Located in the famous Yucatan Peninsula, the vibrant city of Cancun is a popular year-round destination for many tourists looking to relax along the turquoise blue beaches.
Some go for the wild partying or to immerse themselves in the amenities at all-inclusive resorts, but there’s much more to do in Cancun beyond the resorts.
While many visit Cancun, Mexico, to be pampered and remain in the comfortable confines of an all-inclusive resort, it doesn’t mean that’s all there is to do.
In fact, you can visit Cancun and explore the authenticity of the region without setting foot in a resort or, at least, without spending all your time in the manicured hotel zone.
I’ve been to Cancun a few times, and I’ve done both types of trips. So here are a few suggestions on what to see in Cancun outside of the resort, plus a few interesting sights close to Cancun.
Fun Things to Do in Cancun Outside of the Resort
From downtown Cancun to the hotel zone and as far as the Riviera Maya, you’ll find plenty of interesting and fun things to explore in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Whether it’s scuba diving, ancient ruins, theme parks, Coco Bongo, or the stunning Cancun beaches along the Caribbean Sea, there’s plenty to do and see outside the resorts. Here are a few things you should consider exploring:
Stroll through Cancun’s Mercado 28
If you want to practice your haggling skills, then Mercado 28 is the place for you. This bustling and vibrant marketplace is filled with vendors selling traditional handicrafts, souvenirs, gifts, and more.
This long-running fleamarket is where locals buy their daily groceries and other everyday items, but in recent years Mercado 28 has converted to serving mostly, if not only, tourists.
You’ll find local restaurants serving delicious meals and shops selling Mexican souvenirs at good prices, but even those good prices can be better. For great prices, you must haggle!
Tip: Ask for a third of the price they are selling an item for and meet somewhere in the middle or lower; this is bargaining 101 — the art of haggling.
Kayak at the Nichupté Lagoon
Cancun’s hotel zone is, in reality, a long strip of land with the Caribbean Sea on one side and a lagoon on the other. Contrasting to the spotless beach, Nichupté Lagoon is abundant with leopard frogs, blue crabs, fish, crocodiles, and verdant mangrove vegetation.
Yes, you heard right. Kayak on a lagoon with crocodiles. But really, kayaking in the lagoon is safe and fun! You can also do things like speed boating, flyboarding, and hoverboarding with your whole family or group of friends.
Walk along Kukulcan Blvd.
You’ll find most of the best all-inclusive resorts and famous hostels in Cancun, Mexico, located along Kukulcan Blvd.
But beyond the resorts, you’ll find malls with numerous high-end stores, local and international restaurants, movie theaters, and the Coco Bongo nightclub. There’s also an interactive aquarium where you can see and learn about different types of sea life.
Kukulcan Boulevard is about 15 miles long, making it a bit strenuous to walk all the way. And some restricted stretches of the strip are occupied by the all-inclusive resorts, but you can hop between the active hubs that are within walking distance.
Tip: You can explore the famous strip by taking the local buses that run along the boulevard.
Head to Playa Delfines
Kukulcan Blvd is now a highly developed avenue in the Cancun hotel zone, with several resorts dotted along the Caribbean Ocean. But there are still a few undeveloped spots that give you unimpeded beach access.
Among these is Playa Delfines, located on the southern end of the boulevard towards the Cancun airport. A few public buses run along the boulevard going from downtown Cancun towards the airport, and any of them are a good option to hop off close to the beach.
Playa Delfines is one of the most beautiful beaches in Cancun. You can enjoy leisurely strolling along the white sands, sunbathing, swimming, and taking pictures at the colorful Cancun sign.
Tip: Got some time on your hands? Head further down to the El Rey Archaeological Zone to discover a variety of 47 pre-Columbian Mayan ruins called the El Rey ruins.
Swim with Whale sharks
Whale sharks swarm the waters of the Yucatan Peninsula from July to early September.
If you’re visiting Cancun during Whale shark season (April – May) when they first arrive, you can have a close encounter swimming with these huge aquatic beauties via a guided tour.
This is an experience you can only have in a few places in the world. And if you’re feeling a bit nervous, don’t worry because although they are the largest known extant fish species in the world, whale sharks are harmless to humans.
Swimming with Whale sharks is an excellent day trip from Cancun since they often cluster and feed about one and a half hours away by speedboat from the coast.
Below is a quick video I made when I went swimming with them!
Boat ride to Isla Mujeres
Now, for a getaway from the hotel zone, head to the beautiful Cancun island of Isla Mujeres. This island is more developed than other popular islands, like Holbox; it’s more peaceful than downtown Cancun and much closer to the city than Holbox.
Isla Mujeres is a short boat ride from Cancun. You can take a boat from the Gran Puerto Cancun Ferry Dock in Puerto Juárez, just minutes from downtown Cancun or depart from the Playa Tortuga Ferry Terminal in the hotel zone.
Your ferry ride will take about 15 to 30 minutes from each terminal, respectively.
Alternatively, you can buy shuttle and ferry tickets via Bookaway.
My family and I took this boat trip, and we all loved it. I recommend you book a catamaran tour if you want to do this too. Other fun things you can explore include exploring the incredible Cancun Underwater Museum.
Isla Mujeres is small enough to be explored on foot, but you can make the most of your time by renting a bike or golf cart. And don’t miss the beaches there, which in my opinion are much better than the ones in Cancun.
Something also worth doing is visiting the Garrafon Reef Park on the southern tip of the island. There you’ll find some of the best outdoor activities in Cancun, like a snorkeling tour, kayaking, diving, zip lining, cliff-diving, and also relaxing on the beautiful beaches.
Excellent Places to Visit from Cancun
Cancun, Mexico, can get a bit crowded, especially during the peak vacation season. So if you need a breather from the crowds, here are a few options to consider.
Visit Isla Holbox
Holbox Island is about two hours away from Cancun, and even though it can be done as a day trip, I recommend you stay there to experience this peaceful island to its fullest.
This Cancun island is not very touristy, so take your time to relax there as you escape the hustle and bustle of downtown Cancun and the city center. Explore its white-sand beaches and mangroves, and enjoy walking along its carless streets.
Holbox is also a popular spot to go swimming with Whale sharks. I recommend checking these tours in Holbox, including the Whale shark swim.
To get to Holbox, you can take an eight-mile ferry ride from the port village of Chiquilá, which is about two to three hours north of Cancun, by bus. For these local buses, I recommend booking a bus ticket via Bookaway, but you can also fly from Cancun.
Explore Chichen Itza
Named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza is a sight you can’t miss when visiting Cancun. These Mayan ruins are located about two to three hours away from the city and can be done as an easy yet long day trip by bus.
These are the most popular Mayan ruins in Mexico, thanks to famous structures like the Temple of Kukulcan, and El Caracol, the observatory.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is quite big, so it will take you a few hours to explore. Keep in mind though, that what you’re allowed to visit is just a tiny portion of what archeologists have uncovered so far.
I recommend this tour that gives you early access to these impressive Mayan ruins with an archaeologist as your guide. Not only will you beat the crowds, but you’ll also avoid the intense midday heat.
Alternatively, you can visit Chichen Itza by yourself by booking a local bus or private transportation. I recommend booking via Bookaway.
Experience the Cenotes
The Yucatan Peninsula is full of cenotes — natural sinkholes or underground rivers and caverns streaming with clear freshwater, 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 about the dozens of cenotes open to visitors along the way. These cenotes are excellent for snorkeling, scuba diving, and exploring on foot.
When you reach Tulum, don’t miss visiting Cenotes Sac Actún, which is entirely underground in a cave enclosed by a stalactites roof.
Cenote Dos Ojos offers two different cenotes that are partially open from above. Both offer a different experience but are both worth exploring.
Beyond Tulum, there are a few more cenotes worth visiting in the Yucatan Peninsula, like Cenote Cristal.
Though Tulum is a small city nearly two hours south of Cancun; it is well worth including on this list simply because it has some of the most picturesque Mayan ruins in all of Mexico.
The Ruins of Tulum is one of the archeological sites perched atop a cliff overlooking turquoise Mexican Caribbean waters.
Tulum is also an excellent day trip if you’re just interested in the ancient ruins, but if you’d like to enjoy the cenotes mentioned above too, then it’s better to spend at least one night here.
You can easily reach the Tulum Archaeological Site by bus or via rental car. I recommend booking your local transportation ahead of time via Bookaway.
Best Things to Do in Cancun Beyond Resorts | Wrapped Up
There are plenty of fun and safe things to do in Cancun, Mexico, outside the hotel zone. The Yucatan Peninsula has incredible attractions.
Some things to do beyond Cancun resorts include visiting impressive Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza, island hopping to Isla Mujeres, and exploring water activities like scuba diving.
It would be a shame to visit Cancun, Mexico, and not get out of your hotel room or simply hang around the resort.
So pack your travel gear and get ready to explore a Cancun vacation like no other, as a taste of local culture, Mayan history, Coco Bongo, and delicious Mexican food await.
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Quintana Roo is the state where Cancun and it’s beautiful surroundings reside. I would favor a trip to Quintana Roo over any of the Hawaiian Islands anytime. Quintana Roo Life
I really like to visit peaceful places. Your photo gallery is beautiful. I never visit Cancun but after reading about this place I will definitely visit this place at least once.
Looks amazing! We love going to resorts, but they can be a bit boring after a day or two! We will definitely use this post as a guide whenever we make it over to Cancun:)
I love reading your blog, you have so many cool adventures
I loved my time in Mexico too! I would probably add the Isle of Cozumel and also a visit to the archaeological site of Coba 🙂
Those are some good suggestions, Remi!