I’ve been posting about hotel stays a lot lately, and though I do love staying in resorts and posting our experiences, this time I want share my opinion of the best things to do and see in Cancun. These are the things I take my visiting friends and family to see. These are the places I feel passionate about.
There are literally thousands of articles on the internet listing the best things to do in Cancun. A lot of them are written by people who have been to the area once, or maybe never! Don’t get me wrong, I still haven’t experienced everything Cancun and the surrounding area have to offer, and there is a lot more to see than what is listed here, but these are my favorites so far. I have lived in Cancun for 15 years and I feel like being a local gives me a unique perspective.
So here they are, kind of in order, although depending on who I am with or what I am in the mood for, the order can change.
Depending on where you are staying and how long you will be in the area, you can easily do many of these things during a 7-night vacation in Cancun, Playa del Carmen or the Riviera Maya.
Xcaret is a magical place, and the easiest place to celebrate and enjoy Mexican and Mayan tradition, color, culture, music and food. This sprawling park in the jungle has all the modern conveniences yet has somehow maintained a natural feeling. The park is home to a breathtaking underground river, a butterfly pavilion, an aquarium, the replica of a Mayan village, a Mexican wine cellar and so much more. There are performances throughout the day but the night show must not be missed.
My favorite Cancun event is held at Xcaret each Oct. 30 through Nov. 2, the Festival de Tradiciones de Vida y Muerte, aka Day of the Dead festival. What once seemed like a creepy holiday to me has become my favorite Mexican holiday. Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of loved ones who have passed, of life, and the after world. Each year the festival features a different Mexican state and its music and traditions. This year that state is Puebla.
All of Xcaret’s parks are supurb, so depending on what interests you, there’s also Xplor, Xel Ha, Xoximilco, Xenotes and Xenses.
Isla Mujeres is a small island off the coast of Cancun. Unfortunately in recent years it has become busier and more populated, but it’s so charming that it’s still worth a visit. This is literally your tropical island paradise dream come true. The best way to experience the island is to rent a golf cart, circle the entire island, stopping along the way to sight see (and for beer). Don’t forget to explore the colorful downtown area, then finish with lunch, swimming and cocktails on Playa Norte (North Beach).
To really appreciate the island, stay there! There are hotels available at all prices and tons of really good restaurants.
Parque las Palapas, the central park in downtown Cancun is where you can get a taste of local life and delicious authentic Mexican food. On Friday evenings, local families gather in the park and their children participate in the various activities offered. Sometimes there is a show or public event. There are also cute vendor carts that sell unique crafts. Grab a bite from the food stalls (the places with the longest lines are the best) or dine at one of Cancun’s oldest and best restaurants, La Habichuela. Eat in the garden which feels like something out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. La Habichuela’s menu integrates traditional Mexican and Mayan ingredients and has been open for almost 40 years and is one of Cancun’s best restaurants.
The Yucatan Peninsula, the region of Mexico where Cancun is located, is home to thousands of cenotes. The peninsula is made of porous limestone, and over thousands of years water seeped down below the surface, creating stalactites, stalagmites and openings to underground rivers. The openings, or cenotes, can be anywhere from completely open, like a lake, to almost completely closed, like a cave. Cenotes hold cool, fresh water, so they are a perfect place to swim on sweltering tropical days. They are also a great place to snorkel since they often have fish and beautiful rock formations. The Mayan considered cenotes to be sacred portals to the underworld, and sometimes used them to perform human and other sacrifices, as is the case with the main cenote at Chichen Itza.
Many tours include a visit to a cenote and there are many cenotes along La Ruta de Cenotes (Cenotes Route) in Puerto Morelos and along the highway driving south from Playa del Carmen.
The longer I live here the more I appreciate Mayan culture, tradition and history. Visiting a ruins site with a competent guide is a way to get closer to this fascinating ancient culture. Coba is an excellent choice, as it is much less crowded than very popular sites Chichen Itza and Tulum, and you can still climb the huge pyramid.
There are tours available that will also take you to a Mayan village… something worth seeing!
I haven’t had many opportunities to explore the neighboring state of Yucatan, but I recently visited Rio Lagartos and Valladolid, and I’ve caught the bug!
Valladolid is a bustling colonial city complete with a charming town square and Rio Lagartos is a lazy fishing village that sits on the edge of a natural reserve that is home to thousands of flamingos, other birds and wildlife. If you don’t feel the Cancun area represents the “real” Mexico, Yucatan might be for you!
Traveling through the Yucatan is relatively inexpensive and safe.
I especially enjoyed driving through the countless “pueblos” where Mayan culture is still alive and well.
As I said earlier, I haven’t been everywhere, so here is my short bucket list. I have no problem saying that these places are fantastic, even though I haven’t been able to visit them yet.
Holbox is an island located off the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. It is not nearly as developed at Isla Mujeres and Cozumel. Like Isla Mujeres, this is your tropical island paradise dream come true, but with fewer people and hotels. And there are no cars! Holbox Yum Balam ecological reserve is home to sea turtles, crocodiles, flamingos and other wildlife. The waters off Holbox are one of the few places on earth where Whale Sharks can be found from May through September.
Sian Kaan, which means, “origin of the sky”, is a biosphere reserve that begins just south of Tulum, runs along 120 kilometers of coastline, and covers 5,280 square kilometers. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We’re taking Caribbean Sea, virgin beaches, tropical jungle, mangroves, coral reefs, Mayan ruins and wildlife, including monkeys, crocodiles, manatees, jaguars, birds, and much more! I am dying to explore this unspoiled natural paradise.
Have you visited any of these places? Did I miss any? What are your favorites?
You can see all of my Cancun recommendations on the 10Best Cancun Travel Guide.