What to see and visit in Cancun? Surely the first thing that comes to mind is the beach and a great hotel. However, there is so much more to experience in the bustling city of Quintana Roo, known as the gateway to the famous Riviera Maya.

At IATI, we have been fortunate enough to explore this part of Mexico on multiple occasions, and we are excited to share everything you need to know to make the most of your visit to Cancun. Let’s get started!

1. Explore Cancun’s finest beaches: Delfines Beach, Langosta Beach, and more

With over 20 kilometres of coastline and numerous all-inclusive hotels, you will have plenty of options to find a spot to relax.

Most of Cancun’s beaches are known for their pristine white sand and turquoise waters. However, certain areas within the “hotel zone” may have waves that make swimming challenging, and in recent years, there has been an issue with sargassum seaweed. The presence of waves depends on your location and the wind conditions, but you can find helpful information on websites like this one that provides updates on the sargassum situation.

To make your decision a little easier, here are some of the most captivating beaches to see and visit in Cancun:

  • Playa Delfines: It is renowned as one of Cancun’s best and most famous beaches. You can find the iconic colourful Cancun sign, perfect for a memorable photo here. However, be aware that this beach often has waves and currents, so swimming should be done with caution.
  • Playa Langosta: This beach is known for its comfort, especially if you are visiting Cancun with children. The water is shallow, making it a safer option for swimming.
  • Playa Marlín: This beach offers a more secluded and intimate atmosphere, although the waves can be strong.
  • Playa Gaviota Azul (or Playa Forum): As one of the well-known beaches in the hotel zone, this beach is known for its high waves, attracting surfers. It is also close to bars, creating a lively atmosphere if you’re interested in some nightlife.
  • Chac Mool Beach: Another popular beach in Cancun, offering various opportunities for water activities.
  • Caracol Beach: Although smaller in size, it has calmer waters. Walking towards the Hyatt Ziva hotel, you can reach the charming lighthouse.
  • Tortugas Beach: This beach is usually calm and shallow, making it ideal for a family visit.

beach seen from above in mexico

2. Excursion to Chichen Itza: A must-do when in Cancun

One of the essential activities to do in Cancun is a visit to Chichen Itza. This iconic site needs little introduction, as it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and recognized as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Undoubtedly, a visit to this renowned Mayan archaeological site will be on your mind.

You can reach the famous Pyramid of Kukulkan in approximately 3 hours from Cancun by renting a car or taking one of the ADO buses. However, considering the historical significance and convenience, we highly recommend joining one of the many tours that depart from the hotels in the city.

chice itza mexico

3. Visit Isla Mujeres

Another place to see and visit in Cancun, while enjoying the beaches in Cancun is a top priority, is exploring the beautiful beaches of Isla Mujeres as well. Located just off the coast of Cancun and only a 20-minute boat ride away, Isla Mujeres is home to one of the most renowned beaches in the Riviera Maya: Playa Norte. Its crystal-clear waters and stunning beauty make it feel like you’ve stepped into a natural swimming pool.

It is entirely feasible to explore Isla Mujeres in a day due to the frequent ferry services. Once you arrive, renting a golf cart to tour the island from end to end is a fun and popular option.

Aside from Playa Norte, other must-see spots on the island include Punta Sur, Lancheros Beach, and Parque de los Sueños.

Travelling safely in Mexico

IATI Backpacker (click here if your country of residence is within the European Union; click here if your country of residence is not part of the European Union) is highly recommended as the best insurance option for this destination. With its comprehensive health care coverage, you will have access to top-notch specialists without incurring any out-of-pocket expenses. Additionally, the insurance provides coverage for theft, adventure sports, luggage issues, transportation incidents, and repatriation if needed.

Don’t take any risks while in Mexico; ensure your safety by obtaining your insurance now!

4. Explore Cancun City and dine at Palapas Park

To be honest, the city of Cancun itself may not boast the same level of beauty as Merida, Campeche, or Valladolid, which are also located on the Yucatan Peninsula. However, if you plan to spend a few days in Cancun, we encourage you to take a stroll through the city center and enjoy a meal at Palapas Park to get a sense of its atmosphere.

Avenida Tulum serves as the main thoroughfare and is adorned with parks, shops, restaurants, and, of course, affordable taco stands. Among the well-known places to purchase handicrafts is Mercado 28, but for a livelier experience, visit Parque de las Palapas, which is a popular gathering spot for locals (one of our favourites, Taqueria Coapeñitos, is located nearby), particularly on weekends. If you’re in the mood for more shopping, Plaza las Americas (located in the city) or La Isla Shopping (in the hotel zone) are the places to visit.

5. Archaeological Sites to Explore in Cancun: El Rey Archaeological Zone, Cancun Mayan Museum, and San Miguelito Archaeological Zone

You may not be aware, but Cancun offers several intriguing archaeological sites to visit, and they are for sure something to see and do in Cancun. While they may not reach the same level of grandeur as other Mayan ruins in Yucatan or the Riviera Maya, such as Chichen Itza, Coba, or Uxmal, they are still worth exploring, particularly if you seek a break from the beach. Among the most recommended sites are:

  • Archaeological Zone of El Rey: This precinct derives its name from a sculpture of an unknown monarch discovered here. It is believed to have been one of the significant ports for the Mayans and is considered the most interesting archaeological zone to visit in Cancun. With 47 structures, the highlight is pyramid number 2, a temple where the remains of a high-ranking individual were found, along with a copper axe, a bracelet, and shell and bone ornaments. Admission fee is 70 pesos per person.
  • Mayan Museum of Cancun and Archaeological Zone of San Miguelito: Arguably one of the top attractions in Cancun, this museum boasts an extensive collection of Mayan culture, featuring significant artefacts not only from the state of Quintana Roo but also from other sites such as Palenque, Chichen Itza, and Comalcalco. The entrance fee is 85 pesos and includes access to the San Miguelito archaeological site, where you can still observe a small Mayan pyramid. These sites are conveniently located in the heart of Cancun’s hotel zone.
  • Archaeological Zone of El Meco: You will be amazed at how beautiful and well-kept these Mayan ruins are. It is believed to have been an important fishing, commercial and religious centre for the Mayas. It is made up of 14 structures with a main temple, El Castillo, and a 5-level pyramid. Access costs only 70 pesos and they are full of iguanas.
  • Yamil Lu’um: located in the middle of Cancun’s hotel zone, it is a group of two temples, the main one being the Temple of the Scorpion. It receives this name because the structure of this animal was found in one of its walls. It is believed to have been built between the 12th and 16th centuries. Admission is free.

monument in mexico

6. Visit the Tulum Archaeological Zone

You have likely seen the iconic postcard image of El Castillo, the most emblematic building in the Tulum Archaeological Zone, against the backdrop of the vibrant Caribbean Sea along the Riviera Maya. Therefore, a visit to the Tulum ruins should be on your list of things to visit in Cancun, as they are among the best-known Mayan ruins in Mexico, second only to Chichen Itza.

Formerly known as Zamá, this walled city thrived between 1200 and 1450 as an important center of worship for the revered ‘descending god’. Exploring the site will take approximately a couple of hours, and be sure to visit the Templo de los Frescos, adorned with grey and blue-toned paintings on its interior walls. Don’t forget to bring your swimsuit, as there is a beautiful beach right next to the archaeological site where you can take a refreshing dip.

The most convenient way to reach Tulum from Cancun is by hiring an excursion, which includes transportation and a guide. However, it is also feasible to visit Tulum independently by renting a car or taking one of the ADO buses. If you choose the latter option, allocate at least 2.5 hours for the journey.

While you’re there, we highly recommend visiting Playa Paraíso, one of the most breathtaking beaches in the Riviera Maya.

7. Scenic Tower at the Embarcadero of Cancun

If you desire a bird’s-eye view of Cancun, the best place to experience it is the Scenic Tower at the Embarcadero of Cancun. Standing 85 meters tall, this tower offers a panoramic view of the sea, the hotel zone, and the picturesque mangrove landscapes, as it is situated at the point where the Nichupte Lagoon meets the sea.

The tour is quite comfortable, as you simply board a circular cabin (with a capacity of up to 60 people) that spirals its way to the top. Once at the summit, the cabin continues to rotate while you receive explanations (available in both English and Spanish) about Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

It’s important to note that the activity has a short duration of only 10 minutes, and the current entrance fee is $20, which may not provide the best value for money.

8. Diving and Snorkelling: Two Exciting Activities in Cancun

Thanks to its Caribbean location and proximity to the 12-mile-long Manchones Reef, Cancun offers a plethora of snorkelling and diving opportunities. The visibility remains good throughout the year, and the water temperature ranges from 25ºC to 28ºC. With minimal currents, it’s an ideal destination for both beginners and experienced divers, as well as those looking to try snorkelling for the first time.

One of the notable dive sites in the area is the MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte), which is among the few underwater art galleries in the world. Situated between Isla Mujeres and Cancun, this unique attraction can be explored through diving or snorkelling. The Manchones Gallery within the museum is particularly famous, with 473 sculptures, including a house and a Beetle car, submerged at a depth of 8 meters.

statues inder waster in MUSA, Mexico

9. Renting a car and exploring the rest of the Riviera Maya

Okay, we acknowledge that our list of things to do in Cancun includes several highlights of the Riviera Maya, such as Chichen Itza and Tulum. However, we couldn’t omit them because many travellers have limited time to explore the area and choose Cancun as their base for excursions – these experiences are a must-see.

If you have more time and are willing to do some additional research, we highly recommend renting a car. While ADO buses cover most routes to destinations like Merida, Valladolid, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, travelling in a rental car is completely safe and much more comfortable. This way, you’ll have the flexibility to explore the multitude of cenotes and beaches in the Yucatán, as well as lesser-known archaeological sites like Calakmul or Uxmal, and charming villages along the Convent Route.

Although distances are generally relatively short, if you have several days, we suggest considering Valladolid, Bacalar, Tulum, or Merida as possible bases. You could even spend a few nights on Cozumel or Holbox, two of Mexico’s stunning islands.

10. Party at Coco Bongo

We conclude our list of things to do in Cancun with something more lively. If you’re in the mood to party, Coco Bongo is the most well-known option. This large-scale nightclub (which also has branches in Playa del Carmen and Punta Cana) offers almost daily parties with impressive tropical-themed shows. It’s important to note that the atmosphere is predominantly international, so don’t expect to interact much with the locals.

If you prefer a more relaxed ambience with a diverse crowd, a good alternative is Mora Mora, located relatively close to Mercado 28. Here, along with great food and drinks, you can enjoy live music on many nights and other alternative activities that may suit your taste. Keep in mind that Mora Mora closes at 1 am.

coco bongo nightclub in mexico

What not to do in Cancun:

It’s important to be aware of certain activities that promote irresponsible animal tourism in Cancun. Examples include dolphinariums, bird shows, and fish feeding. We strongly discourage participating in these activities and urge you to be a responsible traveller. It is our duty to research and understand the potential mistreatment involved before engaging in any experiences involving animals or visiting theme parks in the Riviera Maya. By avoiding these activities, we can contribute to the protection and welfare of animals in these areas.

How many days are needed to visit Cancun?

The number of days needed to visit Cancun will vary depending on your itinerary and travel plans in Mexico. If you intend to explore other destinations in the Riviera Maya and use Cancun as a base for excursions around the Yucatan Peninsula, we recommend allocating at least 5 days. This will allow you to visit incredible places like Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba, Cozumel, and various cenotes in the area.

On the other hand, if you view Cancun primarily as a beach destination or as a starting point for visiting Isla Mujeres, 3 days should be sufficient. Here is a suggested breakdown of how to plan your days in this part of Mexico.

What to visit in Cancun in 3 days

We recommend spending the first day relaxing and exploring the various beaches in the hotel zone. If you want to do some more sightseeing, you can visit the Archaeological Zone of El Rey and the Mayan Museum of Cancun. In the evening, head to Palapas Park and Market 28 to enjoy the sunset and explore the local market.

On the second day, you have the option to take a trip to Isla Mujeres or go on a snorkelling excursion, depending on your preference.

On the third day, it will depend on whether you feel like resting or if you have other activities planned. If you don’t plan to visit Chichen Itza at another time, don’t miss the opportunity to do so.

What to visit in Cancun in 5 days

With 5 days in Cancun, in addition to the activities mentioned above, we recommend trying scuba diving or renting a car to explore other areas of the Riviera Maya such as Playa del Carmen or Tulum. You can also visit the cenotes of Dos Ojos and Jardin del Eden, which are two of the best cenotes in the Riviera Maya.

desert in mexico