Located on the very tip of the Yucatán Peninsula in the Caribbean Sea, Mexico's premier resort enclave Cancun beckons beach lovers with beguiling ease. This is a superbly relaxing destination, but one that harbours plenty of action-packed surprises. Neil Brook checks in with suggestions for ten top things to do…
Cancun is famed for its stunning white beaches, crystal clear blue ocean and all-inclusive resorts.
Most outdoor activities take place on the water, and with the second largest coral reef in the world situated just off the coast, the diving and snorkelling opportunities are phenomenal.
However, there’s so much more to this destination than sun, surf and sand. Ancient Mayan ruins are within easy reach and incredible Mexican cuisine will assail your senses with flavours that are a far cry from the clichéd takeaway back home.
Here are ten top things to do in Cancun.
1. Skipper your own speed boat out to the reef
Get behind the wheel of your own personal mini speed boat (it seats two) and cruise out through the lagoons, weaving past mangroves before mooring your boat near the reef at Punta Nizuc for some quality snorkelling. No licence is required; just a desire for adventure and some common sense. These guided tours with Jungle Tour Cancun run for 2.5 hours.
2. Explore Xcaret Eco-Park
Xcaret Eco-Park is an adventure park like no other. Think water park, nature reserve, archeological site, restaurants and bars all rolled into one. To get there, give the day some local flavour and take a public bus (colectivo) from Cancun for about $3USD. Alternatively, if you’re OK with forking out $100USD for the return taxi fare, then all is well! The other option is an organised day tour that includes transport and park entrance. You’ll soon be swimming in underground caves and strolling past jaguars and flamingos. Pre-book if you want to swim with the dolphins. Stay for the Mexico Espectacular — an incredible showcase of local culture.
3. Take a cooking class
If you think making the perfect guacamole means mashing a few avocados, think again. In Mexico the cuisine is incredibly nuanced and impossible to separate from history, culture or family. To find out more, join Mexico Lindo Cooking on a journey of culinary discovery. Ecologically responsible businesses thrive in Mexico and Mexico Lindo Cooking uses only solar power and organic produce, most of which they grow themselves. You’ll delete Taco Bill from your speed dial forever.
4. Cruise to Isla Mujeres
Catamarans skim out daily over the crystal clear ocean to beautiful Isla Mujeres. Relax on the beach or hire a bike and head off to explore. Buffet lunches are included with most tours. Some even offer open bars (dangerous!). The island is part of the Belize Barrier Reef — the second largest coral reef system in the world. Explore MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte) — an underwater museum of sculptures fastened to the sea floor. It’s an ambitious attempt to promote coral growth and provide tourists with an alternative to snorkelling on the fragile reefs nearby.
5. Visit the ruins of ancient Mayan civilisations
Chichen Itza is one of the seven wonders of the modern world and a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. Here stepped pyramids reach for the sky, dominated by the huge El Castillo. This is a big day out and it’s well worth setting out early to beat the heat and at least some of the crowds. You should be back in time for a late lunch.
For a more rustic Mayan history lesson, visit the ruins at Coba — located inland from Tulum. Here the ancient city struggles to break free from its jungle bonds, reminiscent of the temples of Angkor Wat. You can climb the 120 steps to the top of the highest pyramid, Nohoch Mul, for stunning views. Stand above the canopy of trees and survey the scattered ruins that peek through the greenery.
6. Try fish tacos
Don’t even bother looking for ground beef in a crunchy taco shell on a menu in Mexico. Tacos here are served in soft corn tortillas with delicious fillings of pulled pork, refried beans, chicken and yes, minced beef, but not as you know it. Fish tacos are a taste sensation not to be missed. They come topped with tangy salsa and drizzled with chipotle (chilli) sauce, as hot as you can take it. Prepare to get messy!
Margaritas make the perfect accompaniment — a delicious blend of tequila, Cointreau and lime. They come frozen or ‘on the rocks’ (on ice). While you’ll probably be familiar with tequila, mezcal may not be on the tip of your tongue. After a few days in this part of the world, it will be! Mezcal should be sipped much like a fine whiskey and if you hear tales of folks ‘eating the worm’, they’re almost certainly tourists. Visit Blue Gecko Cantina for a relaxed vibe, excellent tacos and mean drinks.
7. Ride the waves with jet power
OK, traditional wave runners (jet skis) are one thing; Jetpack Adventures’ flyboards, jetpacks and Seabreacher are entirely another! Fly high as water pressure propels you into the air, or strap in, close the hatch and hold on tight as an expert takes the reins of the Seabreacher. The mini submersible (shaped like a shark) dives and breaches at speeds of up to 80 kilometres per hour. It’s insanely good fun and will leave you buzzing for hours.
8. Swim with whale sharks
Every holiday should include an experience that’s completely awe-inspiring and in Cancun it’s swimming with whale sharks. During summer these gentle giants migrate past the Yucatán Peninsula and the spectacle cannot be overstated. Join them in the water as they glide effortlessly through the sea, their huge mouths gathering tiny plankton. You can get up close and personal, but resist the urge to interfere. These big guys definitely call all the shots.
9. Hang out on the beach
Despite the region’s many attractions and things to do, the beach is what draws people from all over the planet to Cancun. The sun is hot here so be warned. Many hotels along the strip offer their guests all-inclusive rates and some allow day visitors as well. Club Med at the far end of the bay offers a great deal, where you can hang out and enjoy the facilities. Otherwise, head to Coco’s Beach Club, where cool Latin house tunes set the mood and the staff keep the refreshments flowing.
10. Enjoy a night on the town
No visit to Cancun would be complete without a night out at Coco Bongo. You’re on holiday so treat yourself to their Gold Member pass. Bypass the queues, enjoy the exclusive area and unlimited premium drinks from 9pm through to the early hours.
By the way, this is not your usual disco. With performers dangling above you, it’s a bit like being at Cirque du Soleil! Keep the next day free to recover.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Cancun? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
As a travel blogger and photographer, Neil Brook travels the world looking to meet interesting people, taste great food, and find different angles from which to write about his adventures. He is privileged to have lived in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the United Kingdom. More a traveller than a tourist, Neil prefers to mix with the locals, learn their history and culture, and walk the backstreets to uncover hidden gems worthy of praise in words or quiet moments of private reflection.