Cancun, Mexico: what to see and do. Long white beaches, Mayan ruins and sunshine on this Caribbean coast

Cancun Snorkeling Whale Shark
Cancun Snorkeling Whale Shark
Why go

From its humble beginnings as a coconut plantation, Cancun has grown over four decades to become one of the top holiday destinations for winter sun. Sitting on Mexico’s stunning Caribbean coast, it combines those free and easy Caribbean vibes with a lively Mexican kick.

In the Hotel Zone, which juts out into the sea in the shape of a number 7, nothing is done by half measures. The hotels, shopping malls and nightclubs are big and shiny, and everything seems to be gleaming white, including the stunning beaches. In Downtown Cancun you’ll find the authentic heart of the city, with bustling markets and Mexican cantinas. It’s a must if you want to experience real Cancun away from the glitz of the sparkling seafront.

What to do
Chichen Itza. Cancun Tourism
The son et Lumière at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza

The white sand beaches are undoubtedly Cancun’s biggest draw, and there are 22kms wrapped around the Hotel Zone to play with. Running down the side of the number 7 you have lively beaches with perfect waves for watersports, and across the top the waters are calmer and better for swimming and snorkelling. Playa Delfines is considered one of the best.

In the water you’ve got the Great Maya Reef to discover, which makes Cancun a heaven for snorkelers and scuba divers. It takes second place only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, so this kaleidoscope underwater world of swaying corals and darting sea creatures is a must see.

If swimming with dolphins is on your bucket list then you have the choice of the Dolphin Discovery and Dolphinaris attractions – or see them in their natural habitat on a whale and dolphin watching boat trip.

Where to stay
Hotel Casa Margarita
The stunning Casa Margarita Hotel Boutique

You won’t be short of luxury beachfront hotels to choose from in the Hotel Zone, as the name suggests! The Moon Palace, Secrets Resort and Le Blanc Spa Resort are just three of the popular places offering pristine luxury just steps from the sands.

If you prefer your accommodation to have a bit more personality, Casa Margarita Hotel Boutique is a stunning villa with lagoon views, sitting away from the Hotel Zone in a quieter residential area of the city. Or choose the tiny ‘Home from Home’ hotel, which offers a little less in the way of luxury but its rustic charm and the warm welcome extended by owner Rosyln more than make up for it.

Where to eat

Whatever you fancy eating, you’ll find a restaurant to suit in Cancun, from French foie gras, soufflés and steak at elegant Du Mexique, to Italian pasta dishes on the edge of the Nichupte Lagoon at Limoncella. If you’re celebrating a special occasion while you’re away, dine on the sand at Casitas restaurant in your own private cabana. Not a cheap meal, but an amazing memory.

Some of the best food can be found at street shacks and cantinas. Pull up a pavement bar stool at the Surfin’ Burrito and go crazy on the jerk chicken and cocktails. Or head to the Blue Gecko Cantina for tacos and tequila in a lively atmosphere.

Getting around

Cheap, reliable buses make it easy to get around Cancun, and there’s a station on the central Avenida Tulum if you want to go further afield. Taxis will take you wherever you want to go, but they’re typically more expensive in the Hotel Zone than they are Downtown. Agree a fare in advance as they’re not metered. Many hotels have bikes that you can borrow to explore in the sunshine.

When to go

December to April is high season – you’ll get the best weather (sunny, dry, hot) but also the biggest crowds. It’s best to avoid Spring Break when uni students descend in their droves. The summer months can be uncomfortably hot, and June to October is also hurricane season. Rainy season runs from August to November.

Don’t miss
Ox Bel Ha. Underwater cave. Cancun Tourism
Underwater caves at Ox Bel Ha

Swimming in the cenotes is a magical experience. Ox Bel Ha is the largest of these underground caves at 134 miles long! Swim or snorkel – just don’t miss the experience. You can also head to the Xcaret eco-archaeological park for more cenote swimming, plus dolphins, a tropical forest and loads more.

A 15-minute ferry ride from Gran Puerto in the middle of the Hotel Zone will take you to the beautiful Isla Mujeres. There you’ll find the Garrafon Natural Reef Park where you can hike, snorkel or kayak in stunning surroundings.

Mexico is well known for its incredible Mayan ruins, but you don’t have to do a daytrip to see ancient sites. El Rey is a Mayan site sitting right in the Hotel Zone, with 47 ancient structures (and a community of iguanas!).

Three things we like
  1. The nightlife in Cancun is fantastic, adding a shot of Mexican spice to the evenings. Coco Bongo and Senor Frogs are two of the liveliest places for after dark action but there are lots of bars to suit every after-dinner drinker.
  2. All of the beaches are beautiful but Playa Chac Mool beach stands out for its ultra soft white sand and incredibly blue waters. The waves are great for watersports, and there’s even a cenote to explore.
  3. The underwater museum, in the waters surrounding Cancun and Isla Mujeres, offers an eerie experience diving amongst various sculptures and exhibits on the sea bed. Unforgettable.
Moon Palace Gold and Spa Resort. Cancun
Moon Palace Gold and Spa Resort
Something we don’t

In peak season the Cancun crowds can be intense – especially during ‘Spring Break’, when the college kids descend for hedonistic partying, so avoid! To escape the masses, head a little further down the Riviera Maya coastline where quiet beaches can still be found.

High50 insider tips
  • If you’re visiting between May and September take a boat trip out to see the shoals of huge whale sharks that congregate in the waters off Cancun.
  • If you visit Downtown for an evening dine in a cantina – La Habichuela is good – then hit a jazz or salsa bar for beer, cocktails or tequila!
  • Bored of busy beaches? Hang out with the locals at the pretty Parque las Palapas square, Downtown.
  • Pick up some real bargains away from the shiny Hotel Zone malls at Market 28.
  • You can hire a Harley Davidson for the day and do some beach hopping in style.
  • The sand in Cancun is made from crushed coral, which means that it won’t burn bare feet.
  • If you’re holidaying in May you’ll find some areas of the beaches cordoned off to protect the nests of endangered loggerhead turtles.

Need to know

  • The currency is the Mexican Peso.
  • Flight time from the UK is eleven hours, but as Cancun has its own airport you won’t have a lengthy transfer to worry about.
  • If hiring a car, don’t be worried if the police pull you over. These checks are made routinely.
  • You’ll be given a tourist card on arrival in Mexico. Don’t lose it or you could incur a charge.
  • Drink bottled water.
  • Remember to bring mosquito repellent to protect from bites.
  • You’ll need a UK to US (North America) travel adaptor.
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