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  • Writer's pictureLena Claeys

Cancun, Mexico: a complete travel guide

Updated: Jan 19

Cancun is considered to be the heart of the Mexican Caribbean. At this beautiful destination, you’ll find spectacular white-sand beaches, a turquoise sea, and a vibrant nightlife, which attracts millions of tourists every year. Cancun is composed of 2 distinct areas: the more local downtown area, El Centro, and Zona Hotelera, a long, beachfront strip of high-rise hotels, nightclubs, shops, and restaurants. Unfortunately, most tourists don’t venture out of the famed Hotel Zone. This is a shame because there are so many fun things to do in and around Cancun. In this travel guide we break down everything you need to know when visiting Cancun, where to stay, the best things to do in the city and the best day trips from Cancun in Mexico.

Check out our video about Cancun to get a sense of what it's like there!

Where is Cancun and how to get there?

Cancun is located in the northeast of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico and borders the Caribbean Sea. The best way to go to Cancun is by flying to Cancun International Airport and then taking a shuttle bus or ADO public bus that will take around 30 minutes to go to the center of Cancun. We always book our flights through Skyscanner to get the cheapest prices.

Important things to know before you go to Cancun in Mexico

The best time to visit Cancun is between December and May. The weather is generally nice and not too hot or too cold. You will have a lot of sunny days and low humidity. Be aware that this is the busiest time in Cancun.

If you plan on only staying in the hotel zone and not leaving, you'll be fine with English. However, when you leave that zone it might be good if you have a basic knowledge of Spanish, Mexico's official language. The currency of Mexico is Mexican Pesos.

The crime rates in Cancun are much lower than in the rest of Mexico due to the many tourists and lots of police controls. So Cancun in Mexico is generally safe. Just use your common sense and don't buy drugs on the street because there is quite some cartel violence.

Where to stay in Cancun?

Cancun has two extremes when talking about accommodation. There are very cheap places to stay but also very expensive places. It is so extreme that finding something in between isn't easy. Especially the hotel zone has mainly expensive places to stay, whereas the downtown area is more affordable. There are a few places we recommend staying in around Cancun. Click the links below to check them out for yourself.

Budget accommodations in Cancun:

Medium-priced accommodations in Cancun:

Premium accommodations in Cancun:

where to stay in cancun

Best Things to do in Cancun

In this article, we will highlight the best things to do in Cancun and also share a few of our favorite lesser-known places so you can enjoy your time in this wonderful city.

7. Enjoy the view in the Cancun Scenic Tower

The Cancun Scenic Tower is the highest attraction in the Riviera Maya. Here, you can take a ride up to an altitude of 262 feet, or 80 meters. You can take photos while the deck spins, giving you 360 views of the entire Hotel Zone and the Caribbean coastline.

Cancun mexico from above
Cancun from the tower

6. Visit the downtown

The ninth best thing to do in Cancun is to visit the downtown area. Downtown Cancun offers a great taste of local culture, with delicious street food, small shops, and cute parks. This is the area where the locals live and this is visible in the prices.

Some (affordable/cheap) restaurants we recommend:

  • La habichuela

  • Sirena Morena (vegetarian)

  • El poblano (tacos)

  • La Fonda de la Tulum

  • A la Burger

downtown Cancun

5. Swim at nearby cenotes

At number 8 we have a truly refreshing and unique experience: swimming in the nearby cenotes. The Yucatan Peninsula in general is well-known for its cenotes, with as many as 6,000 of them scattered around the area. Cenotes nearby Cancun include Cenote 7 Bocas, Cenote Verde Lucero, Cenote Las Mojarras, Cenote Zapote, Cenote La Noria, and Cenotes Kin-Ha. But if you rent a car, you can also visit more iconic ones, such as Suy Tun Cenote near Valladolid or Cenote Azul near Playa del Carmen.

Cenote Suy Tun near Valladolid
Cenote Suy Tun near Valladolid

4. Relax at the Hotel Zone

The Hotel Zone is the primary tourist area, filled with high-rise hotels, shops, bars, and restaurants. It is a 15-mile, or 24 km strip of beautiful white-sand beaches and deep blue water, and thus is where most people decide to stay. However, this is also the most expensive area and we found the price-quality here on the low end. If you do decide to stay here, you should check out the beautiful beaches of Playa Chacmool and Playa Delfines. The waves are pretty strong here, but the colour of the water itself is gorgeous! I

Playa Chac Mool in the Hotel Zone of Cancun
Playa Chac Mool in the Hotel Zone of Cancun

3. Party in Cancun

Cancún is the party capital of Mexico and so we can’t talk about the city without mentioning the nightlife. Most nightclubs are located in the Hotel Zone and can get pretty wild. Coco Bongo is the most popular club in Cancun, featuring acrobats, cover bands, and DJs. But Señor Frogs, Mandala, and La Vaquita are also popular.

cancun mexico night life

2. Explore “local” Playa Tortugas

Located along a more quiet part of the Hotel Zone, Playa Tortugas is our favorite beach in the zone. It has public access and offers a more local experience, with a relaxed atmosphere and clean sands. It’s also better for swimming, as the water is calm and there is generally less wind. It's the ideal place to rent water sports equipment, such as jet skis. But besides that, you can also snorkel or dive here. There are a couple of food vendors and restaurants along the beach, but most only take cash!

Playa Tortugas cancun mexico
Playa Tortugas from above

1. Explore the hidden gem “Isla Blanca”

About 12.5 miles or 20 kilometers north of the city of Cancún sits the stunning Isla Blanca. You can get here by local collectivo from the downtown, which leaves near the Farmacia Canto, at the corner of Avenida López Portillo and Calle siete about 3 times a day. We got off at the last stop, which is at the thinnest part of the peninsula. This untouched peninsula is a true hidden gem. Many windsurfers come out here because there is a giant lagoon with perfect conditions.

Isla Blanca cancun
Isla Blanca

Best day trips from Cancun

When you're in Cancun you should do some day trips to the surrounding attractions. They are often more impressive than the city. We'll break down our favorite day trips from Cancun.

5. Río Lagartos & Las Coloradas

Located about 3.5 hours from Cancun, Río Lagartos and Laguna Colorada make for a great day trip. Río Lagartos is a fishing village located along the Gulf Coast. It’s filled with wildlife and pristine nature. You can explore its protected biosphere by taking a boat tour where you will observe hundreds of flamingos, crocodiles, and pelicans. Right outside the biosphere, you can find the pink water lagoons called “Las Coloradas”. These pink lakes are formed by salt mines and make for stunning pictures.

crocodile cancun

4. Tulum

In recent years, Tulum has transformed from a sleepy fishing town to a popular tourist hub. This popularity comes mainly from its stunning beaches, laid-back vibe, and natural beauty. However, there are many other interesting things to do in and around Tulum as well. From the Tulum Ruins to the unique Kaan Luum lagoon, the Calavera Cenote, and the Gran Cenote, you have plenty of options here. Tulum is a 2-hour drive away from Cancun and can be easily reached by local collectivo or the tourist ADO bus. Alternatively, you can also book a day tour to get here. Check out more information on the tours.

Tulum ruins
Tulum Ruins

3. Bacalar

Bacalar is another amazing destination to visit from Cancun and one of our favorite places on the Yucatan Peninsula. Famous for its immense deep-blue lake, Bacalar is located in the south of Quintana Roo, near the border of Belize. It takes about 4 hours to get here by tour bus, so ideally spend more than 1 day here if you can. However, it’s still doable to get there and then back to Cancun in a day if you get an early start. This town is famous for its lake, which boasts seven brilliant shades of blue. It’s best explored during a boat tour, so you can experience and swim in the different colors and cenotes in the lake. The best things to do in Bacalar are:

  • Float down Los Rápidas

  • Take a boat tour on Laguna De Los 7 Colores

  • Explore Canal de Los Piratas

  • Do a sunset kayak

2. Isla Mujeres & the Underwater Museum (MUSA)

Another amazing day trip from Cancun goes to the nearby Isla Mujeres. Only a 20-minute boat ride from Cancun, Isla Mujeres is the closest day trip recommendation on our list. The island is a beautiful, peaceful paradise known for its white-sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and the friendliest locals in the Mexican Caribbean.

However, if you're more into diving or snorkelling, we recommend scuba diving or snorkeling at the MUSA “Underwater Museum of Art” and the Manchones Reef near Isla Mujeres. Located only 30 minutes away from Cancún, this underwater Museum is home to 500 life-size sculptures that are used to promote coral, algae, and other marine life. You can leave directly from Cancun by boat, which means you won't get to spend time on the island itself. Yet, this was one of our favorite activities!


isla mujeres cancun
snorkeling at Isla Mujeres

1. Chichén Itzá

Our favorite day trip from Cancun is to Chichén Itzá, one of the 7 World Wonders. This archeological site is located about 3 hours away from Cancun by tour bus. Chichén Itzá was once a thriving community of Mayan people and boasts an interesting history that you can’t miss. The pyramid temples and monuments that are left today are absolutely beautiful. A day trip to these ruins typically includes a visit to a cenote as well as to the colonial city of Valladolid. This blend of history, culture, and natural beauty makes it the best day tour from Cancun in our opinion.

 Chichén Itzá Cancun
the main pyramid at Chichén Itzá

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Free Giveaway

Did you enjoy our travel guide to Cancun? Make sure to download our free giveaway, which includes our summer travel packing list so you know perfectly what to pack when going to Cancun.

what to pack to cancun

More Helpful Info About Cancun

If you still need more information about Cancun, make sure to check out these other great articles below:

Need more travel inspiration? Check out our other destinations.

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Hi! We are Ine & Zac. An international travel couple from Belgium and the US. We created World Wild Hearts to inspire new adventures and help you plan your next trip. Use these tips, stories, and guides to inspire your next adventure of a lifetime!


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