On a 21-kilometer-long, 400-meter-wide L-shaped island off the north coast of Yucatán, Cancún is a purpose-built luxury resort with excellent tourism infrastructure. Built from virtually nothing in barely more than a decade, this large vacation center is now one of Mexico’s most visited destinations, attracting more than four million tourists each year. It is blessed with glorious white sand beaches, coral banks and near perfect weather. The main tourist area is linked by a causeway to the mainland, which is home to the modern city of Cancún itself, a lively center with a number of interesting sites worth visiting (assuming you can drag yourself away from the beaches ).
1 The beautiful beaches of Cancún
Most of Cancún’s many resorts are built with direct access to the beaches – known locally as “playas” – with stunning views over the sparkling, crystal-clear waters that make the destination so popular. Cancún is actually made up of a number of beaches, and while regular visitors have their preferences, it’s hard to go wrong. Among the most popular playas are de las perlas , juventud , linda , langosta , tortugas , caracol , and chac-moolsome lie along Boulevard Cancún and Paseo Kukulkán all the way from the city limits (of these, Tortugas, Caracol, and Chac-mool tend to be the busiest). Also of interest is the Paseo Kukulkán, which is seven and a half kilometers long, and next to it is an 18-hole public golf course called Pokéta-Pok.
2 The Ruinous Mayan King
Just a few minutes away from the Punta Nizuc end of Cancún are a number of interesting Mayan ruins known as El Rey. They are named after a mask found here that was believed to be dedicated to the sun god. Known as the El Rey Ruins (Las Ruinas del Rey), the site contains the remains of some 47 buildings and numerous tombs built by the Maya from 900 AD. Of particular interest are the two main platforms with their temples, once part of the marketplace and important ceremonial areas. It’s worth taking the time to visit, and many resorts offer inexpensive excursions to the site, which is also known for the large colonies of iguanas that live there.
3 The Mayan Museum
In the center of Cancún, the city’s major convention complex, the Maya Museum (Museo Maya de Cancún) is worth a visit to learn more about the region’s rich history. The largest museum project since the opening of the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City in 1987, it is an excellent way to explain the ancient roots of Maya culture in the region, from its foundation centuries ago to modern times. Highlights include approximately 350 artifacts spread across three halls, most from in and around Cancún, including skeletal remains found in Tulum dating back 14,000 years and the remains of the famous 10,000-year-old “Woman of the Palms.” Other highlights include exhibitions of Mayan architecture and art,
Address: Blvd Kukulkan km 16.5, Hotel Zone, 77500 Cancun, QROO
4 Cancun’s Underwater Museum
One of the most unusual attractions in this seaside town is the Cancún Underwater Museum (MUSA). Established in 2009 in the aftermath of storm damage to Cancún National Park, this seabed attraction is dedicated to the “art of preservation” and is a pleasure for divers to explore. At the heart of this unique art collection are the more than 500 sculptures spread over two underwater galleries (a few are on land in a nearby shopping mall) submerged in depths of between three and six meters and include human figures in various poses (there are even a concrete car). The sculptures, composed by six artists from Mexico and Great Britain, will eventually form the basis for new coral reefs. Hot Tip:If scuba diving isn’t your thing, this remarkable collection can be viewed from the comfort of one of the many glass-bottomed tour boats that cruise the waters.
5 El Meco Archaeological site
Another interesting Mayan site easily accessible from Cancún’s main resort area – this one is located at the northern end of the main beaches – is the archaeological site of El Meco. Originally settled around AD 300, it rose to prominence as a Mayan trading center from the 1100s until its decline following the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Of particular note is the 40-foot (12.5 m) El Castillo, the only pyramid of its kind built in the area. On top of the pyramid are the remains of an ancient temple from which you will be rewarded with a beautiful view of the coastline and Isla Mujeres .
6 Animal Adventures
A good place to get a detailed look at the region’s rich marine life is at Cancún’s Interactive Aquarium . After donning flippers and a snorkel, you are free to swim around the facility’s enclosures surrounded by many species from stingrays to seahorses and clownfish. The real highlight, however, is the experience of the “swim with dolphins” attraction, an exciting program that allows you to get up close and personal with these friendly sea creatures. Similar programs are also offered at two other nearby locations: Dolphin Discovery and Dolphinaris Cancún .
Address: Plaza La Isla, Blvd. Kukulcan Km.12.5, Hotel Zone, 77500 Cancun, QROO
Official site: www.aquariumcancun.com.mx/en
7 The scenic tower
A must-do in Cancún is a trip to the Scenic Tower (Torre Escenica). A landmark in the hotel district due to its height – it is 110 meters high – as well as the thin pencil base, the tower is a nice diversion for those who want a panoramic view of the city, as well as the many beaches and surrounding coastline. While a series of steep stairs can be climbed, by far the best way to reach the top is simply to take a seat in the large circular elevator which, as it rises and turns, gradually becomes an observation deck. It is a particularly attractive structure when lit up at night to resemble a Mayan representation of a flower.
8 Urbano Kaaba Park
In the heart of Cancún is the Urbano Kabah Park, also known as the Ecological Park of Kabah. A popular place for a walk, jog or picnic, this natural oasis consists of a two-kilometer path that passes through a mix of tall palm trees and lush gardens. The park is especially popular for families traveling with children because of the playground and petting zoo. There is also plenty of game to look out for, such as iguanas, raccoons such as coatis, deer, a type of small wild pig called a peccary, and even the occasional spider monkey. It is especially good for birdwatchers, especially during migration season when species from as far away as the US and Canada winter here. Other highlights include the Casa Maya Museumwith its history of development of the region
Address: Yaxchilan, Nameless, Cancun, QROO
9 Isla Mujeres
Another destination closely associated with Cancún is the beautiful Isla Mujeres (Island of Women). About eight miles from the mainland and just a short hydrofoil ride from the pier at the convention center (Cancún Center), this long skinny island – it’s only seven miles long and 650 feet wide – is particularly popular with surfers for the bigger waves experienced on the east coast, while divers love the abundant marine life surrounding the many coral reefs. It’s also popular with beachgoers who enjoy the less hectic pace: the island’s traffic is limited to taxis and buses, all of which are much smaller than golf carts and scooters.
10 Explore Mayan Ruins: Excursions to Chichén Itzá and Tulum
Few visitors will want to miss the chance to spend at least a little of their vacation time visiting one or more of the larger Mayan ruins within Cancún’s reach. One of the most popular day trips is to Chichén Itzá, three hours west of the beaches and one of Mexico’s largest and best-restored archaeological sites. Inhabited by the Maya more than 1,000 years ago, this UNESCO World Heritage Site contains many famous statues of Chac-mool, as well as important buildings such as the 30-meter El Castillo, one of the most famous pyramids in the country. Tulum, just an hour and a half to the south, is a better option for those who are long overdue. Famous for its clifftop location and for being the only known fortified Mayan coastal town, Tulum contains many other unique structures, in addition to its high, broad walls, most notable is the Temple of the Frescoes with its sculptures and reliefs depicting seated figures with elaborate headdresses. The site’s largest building, the Castillo, is also the most famous, perched on the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea.
Where to Stay in Cancun for Sightseeing
We recommend these fun beachfront resorts in Cancun with easy access to attractions and activities:
- The Ritz-Carlton, Cancun: Beachfront luxury, ocean view rooms, plush bedding, award-winning restaurants, beautiful pools, kids’ club, gorgeous spa.
- The Royal Sands Resort & Spa All Inclusive: all-inclusive all-inclusive, timeshare resort, personal concierge, infinity and kiddie pools, restaurant with theme nights, spa and beauty salon.
- Fiesta Americana Villas Cancun: affordable rates, large rooms, an outdoor pool, kids and teen clubs, Mexico-inspired spa treatments.
- The Royal Islander All Suites Resort: budget rates, beachfront, seven dining options, multiple pools, tennis courts.