Welcome to a detailed explanation of the best Cancun activities, all from firsthand experience.
Cancun is one of the best luxury beach vacation destinations in the world offering beautiful resorts, high end restaurants and fun attractions and activities at a very reasonable cost. From historical Mayan Ruins, to day trip adventures, I will explain the best Cancun activities for all ages.
Located on the Yucatan peninsula, between the Gulf of Mexico and western Caribbean Sea, Cancun is an adventure of a lifetime with numerous exciting activities for all ages. Visit the ancient Mayan Ruins, snorkel and dive in some of the most beautiful water in the world. There are day theme parks such and Xel-Ha, Xcaret and Xplor that combine fun for the entire family with nature's beauty. The islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeras are easily accessible for a day trip adventure. Plus there are the beautiful talcum powder - like sand beaches with water temperature in the 80s year round. Below are some of the best Cancun activities.
Below are my top four Cancun activities, 1) Xel-Ha adventure park, 2) Xplor adventure park, 3) Mayan ruins and 4) a day trip to Isla Mujeres.
Nearby Islands: [Isla Mujeres]
Xel-Ha is one of the top places for great Cancun activities. If you like water and snorkeling, exploring the waters of Xel-Ha is one of the best activities for the entire family. Xel-Ha is located on highway 307, 110 km (68 miles) south of Cancun, 44km (27 miles) south of Playa de Carmen and 13km (8 miles) north of Tulum. Xel-Ha is a lagoon made up of a freshwater river joining the Caribbean sea. Xel-Ha is an all inclusive nature's theme park. One admission fee covers all food and alcohol plus the following activities - snorkeling (including gear), swimming, cliff jumping, kayaking, float down a lazy river and explore caves. Optional activities, for an additional charge, include swimming with the dolphins, massages, sting-ray encounter, snuba and a sea-trek adventure. For snorkeling and general beach relaxation, Xel-Ha is one of my favorite Cancun activities. I make a point to spend an entire day each time I visit.
Xel-Ha is open 365 days a year from 8:30am to 5:30pm (6pm during summer). Facilities include restaurants, bars, lockers, restrooms and showers.
There are very comfortable wooden lounge chairs adjacent to the water entry points plus a few hidden along the shoreline that are more private. There is also a lounge area with several hammocks between the palm trees that are off the main trail. One of my Xel-Ha activities is to find that secluded two chair spot adjacent to the water and under a palm tree where you have immediate access to the water for snorkeling.
Hint! - For those entering the water, all sun-screen products must be bio-degradable. You cannot bring your standard sunscreens such as Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropics, etc. into the park. Bio-degradable sunscreens are available at the Xel-Ha store near the main entrance. These products protect from the sun very well but are more difficult to apply.
One of the most popular Cancun activities in snorkeling. Because Xel-Ha is a
lagoon, there are very little currents or waves. You can island hop
while you swim and snorkel and be far off shore yet close to land. The
sea life is amazing and the water is extremely clear and warm. It is
probably one of the best places to learn how to snorkel in the world. You can see large fish everywhere, even right where you enter the water. Snorkeling Xel-Ha and "island hopping" is one of the best Cancun activities for the entire family.
If you like underground adventure and
natural beauty, Xplor is one of the best Cancun activities. Xplor
is located off of highway 307 about 60 km (37 miles) south of Cancun
and 6 km (4 miles) south of Playa de Carmen. The trip from Cancun takes
about one hour. Similar to Xel-Ha, Xlpor is one of the most popular Attractions in Cancun.
The entrance to all activities start and end at the "heart" and take you down a trail of underground caves to begin your adventure.
There are four main activities, 1) zip lines, 2) amphibious vehicles, 3) underwater rafts and 4) swimming the underwater river.
One of my favorite Cancun activities is to go to Xplor and swim the underwater river.
Hint! - Bring water shoes ! They are available for sale at Xplor but you will get a better deal if you bring them with you, not to mention saving time not having to pick out a pair for you and the family.
The per person entry fee covers all activities, all you can eat buffet, fruit juice and soda drinks. Unlike Xel-Ha, Xplor does not serve alcohol due to the physical activities required.
Similar to Xel-Ha, Xplor is an all inclusive theme park that is integrated into nature. All of the activities involve water, in one way or another. Xplor differs from Xel-Ha in that many of the activities are underground.
The zip lines are a big attraction too. Xplor has done a great job at integrating them into nature. Xplor has 2 zip line trails, one taller and faster, the other just as much fun, but not quite as tall or fast. Hint! - the zip line activities are great fun and the staff ensures that all safety precautions are followed, however, you need to make sure that you like zip lines. Once you start, there is no way back and you have to complete the entire course to return to the "heart". Also, you will get wet on the zip lines, either from the water slides, needed to transition from one zip tower to the other, or by the final zip line water landing.
The amphibious adventure allow you to drive a 4 wheel drive vehicles
through dirt trails, into underground tunnels, through rivers and over a
suspension wooden bridge. This is definitely one of the must do Xplor activities.
are two underwater rivers that run more than a mile each and are 30 to
40 feet underground. One you can swim through and the other you sit on
a raft. Water depths range from 3
to 7 feet. Either by rafting or swimming, you will gently flow though
some of the most beautiful underground stalactite formations anywhere in the world. Hint ! - The water is underground and is not heated by the sun. It will be much cooler than you expect. Don't let the initial shock deter you from completing one of the most amazing activities that Xplor has to offer.
Exploring the ruins of the Yucatan are one of the most popular Cancun attractions. While there are hundreds of Mayan Ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula, the three most popular and accessible are Coba, Chichen Itza and Tulum. While all three are within a hundred or so miles of each other, each is very unique and has something special to offer.
Coba was the main city before 1000 A.D. and is the only Mayan Ruin that you can still climb to the top. Climbing Coba is one the of the best things to do in Cancun. Coba is located about 65km (40 miles) northwest of Tulum. Coba is spread out over a large area and inter-mingled within a dense forest canopy. Much of the 67 square km ( 26 sq mile) site remains untouched and still buried under ground.
The photo above shows those climbing to the top of the main temple with the aid of a rope that runs in the center from bottom to top. While you can use it to climb up, most use it on the way down. The photo does not do justice to the small, steep steps, that bow outward about half way down and intensifying the sensation of height. Many people have no problem getting to the top but struggle to get back down without crawling. Hint ! - make sure you have hiking or tennis shoes - no sandals! If you don't like heights, this is not for you and it will become one of the scariest things to do in Cancun.
The photo below shows the view from the top. It is just above the tree top canopy allowing you to lookout over the jungle for several miles.
Bikes are available to rent at a nominal charge or you can choose to rent a bike taxi that holds two and be escorted from place to place. Another option is to hire a guide. Hint - In Mexico, guides for the Mayan Ruins must complete a series of classes and they are licensed. They are very knowledgeable, friendly and speak very good English. The cost for a guide usually ranges between $20 and $40 USD and is well worth the investment.
Coba is open daily from 8am to 5pm. Make sure to bring sunscreen and water. There is a small store and restaurant adjacent if you need additional refreshments or supplies.
Chichen Itza is by far one of the most popular Cancun attractions. Many people travel from around the world to visit and it has become the most visited Mayan ruin in the Yucatan peninsula. It is located about 179 km (111 miles) west of Cancun. The best way to get there is via the very nice 180 toll road that begins just north of the Cancun airport. The drive takes about 2 1/2 hours. Once on the toll road, it is non-stop until you reach the toll plaza. The cost to drive the toll road is $22 and is well worth it.
Chichen Itza is an all day event. Leave early in the morning so that you have time to explore the 6.5 sq km (2.5 sq miles) of ruins. The cost to enter is $10 USD for adults and free to children under 12 years of age. Parking is extra.
Hint ! - Very important - for the first time Chichen Itza visitor, hire a tour guide. They are very knowledgeable, friendly and speak very good English. Without a guide you will miss out on some of the special things and not so obvious detail that Chichen Itza has to offer.
Once inside, you will find a very modern visitor center, museum, restaurant and bookstore. This is the area where you can hire a tour guide. Guides typically charge $40 - $50 USD for groups up to six. There are generally no discounts for smaller groups.
Inside you will immediately see the Pyramid of Kukulkan rising into the sky. Kukulkan was based on the Mayan calendar. The four separate stairways leading up to the temple, each have 91 steps, which adds up to 364. If you add in the top area it makes 365 days that equate to a solar year.
On each side of the pyramid are 18 terraces, 9 to the left and 9 to the right of the stairway, which is the number of months in the Mayan calendar. Each terrace has 52 panels, which represent the 52 year cycle period where the solar and religious calendars become realigned.
Kulkulkan was designed so that on the spring and fall equinox, March 21 and September 21, the sun aligns itself perfectly with the corner of the pyramid, from top and bottom, and as the sun sets, casts a diamond pattern (snake) on the ramp of the northern stairway. Hint ! - This event can attract 10,000 + people on each of these days. Unless you want to witness this specific event, it is better to visit on another day.
Since Chichen Itza is inland, in the middle of the jungle, summer temperatures and humidity can often be excessive. Hint ! - Visit between the beginning of December and the end of April, or early May at the latest.
Click on Cancun weather for current conditions and monthly averages. Hint ! - For the weather at Chichen Itza, plan on adding 10 degrees F to the Cancun averages.
Always make sure to wear light clothes, comfortable shoes and a hat plus bring plenty of water and sunscreen. Don't forget the camera !
The city of Tulum and the Mayan ruins are located directly off of highway 307 about 130 km (80 miles) south of Cancun. Tulum is only 13 km (8 miles) south of Xel-Ha so combining these two Cancun activities is easily accomplished in one day as long was you head out early. Tulum also intersects with the road that takes you to Coba. The ruins are perched high above the cliffs overlooking a magnificent Caribbean beach. Hint ! - bring your swimming suite because there is a stairway that takes you from the ruins to the beach.
Tulum is open from 7am to 5pm in the winter and 8am to 6pm in the summer. Admission is $4 USD and parking is $3 USD. If you want to take the shuttle from the visitor center to the ruins, it will cost another $1.50 USD.
The Tulum ruins were built initially as a fortress and later became a central area for maritime commerce and trade. The largest building in Tulum is called the Castillo or castle.
Walking around the site is easy as most paths are very flat.
Hint ! - One of the best Cancun activities is to make a day trip by combining Xel-Ha and Tulum. Arrive at Tulum right when it opens, spend 2-3 hours before the larger crowds arrive and then drive north for 10 minutes and visit Xel-Ha for the remainder of the day. Both Xel-Ha and Tulum are directly off of highway 307.
Isla Mujeres (Island of women) is a great day trip and one of the most relaxing of all Cancun activities. It is located about 13 km (8 miles) off of coast of Cancun. This is a very casual, laid back island, a step back from mainland Mexico and Cancun. The island has beautiful white sand, talcum powder like, beaches and beautiful turquoise water. Nothing is really fancy on the island, and by many, is considered the best for your money that Mexico has to offer.
There are two ferry landings in Cancun that will take you to Isla Mujeres, Puerto Juarez (downtown Cancun) and the other located at the northwestern end of the Zona Hotelera (hotel zone) behind Fat Tuesday's. Boats from Puerto Juarez are faster, leave every half hour and cost less as compared to the hotel zone one. The trip takes about 15 minutes on the Ultramar boats and costs $4 USD each way.
Hint ! - go to Puerto Juarez and take the Ultramar boats.
Isla Mujeres has lot a great attractions and activities. Once you arrive in Isla Mujeres you will be greated by numerous street vendors trying to sell you everything from clothes, jewelry to snorkeling and fishing trips. Plan ahead and know what you are doing. Look and walk straight ahead without looking too lost and confused.
Most people get around the island by taxi or golf cart. Isla Mujeres is only 8 miles long and 2 1/2 miles wide with slow winding roads throughout the island. Downtown is only 3 or 4 blocks long. A taxi ride to anywhere on the island won't cost much more than $8 USD. Golf carts rent by the hour or for about $45 per day.
One of my favorite Cancun activities is to take a taxi to "Hotelera de Garrafon" and spend the day, returning to Cancun in the late afternoon. This is a small, quaint hotel adjacent to the Garrafon Natural Reef Park. The hotel has a small number of simple rooms, a bar and restaurant with outdoor seating and a very small, half moon beach in a cove with chairs and umbrellas. There is nothing fancy about this place but it is an absolutely wonderful place to spend the day. Cost to enter is $4 USD per person. Snorkeling equipment is available for a nominal charge. You can order food and drinks from the friendly hotel staff and they will serve you all day long on the beach. This is not a touristy place and many locals come to enjoy the calm waters and abundant sunshine.
There is great snorkeling directly off of the beach with sunken cannons and boats just feet away.
Colorful fish are abundant and friendly, especially when you feed them with some of the fish food provided by the hotel staff. One of the most fun Cancun activities for the entire family is to feed the fish as shown below. Hundreds gather in less than 2 or 3 feet of water. The silver fish in the middle weighs about 4 to 5 pounds. The hotel offers fish food for a very nominal charge.
Hint ! - Don't miss the last ferry back to Cancun. If you do, you will spend the night in Isla Mujeres!
The following will make your activities more enjoyable:
1) Rent a car and drive. Don't forget to get insurance.
2) Watch out for "Topes" or speed bumps. They are even on the freeways as you approach small towns.
3) Obey speed limit.
4) Hire a tour guide while visiting the Mayan ruins.
5) Bring your swimming suit everywhere you go.
6) Buy water shoes before you get to Cancun.
7) Day trip #1 - Tulum in the morning followed by Xel-Ha late morning.
8) Day trip #2 - Coba in the morning followed by Tulum in the afternoon.
9) Always drink bottled water.
10) Buy bio-degradable sunscreen before you get to Cancun.
11) Always have small change, pesos, while you are traveling. Often times the roadside restrooms have a small charge to use the facilities.
12) Convert your money to pesos at home or at the resort before you begin your activities.
13) Always be polite, to the people and the police.
14) Tip the people who provide services and help you during your activities. They work very hard to make your beach vacation a great one.
1) Too much sun without the proper protection. Many visitors ruin the entire vacation on the first day by getting sunburned.
2) Never pay a vendor in USD while in Cancun. You will not get a favorable conversion rate.
3) Don't miss the last ferry from Isla Mujeres to Cancun.