Synonymous with luxury views, impressive resorts, and alluring beaches, the Mexican city of Cancun continues to be a Caribbean destination often referred to as America’s playground. Home to lively bars, flashy clubs, upscale Mexican cuisine, and some of the most stunning Carribean waters, it’s no wonder visitors from around the globe continue to flock to its shores each year.
Even if you’re not into high-end tourism, Cancun is the place to be. Known as a tale of two cities, this popular Mexican getaway offers guests not only the best that upscale tourism has to offer, but also a chilled, relaxing downtown scene where locals and guests alike can enjoy savory street tacos, a cold beer, and a night of dancing at the local salsa joint.
To add icing on the cake, Cancun’s ideal location in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo gives visitors access to some of the country’s most spectacular national treasures – including vibrant biosphere reserves such as Sian Ka’an and Isla Contoy, and awe-inspiring archeological sites, such as the ancient Mayan cities of Coba and Chichen Itza. There are simply a million fun things to do in Cancun.
Whether visiting the sapphire waters of its famous Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone), dancing the night away at the majestic Coco Bongo, or exploring the archeological sites once inhabited by the region’s ancient civilizations, Cancun is a destination unlike any other. With an infinite list of things to do and places to see, you’ll need some inside info to help plan for your unforgettable stay. Here are 15 tips to take into consideration when exploring the remarkable Cancun, Mexico.
1. When To Go
Although the cheapest time of year to travel to Cancun is during the months of August through October, this is also the region’s rainy season – and yes, that means the possibility of experiencing tropical storms, and in the worst case scenario, a hurricane. While it’s understood that you want to keep your trip budget friendly, you may want to consider visiting this lovely, oceanside resort town during the months of November through April.
With pristine weather conditions comes larger crowds. This makes the months of January through April quite busy. However, sunshine is guaranteed and the water is sure to be warm and ready for your toes. This is something to keep in mind if you’re planning a destination wedding – you’ll want clear skies for your special day! If you arrive in-between the months of January through March, this allows you time to enjoy the peace and quiet before all of those youthful spring breakers storm the beaches in April – converting portions of the city into one giant party. Hotel prices during this time also tend to increase due to larger crowds.
If you’re looking for both smaller crowds and ideal weather, try planning a trip during the months of November and December. Prices drop, crowds diminish, and you’ll be catching the end of rainy season as the skies begin to clear and the sunshine once again reaches shore. This will allow you to visit Cancun slightly out of season to avoid overcrowding, but close enough to busy season to reap the benefits of clear skies and refreshing cocktails. If you really want a bargain, plan to arrive mid-week to reap the benefits of cheaper hotel rates. It doesn’t get better than that!
2. Entry & Exit Requirements
We get it – Cancun tourist attractions are very appealing and you want to get to its sunny beaches as soon as possible. However, anyone traveling from outside of Mexico’s borders will have to pass through Customs, which requires taking into consideration a few entry and exit requirements.
If you are a U.S. citizen and the visa process is what has you stressed, don’t worry – the process is quite easy. U.S. natives visiting Mexico for less than 180 days do not need a visa to enter Mexico. However, you will need to have a valid passport. Mexico generally requires that your passport be valid for at least 90 days upon your return. It is recommended that your passport be valid up to six months after returning to the U.S.
One additional form you must complete prior to entry is the “visitor’s permit” (or FMM). This form will be provided to you by your airline, travel agency, or by Mexican customs upon entry to Mexico. Laws and regulations that guide immigration policies are constantly changing, so be sure to review up-date-date rules and regulations prior to travel. You can find answers to additional questions by visiting the U.S. State Department website.
3. Going Through Customs
Whenever you travel internationally, you get to experience the wonderful security check known as Customs. While the security check may seem intense and a bit chaotic at times, the process is actually pretty simple. As long as you remain patient, follow the crowd , and eye the shortest line, you should be out of there in no time! It’s common for them to search your bag(s) – so don’t panic if they pull you aside. Remain calm, answer their questions, and you will be all set to go.
It’s important to remember that Mexico has specific rules about what you can and cannot bring into the country. If you have any forbidden items, you will either have to get rid of them (or they may do that for you) and/or you may have to pay a fee. Dangerous or illegal items can even result in arrest. In order to get through customs problem free, review which items are allowed to enter and exit the country on the Mexican U.S. Embassy website.
4. Getting Around
Prior to your arrival, it’s important to know what local transportation options will be available to you during your stay. Upon arrival to the airport, it is best to have your hotel arrange for transportation to the resort – this is often done free of charge. Once you arrive at your destination, traveling to and from surrounding areas is extremely tourist-friendly! Mexico has a highly functioning public transportation system, making transportation in Cancun, and to and from nearby towns, relatively cheap and easy.
Buses are extremely inexpensive, with tickets ranging between $50-$150 MXN ($3-$8 USD) if you plan to travel outside of the city. Buses within city limits are even cheaper – charging riders a flat rate of 8.5 MXN ($0.45 USD) per ride. Buses are generally on-time, safe, and clean. Simply flag down the necessary bus at any designated bus stop along the strip and then use the stop-request buttons located above the handrails. Any local bus with ‘R-1′ ‘Hoteles’ or ‘Zona Hotelera’ displayed on the windshield will take you to the Hotel Zone from Downtown Cancun.
The local ADO bus line runs comfortable, air-conditioned buses throughout the Cancun area, including down to Playa del Carmen, Akumal, and Tulum. Additional shuttle buses for specific tourist destinations are also available and rather cheap. While buses may take a bit more of your time, they are definitely the most cost-friendly option.
Taxis in Cancun are also cheap and relatively safe. With no meters, fares are fixed. However, be sure to agree on a price prior to climbing into the cab. It’s not uncommon for local drivers to overcharge riders unfamiliar with their surroundings. Trips within the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) or Downtown Cancun generally cost around $50 MXN ($2.50 USD). Hourly and daily rates should be about $240 MXN ($12 USD) and $2,000 MXN ($102 USD), respectively. Most hotels are connected to taxi companies and post the rates at the front desk.
If public transportation isn’t your style, car rentals are also available. According to the U.S. State Department, U.S. driver’s licenses are valid in Mexico. The only catch – you’ll need to purchase Mexican car rental insurance. When you arrive to pick up your rental, be prepared to be overwhelmed by stickers. Mandatory personal liability and Mexican-based insurance could triple the original price.
Be sure to have your valid license plus registration and insurance papers on you at all times – there are a lot of checkpoints, especially on the highway between Cancun and Tulum. It might be a bit more costly, but renting a car is a great option when traveling in-between cities, especially if you wish to explore on your own timeframe, rather than that of an organized tour.
If you wish to travel to nearby Isla Mujeres, check out the Ferry rides provided by UltraMar located at Gran Puerto, Puerto Juarez. The first crossing to Isla Mujeres is at 5:00 AM. Ferries run every half hour until 8:30 PM, then every hour until 11:30 PM (9:30 PM, 10:30 PM and 11:30 PM). The first crossing from Isla Mujeres to Cancun is at 5:30 AM. Ferries run every half hour until 9:00 PM and then every hour until 12:00 AM (10:00 PM, 11:00 PM, 12:00 AM).
Whichever method you choose, getting around Cancun and nearby destinations is cheap, safe, and easy. The choice is yours!
5. Getting Oriented
It won’t take long to realize that the city of Cancun is made up of two very distinct areas: Ciudad Cancun (Downtown) and Isla Cancun ( Zona Hotelera or Hotel Zone).
The Zona Hotelera is what most people imagine when they think of Cancun. Home to the 7-shaped, tropical island that encloses a scenic lagoon on one side and the turquoise blue Caribbean waters on the other, the Zona Hotelera of Cancun is truly unlike any other Caribbean destination. Home to unparalleled, white-sand beaches and pristine weather conditions, this Mexican destination has been a favorite among internationals for decades.
Its main road, Boulevard Kukulcan, is a four-lane, divided avenue that runs through Cancun and heads eastward towards Punta Cancun (Cancun Point). Along the avenue guests will find condominium developments, hotels, shopping complexes, and convention centers.
9 miles (15 kilometers) south of Punta Cancun, the boulevard arrives to Punta Nizuc. Along the entire route, visitors will see impressive hotels, shopping centers, dance clubs, restaurants, and bars, before the road turns westward, cutting through light tropical forest, and rejoining the mainland nearby the city’s international airport.
It is here, throughout the Zona Hotelera, that visitors will find the Cancun they read about in travel magazines. The city of Cancun itself is much more relaxed – home to traditional Mexican street food and neighborhood bars and dance clubs, the “centro”, as it is known, is the perfect escape for those looking for a more chill, local experience. The good news – you can enjoy both. Traveling between these two areas is made very simple – that way, visitors get to experience the best of both worlds.
6. Where To Eat
One of the greatest things about Cancun is that there are literally just as many restaurants (if not more) as there are hotels. This makes it easy for guests to find the perfect meal regardless of their unique pallet. Obviously, where you choose to eat is often based on where you are staying: the Hotel Zone or Downtown Cancun. Luckily for guests, both locations offer a range of dining options, from local street food to upscale Mexican cuisine.
With prices running higher in the Hotel Zone, guests will find famous restaurants like Lorenzillo’s and Puerto Madero, where you can enjoy a tasty lobster meal or the surf and turf for a special occasion. Additional special dishes are found on the contemporary Basque menu offered at Tempo, a restaurant run by acclaimed Spanish chef, Martin Berasategui. Rustic spots like La Fonda del Zancudo and La Habichuela Centro offer guests stunning menus of traditional Mexican dishes and Mexican-Caribbean fusion. Talk about flavor!
However, not every meal needs to be elegant in nature. If you’re looking to grab a tasty bite for a reasonable price, head to the city center where you can find great deals at places like Mercados 23 and 28, both of which serve up outstanding local market food. The best part about the city center is the food sold by local street vendors and cantinas. WIth dozens of restaurants near Parque de las Palapas (Palapas Park) and along Avenida Yaxchilan (Yaxchilan Avenue), guests are sure to find the right stand with the right taste to suit their needs. One of the local favorites – although not as cheap – is Bovino’s Churrascaria, a Brazilian steakhouse.
Either way you go, you are sure to be raving to everyone you know about all of the incredible food you experienced during your stay. As they say in Mexico, ¡Buen provecho!
7. Where To Shop
Let’s face it – for most people, it isn’t considered a successful vacation if you come home empty handed. Luckily for Cancun visitors, there are plenty of spaces for you to shop ‘till you drop. A good amount of Cancun’s shopping complexes are considered ‘state of the art’ – both in design and quality. This is exciting news for all the fashionistas.
With upscale stores located at sites such as the picturesque La Isla Shopping Village – a contemporary shopping outlet ideally situated on the shores of the Nichupte Lagoon – visitors have the opportunity to find the best that fashion has to offer. Equipped with more than 160 stores, including Zara, Coach, Lacoste, Benetton, Diesel, Nike, Nine West, Sunglass Island, Apple, Guess, and Massimo Dutti, among others, guests can easily spend an entire afternoon hopping from one store to the next. If you get hungry or need a cold drink – not to worry! There are plenty of restaurants and cafes to enjoy – after all, your feet will need the break!
If upscale shopping isn’t your gig, there are additional shopping malls such as Plaza Caracol ( traditional goods with an eclectic mix of international brands), and the hip Forum by the Sea – spread out over three floors right on the edge of the sparkling Caribbean water.
While international brands have their place, it wouldn’t be an authentic visit to Cancun without a trip to the many traditional markets located in and around town. Market 28 – with handicrafts, silver goods, and other traditional Mexican trinkets – is one of the local favorites. In addition, many open air markets are found throughout town – most of which provide delicious street food alongside their hand made crafts. These markets, locally known as “mercados”, are as traditional as is gets – don’t miss out on this unique shopping experience.
As a world-class destination, Cancun boasts itself on its vibrant nightlife, upscale shopping centers, and exquisite regional cuisine. However, its greatest draw remains its unparalleled, crystal-clear waters and smooth, white sand beaches. The region known as the Mexican Riviera Maya offers visitors nearly 150 miles (241 kilometers) of stunning tropical beaches – 14 of which belong to the lovely city of Cancun.
Whether you look for peace and quiet as you dive into a new read, or look to partake in exciting water sports and to get your feet wet, Cancun’s spectacular beaches have it all. The most popular beach in the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) is by far Playa Delfines (Dolphin Beach), also known as “El Mirador”, located at Kilometer 20. As one of the region’s largest public beaches, there are no hotels or restaurants directly on its shores, providing guests with plenty of space to spread out and take in the sun. Easily accessible by bus and equipped with free parking, this remains a favorite for locals and visitors alike. Providing clean, well-maintained restrooms, a playground, and palapas for shade, Playa Delfines is clearly everything you look for in a beach experience
If you’re looking to escape the action and to find a more tranquil, remote beach, a ferry ride to North Beach on Isla Mujeres (Woman Island), located just off the shores of Cancun, is an absolute must. A small, tropical island paradise, Isla Mujeres is the stuff of which beach vacation dreams are made. Fine, white sand and aqua-blue waters provide visitors unbelievable Caribbean views. Not to mention the shore’s shallow, calm shore – perfect for the occasional dip to cool off. Equipped with lounge chairs, umbrellas, and close to fresh ceviche, cold margaritas, and refreshing beer, this destination has it all. Extra lucky guests may even get to experience an Isla Mujeres catamaran trip – talk about views!
Other beaches worth visiting are Playa Morelos (Morelos Beach), located off the small fishing village of Puerto Morelos (found 30 minutes outside of the city), and Playa Chac Mool, on the northern tip of the Zona Hotelera. Both are home to smaller crowds, remarkable beaches, water sports, and sunshine. You can even enjoy the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef at Playa Morelos if you wish to catch a glimpse of life below the surface.
Whichever location you choose, it is important for visitors to pay attention to the flags being displayed on the beaches. Different colored flags represent specific water conditions. A black flag is the highest warning level, cautioning guests not not swim. A red flag indicates dangerous conditions, and for guests to swim with caution. A yellow flag indicates there is no immediate danger, but for guests to use caution while swimming. Finally, a green flag indicates that it’s safe for all guests to swim. Some more remote beaches may not have flags, so it’s especially important to swim with caution in those areas.
Be sure to hydrate throughout the day and to use plenty of sunscreen – nothing ruins a vacation like the side-effects of dehydration and severe sunburn. Luckily for your feet, Cancun’s beaches are made of white coral, which prevent the beaches from overheating and burning your toes. That said, leave those flip-flops by the pool and get ready to enjoy some of the world’s most incredible shores.
9. Get Up Close and Personal with Nature
Given that there are literally too many tours to count available to guests visiting the Riviera Maya region, you are guaranteed a unique opportunity to explore every nook and cranny of this remarkable Mexican destination. Some of the best activities in the region are those centered around the state’s innate beauty. Home to dense forest, tropical biosphere reserves, coral reefs, vibrant marine life, and hundreds of species of flora and fauna, Quintana Roo’s nature tours are truly out of this world.
During your stay, it is highly recommended that you plan for at least one day trip to remarkable sites such as Isla Contoy (Contoy Island), Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Isla Mujeres (Woman Island), and the island of Cozumel, just to name a few. Activities range anywhere from Mexico birding tours and snorkeling among spectacular marine life to exploring ancient Mayan cenotes (natural sinkholes) and wildlife from above the Mayan jungle treetops. Whichever type of adventure you crave – Cancun and the Riviera Maya have you covered.
Take an unbelievable underground river tour and explore the Riviera Maya’s unique natural-crystal museum on the Amazing Secret River Tour. This surreal locale near Playa del Carmen offers visitors the opportunity to observe natural history dating back millions of years while witnessing some of the most dramatic mineral formations in the world.
Or, for the true animal lovers, enjoy or one-of-a-kind Whale Shark Tour, on which guests are exposed to these fascinating, slow-moving ocean sharks and largest known living fish species. Found in open waters of the tropical oceans, there aren’t too many opportunities to get up close and personal with these larger than life marine mammals.
Safe to say – these nature adventures will leave you feeling alive and connected with nature like never before. See for yourself!
10. Experience a Rush of Adrenaline
Sometimes when you go on vacation – even to a place with beaches as immaculate as Cancun’s – you simply want to experience a good dose of adrenaline. Luckily for the adventure junkies, there are plenty of action packed activities available to guests looking to spend a day (or two) of doing more than lying on the beach. This doesn’t mean that you have to leave the beach all together – in fact, many adventures take place right off their sunny shores.
Imagine a surfboard powered by motors engineered with Formula 1 Technology. Now, imagine that you have access to one of these surfboards while spending time on the beach. Sound like a good time? You bet! Try out the latest global aquatic craze among outdoor enthusiast – Jet Surf. As a part of our Jet Surf Adventure, guests have the opportunity to partake in a multitude of Jet Surf classes, beginning with beginners and working up to pro-racing titanium boards that reach speeds of up to 40 mph (64 kph). Get out, get wet, and get your adrenaline pumping as you Jet Surf on the turquoise blue waters of the Mexican Caribbean.
If you look to escape the water for a bit – not to worry. Journey into the Mayan jungle on the famous Polaris ACE 300 All Terrain Single Person Buggy, experience a skywalk composed of 8 hanging bridges followed by bungee swings and the incredibly fast Tarzania Coaster, and then embark on an adrenaline-filled 12 zip-line circuit tour through the jungle canopy. Sound too surreal? Guess again. This is our Gimme All Adventure Challenge – the best activity for the real adventure addict and one of the best Cancun Polaris adventure.
Another option with equally heart-pumping activities is the Xplor Adventure Park Tour. This exciting tour offers visitors the unique opportunity to enjoy six adrenaline-inducing activities in one safe park environment. Activities include zip lines, amphibious vehicles, rafts, swimming in underground rivers, spelunking and hammock splash. I mean, talk about getting your adrenaline fix!
With endless adventure tours available to guests, Cancun and the surrounding Riviera Maya region is the ideal location for anyone looking to experience a little thrill during their stay. Get some rest on the beach – you’ll need it – and then prepare yourself to be truly blown away.
11. Explore Ancient Mexico
Not all tours and activities center on the region’s impeccable nature, however. A trip to Mexico calls for getting to know the local culture and one of its greatest past civilizations – the ancient Maya. Not only was this ancient civilization powerful, smart, and mysterious, but the structures that once dominated their cities continue to leave visitors in awe.
With hundreds of famous archeological sites scattered throughout Mexico and Central America, it is clear that the ancient Maya were a dominant force. Some of the most well-known and important cities, however, reside in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico – not far from Cancun’s shores.
One such site is that of the world-famous Chichen Itza. Named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, this ancient Mayan city has begun to draw in visitors from around the globe like never before. Witness its massive, stone structures and learn about its fascinating history on the Chichen Itza Ruins and Cenote Swim Tour. Once one of the largest Mayan cities, Chichen Itza is easily a full day trip. After working up a sweat exploring this magnificent site, take a plunge into the cool waters of a mystic, Mayan cenote. This is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.
Smaller, more remote sites are also an option, especially if you look to experience Mayan culture at its best. Our Coba Ruins and Mayan Cultural Village Tour and the Private Ek Balam & Valladolid Tour are the perfect combination of exploration and exposure to Mayan culture. Visit the ancient city of Coba, hidden deep within the jungles of the southern Yucatan, and two off-the-beaten-track villages where you will experience the current Maya culture in transition. Or, if you wish to see how both ancient Mayan and Spanish culture have made their impacts on present-day Mexico, visit one of the most well preserved ceremonial centers in the region at Ek Balam, where you will see the incredible decoration of its very recently restored temples and plazas before visiting the colonial town of Valladolid.
All our tours offer a unique immersion experience that will leave you with a great appreciation for the ancient and present-day Mayan and Spanish cultures in Mexico. After all, a little history never hurt anyone!
12. Practice Your Spanish
Remember all those language classes you took back in high school and perhaps college? Well, it’s time to put your knowledge to the test! When traveling to Cancun, where the native spoken language is Spanish (although English is extremely common), it’s important (and respectful) to at least attempt speaking the basics during your stay. After all, your vacation to Cancun is the opportune moment to perfect your Spanish skills. Not to mention, the locals will love and appreciate your efforts. You might even save a buck or two, as you are less likely to look like a tourist, and therefore get a better deal by negotiating prices in Spanish (even if your Spanish is a little rusty). This includes negotiating prices with taxi drivers or at the local market.
A few helpful terms to reminder on your trip are ones such as “Buenos dias” (Good morning), “Buenas tardes” (Good afternoon), Buenas noches (Good evening / night), “Hola” (Hello), Adios (Goodbye), “Como esta?” (How are you?), “Bien” (Good), and the most important, “Gracias” (Thank you).
Mexican culture is kind, warm, and friendly. After leaving your fears aside and practicing your Spanish with native speakers, you will return home not only feeling accomplished, but repeating phrases like “Órale” (right on), “Qué chido” (How cool), and “Salúd” (Cheers). Immersing yourself into the native language only enhances your overall experience. Not only will you leave with incredible memories and stories to tell, but with newly gained knowledge and appreciation for the local culture.
13. Identify Available Medical Services
While it’s not something we love to think about, it’s always smart to know where to go and who to call in case of an emergency. Mexico is equipped with very clean, safe, and efficient emergency personnel and clinics, ranging from local pharmacies, urgent care clinics, and top-notch hospitals.
Hospitals such as Amerimed and Galenia are located within the Cancun city limits and come highly recommended in case of an emergency. Understand that you may be required to pay medical expenses out of pocket up front – you should be reimbursed by your medical insurance company at a later time. This will vary among individual insurance policies. Be sure to contact your insurer prior to travel so that you know what type of coverage you qualify for while abroad.
If you are experiencing minor aches, pains, or the very common “Montezuma’s Revenge” – commonly known as an upset stomach – a trip to the local pharmacy should do the trick. Local pharmacists are very accustomed to the minor bugs that visitors are likely to experience during their stay. Usually stomach issues related to food, water, or other germs can be cured simply through over the counter medication.
Play it safe – be sure to avoid tap water, as local water sources can sometimes be a source of minor bugs that irritate the stomach. It’s smart to purchase a probiotic prior to travel or upon arriving to your destination – this will help prevent any unnecessary stomach issues. Be sure to consult your doctor prior to your trip about the correct kind of probiotic and dosage you should consider. If you can’t handle spicy foods – don’t eat them! Nothing upsets a foregin stomach like the spicy, Mexican chile used in many local dishes (although, it is quite delicious).
Be safe. Be smart. You are sure to have a great time free of any aches and pains, but it never hurts to be prepared. Oh, and just in case, consider practicing the phrases “Donde esta el bano?” (Where is the restroom?), “Donde esta el medico?” (Where is the doctor?), and “Me duele aqui” (It hurts here). You shouldn’t have to use these, but learn them just in case. Have fun and be safe!
14. Keep a Travel Log
While taking photos of your various trips can be extremely rewarding, especially when visiting places as beautiful as Cancun, one thing to consider keeping during your stay is a travel log. I know, I know… not everyone is a writer. However, we aren’t talking about a novel here, yet simple details describing what you did, what you ate, and what you saw. Simply put, keep a log that describes what you experience. These details, however small, are sure to bring a huge smile to your face as you remember the specifics that surround an incredibly tasty meal, thrilling excursion, or friendly face.
Far too often we forget the small things, which can be some of the greatest memories. So, jot down the name of your friendly bartender, the name of your favorite restaurant, what you ate, what you saw on your favorite tour, where you stayed, and who you met. These are things that you forever cherish and will help to make this journey a truly unforgettable experience.
15. Live in the Moment
Cancun is sure to leave you feeling blessed and wanting to experience more. During your stay, you are sure to bring along the modern camera – your cell phone. I get it – pictures speak a thousand words and we want to try our best to remember every detail of every moment during our trip. However, the most critical element of maximizing your experience isn’t the perfect Instagram photo, SnapChat video, or tweet on Twitter. The most critical element to maximizing your experience is to live in the moment.
We so often focus on capturing the moment on screen that we forget to take in the present as it happens right before our eyes. The best way to experience the ancient Mayan ruins, underwater adventures, and stunning caribbean sunsets is by being fully focused on the now. Not only will this enhance your overall experience, but you will return home with renewed energy as you prepare to dive back into the day-to-day grind. On your final night, leave behind the camera, turn off your cell phone, and experience Cancun the best way possible – with your own two eyes.