Cancun is known for spring breakers, large resorts, and beautiful beaches. Beyond the legendary parties however, lies a region rich in natural and cultural attractions just waiting for you, your friends and your family to discover.
In our opinion, the travelers who get the most out of Cancun are the ones who get out and explore. So we compiled a list of the top attractions in Cancun for you to do just that.
Located in the heart of the Cancun hotel zone, The Maya Museum opened to the public in November 2012 following the anthropology museum’s closure six years prior. Hosting the Yucatan Peninsula’s most prolific collection of Mayan artifacts, the museum acts as a welcome break from Cancun’s party scene.
Here, 400 pieces found within some of the most important sites in the peninsula are held and exhibited. Ranging from sculptures to ceramics and jewelry.
Besides the museum, there is also an archaeological site found within the compound, called San Miguelito. This is considered a small site, but it’s certainly a pleasant surprise to find this green oasis of jungle with meandering paths leading to a variety of ancient structures in the middle of Cancun’s hotel zone.
The Museo Maya de Cancun is located in the Hotel Zone, adjacent to the Omni Cancun, The Royal Mayan and the Grand Oasis Cancun resorts. It is easily accessible by taxi or public bus from anywhere in the hotel zone.
In 2009 a monumental underwater contemporary museum of art called MUSA (Museo Subacuatico de Arte) was established in the waters surrounding Cancun, Isla Mujeres and Punta Nizuc, and has fast become a big attraction for snorkeling in Cancun.
The Cancun Underwater Museum is a non-profit organization, devoted to the art of conservation. The museum has a total of 500 sculptures, most by the British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor and the others by five Mexican sculptors, with three different galleries submerged between ten and twenty feet in the ocean at the Cancun National Marine Park.
It looks to benefit the protection of the coral reefs. Artificial reefs are usually created by sunken ships and other objects that have fallen to the bottom of the ocean floor. The statues are a new technique and material for coral to grow on, and serves as a means for art to save the oceans.
As the statues were made with PH-neutral cement, coral, seaweed, and algae are able to grow and develop better than on an old ship. As a result, coral reefs will increase, as will marine life.
Cancun Wax Museum
If you are wondering what to do in Cancun on an off-weather day, you can’t miss the opportunity to travel back in time and visit the city’s first wax museum, and the third one in Mexico overall.
Here, Brazilian and European sculptors have created and displayed more than 100 characters in 23 scenarios throughout film, sport, music, television, history, and politics.
The Wax Museum is located in the Hotel Zone at Plaza La Isla. If you are in Cancun you can take a public bus from your hotel to Plaza La Isla, or you can take a shuttle to the museum. The museum opens every day from 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM. The best way to purchase tickets is online.
On your next trip to the sunny resort destination of Cancun, why not immerse yourself in the fascinating world of the planetary system with a visit to the KaYok Planetarium.
Steeped in science and technology, the planetarium is sure to teach anyone with a thirst for knowledge something new. In addition to the obvious focus on astronomy, which includes an astronomical observatory, the complex is also dedicated to promoting and educating visitors about preserving the environment. Furthermore, it places a strong emphasis on celebrating and maintaining archaeological sites, especially the significant contributions the local Mayan population have added to the region over the centuries.
The planetarium is open every Tuesday through Friday from 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM, and on Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 AM to 7:00 PM.
Widely considered a beach spot for locals, Playa Tortugas is known for its relaxed atmosphere and pristine sands. The area also boasts several open-air restaurants that make for great evening dining. The beach features a pier, where brave visitors can bungee jump, and from here, daily ferries also depart for Isla Mujeres.
Some travelers enjoy Tortugas so much that they choose the area over their own hotel’s beach. Visitors appreciate that the public beach is free to enjoy and the water is calm and relaxing (a particular highlight for those traveling with children).
Playa Tortugas is located on the northern part of the Hotel Zone and is accessible by bus or rental car. Umbrella and chair rentals are also available.
Although there are miles upon miles of stunning coastline featuring powdery white sand and the crystal clear turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea in the region, one of the most noteworthy Cancun attractions is Playa Delfines (Dolphin Beach) which is also nicknamed El Mirador (The Lookout).
Part of the reason why Playa Delfines is particularly special is that it is a completely unspoiled area that doesn’t have any hotels, restaurants or other structures built on the beach, which allows for a truly blissful, relaxing getaway in the sun and surf.
Playa Delfines is located 10 miles (16 kilometers) from downtown Cancun. If you are driving, you will certainly enjoy the fact that the on-site parking is free (unlike many other beaches in the area); you may also get there easily by local bus or by taxi.
Playa Norte was recently named as one of the world’s top 25 beaches. Located on Isla Mujeres, an island found 8 miles off the coast of Cancun, this beach is the quintessential paradise hotspot.
Families with kids will love it here, as the waters are calm, allowing for plenty of safe swimming opportunities. You will also find a wide selection of restaurants, beach bars, and accommodation in the area.
Playa Norte is definitely one of the most beautiful beaches in the country, but keep in mind that it easily gets crowded on the weekends. It is recommended to arrive early in the morning and choose a spot close to the water.
A half-hour ferry ride from the nonstop party that is Cancun, sits an island seductively named Isla Mujeres, or Island of Women. Less than 5 miles (8 kilometers) long and just a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) wide, the tiny Mexican island is an oasis that caters to every set except the rowdy students sowing their oats across the bay.
There’s the popular and sprawling North Beach on the tip of the island near the tiny, quaint downtown, excellent for people-watching or finding a game of beach volleyball. This beach has the closest thing to a party vibe you’ll find on the island.
For a calmer experience, head to the easternmost section of North Beach at the end of a tiny road called Zazil-ha. You’ll find just a handful of people lounging on beach beds for a modest price or on a towel in the sand for free.
Undoubtedly, the most popular activity on Isla involves swimming with whale sharks, docile, beautiful and enormous creatures. That may very well be a once-in-a-life, unforgettable experience. The season runs from mid June through mid September.
Between January and September last year, Isla Mujeres saw 227,540 visitors, according to statistics kept by the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Cancun had 3.2 million visitors in the same time period, proving that Isla is still a well-kept secret.
Isla Contoy is perhaps one of Cancun’s lesser known hidden gems but one that is well worth making the effort to visit.
One of the things that makes Isla Contoy so special is that it is a stunning conservation area and National Park located just off the coast of Cancun. You can only get there by boat on a Contoy Island tour, and only through licensed companies. In order to keep the island as beautiful as it is today for decades to come, the local authorities have also placed a daily limit of 200 visitors. This means that this little haven is as exclusive as it is stunning; book in advance (well in advance) to avoid disappointment!
Besides its unparalleled beauty, secluded sandy white beaches and lush palm trees, the island boasts more than a hundred and fifty migrating and resident bird species. The most numerous and easy to observe are the frigate, the brown pelican and the double-crested cormorant. Isla Contoy is also an important nesting place for sea turtles.
If you’re really more of a marine wildlife person that a bird lover you can take full advantage of the crystalline and lively waters that are filled with all kinds of marine life. From tropical fish to stingray and even the odd sea turtle (if you’re lucky), the waters here are teeming with life. This is a perfect place to indulge in a spot of snorkelling or just a relaxing swim.
Visitors should bring sunglasses, caps, biodegradable sunscreen, mosquito repellent, photographic equipment and binoculars.
Isla Holbox is a small, slender island just north of the Yucatan Peninsula. Mexicans have long been in the know about this laid-back, go-everywhere-in-flip-flops getaway, but the news of Holbox’s beauty and ease of living has started to get out.
Holbox is separated from the mainland coast of Mexico by a shallow lagoon which gives sanctuary to thousands of flamingos, pelicans and other exotic birds and creatures.
Ferries from the small town of Chiquila pick up throughout the day, and you often don’t need to make a reservation in advance. Getting to Chiquila, however, can be a travel challenge if you can’t or don’t want to drive.
There are two buses a day from Playa del Carmen, and taxis will be pricey. If you do drive, the trip to Chiquila is 2-3 hours (depending on traffic and whether you take the toll highways or the local roads), and the ferry is passengers-only, so you’ll need to leave your car on the mainland.
However, Holbox truly is worth the effort. Most islanders make their living fishing. It is common to see fishermen walking through Holbox Village with their catch of the day or carrying their nets. The streets of Holbox Island are made of white sand, common of Caribbean islands, and there are very few cars.
This breathtaking reef is situated just off the southern tip of Isla Mujeres, a quick and easy boat ride from the Cancun Hotel Zone. It’s one of the most popular local scuba diving and snorkel tours, known for its spectacular coral formations, abundant wildlife, and clear, shallow waters. Manchones Reef is also home to the Cross of the Bay: a tribute to the men and women who have died at sea.
Located near Boulevard Kukulcan, at the southern end of Cancun Island, opposite Club Med, Punta Nizuc’s shallow, warm waters, excellent visibility and abundance of marine life make this a great place to experience everything the Mesoamerican Reef has to offer. Divers have reported seeing giant lobsters, groupers, stingrays, and barracudas on the reef.
Punta Nizuc is also home to a museum statue called “The Gardener of Hope,” which depicts a young woman lying in a “garden” of coral. However the reef barriers are the most visited area around Cancun, the most popular form of access is through the use of motorized boats in one or two places, from yacht clubs located in the lagoon mangroves Nichupte crossing and out to the ocean through Nizuc channel for snorkeling.
Garrafon Reef Park
Garrafon Reef Park takes advantage of the natural reefs, cliffs, and ocean by creating a haven for those who love splashing around in the water. Offering a number of water activities, a restaurant, and a bar, this is a great place to spend the day.
This water park is filled with fish and coral, perfect for snorkeling and even offers snorkeling equipment, as well as guided tours of the park to help guests see as much as they can. They have several docks to enter the water from, and ropes throughout the water to help you find your way. In addition they also have a zipline that you can use to fly overhead. For those who do want to go a little further from shore, Garrafon offers boat charters that will go into the ocean to some of the deeper reefs and coral.
Located on the island of Isla Mujeres, 4.2 miles (6.5 kilometers) south-southeast of Downtown Isla Mujeres, Garrafon Reef Park invites local residents and tourists who are rooming on this part of the island or nearby. Whether or not you’re staying nearby, you should think about stopping by for some fun in the sun.
5. Archaeological Sites
While they may not have the awe factor of Chichen Itza, the El Rey Ruins have convenience on their side. Located in the heart of the Hotel Zone, these ruins are extremely accessible to visitors, and the site’s small size makes it easy to see in a short time. Once a center for maritime trade, El Rey dates back to A.D. 1200.
El Rey managed many functions back in its heyday. This settlement was a predominant part of the Mayan Trade route, a burial ground for royalty, and an astronomy educational center. Found in 1923 by Raymond Merwin and Samuel Lothrop, there is evidence that El Rey was linked to the Itzamna community that ruled both Chichen Itza in the Yucatan and Edzna in Campeche.
But for many past visitors, the ruins themselves were not the primary attraction: people flock to El Rey to mingle with the hundreds of iguanas that have invaded the former Mayan town, saying the iguanas make for some unforgettable photo ops.
The El Rey Ruins are open for exploration between 8:00 AM and 4:30 PM. As is the case at Chichen Itza, there are guides available for hire if you’d like to learn more about the history of the archaeological site.
El Meco, small but influential Mayan ruins near Cancun, was just recently opened to the public. The site is well preserved and worth a visit before heading to Cancun beaches or hopping on the Isla Mujeres ferry. The Itzamna influence is evident in this location. Serpent heads decorate the castillo staircase, the highest Mayan pyramid in the Cancun area.
It has the highest archaeological structure in the northern peninsula (40 ft / 12 mts) which supports archaeological findings that this location was used for maritime navigation. From the top of the Castillo one can see the Caribbean Sea, all of Cancun’s lagoons, and Isla Mujeres. It is thought to be the lighthouse of the region.
El Meco is located to the north of Cancun en route to Punta Sam and Puerto Juarez. And is open daily from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM. If you are using public transportation to get to Cancun, hop in a taxi at the ADO bus station. To return to the center of Cancun, combis (public vans) frequent Avenida Portillo Lopez.
Also known as the Templo del Alacran (Scorpion’s Temple), Yamil Lu’um was used between AD 1200 and 1550, and sits atop a beachside knoll in the parklike grounds between the Park Royal and Westin Lagunamar hotels. The ruin makes a pleasant venture for its lovely setting more than anything else. Only the outward-sloping remains of the weathered temple’s walls still stand.
Located on Cancun’s highest point (the name means “hilly land”), and to reach the site visitors must discreetly pass through either of the hotels flanking it.
Although it consists of two structures – this is the smallest of Cancun’s ruins. Discovered in 1842 by John Lloyd Stephens, the ruins date from the late 13th or early 14th century. Keep an eye out for roaming iguanas.
6. The Scenic Tower
If you have ever visited the Cancun’s hotel zone, you have probably noticed an outstanding overlooking tower, which happens to be the highest point in Cancun – “The Scenic Tower”.
This rotating scenic tower stands at 360 ft (110 mts) tall and can hold 72 people at a time. It rotates on its axis, meaning you can have a beautiful 360° panoramic view of Cancun and its surroundings.
During your visit, a brief history of the place will be provided. You’ll also get a detailed description of all those emblematic places which can be seen from the top of the tower.
7. Las Palapas Park
Parque de las Palapas is one of Mexico’s many, centrally-located parks, is regarded as the main park in downtown Cancun and is located a short walk from Tulum Avenue. For much of Cancun’s existence the park has been a central hub of activity.
The city’s oldest Catholic church, El Cristo Rey, is located at one edge of the park so it’s especially busy on Sundays. There are food vendors in and around the park and shows are often held on the large stage that is the park’s main focal point. Local artisans sell their wares in the park during the evening. Families often visit the park to let their children play in the playground, drive small motorized cars or paint pictures.
What’s more, it’s a great way to meet the locals, make new friends, and learn what living in the area is all about. A visit like this to Parque de las Palapas, or any of the many different parks throughout Mexico, will give you a real sense of the importance of community in this country, something that is held dear by expats and locals alike.
Cancun has a reputation for being a fun place to visit where millions of travellers flock to its sunnier climes to throw their inhibitions out of the window and party till the sun comes up. There is however so much more to see and do in this wonderful holiday spot.
From Caribbean beach days, to feasting on tacos, exploring the Mayan ruins and snorkeling above colorful coral reefs, it’s time to get out there discover everything that Cancun has to offer!