How to Tackle Cancun as a First Timer
You may head to Cancun thinking you’ll simply spend a week blissed out on the beach, but there are a number of ways to experience this Yucatan hot spot, including historical and cultural attractions, water sports, and day trips. Here are our top recommendations for first-timers.
Sail to Isla Mujeres
A small island just 8 miles (13 kilometers) off the coast of Cancun, Isla Mujeres is a popular day-trip destination for all ages. Catamaran sailing tours and other cruises transport visitors to the island, often with a few hours on the water for snorkeling and swimming. Some tours are party-themed, while others offer a more relaxing experience suitable for families.
Swim with Whale Sharks
The biggest fish in the sea, whale sharks gather in the Caribbean waters off Cancun in the summer, typically from mid-June to early September. Tours to swim with them are a splurge but worth it for the unparalleled experience of seeing the gentle giants up close in the wild.
Check Out an Adventure Park
South of Cancun near Playa del Carmen, a collection of family-friendly parks offer the chance to see a different side of the Maya Riviera. Depending on your interests, choose one of four aquatic, outdoor-adventure, jungle, and eco-archaeological parks—Xel-Ha, Rio Secreto, Xplor, or Xcaret. Activities such as ziplining, water rides, and swimming in underground rivers make for a fun alternative to another day on the beach, plus some parks are built around Maya ruins.
Visit Maya Ruins
For those interested in learning about the cultural history of the Yucatan, there are a few Maya archaeological sites that can be visited on tours from Cancun. Chichen Itza is the big one—a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the largest and perhaps most mythical of the Maya cities. Tulum is known for its perch right on the coast, with a view of the turquoise sea, while Coba features the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan.
Discover a Cenote
One of the Yucatan’s most distinctive features, cenotes are sinkholes that create natural underground swimming pools. Associated with sacred Maya ceremonies, today they are much-visited attractions where you can swim in cool fresh waters. Many tours combine time at a cenote with a visit to a Maya archaeological site.
Check Out the Nightlife
Cancun’s nightlife scene is the stuff spring-break dreams are made of, and for those interested, there are dozens of bars and clubs to check out. CocoBongo is one of the most legendary, but different clubs are the place to be on different nights, so consider a nightclub tour to hit the best parties at the right time with a ready-made social group.