Known for its beautiful white-sand beaches, buzzing nightlife, and all-inclusive resorts, Cancun, Mexico is far from boring. This comes as no surprise considering its location in the beautiful state of Quintana Roo, popular for its Mayan ruins, underground cenotes, lush jungle, and trendy vacation towns.
However, if you are looking to break out of the typical beach routine and fill your Cancun vacation itinerary with other unforgettable fun things, the good news is that you’ve got plenty of activities to choose from. Here are 21 unique things to do in Cancun to help you explore more of the beauty and culture of this tropical Mexican-Caribbean beach town.
1. Take a Trip to Chichen Itza
If one of your goals while visiting Cancun is to see Mayan Ruins, a tour of Chichen Itza is a must-do activity. Listed as one of the seven new wonders of the world, this incredible archaeological site is mostly known for the pyramid-shaped Temple of Kukulkan. However, there are many other jaw-dropping ruins to see, each with a deep history behind it.
Chichen Itza is roughly a 2.5-hour drive from Cancun, so having a car is necessary to get there. However, there are many day trips with guided tours offering pickup right from your hotel. Some full-day tours will also stop by the charming city of Valladolid and include an afternoon swim in a cenote. During my visit, I opted for a sunrise tour which only went directly to the site and had me back in Cancun and on the beach by early afternoon!
SheBuysTravel Tip: The Chichen Itza site is extremely hot with very little shade. Make sure to take a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water. To avoid the worst of the heat and crowds, consider taking an early morning tour as I did!
2. Catch the Ferry to Isla Mujeres
Just a short 15-minute ferry ride away from Cancun’s hotel zone, Isla Mujeres is another item to add to your must-do checklist when in Cancun. Whether you go for one day or multiple days, you will not get bored on this beautiful island!
Isla Mujeres is just a little more than four miles long, so many choose to rent a golf cart for a few hours and explore the whole island. At one end of the island, there is a turtle sanctuary, a great attraction for families. My four-year-old son loved it and wanted to stay for hours.
Isla Mujeres also has some of the best beaches in the Caribbean that I have ever been to with turquoise, crystal clear waters and white sand beaches. Along the beach, you can find several beach clubs, restaurants, and bars. The beach also has a pretty long stretch of shallow water, so it is great for non-swimmers and families with young children (my four-year-old son loved it there)!
While the island is super easy to get to and explore on your own, there are also many fun catamaran tours offering day trips with snorkeling, lunch, and an open bar. Most boats going toward Isla Mujeres depart from Puerto Juarez or Playa Tortugas.
3. Visit an Uninhabited Island
Located 19 miles north of Isla Mujeres sits Isla Contoy, an uninhabited island and protected natural reserve. Isla Contoy was declared a national park in 1998 and is one of Mexico’s most important bird nesting sites and sanctuaries. It is also an important nesting site for sea turtles.
Being on Isla Contoy is like living a dream. There are pristine waters, white sands, beautiful, lush palm trees, exotic wildlife, and absolutely no beach crowds. However, to get there you’ll need to book a tour, and do so sooner than later. Only 200 guests are allowed to visit the island each day in an effort to preserve its natural habitat.
4. Visit the Nichupte Lagoon
If you’re familiar with how Cancun looks from above (the beach area looks like a giant “7”), then you’ve likely seen the Nichupte Lagoon, the natural reserve that separates downtown Cancun from the hotel zone and is a great option if looking for unique things to do in Cancun.
Nichupte Lagoon is made up of seven lakes, mangrove forests, and abundant wildlife. There are many water activities to enjoy during a visit including kayaking, jet-skiing, and motorboating. There are also several guided tours that take place in the lagoon that take you through the mangrove canals, giving you an opportunity to see Cancun’s jungle side. One of the most popular tours is the sunset kayaking experience.
5. Experience an Authentic Mexican Fiesta at Xoximilco
If having a truly authentic Mexican experience is among your wishlist during your Cancun visit, you can’t miss out on visiting Xoximilco Park. Inspired by Mexico City’s original Xoximilco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this fun experience allows you to take part in Mexican fiesta on a traditional trajinera, colorful boats once used to transport fruits, veggies, and flowers.
Once on board, you’ll have the opportunity to try authentic local Mexican fare, an open bar with tequila, beer, soft drinks and water, and live music from some of the area’s best Mariachi bands. It is certainly one of the top unique things to do in Cancun! However, this activity is best for adults only (18 and up), so you may want to skip this activity if traveling with the little ones.
6. Spend a Beach Day with the Locals at Playa Tortugas
When traveling, I’ve always preferred to go where the locals go versus the ultra-touristy spots. If you are the same type of traveler and are looking for unique things to do in Cancun that also attract the locals, you’ll want to spend some time at Playa Tortugas.
In addition to being one of the frequented public beaches by locals, Playa Tortugas is known for its clean sands, beautiful views, and laid-back atmosphere. The waters are calm, making it an ideal option for families with younger children. There are umbrella and chair rentals available as well as several restaurants nearby to refuel.
Playa Tortugas is located just north of the hotel zone and is easily accessible by bus or car. one of the departing points for ferries going to Isla Mujeres.
7. Scuba Dive at an Underwater Museum
If museums have never quite been your thing, you may change your mind when you see the Cancun underwater museum! As one of the largest underwater art attractions in the world, a visit to MUSA (the Museo Subacuatico de Arte) isn’t one of the most unique things to do in Cancun, but is also something to add to your bucket list!
This amazing man-made site is full of underwater statues which are made with special materials to promote the growth of coral reefs. The museum was made with the intent of taking the focus off of the nearby natural reefs, hence aiding in their conservation.
The museum has three different locations, some suitable for snorkeling only and others only suitable for scuba diving. While diving is the best way to visit the museum and see all of its incredible sculptures, it is nice that those who are not comfortable with diving have options. There are both beginner’s diving tours and snorkeling tours available.
8. Explore the Mayan Ruins at El Rey Archaeological Site
The Yucatan peninsula has plenty of places to view Mayan Ruins, many of them requiring lengthy day trips. However, if you don’t have time to take a full-day tour, you can pay a visit to the El Rey Archaeological Site, the only one right in the Cancun Hotel Zone.
Located next to Playa Delfines, El Rey is more than 1,000 years old. While not as big or popular as Chichen Itza or the ruins in Tulum, there are still 47 structures to see including a burial site and ancient murals.
The only downside of El Rey is that it can get a bit crowded because of its convenient location. Those who want a quieter experience may also consider taking the 30-minute taxi ride to do a self-guided tour of El Meco Archaeological Site. El Meco is both larger and more interesting than El Rey with ruins nearly 1,500 years old. However, there are no guided tours available. However, there are day tours available that provide transportation to both sites.
9. Swim with the Whale Sharks
Another bucket list activity that absolutely needs to be added to your list of unique things to do in Cancun is to swim with the whale sharks. This one-of-a-kind experience is one that can only be done in certain places at certain times of the year, as whale shark season only runs from mid-June until August. It is definitely something that you will never forget.
For approximately $125-$175 USD (depending on which tour operator you choose), you will have the opportunity to get up close and personal with whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean. However, participating requires paying lots of attention as there are several rules against what and what not to wear (FYI, no sunblock is allowed) and how to safely and ethically swim with these majestic creatures.
There is no need to have experience diving or snorkeling prior to the trip. Most tour operators are very good about making sure you get the best experience and will even offer to swim with you.
Whale shark season only runs from mid-June until August, so you will want to plan accordingly. Also, it is weather-dependent, so make sure to check the weather reports before going!
SheBuysTravel Tip: Viewing the whale sharks requires a pretty lengthy boat ride that can get a bit choppy. Even those who are used to being on the water may get a little queasy, so you may consider taking motion sickness medication before your trip or bringing along natural remedies to help.
10. Get Your Adrenaline Pumping With a Watersports Adventure
With crystal clear, turquoise blue water like there is in Cancun, one simply can not pass up on the opportunity to get adventurous in the water! There are plenty of opportunities for watersports at every corner you turn, from jet-skiing and kayaking to parasailing and speedboat tours.
Some of the most popular tours that allow you to experience multiple activities include a 5-in-1 water activities pass and a shipwreck snorkeling and parasailing tour. Or, just stroll along the beach and find one of the plenty of vendors with rentals and experiences available at a reasonable price
11. Take a Day Trip to Tulum
Tulum is another popular tourist destination on the Yucatan Peninsula and a great day trip to take from Cancun. It is just a 1.5-2 hour drive away, so depending on how long your Cancun vacation is, you can spend the day there or spend a couple of nights. Tulum is known for its beaches, Mayan Ruins, and cenotes and has become increasingly popular over the years with those wanting to see the jungle side of the Yucatan.
While you’re there, be sure to take some time to visit Xel-Ha, a natural water park considered to be one of the most beautiful natural wonders in the world. Xel-Ha is home to four different types of mangroves, as well as underground rivers, cenotes, and hidden coves. The best part is, it is all-inclusive, with unlimited food, drinks, and snorkeling!
12. Shop ‘Til You Drop in the Local Markets and Malls
La Isla is an open-air mall in the hotel zone with many different name-brand stores, restaurants, and bars. But there is much more to do than shopping in La Isla. For visitors traveling with kids, there’s also a fun interactive museum with a variety of colorful fish, and sea creatures such as crocodiles and stingrays. For incredible views of the city, hop on SkyWheel Cancun, a 230-foot giant Ferris wheel, the third-largest of its kind in Latin America.
Avenida Tulum is another popular shopping area located in the main part of downtown Cancun. For travelers looking to get better shopping deals and unique finds outside of the hotel zone, Avenida Tulum is the place to go. It is also a good place to go for those who have never been to downtown Cancun. And just a five-minute drive away from Avenida Tulum is Mercado 28, known for its many local shops, souvenirs, authentic Mexican street food, and taco stands.
13. Go on a Snorkeling Tour in Puerto Morelos
Located 25 miles south of Cancun, Puerto Morelos is a beautiful Mexican port town between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. It is home to the Puerto Morelos National Reef Park, part of the second-largest barrier reef in the world, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
Puerto Morelos is known for its snorkeling, and there are snorkeling tours available where you can swim the beautiful blue water and spot colorful fish, sea creatures, and maybe even sea turtles. Puerto Morelos is also home to more than 100 cenotes!
14. Discover the Ruta de Los Cenotes
The Riviera Maya is full of cenotes, natural water-filled sinkholes in limestone caves. In Puerto Morelos, you can find more than 60 of these cenotes along the Ruta de Los Cenotes. With some cenote sites having been turned into adventure parks with zip lining, biking, snorkeling, and diving, it is one of the unique things to do in Cancun for adventurous travelers.
Some of the cenotes are made for snorkeling only while others also allow for diving. However, if you plan to dive you will need to have a guide as well as an open-water certification. The cenotes along the route are full of fish, caverns, caves, stalactites, and stalagmites, making for a breathtaking underwater experience.
15. Take a Day Trip to Playa del Carmen
Just a hop, skip, and jump away from Cancun is another one of the Riviera Maya’s most popular beach destinations, Playa del Carmen. This beautiful beach town was reachable in just a little over an hour and offered plenty of places to dine, shop, drink, party, and relax on the spacious white sand beach. At night, the plaza fills with both locals and tourists enjoying the entertainment. From Playa del Carmen you can also hop on a ferry to head to the nearby island of Cozumel!
You can easily reach Playa del Carmen by car or taxi. For a more economical option, you can also head to downtown Cancun to catch the ADO charter bus or hop in a shared colectivo. I personally found the ADO bus to be the best option for round-trip transportation. The bus was safe, air-conditioned, spacious, and offered entertainment. I only spent the day there but could easily have stayed a few days more.
16. Get Adventurous at a Theme Park
If you are looking for unique things to do in Cancun that involve getting your adrenaline pumping, a visit to one of its nearby theme parks is a must. Xcaret and Xplor are two of the most well-known theme parks and are certainly worth a visit if you have the time.
Located an hour from Cancun in Playa del Carmen is Xcaret, a huge theme park with more than 50 natural and cultural attractions. Xcaret also offers accommodations for those wanting to make a multi-day trip out of their visit to the park. Friends of mine who have been to this park have told me that staying at the park is best.
Also located in Playa del Carmen is Xplor, a theme park unlike any other. Instead of the typical theme park attractions, this jungle-based park features eco-attractions such as ziplining, ATVs, and swimming in caves and cenotes.
If you have a couple of free days to spend in Cancun, I recommend booking a bundle package that offers transportation and entry to both parks.
17. Get Up Close and Personal with Crocodiles at Croco Cun Zoo
If you’re really feeling adventurous, you can head to Croco Cun Zoo, an interactive crocodile farm and animal shelter located about 25 minutes from the hotel zone. Visiting Croco Cun Zoo isn’t just one of the unique things to do in Cancun, but one of the most unique things to do in the world. Not only will you have the chance to see several of these scaly creatures, but you’ll also have a chance to feed them!
In addition to crocodiles, you can also get up close and personal with other animals including snakes, parrots, monkeys, and deer. It is an amazing experience for children, teaching them how to properly touch, hold, and feed the animals as well as how to protect them and their environments.
18. Visit the Cancun Mayan Museum
If you’re a history buff, you will want to make room in your itinerary for a visit to the Museo Maya (Mayan Museum in English). Located right in the heart of the Cancun hotel zone next to an archeological site, there is where you will find one of the area’s best collections of Mayan artifacts and temporary exhibitions. There is also a children’s area where the little ones can participate in arts and crafts activities.
Outside of the museum is just as beautiful, with lush and picturesque jungle vegetation, Mayan ruins, and maybe even a few iguanas waiting for a photo op! Admission to the museum costs approximately $5 USD and includes access to the adjacent ruins. You can also book a private tour which includes lunch and a trip to a nearby cenote.
19. Relax on the Beach at Playa Delfines
While spending some time on the beach is a pretty obvious thing to do when you visit Cancun, there are some beaches that you absolutely can’t miss. Playa Delfines is one of those beaches.
Located in the south end of the hotel zone, Playa Delfines (translated to “Dolphin Beach” in English) is one of the best beaches in Cancun. It sits right behind the colorful “Cancun” letters, so after you snap your souvenir photo, set up your beach chairs or towels under one of the many palapas and enjoy the scenery. It is also far enough away from the loud hotel resorts so that you can enjoy a quiet and relaxing beach day. Playa Delfines is also located right across the El Rey Archaeological Site for those looking to make the most out of their time.
For visitors traveling with kids, there is a playground as well as restrooms at the beach. Even with the playground, there was more than enough space for my son to run around in the sand and not disturb other beachgoers. However, there are no restaurants nearby, so you’ll want to pack your own food. Sometimes, vendors will walk by selling fruits and snacks. Lifeguards are on duty during peak hours which is comforting considering the waters can be a little rough.
20. Enjoy the Nightlife at Coco Bongo
Cancun has a reputation for its exciting nightlife with plenty of beach clubs and nightclubs offering open bars and pumping music to dance the night away. However, Coco Bongo is the most unique and impressive of them all, featuring acrobats, live music, incredible light shows, and jaw-dropping performances.
However, Coco Bongo does get crowded quickly, so it is recommended to get tickets in advance versus waiting in line the night of. Tickets can be a little pricey, with regular admission starting at $113 USD per person, but the price includes an open bar.
21. Admire the Pink Lakes in Las Coloradas
While not located in Cancun, visiting the pink lakes of Las Coloradas is definitely one of the unique things to do when visiting Cancun. It is located around 3.5 hours from Cancun and you can easily get there by renting a car (it’s an easy straight shot) or taking a guided tour that includes lunch and other activities. If you drive, be sure to take along some pesos for the toll!
Since Las Coloradas is located in a different time zone, you will gain an hour when making your way there, giving you more time to explore this incredible site. On the way back you can stop by the city of Valladolid, or visit other sites such as Cenote Kikil or the Ek Balam ruins.