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12 Best Things to Do in Cancun, According to Someone Who Has Visited Mexico 200 Times

Plan the perfect Cancun itinerary.

<p>Pola Damonte/Getty Images</p>

Pola Damonte/Getty Images

Going off the beaten path is an exciting way to travel, but sometimes it’s equally great to stick to the classics. And when it comes to Mexico, you can’t get much more classic than Cancun. The original tourist destination in Mexico, Cancun consistently delivers a quintessential tropical experience: soft, white-sand beaches, crystal-clear water, a toes-in-the-sand energy, and fantastic beachfront resorts.

It’s no wonder Cancun is one of the top beach destinations in the world. And yet, for as much as it has been explored, it still retains a secret or two for travelers wanting to venture a bit deeper. Whether you’re looking to bask on the beach, indulge in a spa treatment, or foray into the jungle-shrouded unknown, Cancun has the ingredients to impress even the most seasoned Mexico traveler.

Here's our list of the 12 best things to do in Cancun.

Hit the beach.

<p>Eagle2308/Getty Images</p>

Eagle2308/Getty Images

The beaches in Cancun are among the best in the world. Nowhere else in the country will you find sand so soft and white, or water that perfect shade of turquoise. With no shortage of all-inclusive resorts in Cancun, staying directly on the beach is easy. That said, all beaches in Mexico are public, so even if you aren’t staying on the sand, you can still explore popular local beaches like Playa Delfines, Playa Chac Mool, or the blissfully quiet stretches of Costa Mujeres.

Have a great meal.

<p>Fabian Montano/Getty Images</p>

Fabian Montano/Getty Images

Cancun is a culinary hot spot, with many fantastic hotels and a picture-perfect Caribbean Sea setting. Avenida Kukulkan in the Hotel Zone is lined with fine-dining restaurants, while resorts around the region tout five-star dining experiences.

A personal favorite is Mar-Bella Fish Market Raw Bar & Grill. Tucked behind a grocery store, the seafront restaurant lets you pick your fish before it’s cooked to perfection.

Zachary Rabinor, CEO of Journey Mexico, recommends Puerto Santo, another casual seafood restaurant known for its toes-in-the-sand setting, fresh ceviche, aguachile, and legendary paella.

Indulge in wellness.

<p>Courtesy of Haven Resorts & Spa</p>

Courtesy of Haven Resorts & Spa

Some of the best spas in Mexico are found right in Cancun, featuring everything from therapies rooted in Mayan healing to the latest med spa technology. For an over-the-top experience, try Haven Riviera Cancun. The sprawling MySenses Spa offers a little bit of everything: a hydrotherapy circuit with Roman baths, a temazcal experience, and a dome-topped hammam.

The Waldorf Astoria Cancun has another spectacular spa experience, with eight indoor and 13 outdoor treatment rooms, a relaxation pool, and wet areas that include a sauna, a steam room, and an ice fountain. Tip: Book the 100-minute Melipona Honey Ritual, which includes a honey exfoliation and wrap, a full-body massage, and a honey face mask.

Sail to Isla Mujeres.

<p>Pola Damonte/Getty Images</p>

Pola Damonte/Getty Images

One of Rabinor’s top suggestions for things to do in Cancun is take a sailing trip across the Caribbean Sea to Isla Mujeres. This lovely, laid-back island is close enough to be a day trip from Cancun, but far enough removed to feel like a destination all on its own. Playa Norte is one of the best beaches in Mexico, while Playa El Cielo is one of the best spots in Cancun to snorkel with thousands of starfish.

Swim with whale sharks.

<p>Ken Kiefer 2/Getty Images</p>

Ken Kiefer 2/Getty Images

While we’re on the subject of water activities, the diving in Cancun is among the best in the world. It's home to a section of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, and divers can expect a kaleidoscope of coral and fish beneath the water's surface. During the summer months, whale sharks come to the waters around Cancun. Snorkeling or diving with these gentle giants is a humbling experience, and a must for any marine lover.

Walk in Mayan footsteps.

<p>Paul Biris/Getty Images</p>

Paul Biris/Getty Images

Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is rich with Mayan archaeological sites. A short drive from Cancun in any direction will put you at the doorstep of some of the most spectacular Mayan cities in Central America.

One of the most popular day trips from Cancun is out to Chichén Itzá, arguably the most famous archaeological site in Mexico. However, visitors can also explore sites like the ruins of Tulum, Coba, Muyil, and Ek Balam. Each one offers something different, and you may feel like you have several of these preserved cities all to yourself.

Swim in a cenote.

<p>MilicaStankovic/Getty Images</p>

MilicaStankovic/Getty Images

Beneath the pavement and forest floor across the Yucatan are thousands of interconnected underground rivers and caves. This network of subterranean waterways was important to the Mayan culture, as the sinkholes (called cenotes) were believed to be entrances to the underworld. Today, these portals still exist, and many are open to the public.

You can find dozens of cenotes within a short distance from Cancun, all up and down the Riviera Maya. One of my favorites is Río Secreto, a spectacular underground river and cave system that feels like it sprung straight out of a fantasy novel. Thousands of dramatic stalactites and stalagmites, as well as deep, turquoise-colored cave pools, set the scene for a step back in time.

Head downtown.

<p>Victor Ambriz/Getty Images</p>

Victor Ambriz/Getty Images

For years, the heart and soul of Cancun's tourism was focused around the Hotel Zone. But as the city has grown and changed, more and more travelers are venturing inland to the city's thriving downtown.

Avenida Huayacán is one of the main arteries of downtown Cancun. A local hot spot, it's a flourishing scene of trendy restaurants and bars. Downtown Cancun also has a vibrant street art scene, sprawling parks, hole-in-the-wall taquerias, and local markets selling handicrafts and souvenirs.

Explore the nearby small towns.

<p>Tetra Images/Getty Images</p>

Tetra Images/Getty Images

Cancun may be a major seaside metropolis, but the region surrounding the city is home to some of the best small towns and villages in Mexico. From Spanish-influenced destinations to sleepy fishing villages with lovely boutiques, you'll find lots to explore away from the rattle and hum of the big city.

Valladolid, for example, is a beautiful Spanish-influenced city on the route between Cancun and Chichén Itzá. Visit the 16th-century Convent of San Bernardino of Siena overlooking the Parque Principal Francisco Canton Rosado. Casa de los Venados is a popular museum in Valladolid showcasing folk art and furniture.

South of Cancun, Puerto Morelos is a small beach community with a stretch of white sand and a charming downtown with open-air restaurants, local boutiques, and low-key bars.

Cook in the jungle.

<p>Courtesy of Mexico Lindo Cooking</p>

Courtesy of Mexico Lindo Cooking

Mexico’s cooking schools are legendary, but one, in particular, has always been cemented in my mind. Mexico Lindo Cooking is more than just a cooking school — it’s a full-day journey that mixes traditional Mexican cooking with a sensory experience. Travelers are taken deep into the jungle, where a small, pink-and-yellow casita explodes from the depths of the green forest. Here, chef Alejandra Kauachi walks her disciples through recipes like cochinita pibil, Veracruz-style ceviche, tacos, tamales, fresh salsas, and handmade tortillas. The entire experience concludes with a beautiful sit-down lunch on the covered terrace.

Kayak in the Nichupte Lagoon.

<p>LUNAMARINA/Getty Images</p>

LUNAMARINA/Getty Images

Most visitors to Cancun are so enamored with the beautiful beaches that they forget to turn around. On the other side of the Hotel Zone is one of the largest mangrove ecosystems in Mexico — the Nichupte Lagoon. Spread over nearly 12 square miles and including seven lakes, the Nichupte Lagoon is one of the best places in Cancun for kayaking, sport fishing, and boating. It's also the best spot to view a gorgeous Mexican Caribbean sunset.

Party on Avenida Kukulkan.

<p>Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images</p>

Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Nightlife in Cancun is legendary, particularly in the Hotel Zone along Avenida Kukulkan. Here's where you'll find nightlife legends, including Coco Bongo, Mandala Beach Club, and The City Nightclub Cancun. Not for the faint of heart, or those with an early bedtime, these pulsing, high-energy dance clubs keep night owls going until the wee hours of the morning.

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