Cancun, Mexico, is an enticing vacation option with alluring clear, blue waters and year-round warm weather. Many people are drawn in by the prospect of lying on the beach and soaking up sun with a frozen drink in hand. While we love that about Cancun, we also love the incredible outdoor activities in the area.
To best explore the surrounding area, choose your location based on the activities you’re interested in. There are so many great activities to take part in, other than sunbathing on a beach chair, so be prepared to take part in all kinds of things, from seeing the ancient Mayan ruins, to swimming in an underground cenote, to some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world.
Here are six of the top activities to experience in and around Cancun.
⇒ Planning where to stay? Check out these 3 amazing splurge-worthy resorts.
Snorkeling & Scuba Diving
Cancun is located on the Yucatan Peninsula, which borders the Caribbean Sea. For this reason, there are a plethora of water sports in and around Cancun. If you bring your own snorkeling gear, you can walk out into the clear water at almost any public beach and see an array of colorful fish and sea life.
Of course there are also dozens of tour operators who run snorkeling and scuba trips that you can go on, and they provide all the gear and usually lunch, too. This is my preferred way, because they can take you to spots that you couldn’t get to without a boat, where the snorkeling is incredible.
Explore some of Cancun’s most stunning underwater worlds during this shipwreck swim and snorkel tour. It’s one of the highest rated tours on Viator, and really affordable. You could also combine two activities together and go snorkeling on a trip to Tulum, one of the most impressive Mayan Ruins in the area (which you’ll read about below).
Punta Nizuc is the closest offshore reef to the hotel zone and is home to some of the artificial reef statues that have been submerged by the Cancun Underwater Museum (MUSA), an eco-project that literally brings life to the areas around the natural reef.
Explore the Mayan Ruins
The Yucatan ruins are awe-inspiring and provide a better understanding of Mayan history. Mexico’s rich and mysterious past is visible in the dozens of ancient ruins scattered throughout the country. From impressive towering pyramids to elaborate ancient cities, the Mayan ruins draw millions of tourists from across the globe each year.
Start by visiting Chichén Itzá, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico. Further south is Tulum, built and settled during the late Postclassic Period in the same architectural style as Chichén Itzá and other nearby sites. Its major draw for visitors is the location. The ruins are situated on 40-foot-tall cliffs, along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea.
Ek Balam translates into “the black jaguar”. Construction began in the pre-Classic period and continued nearly 1,000 years into the Late Classic Period, roughly 100 to 900 AD. The grounds extend for almost 12 kilometers, but only about a mile of it has been excavated and are open to the public.
These are just three of the many archaeological sites in the area. Learn more about the Mayan Ruins you can visit in the Yucatan.
Swim with Sea Turtles
One of the best places in the area to swim with turtles is at Akumal. It’s a natural protected area located about 60 miles south of Cancun in the Riviera Maya and a good place to be able to swim with the sea turtles that frequent the area. The best way to do this is on a half-day excursion to Akumal Bay.
You can leave the crowds of Cancun behind for a day by taking a quick ferry to Isla Mujeres. It’s a sleepy island where life moves a little slower and there’s not much to do, but Isla Mujeres is known for its sea turtles, and you can visit the turtle farm for a tour and a look at the amazing creatures in their natural habitat. If you snorkel or swim while on the island, you’re sure to see and swim with the turtles.
Swim in a Cenote
Spending a day at the cenotes is one of the best activities near Cancun. Cenotes are caves and tunnels that form underground when the limestone bedrock above collapses or caves in to reveal subterranean pools of water. The water in the pools is often pristine and so clear that you can see right down to the bottom.
There are an estimated 7,000 cenotes in Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula alone, making it a prime spot to check out this natural phenomenon. You will simply be amazed!
Book a cenote tour to see the best hidden cenotes the peninsula has to offer. Some of the more popular and easy-to-find cenotes are Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos near Tulum, and Cenote Yokdzonot and Ik Kil near Chichén Itzá.
Eat Authentic Food
The hotel zone, which is where you’ll find most of the large, high-rise resorts in Cancun, is not the ideal location if you want to see the non-touristy side of Cancun. Instead, head to El Centro, where you can try authentic Mexican food from street food vendors or cantinas instead of eating at the resort buffet.
Better yet, participate in a cooking class, like this 6-course Mexican cooking class in Puerto Morelos, and learn the basics of traditional Yucatan cooking. It’s a traditional Mexican fiesta, complete with drinks, tequila shots and music. You’ll get a true taste of Mexican food at this class.
Here are some of the traditional Mexican foods you should keep an eye out for when ordering. There are lots of restaurants where you can find these dishes, and it’ll give you a much greater appreciation for where you are than anything you’ll get at a resort.
Explore the Beautiful Beaches
If you’re staying at a resort, it’s likely they have their own private beach, as many of them do. Those beaches are regularly groomed by the resort to look pristine and perfect. However, there are lots of public beaches in Cancun and southward that are definitely worth a trip to.
If you can’t help but picture yourself on a white sandy beach with a good book, stay a little further south along the stretch of sandy beaches known as the Mayan Riviera. The Mayan Riviera is where you’ll find all the sprawling resorts, like the adults-only favorite El Dorado Royale and romantic couples resort La Casitas at El Dorado Royale.
All along the Riviera, there are beautiful local beaches like Akumal Beach and Soliman Bay that aren’t jam-packed with tourists. Here you can snorkel, swim, take a bay cruise, and enjoy a leisurely lunch. Find more great white sandy beaches in Cancun to visit in this post.
Tours to Book:
With all of these great activities in Cancun, you have no excuse not to plan your visit now. Get outside the resorts and discover what Cancun is really all about.
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Laura Lynch, creator and writer of Savored Journeys, is an avid world traveler, certified wine expert, and international food specialist. She has written about travel and food for over 20 years and has visited 70+ countries.