Mexico’s most famous party resort is made for pleasure, but between the fiestas is much more: it has beautiful natural wilderness, as well as the majesty of the Maya archaeological sites and charming Spanish colonial towns. Beneath the waves you’ll find one of the most varied and active marine environments on the planet, with access to the Mesoamerican Reef (the second biggest reef system in the world).
These 14 miles of pure white sand have a global reputation, so there’s no doubt time on the beach is one of the best things to do in Cancun. It’s everything you’d picture a tropical paradise to be; pina colada and palm trees included. The public beaches on the north coast of the Zona Hotelera face a bay, so the water is calm and shallow. Playa Caracol (km 8.5) is the prettiest of the bay beaches, with plenty of palm trees, but Delfines (km 17.5) is the most scenic, as it’s not backed by any hotels. Even when it’s packed with locals at weekends, there’s still plenty of room.
Your plan of what to do in Cancun may well feature beaches and swimming pools; but getting to know ancient Mayan culture will give you a flavour of real Mexico. The small Maya ruin of El Rey was thought to have been a royal retreat between 1250 to 1630. Its 47 structures, including a temple and a burial site, overlook the gorgeous natural reserve of the Nichupté Lagoon. The site is a favourite basking spot for fairly large iguanas too – we’re talking hundreds of them! So if you’re not one for history, you should make the trip for these tropical reptiles alone.
In a stylish new building that’s all dazzling white and glass, this space displays hundreds of small finds from Mayan ruins along the coast. There’s jewellery, burial masks, weapons, ceramics and the 10,000-year-old La Mujer de las Palmas (“The Woman of the Palms”), whose remains were only uncovered in 2002.
As one of the best nightlife scenes in all of Latin America, Cancun draws fun-loving international crowd. Its goal to entertain millions of visitors each year is best seen in action at Zona Hotelera’s array of huge dance clubs, theme bars and top-volume everything (rolling from about 10pm till the wee hours). Downtown offers a mellower scene: people can often be found dancing to traditional Mexican music at the Parque de las Palapas, on weekend evenings. The stretch of Yaxchilán north of Sunyaxchén is also a popular nightlife strip, with terrace restaurant-bars and karaoke till 3am or 4am, all punctuated by roving trovadores.
Those beaches aren’t just for sunbathing, especially as the water’s warm enough to surf and kitesurf without a wetsuit. 360 Surf School offers private and group classes with a guarantee you’ll be able to stand on the board (sign up at the office on Paseo Kukulcán km 9.5 in the zona hotelera). It’s hard to beat the thrill of charging over the waves on a jet-ski, which you’ll find lined up all down the coast. Another of the most popular things to do in Cancun is flyboarding, where jets of water from your board shoot you into the air. To really get the heart racing, try the Skyrider, a two-seat parasailing chair that soars high through the air.
Diving off this section of the Yucatan Peninsula means gliding over reef systems, through shark-filled tunnels and exploring excellent shipwrecks. The best part is the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world (surpassed only by Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). This mesmerizing underwater world features 66 species of stony corals and more than 500 species of fish, as well as several species of sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, and whale sharks. Often part of a Cancun package holiday or booked through Aquaworld, it’s possible to dive year-round, but come between May and November for uncrowded dive sites and whale shark encounters. If you don’t dive, snorkelling is a great way to see marine life too. You can snorkel at just about every beach on the west coast of Cozumel, on Isla Mujeres and all along the Riviera Maya.
Just a 20-minute boat ride from Cancun is the mellow little island of Isla Mujeres, which draws people for long stays despite (or maybe because of) the lack of tourist attractions. The 8km-long patch of land is no deserted island, but it retains a certain air of bohemian languor in its narrow streets lined with colourful wooden houses. It’s a respite for anyone who has been travelling across Mexico, as well as a pleasant place to start your trip in Mexico.