Cancun Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Cancun, Mexico. The name conjures up images of gentle rocking in a hammock overlooking the Caribbean sipping a cold drink. The world renowned destination of Cancun is a firm favorite for travelers drawn to the wealth of Mayan archaeological sites, glorious beaches, Caribbean seas and non-stop action.
Cancun Travel Guide
Table of Contents

Because of its privileged location and natural beauty, Cancun was chosen for development as a tourist resort area in the 1970s. The history of Cancun dates far beyond this though, as the Maya people lived here long before the Spanish arrived.

As with most tropical paradise spots, there’s plenty to see and do in Cancun. Boasting outstanding architecture, Chichen Itza is one of the greatest cities of ancient Maya and one of the most important archaeological sites of the Yucatan Peninsula. As with the other impressive ruins in the region, Chichen Itza can be enjoyed on a day trip from Cancun.

Tulum is a magical place that has served as an enchanting Caribbean escape for Mayans since at least 564 AD, which is the date inscribed in the oldest known stone stellae. The combination of its stunning setting overlooking the Caribbean, sapphire blue waters, glittery white sandy beaches and hidden cenotes in the Yucatan jungle are bound to cast a spell on all who visit.

Tucked away inside the Yucatan jungle is the ancient abandoned city of Coba, with its Nohuch Mul, the tallest pyramid in the Maya world. Once a thriving city, Coba enjoyed about 300 years of success before it was abandoned. The sprawling city is today one of the best adventure stops in Cancun as it stimulates the thrill of discovery for visitors moving from one architectural link to another.

An attraction unlike any other in the world, eerie, spectacular and beautiful are all words used to describe the underwater phenomenon that is the Museo Subacuatico de Arte. Don’t miss out on this fantastic attraction that seeks to promote Cancun as an artistic residence and great diving opportunity.

Cancun’s natural attractions are obvious. It boasts 14 miles of pristine white beaches, clear turquoise water, perfect year-round beach weather and a bountiful marine world thanks to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef that lies just off its coast. And the best spot to experience all this and more is on the island of Isla Mujeres.

While in Cancun, do yourself a great big favor and give in to Cancun nightlife, at least once. And there’s no better place to do this than at the world famous Coco Bongo. But don’t let the party reputation fool you – Cancun is much more than that, but you will have to go looking for it. Leave the main resort area full of young Americans on Spring Break and you’ll find a very different Cancun: a local’s city with few tourists and friendly people.

Cancun may be famous for its gorgeous beaches and stellar nightlife, but it is also the gateway to the Mayan world. The city is also home to Museo Maya de Cancun, a great museum at which you can learn more about the great Mayan civilization.

In addition to learning about the ancient Maya, you can also learn about the present-day locals, their traditions, culture and excellent cuisine at Mercado Veintiocho or Market 28, a big crafts market full of vendors hawking many of the same wares you will find at La Zona Hotelera, but at half the price.

Visit the extraordinary Tequila Herradura Museo Sensorial museum and be transported to a magical place where your senses are enhanced as you discover all the aromas and flavors of the tequila that Casa Herradura produces. The museum recreates a visit to the hacienda, while teaching you all about their tequila. Discover the birthplace of the best tequila as you enjoy a memorable cultural experience.

With such incredible ancient sites, beautiful beaches, memorable cultural events and buzzing nightlife, Cancun is a world-class holiday destination that will leave every visitor captivated from the very start.

1. Chichen Itza

Easily the best known and best restored of the Mayan archaeological sites in the Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza served as the economic and political center of Mayan civilization between the years 750 and 1200 AD. The impressive structures of Chichen Itza demonstrate the extraordinary use of architectural space by the Mayas, as well as their knowledge of astronomy.

Between the years 600 and 1250 AD, Chichen Itza was the center of economic, political, military and religious power, not only in the Yucatan, but also in the entire southeastern Mesoamerica. The domain of the Itza and its sphere of control was largely based on regional and long distance trading activities that generated one of Mesoamerica’s most important commercial circuits.

Situated in the northern Yucatan Peninsula, about 90 miles from the coast, the ruins of Chichen Itza have been named one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World”. Founded in the year 524 by a priest known as Itzamna, Chichen Itza means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza”, and is a magnificent display of Mayan culture and the ceremonial center of the Yucatan.

One of the main highlights of Chichen Itza is El Castillo, a striking building which was dedicated to Kukulkan, the Plumed Serpent. Each year on the Spring and Fall equinoxes, the sun strikes the side of this step pyramid creating a play of light and shadow that appears like a snake slithering down the building’s steps.

The southern half of the site is known as Old Chichen and was constructed around 700 AD by Mayans emigrating from southern Yucatan’s Puuc region. The Itza built palaces and temples at Chichen Itza, including Casa Colorada and Casa de las Monejas.

The Toltec aspect of Chichen Itza came from the Tula whose influences can be seen in the Osario and the Jaguar and Eagle Platforms. Most interesting is the cosmopolitan blending of the two that created the Caracol and the Temple of Warriors.

The Temple of the Warriors featuring hundreds of columns that surround a massive temple structure carved in reliefs. There are also remnants of the square columns that once help up the temple roof. The columns are carved on all 4 sides in figures of warriors bedecked with feathers.

The Great Ballcourt is the largest known ballcourt in Mesoamerica, with each of its ends having a raised temple area. The ballcourt acoustics are remarkable in that if you whisper at one end, you can be heard clearly at the other.

Cenote Sagrado is another impressive natural site at Chichen Itza, which features a sink-hole gateway into an underground body of water, which was the recipient of many Mayan sacrificial objects.

In addition to perfecting architectural techniques as demonstrated in Chichen Itza, the ancient Maya developed an advanced written language, had the concept of zero and a calendar that allowed for the calculation of occurrences of eclipses and other celestial events with great precision.

The Maya are still very much alive and thriving, with about 6 million Maya people living in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize today.

2. Tulum

Tulum which means “wall”, is the site of an ancient Maya walled city and a port for Coba. The most picturesque archaeological site in the Riviera Maya and the only one that was built overlooking the ocean, Tulum was an ancient Mayan fortress city that rose to power toward the end of the Classic era. It is today one of the best preserved Maya coastal sites in the Yucatan.

Situated 43 miles south of Playa del Carmen, Tulum offers a combination of history, culture and one of Mexico’s best beaches. It is also the most photogenic destination in the region, if not the entire country. Part of Tulum’s charm lies in its cliff-top positioning which allows visitors to admire the turquoise shades of the Caribbean in all their splendor.

Perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the clear turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean, El Castillo is the most iconic of Tulum’s structures. The Mayan Riviera is most often associated with the image of the cliff-top Castillo, its beachfront location and lush green landscape, that’s found in countless postcards.

Visitors should go here to enjoy for spectacular views of the beaches, Caribbean and surrounding coast. Go inside El Castillo to see the remnants of frescoes. Also visit the Templo del Dios Descendente and the Templo de los Frescoes, which has spectacular figurines of the “diving god”.

Tulum also offers one of the region’s most stunning vistas. To enjoy this, go along the expansive walkway that extends around the ruins. After hiking through the jungle and walking through the ancient stone buildings of the walled city, you will be struck by the vision of the shocking blue ocean against a backdrop of cliffs and ruins. It will take your breath away.

There’s a staircase leading down to the beach where visitors can sunbathe and swim. In fact the best way to experience Tulum is by combining your tour of the ruins with a refreshing dip and some beach time.

Once you descend the steep staircase, you can nestle your feet on powdery soft sand and dip your toes in the playful Caribbean waves at the base of a wall of rock, with El Castillo hovering overhead. This is the perfect spot to connect history with nature.

Tulum is great to visit on a day trip. The coastline along this southern stretch of the Riviera Maya is relatively undeveloped and offers a relaxing change of pace from the northern resort cities. It also makes for a great base from which you can explore more of the region, including the ancient Mayan ruins at Coba, which are close by.

Cool off at Boca Paila beach, a pristine location that has not yet been invaded by the big name resorts. Visit the craft markets or watch the Mayan Pole Flyers while taking a walk around town. Walk further up Tulum Beach Road and arrive at Tulum Pueblo where you can explore some quaint local shops and restaurants. Tulum also has freshwater cenotes or passageways to underground rivers worth a swim.

Between the famous ancient ruins and amazing beach scene, Tulum enables travelers to explore Mayan history of the Yucatan. Depending on when you visit, you can also witness some of the colorful festivals held by locals at Tulum.

A small carnival is held at Tulum several days before Lent, and in July the Feast of the Talking Cross combines pagan and Christian elements. The Festival of the Marine Turtle involves communities from all across the Riviera Maya and Cancun participating in activities such as a kite flying contest, sand sculpture contest, beach cleaning, ecological workshops and the release of baby turtles.

3. Coba

Surrounded by two big lagoons, Coba is an ancient Mayan village in the state of Quintana Roo which boasts archaeological wonders. Situated half an hour’s drive inland from the coastal city of Tulum, Coba is the site for intriguing Mayan ruins which are remnants of structures built sometime between 500 and 900 years ago, deep in the heart of the Yucatan jungle.

In Mayan language, Coba means “water stirred by wind”, and the Maya people flourished here between 400 and 1100 AD. Coba was one of the largest Mayan cities during the Classic period. At its peak, it was home to about 50,000 inhabitants. What made it a desirable location was the presence of two small lakes nearby.

Coba enjoyed economic dominance in the region, extensively trading with other communities of the Maya in what is now Mexico, Honduras and Belize. During its height, Coba served as an important trade link between the inland cities and the Caribbean coast.

There’s a network of ancient roads known as “sacbe” in Maya, which means “white road” radiating out from Coba. The roads of rough stone and plaster are between 10-30 feet wide and made from limestone. The roads were likely used by ancient Maya for commercial purposes, but may have also had a ritual function. The only access to the former commercial city of Coba was through these roads.

The main highlight of the Coba ruins is Nohuch Mul, the highest pyramid in the Mayan world. Rising an impressive 140 feet above the floor of the rainforest, Nohuch Mul, which translates to “large mound”, is the tallest pyramid at Coba and in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Visitors to Coba should brave the steep climb all the way to the top of Nohuch Mul to reap the benefits of a breathtaking vista and enjoy panoramic views of the sprawling jungle surrounding the site, along with the astronomical observatory and game courts surrounding it. From this vantage point, visitors can also view the elevated sacbeob roads that lead from the ruins to other cities of the Maya.

Once done, go back down and wander around the site exploring the pleasantly shady trails beneath the jungle canopy. You can spot a variety of wildlife including some howler monkeys and interesting tropical birds. Because Coba is extensive, you may want to rent a bike or hire a tricycle rickshaw with driver to pedal you around.

Travel on the knobby paths and into the thick forest that links the groupings of ancient pyramids and historic sites to each other. Although Coba is set amongst the tropical jungle of the Yucatan and its crocodile-filled lakes, it is completely safe to visit.

Spend at least 2 hours wandering around Coba before heading to a local restaurant for a Yucatan-style lunch. In the surrounding areas, you can also study local flora and fauna, and learn about Mexican history, culture and traditions from your guide. After your visit to Coba stop by the Gran Cenote near Tulum for a refreshing dip in the clear, cool waters, which is a welcome reward after the hot climb.

4. Museo Subacuatico de Arte

Museo Subacuatico de Arte or MUSA is an underwater museum situated in the waters that surround Cancun, Isla Mujeres and Punta Nizuc.

The museum is in fact a project comprising over 500 permanent life-size sculptures positioned on the ocean floor. Each sculpture is made out of materials designed to promote coral life. This lends the artwork a quality that is fascinating and dynamic, while also attracting marine life. Visitors can view the sculptures by snorkeling, diving or taking a glass-bottomed boat tour, from Cancun or Isla Mujeres.

One of the largest and most ambitious underwater artificial art attractions in the world, MUSA was established with the aim of demonstrating the interaction between art and environmental science, and forms a complex reef structure that marine life can inhabit, colonize and increase biomass on a grand scale.

The monumental underwater museum project was founded in 2009 by Jaime Gonzalez Cano of The National Marine Park, Roberto Diaz of The Cancun Nautical Association and sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor.

The reason behind the project was the fact that the Cancun Marine Park is one of the world’s most visited stretches of water. With more than 750,000 visitors a year, this places great pressure on its resources. By locating the sculptures here, the Museum is able to promote the recovery of natural reefs by relieving pressure on them as it draws visitors away.

The aim of the project is therefore to protect the long-suffering, natural Manchones Reef from the endless crowds of sunscreen slathered visitors. The fantastic project is leagues ahead of other conservation initiatives, in that it tackles the problem by luring tourists away from the fragile mother reef with an attraction fit for a palace, rather than simply requesting that they tread lightly.

The installations occupy an area of barren seabed and are spread out in 2 galleries: Salon Nizuc and Salon Manchones. The first is 4m deep and only permitted for snorkeling, while the second is 8m deep and suitable for both snorkelers and divers.

At the Punta Manchones exhibition space, look out for La Evolución Silenciosa which comprises 450 life-sized human figures by Jason deCaires Taylor. La Evolución Silenciosa is a remarkable work of art, a marvelously detailed piece hidden just beneath the Caribbean, amid the sea urchins, lobsters, eels and all sorts of colorful fish, for whom the sculptures are actually intended.

The marine-grade cement pieces were specifically designed and positioned to form a permanent coral reef, to help replace what mankind has destroyed. This helps to easily propagate coral and further buttress the expansive yet delicate coral reef system of Cancun.

Today, the sunken sculptures can be seen shimmering in the liquid blue light just off the coast of the idyllic Isla Mujeres, and make for excellent viewing when you dive or snorkel in the surrounding waters.

The sculptures were installed between 4 and 8 meters deep, in three waves. The first group of sculptures Hombre en Llamas (Man on Fire), La Jardinera de la Esperanza (The Gardener of Hope), and El Coleccionista de los Sueños Perdidos (The Archive of Lost Dreams)—has already been colonized by fire and other corals, in addition to endangered wildlife that now call them home.

One of MUSA’s greatest achievements is its success in helping to define Cancun as more than just a tourist hotspot for beach lovers. The museum is an ongoing project aimed at inspiring the love of art, along with the magnificent coral reefs of Cancun through its bountiful series of sunken sculptures. Periodic updates to the marine sculpture garden enhance this amazing underwater experience.

5. Rio Secreto

Cancun’s cenotes or freshwater sinkholes offer some of the best, most unique landscapes to dive inside, with some connected via a labyrinth of underwater caves. Rio Secreto is one such cenote.

Rio Secreto is the secret river in the Riviera Maya with an incredible cave system to boot. It is one of the few caverns in the world that is only partially submerged, which makes it possible to explore without the need for extensive dive training or heavy equipment.

Rio Secreto Nature Reserve is a site of incomparable beauty where you will experience a unique, transformative journey into the center of the Earth. Here you can witness the wonders of part of Mexico’s longest underground cave system in its natural, untouched state.

Situated close to Playa del Carmen, right in the heart of Riviera Maya, Rio Secreto was for thousands of years untouched by humans. Today, the natural wonder with its underground passageways, tunnels, rock formations and caverns is one of Mexico’s most alluring and distinct nature reserves. The unique destination transforms any visitor who journeys deep inside Rio Secreto.

Visitors to Rio Secreto get to discover the mysteries of the Yucatan while enjoying an exciting afternoon adventure where you swim and wade through an underground river. Enjoy the tranquility of the ancient cave as you admire the gorgeous crystal-like stalactites, stalagmites and other cave formations dangling above the turquoise water. Venture deep inside the cave and take in the peaceful stillness amid the dramatic mineral formations and vivid colors of the pristine surroundings.

Professional guides are available to take you through your journey, unveiling amazing facts about the history and mystical tales of Rio Secreto and the Mayan underworld. The guide will provide you with all the required equipment for the hour and a half trip. On your way, your guide may stop to receive prayers from a Mayan shaman for a successful journey into the underground, so don’t be surprised.

It’s like a whole different world inside the cavern with its pristine blue pools of limestone rock-filtered water, and you are certain to have fun walking through the maze of chambers in this monumental artwork of Mother Nature. At the end of your tour, enjoy a complimentary lunch surrounded by the jungle, and then lay back and relax in a hammock as you take in the extraordinary natural location.

6. Isla Mujeres

During the time of the Maya, Island Mujeres was a sacred island dedicated to Ix-Chel, the Mayan goddess of childbirth and medicine. But when the Spanish arrived, they named it “the island of women” because of the many statues of female deities they found there. Easily accessed via a short ferry ride from Cancun, the island makes for a refreshing break from Cancun’s disco-round.

If you’re looking for a laid-back, casual beach vacation, look no further than Isla Mujeres. The beautiful island is situated just 8 miles off the coast of Cancun, which makes for fun day trips from Cancun. The little island also offers a relaxed atmosphere and casual pace that allows for complete de-stressing.

There are plenty of activities to get into while on the thriving island of Isla Mujeres. At Playa Norte, you will find a hip spot with beautiful calm and shallow waters. Rent a beach bed with canopy or simply sunbathe on the beach. Snorkeling excursions to the nearby reef are a must as they offer incredible sites for discovering the sea life and coral formations that surround the island.

There are few cars on the island as most people rely on golf carts to get around. Rent a golf cart and go on a self-guided tour of the island. Be sure to hit Punta Sur, which offers some spectacular sea views of waves crashing on rocky cliffs, along with large iguana populations. This tour will leave you feeling as if you’re right on the edge of the world.

A refreshing throwback to the days before Cancun even existed, Isla Mujeres boasts outstanding aquatic conditions, while offering visitors a popular beach and marine playground.

The island is famous for its diving and snorkeling, thanks to the offshore Mesoamerican Reef – the second largest reef in the world, and its abundance of marine life, which includes giant lobster, sergeant majors, manta rays, barracuda and groupers. Warm, shallow waters, outstanding visibility and other aspects of Isla Mujeres make it a great place to experience all that this reef has to offer.

Parque Marino El Garrafon is a popular site for swimming and beach activities on the island. Visitors can dip in the warm, clear aquamarine waters surrounding the reef and splash about. The park is also famous for its stellar snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities in the Manchones Reef. After a fun day out in the sun, head over to Hildago Street for some fresh seafood dining and entertainment.

7. Museo Maya de Cancun

Cancun is not just fun in the sun on beautiful beaches. There is another side to this island paradise. History buffs can also get their fix by learning about the ancient Mayan civilization that once inhabited the area, with a tour of the Museo Maya de Cancun.

Situated adjacent to the Omni Cancun resort in the heart of La Zona Hotelera, the Museum was opened in 2012 and its complete collection features more than 3500 pieces. The Museum is housed inside a modern white building with large windows. In a fountain at the museum entrance are 3 white columns made of delicate leafy patterns that represent the area vegetation.

Located on the second floor and elevated 30 feet above sea level to protect the collection in the event of flooding, are the exhibition halls which are three in number. Two of the halls are permanent while the last is used to host temporary exhibits.

The first hall is dedicated to the archaeology of the State of Quintana Roo which is presented in rough chronological order.

One of the notable aspects of the collection is found here in the form of the skeletal remains of La Mujer de las Palmas or The Woman of the Palms, as well as a replica of the context in which they were found. The woman is believed to have lived in the area some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, and her remains were discovered near Tulum in the Las Palmas cenote in 2002.

The second hall is dedicated to Mayan culture as a whole and features pieces found in other areas of Mexico. Besides Quintana Roo, the world of the Maya encompasses present-day Mexican states such as Yucatan, Tabasco, Chiapas and Campeche, stretching into Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and parts of Honduras.

There is a particularly interesting replica of Monument 6 from Tabasco’s Tortuguero site. The replica is a stellae that was used as evidence for certain theories of what would happen in 2012 at the end of the Mayan long count calendar.

The third hall has previously held fascinating exhibits such as the collection of funerary masks of several ancient rulers of the Maya.

On the same grounds, in addition to the Museum, there is also an archaeological site known as San Miguelito. San Miguelito is a green oasis of jungle with meandering paths that lead to various ancient structures in the heart of La Zona Hotelera. Over 800 years ago, the Maya people inhabited the site around 1250 to 1550 until the Spanish conquistadors arrived.

San Miguelito houses about 40 structures, 5 of which are open to the public and the largest being a pyramid that rises 26 feet. Strategically situated near the Nichupte Lagoon on the coast of the Caribbean Sea, San Miguelito facilitated the involvement of its residents in the ancient Mayan trade system, by allowing them to make routes around the reefs, lagoons and mangroves.

8. Tequila Herradura Museo Sensorial

La Zona Hotelera is the Hotel Zone of Cancun which is home to plenty of attractions which include fascinating museums such as the Tequila Herradura Museo Sensorial.

Situated on Boulevard Kukulkan above La Europea store, the Tequila Herradura Museo Sensorial is a museum that helps you discover both the traditional and modern artisanal methods of making Tequila, Mexico’s national spirit.

The museum provides tours during which visitors can learn the history of tequila and how it is made, smell and taste freshly-cooked agave, smell tequila that is aging inside a barrel. Here you can also learn the legacy and history of Hacienda San Jose del Refugio at Amatlan in Jalisco, which is home to one of the finest tequilas. It is worth noting that Tequila can be produced only in one specific region of Mexico.

Visitors will complete the tour in the tequila tasting room. Here visitors can sample a variety of Herradura products, as well as learn how to taste tequila properly. While the tequila tastings are great fun, you don’t have to be a drinker to enjoy the interesting and informative tour.

Also situated within La Zona Hotelera area, on the Yucatan Peninsula’s northeastern coast, is the Museo de Arte Popular Mexicano, a museum with a collection of popular Mexican art.

Located on the second floor of El Embarcadero Marina, this museum has a wonderful collection of traditional folk art, colorful masks, costumes, and toys, carved animals, native scenes, musical instruments and religious items. The museum is Cancun’s little hidden treasure, a secret cache of culture tucked away in La Zona Hotelera that overflows with great examples of Mexican folk art and crafts.

9. Mercado 28

If you’re looking to discover a typical Mexican market, then Mercado 28 is your best bet. Situated in El Centro, Mercado Veintiocho or Mercado 28 is a big flea market in downtown Cancun. Here you can find tasty traditional tacos, as well as an assortment of souvenirs and handicrafts.

Haggle with the vendors for great bargains in traditional goods, jewelry, clothing and art, and then visit the food stalls for delicious treats of typical Mexican food such as fresh seafood. The market is not exclusively for tourists as most locals of Cancun go there to shop for their daily groceries. It is therefore a great spot to experience local culture.

10. Coco Bongo

Cancun’s bar and club scene offer guaranteed entertainment in a fun and lively atmosphere. The quality of nightlife in Cancun’s La Zona Hotelera runs the gamut from fun to fantastical with a great range of generic sports bars. And then there are clubs like Coco Bongo that take entertainment to a completely new level.

If you hadn’t already heard of Coco Bongo before arriving in Mexico, there’s no way you’ll leave Cancun without at least being familiar with it. Situated on Boulevard Kukulkan in La Zona Hotelera, Coco Bongo is a larger than life party hub that is much more than just a dance club.

Widely described as “Las Vegas meets Mexico” or “part Hollywood”, Coco Bongo is not to be missed while in Cancun. The notorious club has a capacity for 1800, multi-level seating, high tech video screens, dozens of professional dancers, acrobats, brilliant costumers, celebrity impersonators, immaculate choreography, and gallons of confetti, balloons and professionally orchestrated lighting.

Every 20 minutes or so, a celebrity impersonator, ranging from Michael Jackson to Madonna, takes the stage with backup dancers to perform a series of songs. All performances are over the top with many of the dancers and acrobats hooked up to flight harnesses.

People of all ages and interests visit the Coco Bongo – whether or not clubbing is their thing. This is because Coco Bongo is more about the show and the experience, rather than actual dancing and mingling.

The club runs a tight ship – and it works. As you enter, a cocktail waiter will usher you to a certain section of the balconies, tables or steps. While revelers are free to move around, not many do as having a section and an attentive waiter ensures that no one will jostle you, spill on you or take your spot as often happens at crowded nightclubs.

Coco Bongo gets its crowd-pleasing music just right with a mix of the very best dance tunes from the 70s all the way through the 90s. The cover charge ranges from US $55-65, depending on the night of the week you visit. Unless you don’t plan to drink anything, even water, opt for the open bar package as individually bought drinks can be expensive.

Sip your drink as you watch impressive acrobatics with performers flying through the air, dangling from a long rope of fabric, flipping through large hoops and more. There’s an energetic vibe to Coco Bongo that will have you dancing along to every performance.