Located on the famous Riviera Maya, the vibrant city of Cancun is a popular year-round destination for many Americans looking to relax in its turquoise water beaches, go wild partying, and immerse into the resort type of vacation. While many come to Cancun to be pampered and stay in the comfortable confines of an all-inclusive resort, it doesn’t mean that’s all there is to do. In fact, you can enjoy Cancun and explore the more authentic environment of the region, without setting foot in a resort or at least, without spending all your time in their manicured environment.
I’ve been to Cancun a few times, and I’ve done both types of trips, so here I’ll share how you can enjoy the Cancun that’s outside the resorts, plus a few interesting sights close to Cancun too.
If you want to practice or master your haggling skills, then Market 28, or Mercado 28, is the place to go. This place is filled with traditional handicrafts, souvenirs, goods and more. It used to be a place where locals would buy their daily groceries and other everyday items, but in recent years it has converted to serve mostly, if not only, tourists. Still, you’ll find typical Mexican souvenirs at good prices, but even those good prices can go down. For great prices, you must haggle! Tip: ask for a third of the price they are offering. Meet somewhere in the middle or lower. I give more haggling tips here.
Kayak at the Nichupté Lagoon
The resort area of Cancun is, in reality, a long strip of land with the sea on one side and a lagoon on the other. Contrasting the beach, Nichupté Lagoon is rich with waterfowl, fish, crocodiles, shellfish, and mangrove vegetation. Yes, I know I mentioned crocodiles and I also mentioned “kayak” somewhere above. But really, kayaking in the lagoon is safe and fun! Hey, I did it with my whole family!
Walk along Kukulcan Blvd.
most of the resorts and hotels in Cancun are located along Kukulcan Blvd, but beyond the resorts, you’ll see hundreds of stores, restaurants, cafes, nightclubs, and more. The boulevard is too long to walk, as there are stretches where there are just resorts and no “outside life,” but you can hop between “active hubs” on the boulevard by taking the local buses running along the boulevard.
Head to Playa Delfines
Kukulcan Blvd is now highly developed with several dozen resorts, but there are still a few undeveloped spots where you can reach the beach unimpededly. Among these is Playa Delfines, on the southern side of the Boulevard towards the airport. A few public buses run along the boulevard going from Cancun’s city center towards the airport. Any of them are an option to hop on/off close to the beach.
Swimming with Whale Sharks
Whales sharks visit the waters of the Yucatan Peninsula from June to September. If you’re there during the season, you can have a close encounter swimming with these huge sharks – an experience you can only have in few places in the world. Even though they are the largest known extant fish species, whale sharks are harmless to humans.
Swimming with Whale Sharks is an excellent day trip from Cancun since the whale sharks cluster and feed about 1.5 hours away from the coast by speedboat. Below is a quick video I made when I went swimming with them!
Holbox Island is located a few hours away from Cancun, and even though it can be done as a day trip, it is recommended to stay there to experience this peaceful haven to the fullest. This island is yet not very touristy, so take your time to relax there and to escape the crowds from Cancun. Explore its white sand beaches, its mangroves, and walk along its car-less streets, all far from the bustling activity of the mainland. Holbox is also a popular spot to go swimming with the whale sharks.
To get to Holbox, you have to take a ferry from the port village of Chiquilá, a few hours north of Cancun by bus. You can also fly from Cancun.
Another beautiful island, though more developed than Holbox. Still, it is much more peaceful than Cancun, and a lot closer than Holbox is – just a short boat ride away from Cancun. You can take a catamaran or ferry from Playa Tortuga Ferry Terminal. Isla Mujeres is short enough to be explored on foot, but you can make the most of your time by renting a bike or golf cart. Don’t miss the beaches there, which in my opinion, are a lot better than the ones in Cancun.
Also worth doing is visiting the Garrafón Natural Reef Park on the southern tip of the island. There you’ll find activities like kayaking, diving, zip lines, cliff-diving, and also some relaxing on the beach.
Named as one of the new seven wonders of the world, Chichen Itza is a sight you can’t miss while in Cancun. The ruins are located three hours away from the city and can be done as an easy, yet long day trip by bus. These are the most popular ruins in all of Mexico thanks to its famous structures like the Temple of Kukulkan and the observatory. The archeological park is quite big, so it will take you a few hours to explore. Have in mind, though, that what you’re allowed to visit is just a tiny portion of what archeologists have uncovered so far.
The Yucatan Peninsula is full of cenotes –natural sinkholes or underground caverns filled with clear fresh water– and many of them are worth visiting. If you head south towards Tulum, you’ll go through the “cenote route,” where you’ll see signs of dozens of cenotes open to visitors along the way. The cenotes found here are excellent for snorkeling, diving, and exploring on foot too. If you reach Tulum, don’t miss visiting Cenote Sac’Actun, which is entirely underground and enclosed, and Cenote Dos Ojos, which offers two different cenotes partially open from above. Both offer a different experience, and both are worth exploring.
Though Tulum is a small city two hours south of Cancun, it is well worth including on this list simply because it has some of the most picturesque ruins in all Mexico. The Ruins of Tulum (same name as the city), is an archaeological site perched atop a cliff over turquoise Caribbean waters.
Tulum is also an excellent day trip if you’re just interested in the ruins, but if you’d like to enjoy the cenotes I mentioned above too, then it’s better to spend at least one night there.
There are a lot of more options beyond these to spend your time outside the resort, but just these will keep you pretty busy for at least a whole week!