will take you all day but it is worth it. Don't forget your camera.
- Avenida Tulum – This is an ancient Mayan village that has been transformed into a learning centre and quaint shops.
- Centro Ceremonial Kohunlich – More Mayan ruins, but much remains unexcavated.
Cancun Art & Culture
- Museo de Arte Popular Mexicano – Traditional art, musical instruments even kitchen utensils.
- Museo Sensorial del Tequila – A museum dedicated to the art of making tequila.
- Casa de Cultura Cancun – Creative arts for children. Affordable as well as enjoyable.
- Can Cook in Cancun – Learn to cook authentic Mexican food and have a wonderful meal in the process.
- Iglesia de Cristo Rey – This church is a building without walls. One of the only buildings like this in Mexico.
- La Isla Shopping Mall – Family-friendly shopping with activities for children.
- Kukulcan Plaza – A place to get out of the heat and find good prices for souvenirs.
- Musa Cancun-Underwater Museum – The art gallery you have to dive to get to.
- Mercado 23 – A local market where you can find fresh fruits and vegetables and also piñata shops.
- Plaza Las Americas – A small shopping centre with better prices, used by the locals.
Gay & Lesbian Cancun
- Playa Delphine – The gay beach located at the south end of the Hotel Zone.
- Cancun International Gay Festival – This is held in May to celebrate gay pride.
- Karamba Bar – This is located downtown. Be sure to negotiate the cab fare before you go.
- ME Cancun – A gay-friendly hotel with stunning views of the ocean.
- Cancun Mayan Riviera Gay Fall Festival – This is held in November, while the weather is still warm.
- Bonanza Ranch – Go horseback riding on the beach. Activities for older children, too.
- Dolphinaris Cancun – Swim with dolphins in the beautiful sea.
- Playa Tortugas – Lie on the beach, shop the shops or people watch on this fun beach.
- El Eden Ecological Reserve – This land was set aside to preserve the fragile local ecosystem.
- Marina Punta Este – Any kind of water activity you can think of, including diving and snorkelling.
- Roller blade or bike at the Ciclopista.
- Golf with your older children at the Iberostar Cancun Golf Course.
- Cheer on the local baseball team, the Tigres, in Quintana Roo.
- If you've enjoyed golfing at the Riviera Cancun Golf, you'll also enjoy the evening buffet.
- The beach isn't just for swimming; parasailing is a thrilling experience at Parasail Centre.
Away from the all-inclusive resorts and hotels a distinct culture is emerging. El Centro has a large collection of malls and markets offering a glimpse of the town that successful hotels built. The main street, or Avenida Tulum, is littered with large sculptures of illuminated sea life, while Market 28 is perfect for souvenir shopping and unique local finds. Ciudad Cancun provides a welcome respite from the bright lights of the hotel zone, with a day trip well worth the effort.
On the other side of the Nichupte Lagoon (which is the place to go for water-based petrol heads to indulge in jet skiing) is the Hotel Zone. The Zona Hotelera has been built up as a self-sufficient tourist destination, with massive shopping centres including the Isla Shopping Village, Centro de Convenciones and Punta Cancun.
It is the wealthier side of Cancun, with the largest collection of bars and nightclubs, but also the largest collection of activities. It is home to the world-famous Club de Golf Cancun, which has one of the most spectacular greens in the world overlooking the Caribbean, and is even home to its own Mayan temple.
If you like things a little superficial, while making sure your every need is catered for, the Hotel Zone is the place to be.
The Yucatan Peninsula was home to the Mayan people, while the Aztec tribes inhabited the rest of Mexico. This means that Cancun is close to some of the most unique archaeological sites on Earth, including the World Heritage-listed Chichen Itza.
The El Meco site is famous for its intricate carving and pyramids, and now serves as a large Mayan commercial centre whose size reflects the city’s success. Ek Balam is worth the two-hour trip from Cancun to see. Only recently uncovered and still revealing its own secrets, it houses architecture not seen anywhere else in the Yucatan, let alone Mexico. Never ones to miss out on a tourism-attracting commercial opportunity, the locals have set up a market on the site, meaning you’ll be able to walk away with a material memory.
Cancun Eat & Drink
Cancun’s cuisine steeps from many different cultures and is aimed at many different audiences. For the fresh-off-the-plane crowd, there is a plethora of Tex-Mex restaurants, serving up unimaginative but endlessly tasty tacos and nachos. But don’t rule out fine dining in Cancun – there are some wonderful offerings if you take the time to find them.
La Habichuela An enticingly elegant restaurant with a large outdoor dining area, the specialty is local fare from local produce, elegantly prepared with over-the-top presentation.
Daddy Rock Five different bars, two dance floors, a DJ stage and a live band stage make up this mega-club. Its themed parties are an excuse to let your hair down, wear a costume and simply become someone else for the night. Hotel Zone
Checandole Although away from the hotel strip, the trip into the city is worth the time and expense. The food is great value and interesting (the combination of chicken and chocolate is mouth-watering!).Ciudad Cancun
Carlos’n Charlies A guilty pleasure that people have been enjoying since the 70s, there’s enough tacky memorabilia on the walls to give Planet Hollywood a run for its money, but if you’re interested in fun ambience over culinary expertise this is the place for you. Hotel Zone
Dady’O One of the most elaborate dance clubs in the world. Set in a five-storey fake cave, this techno and Latin dance hall caters to a younger audience and has hosted some of the biggest names in dance music, including Ibiza favourite Tiesto. Hotel Zone
Coco Bongo One of the most iconic night spots of Cancun, this place rouses a crowd every night with its unique mix of circus, dancers and mind-blowing acrobats – that is until you have your first few rounds, when the place turns into a massive mosh pit. Hotel Zone
Around Easter, Semana Sancta, or Holy Week, is celebrated. Religious themes predominate, obviously, but some of the best parades celebrate the seasonal transition.
The Cancun International Gay Festival is celebrated with predictable gusto in mid-May. A spectacular event that transforms the whole place into (even more of) a party zone – with the beaches and city consumed by bright colours and live music in suitably over-the-top celebration of queer community and culture.
Throughout September, Viva Mexico En Cancun is a series of exhibitions, performances, film screenings, street art and much more.
In late September, visit Chichen Itza. It’s as simple as that. It shows off the amazingly complex architectural decisions that went into creating the pyramids. The sun rises at certain points over a 10 day period to create a crawling snake pattern. Modern archaeologists and architects still don’t know how the effect is achieved – or what it means.
In early November, Day of the Dead is celebrated. Despite its morbid name, the festival is a celebration of life and the traditions that have evolved over time. With a unique mix of Mayan and Christian mythologies, it’s a fantastic experience.
When To Go
- Cancun has an appealing tropical climate (albeit with occasional hurricane activity between May and December).
- Violent storms are rare and, for the most part, conditions are ideal throughout.
- Temperatures range from 19°C to 32°C (66-90°F) throughout the year, so you’re never too far away from a tan.
What To Miss
If you can book tours personally, do so. There is no accountability to bookings made over the Internet or phone, and guarantees of pick-up dates are often not met even if money has been exchanged.
Taxi drivers are the best salesmen in Cancun. They are personal tour guides, restaurant critics and drug dealers – your best bet is to insist they keep to their primary function. Also, your hotel’s concierge will be able to book you a reliable taxi. Hailing one will probably result in going to a ‘better’ place instead of your intended destination.
Bullfighting sounds amazing and has a rich tradition in Mexican culture. However, it is extraordinarily brutal. Stay for everything leading up to the actual bullfight (the atmosphere is amazing), but those with sensitive stomach or moral objection to animal cruelty should leave before the bloodletting begins.
Buses are the best way to get around, both within the Hotel Zone and when venturing into Ciudad Cancun. Exact change is expected and unlike everywhere else in Cancun, the buses do not accept American money.
If you’re planning extensive travels within the Archaeological District, it is probably more financially feasible to rent a car, as bus tours, although convenient, can take a lot of the adventure out of a trip, especially if you’re lumped with a boring group.
If you’re going from bar to nightclub to hotel, it’s best to walk. The best trip to Cancun is one spent intermittently on your back (on the beach!) or on your feet, so wear out your shoes dancing and walking to and from your hotel – it’ll be worth it when you spend the next day lazing in the sun.
A sun-drenched resort town par excellence, Cancun has become synonymous with spring break revelry and beach holidays. On the lovely Yucatan Peninsula and within a region now known as the Mayan Riviera in Mexico, the city of 600,000 people is a stone's throw from the Greater Antilles. A relatively short airplane ride from parts across the United States and even Canada, Cancun has taken over the mantle of most popular tourist area in Mexico from a venerable old favorite, Acapulco.
With a plethora of beachfront hotels, a beautiful old town and significant archaeological sites, Cancun has tremendous appeal as a modern, bustling resort town, supremely geared for mass tourism.
The most historic district of Cancun has wide boulevards, quaint roundabouts and more parks, landmarks and authentic marketplaces than the beach areas, which strictly cater to North American and European tastes. As such, there's much more local charm on display in the old quarter.Chichen Itza
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza contains spectacular pre-Columbian Mayan ruins. From the step pyramid of El Castillo to the massive Temple of the Warriors, the complex has over a dozen stone structures of note.El Rey
Within an area of Cancun known as the Archaeological Zone, El Rey is another superb example of Mayan Civilization architecture and culture. The site contains many ruins that date back to the 13th century.Beaches
With about a dozen excellent beaches, Cancun has more than enough sand to satisfy. Divided just about equally between the south and northwestern side of the city, the beaches are for the most part superb for recreation and working on that holiday tan, but not necessarily ideal for swimming.Isla Contoy
A small island and national park within close proximity to Cancun, Isla Contoy is a wonderful day trip away from the beach crowds. The lush wildlife sanctuary contains over 150 types of marine birds and several exotic turtle species.
Viva Mexico en Cancun
The month-long festival in September honors Mexico's cultural heritage with a string of events in Cancun, from concerts to parades, food fairs and street entertainment.Cinco de Mayo
The most important day in Mexico serves up a slew of celebratory activities and events in Cancun. Meant to commemorate a vital triumph in battle over the French at Puebla de los Angeles in 1862, May 5th has basically become an annual excuse to party.Day of the Dead
The annual celebration of life and veneration of the dead in early November provides visitors with a peerless glimpse into traditional Mexico.
Cancun has an appealing tropical climate with one potential downside in the form of occasional hurricane activity between May and December. Violent storms are rare however and for the most part, conditions are ideal throughout. The high and low extremes in temperature for the year are 32°C and 19°C.
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