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Visiting Cancun for the First Time? Here's What to See and Do

Here's everything you need to know to make the most of your first trip to Cancun.
Hi, I'm Karen!

Karen is a Scottish freelance travel and culture writer based in the US. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, National Geographic, BBC, and Condé Nast Traveler.

Perhaps you’re heading to Cancun thinking you’ll simply spend all of your vacation days blissed out on the beautiful beaches. Well, that’s certainly an option ... but you’d be remiss to miss out on everything else this Yucatan hot spot has to offer. So, clear some time in your schedule to get off the beach and away from the bars; instead, check out some of Cancun’s historical and cultural attractions or embark on a water adventure. Here are our top recommendations for first-time visitors to Cancun.

1. Visit Maya ruins

Maya ruins in Mexico
The Yucatan is home to many Maya ruins.Photo Credit: DC_Aperture / Shutterstock

Discover the Indigenous history of North America.

For those interested in learning about the cultural history of the Yucatan, there are a few Mayan archaeological sites that can easily be visited on day tours from Cancun and tours typically include round-trip hotel transfers and lunch. Chichén Itzá is the big one—it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and was one of the largest of the Mayan civilization’s great cities. Meanwhile, the Tulum Archaeological Zone is known for its perch right on the coast with views of the turquoise sea, while Cobá boasts the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan.

2. Soak up the sun on a scenic beach

Dolphin Beach in Cancun.
Dolphin Beach is a serene escape from Cancun's nightlife.Photo Credit: Iren Key / Shutterstock

Swap the Cancun crowds for a local favorite.

Just outside the Hotel Zone, Dolphin Beach (Playa Delfines) is a quiet stretch of white sand that feels a world away from the crowded beaches, pool parties, high-rise hotels, and rowdy nightclubs that more often define Cancun. The beach’s elevated position at one of the city’s highest points offers sweeping views of Cancun and the Caribbean Sea, and, often, the pods of dolphins for which it is named, making it the picture-perfect setting for a relaxed beach day.

3. Swim in a cenote

Swimmers explore a cenote in the Yucatan.
Head into the blue.Photo Credit: huang jenhung / Shutterstock

Refreshing, cool, and picture-perfect.

Some of the Yucatan’s most distinctive natural features, cenotes are sinkholes that have created natural underground swimming pools. Historically used by the Maya as a water source and the occasional setting for ceremonies, today they are popular with tourists and locals alike who swim in their cool, fresh waters. Many tours combine time at a cenote with a visit to a Mayan archaeological site such as Chichén Itzá or Cobá and on a hot day, there’s nothing better than taking a dip.

4. Explore an underwater art museum

Statues at Cancun Underwater Museum (also known as Museo Subacuático de Arte, or MUSA).
Snorkel in Mexico and you're in for some great surprises.Photo Credit: Rob Atherton / Shutterstock

Snorkel around works of art.

Created by the British sculptor and environmentalist, Jason deCaires Taylor, the Cancun Underwater Museum (also known as Museo Subacuático de Arte, or MUSA) makes for a diving or snorkeling experience like no other. The underwater museum displays more than 500 life-size sculptures on the ocean floor with the goal of promoting ocean conservation (the sculptures form artificial habitats for marine life and ease pressure on nearby, over-touristed diving destinations). You can explore the submerged statues by booking a snorkeling or diving tour from Cancun. If you’d rather stay dry, glass-bottom boat tours are also available.

5. Experience the natural paradise of Nichupté

Aerial view of Nichupté Lagoon in Cacun.
Nichupté consists of lagoons that cover 7,400 acres (3,000 hectares).Photo Credit: lunamarina / Shutterstock

Immerse yourself in the beauty of this lagoon system.

The enormous nature reserve of Nichupté is a system of lagoons that covers 7,400 acres (3,000 hectares) in the heart of Cancun. With crystal-clear water and lush mangrove forests, Nichupté’s seven fresh and saltwater lagoons are places of scenic beauty and playgrounds for an array of water-based adventures, from kayaking to jet-skiing, as well as watching wildlife such as crocodiles, turtles, and more than 100 bird species.

6. Sail to Isla Mujeres

Boats moored around Isla Mujeres in Mexico.
Isla Mujeres is the place to be.Photo Credit: / Shutterstock

It’s the perfect Cancun day trip.

The small island of Isla Mujeres is just 8 miles (13 kilometers) off the coast of Cancun, but offers a quieter and more relaxing experience than the busy tourist hub. Catamaran sailing tours and other cruises transport visitors to the island from Cancun and offer a variety of experiences, from diving or snorkeling around colorful reefs to glass-bottom boat tours and fishing charters. Some sailing tours are party-themed, and the alcohol flows freely, while others offer a more relaxing experience suitable for families. On land, you can also opt for a tour of the island that introduces you to its rich collection of street art works.

7. Shop for souvenirs at a craft fair

Day of the Dead skeleton crafts at a market in Cancun.
Head to the market for craft goods.Photo Credit: phortun / Shutterstock

Take some authentic crafts home.

There are a number of markets around Cancun that sell traditional Mexican crafts such as ceramics, textiles, home decor, and jewelry. Mercado 28 covers an entire city block in the heart of town and, while visiting can be an overwhelming experience, it is a great place to pick up some souvenirs before having a bite to eat in the central food court. Another option is Mercado Ki Huic, one of the city’s longest running markets located on busy Avenida Tulum, just outside the Hotel Zone.

8. Spot whale sharks

A whale shark breaks the ocean surface near Cancun.
Swim with the marine life.Photo Credit: Arkadij Schell / Shutterstock

These gentle giants are a sight to behold.

The biggest fish in the sea, whale sharks gather in the warm Caribbean waters off Cancun to feed and mate in the summer, typically from mid-June to early September. Tours departing from Cancun provide the opportunity to snorkel in those same waters and view the majestic creatures from a safe and respectful distance—be sure to choose a tour operator with a strong environmental track record. You’ll also have the opportunity to spot dolphins, manta rays, and turtles.

9. Check out an adventure park

Kayakers explore an adventure park in the Yucatan.
Adventure parks makes for a great day out.Photo Credit: Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock

There are plenty to choose from.

South of Cancun, near Playa del Carmen, a collection of family-friendly parks including Xcaret, Xel-Ha, and Xplor offer a multitude of activities including ziplining, water rides, swimming in underground rivers, and cultural experiences such as meeting with local artisans and watching pre-Hispanic cultural demonstrations. A day at one of these parks makes for a fun alternative to another day on the beach and offers a different take on the Riviera Maya that is suitable for all ages.

10. Enjoy the nightlife

The LED facade of popular Coco Bongo in Cancun.
Cancun is a great place to party.Photo Credit: jejim / Shutterstock

The scene is one of Mexico’s liveliest.

Cancun’s nightlife scene is the stuff spring break dreams are made of, and for those who want to live it up after the sun goes down, there are dozens of bars and clubs in town to check out. Coco Bongo, Señor Frogs, and the massive, 6,000-capacity City Nightclub are three of the most legendary, but different clubs are the place to be on different nights, so consider a nightclub tour to hit the best parties at the right time with a ready-made social group.

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