As the gateway to the picturesque Yucatan Peninsula, Cancun invites visitors to soak in the tropical vibes on its white-sand beaches, explore ancient Mayan ruins, and join in on the fiesta feelin’ with authentic Mexican tacos and cheap Coronas! With so many bucket list things to do in Cancun and the surrounding towns and islands, it’s no wonder people flock here by the millions each year.
If you’re traveling to Cancun and searching for things to do for 5 days (or even a 3-day trip if you’re selective), here’s my ultimate list of unique things to do in Cancun that checks off both the touristy bucket list but also satisfies your curiosity to wander like a local.
Pssst! Many of these things to do are free or budget-friendly, but some of them come with higher tourist prices. Cancun is where Paul and I brought our families over the Christmas holidays; we spent 5 days touring local markets and scouting out quieter beaches before road tripping the Yucatan Peninsula.
15 Fun & Unique Things to Do in and Around Cancun
Here are some of the most unique and best things to do in Cancun! If you have only 3 days or even 5 days, it’s likely you won’t fit all of this in one trip. With that said, plan your Cancun trip as best as you can!
1. Chat with Locals and Shop Handicrafts at Mercado 28
- Local (yet touristy) open-air market
- Shop handicrafts and eat local cuisine
Inside the Mercado 28 | Bucketlist Bri
Best bring your haggling game when you visit Mercado 28! It’s a vibrant, open-air market sprawling with merchants who trap you with snazzy sale jokes and pick-up lines. “Hey, big spender! Now it’s my turn for you to visit my shop!”
From standard souvenirs like mariachi hats and tequila shot glasses to locally-made shoes and handicrafts, the Mercado 28 is a go-to place to shop. With that being said, prices can be higher here, but if you know how to bargain you can pick up quite a few things for a good deal.
Traveler’s Tip: If you eat at the open-air restaurants here at Mercado 28 beware not to pay double the tip. They included a 20% tip into our bill but wrote it in such a way on the receipt so that we wouldn’t catch it. We left an additional 20% tip (which was already a lot since we were a family of 12) and only realized hours later.
2. Stroll Avenida Kulkulkan & Eat at Blue Gecko Cantina
- Blue Gecko Cantina = Best Budget-Friendly Tacos in Cancun’s Hotel Zone
Avenida Kulkulkan stretches from Punta Nizuc all the way up to the dense Zona Hoteleria. Although the walking portion is best done further up, you can easily get around on foot. It will take a while to walk the entire strip, though.
If you want to eat tacos and Mexican cuisine on a budget, you won’t want to eat downtown in the Hotel Zone. Just past the popular Playa Delfines sits an open-air taco bar on your left called Blue Gecko Cantina. It still has a pricey menu compared to local-local tacos, but it’s a great compromise if you want mid-range and extremely yummy Mexican fare.
Unless you’re staying in an all-inclusive hotel (more on where to stay in Cancun at the end of this article), you won’t need to hang around the Hotel Zone unless you want to shop, party, or beach hop.
3. Shop, Dine, or Fiesta Time in Cancun’s Hotel Zone (Zona Hoteleria)
The Hotel Zone in Cancun is where the “fiesta” happens. It’s the place to shop, eat, and party when the nightclubs open and bars stay open late. With that said, the Zona Hoteleria isn’t for everyone.
If you’re traveling with family, as we were, the Hotel Zone can be quite overwhelming and a hassle to get to. Parking is a nightmare, so it’s best to take the public bus if possible.
4. Explore Mayan Ruins in Cancun Center (Spoiler: It’s Not Chichen Itza)
- El Meco and El Rey Archaeological Ruins
- Entry fees: 50-60+ pesos ($3-4)
El Meco Archaeological Site | Bucketlist Bri
You don’t have to trek all the way to Chichen Itza to visit ancient Mayan ruins. There are two archaeological zones in Cancun worth visiting: El Rey and El Meco.
El Meco is a smaller yet beautiful Mayan ruins site with several buildings to see. But it’s nothing compared to scenic ruins like Tulum, Coba, or even Chichen Itza. But it’s close to the Hotel Zone (a 20-minute drive) and is a good alternative to the other ruins that require 2+ hours to reach.
El Rey is the more popular Mayan ruins located right beside Playa Delfines next to the Hotel Zone. El Rey still remains a relatively small archeological site with 40+ building ruins, but it gives a nice tour with a chance to see iguanas climbing all over the hot, sunny stones.
Both sites have low-cost entry fees (around 50-60 pesos or $4 dollars).
5. Eat at Local Taco Stands at Parque de Las Palapas
- Local park and square featuring cheap, authentic tacos and Yucatan specialties
If you wish to delve into the local culture and experience the sense of community in Mexico, then venture to the local Parque de Las Palapas in central Cancun. The park and plaza is a local square sprawling with vendors selling authentic food and snacks. Come chat with the locals or hang out to watch entertainment on the square if an event is going on.
6. Tour the Mayan Museum (Best thing to do in Cancun when it rains!)
- Museo Maya de Cancún y Zona Arqueológica de San Miguelito
Cancun is best known for its beaches. But that’s not really an option when the weather turns sour and it’s raining all day! So the best thing to do in Cancun when it rains is to seek indoor activities. And there’s no better place to do that than at the Mayan Museum located next to Playa Delfines. The Museo Maya houses a wonderful collection of Maya artifacts, some of the most important in all of the Yucatan.
There’s free and safe parking, and entry only costs 75 pesos (and I heard it’s free on Sundays!).
7. Go Beach Hopping Along the Zona Hoteleria Strip
Cancun is known for its beautiful turquoise-blue waters and white-sand beaches. But some are overcrowded, some are better than others for swimming with children, and so on.
Here are some of the top beaches to visit in Cancun:
- Playa El Nino – a super sweet and small beach with hardly any tourists next to the Puerto Juarez ferry port. Great for kids!
- Langosta Beach – sandy beach ideal for swimming.
- Playa Las Perlas – white sand beach with calm waves, can get crowded quickly.
- Playa Delfines – Large, sandy beach good for lounging with restaurant beach service. Waves are bigger and there are natural palapas you can sit under for shade.
- Playa Chac Mool – a quieter beach ideal for swimming, families, and water sports.
- La Playa Tortugas – calm beach with virtually no waves, making it great for families with small children.
- Playa Caracol – silky soft white-sand beach in Hotel Zone. Quite crowded.
- Puerto Morelos Beach – a picturesque and quieter beach located 30 minutes south of Cancun.
Beach hopping is the best way to identify which beach you like best, rather than just staying at one and not knowing if you’d prefer another one!
8. Escape the Crowds and Spend a Day at the Remote Beach of Isla Blanca (Accessible by Car)
- Remote white-sand beach with turquoise waters
- 2 hours drive north of Cancun
Alternatively, if you want to spend more time at a white-sand beach in Cancun that has virtually no tourists, then rent a car and drive north to Isla Blanca.
To get there you’ll need to drive down a weirdly quiet road all the way to the tip at Isla Blanca, where you can park on the sand and just explore the huge stretch of beach. It’s a popular destination for kite surfers.
There’s one local restaurant serving food and drinks and you can rent out a palapa with a table and chairs for 200 pesos.
9. Enjoy Island Life for a Day at Isla Mujeres (Accessible by Ferry)
- Boho paradisiac island with snorkeling, iconic beaches, golf carts, and a backpacker’s vibe
- Ferry fee roundtrip: ~$150 pesos per person
Strolling in the tiny streets on Isla Mujeres | Bucketlist Bri
Isla Mujeres is a quick ferry ride away from Cancun, making it the “island of choice” to visit when in Cancun. The island features a boho-chic vibe. You can rent a golf cart and tour the island’s back roads for an adventurous outing, or, you can hang around the shops downtown which has a backpacker-vibe with cute cafes, hostels, and open-air bars with swinging stools!
Isla Mujeres deserves its own full day, so make sure to plan accordingly. The ferry costs approximately $150 pesos roundtrip.
10. Spend a Day Visiting Tulum or Playa del Carmen
- 1 hr drive Playa del Carmen: Cute mid-range beach town (a mix between Cancun and Tulum)
- 2 hr drive to Tulum: Boho beachside town
Some people visit Cancun with the idea of traveling to other famous beachside resort towns like Playa del Carmen and Tulum. While this is absolutely doable, you should understand that these towns are further away (around 1-2 hours). A day trip or even an overnighter is a must if you wish to have some downtime to relax and visit these places!
11. Jump into an Underground Fresh-Water Cenote!
Cenote in Valladolid | Bucketlist Bri
Cenotes are fresh underground watering holes that date back over 60+ million years to when the asteroid (that took out the dinosaurs) landed on the Yucatan Peninsula, creating a rift of sinkholes throughout the state.
Cenotes have become extremely popular because for one, they are amazing natural crystal clear “pools” you can swim in, and two, they’re incredibly beautiful and sacred in Maya culture.
It’s said there are over 6,000 cenotes in the region. While most of the popular cenotes are located outside of Cancun, there are a few you can reach with just a 30-minute drive.
You could easily combine them with your day trip (or overnight trip) to Tulum or Playa del Carmen, as there are several cenotes along that route south.
12. Go Snorkeling in Cancun (Several Options)
Snorkeling in the Caribbean is a must-do activity and Cancun and the surrounding area have plenty of snorkeling opportunities.
Snorkel the underwater museum. You can snorkel and dive at the Cancun Underwater Museum of Art and marvel at the aquatic sealife of the Mesoamerican coral reef. Sculptures from famous artists line the seabed floor and are a sight to behold! Prices range from $50-70 for a snorkeling tour.
Snorkeling on one of the beaches. You can also snorkel for free with your own gear at one of the beaches in Cancun, but won’t see as much as a designated snorkel area.
Snorkel with sea turtles at Akumal. Akumal is a known hub for snorkeling (for free or with a guide) to see the sea turtles. It’s been known that you can snorkel with sea turtles here but local guides are cracking down on when and where you can go.
13. Go Ziplining!
Cancun is not just a resort town for lazy beach-goers. Adrenaline-junkies can spice up their beach days with a fun ziplining course in the Mayan jungle. You can also ride ATVs, go high up in the treetops on a canopy walk, or go off-roading!
14. Swim Responsibly with Whale Sharks
Swimming with whale sharks has become one of the top-rated things to do in Cancun. Being able to witness nature at its finest and snorkel alongside the ocean’s biggest beasts is worthy of a bucket list checkmark.
But we must be responsible travelers and tourists and book with tour operators who make protecting wildlife in its natural environment a priority. With that said, keep in mind that your purchasing power goes a long way to preserving our shared natural environment.
Recommended travel tour for encountering whale sharks: Eco Tour Adventure
Please avoid seeing animals in captivity on your travels at home or abroad.
15. Check Chichen Itza Off Your Bucket List!
And… check off the bucket list! | Bucketlist Bri
Alas, Chichen Itza! Many people take a full-day excursion from Cancun to visit Chichen Itza in 1 day. I mention it on this list because, despite it making you have a really tight schedule, many people find this a must-do activity. After all, Chichen Itza is one of the Wonders of the World and is one of the most well-preserved Mayan cities.
If you super into the ancient civilization, you might consider spending one of your days in Cancun with a day trip. Otherwise, if you have the opportunity to come back to the Yucatan Peninsula and explore other parts of the region other than Cancun on a longer trip, you could plan Chichen Itza for next time.
Mini 5-Day Cancun Itinerary
So now that we’ve covered some of the top sights and activities in Cancun, how can you organize all of this?
Piggybacking from my list of best things to do in Cancun above, here is my suggestion of what to do in Cancun for 5 days (5-day itinerary).
Shopping in La Isla Shopping Centre | Bucketlist Bri
Day 1 in Cancun: Beach Day!
You just arrived in Cancun. Chances are, you’re not going to want to do very much today, so consider this a beach day.
Beach hop along the Zona Hoteleria to get a feel for Cancun and to start mapping out Cancun in your head. Taking the time to explore on the first day in a new place helps settle the nerves and gets you more comfortable with the area.
Stick to the beaches near the Hotel Zone. Eat, shop, and go out to party if that’s your thing. It’s your first day! Time to celebrate, however you do it.
Optional: Save going to Isla Blanca beach for another day so you won’t be doing so much driving today since it is a 2-hour drive.
Day 2: Island Day on Isla Mujeres
Pack your day bag for a fun outing to beautiful Isla Mujeres! Take a 20-minute ferry ride and spend the full day lounging on pristine beaches ordering margaritas or rent a golf cart and drive around the island in search of panoramic vistas and adventure.
Roundtrip tickets cost approximately $150 pesos per person. Go ahead and plan out your return trip so you’re certain not to miss the last ferry of the day! Although getting stuck on Isla Mujeres wouldn’t be all that bad.
Spend half your days touring attractions and the other half relaxing on beaches. No need to exhaust yourself! | Bucketlist Bri
Day 3: Mayan Ruins Day
Since you spent all-day away yesterday, take the time to explore Cancun’s Mayan ruins today. El Rey and El Meco are two archaeological sites worth visiting. Plus, the Maya Museum also features one of the most important collections of Maya artifacts in the Yucatan. Since this won’t take all day you can sneak in a beach or two in between.
Day 4: Day Trip from Cancun
Most people like to take day trips from Cancun. If you’re feeling up to it, you can spend full days over in neighboring Tulum (2 hours), Playa del Carmen (1 hour), Akumal (1.5 hours), or even Chichen Itza (2.5 hours).
Just be sure if you do this that you’ve planned enough time to enjoy your day without too much hassle. There are lots of bus tours operating these routes and is a good option if you don’t want to rent a car and drive yourself.
Day 5: Like a Local Day
Now that you’ve been in Mexico for a few days and are feeling more comfortable, take the time on your last day in Cancun to explore the more local hotspots.
Mercado 28 and Mercado 23, Parque de Las Palapas, Plaza Infinity, etc., are typical local hangout spots. They also double as the best places in Cancun to pick up souvenirs just before you head out!
Being Flexible with Your Days/Plans
The above suggestion is for a 5 day trip to Cancun. If you only have time for 3 days in the area, it’s not worth spending a day trip from Cancun, for example. The trick is not to cram too little or too much in your allotted time!
Where to Stay in Cancun?
Lots of people question where to stay in Cancun. Is it better to stay in an all-inclusive (AI) hotel in the Hotel Zone, or rent a local Airbnb for the week? The answer completely depends upon your preferences!
Our awesome eco Airbnb in Cancun | Bucketlist Bri
But here are some things to think about if you aren’t sure:
All-inclusive will give you direct access to the beach, pool, and will you place you right downtown in the Hotel Zone. This might also mean you won’t venture out so much from your comforts. AI also probably means you will have less flexibility as there might be included tours, etc.
Booking a boutique hotel or Airbnb is great for couples, solo travelers, big groups or families. Plus, you’ll have more flexibility as to where you want to stay in Cancun (north, south, central?) and the amenities you really want or need. Not being in an all-inclusive Cancun resort also means you’ll have more flexibility as to making your own travel plans (i.e. renting a car, going at your own pace, etc.,).
Here’s a map for Booking’s top-rated places to stay in Cancun, including boutique hotels, independent rentals, and higher-end resorts:
Cancun Travel Tips
As with every place you travel to, don’t forget to stay safe in Cancun.
Pickpocketing and petty theft are common in the Hotel Zone where it’s crowded.
Police checks aren’t that common, but they can happen, especially at night on the roads. Corruption in Mexico doesn’t need to be dramatized, and not all authorities are out to get you. Be that as it may, don’t drive with alcohol in your back seats, and in fact, it’s best to avoid driving at night at all.
Scammers are often at large in crowded cities, and Cancun is no exception. Don’t be egged into buying anything shady, don’t climb into just any taxi, and don’t be obnoxious with your camera gear, tech, car, possessions, jewelry, or anything else that falls under the “wealthy and white” image.
Don’t forget your sunglasses and reef-friendly sunscreen! | Bucketlist Bri
15 Unique Things to Do in Cancun
Cancun is one of the most sought-after travel destinations in the world! There’s no shortage of unique things to do and epic places to see.
Whether it’s an adventure you seek or lazying it up on a white sand beach… Cancun’s got something for you!
Have you ever been to Cancun or the Riviera Maya? Let me know what you think! Please drop your comments and questions below or feel free to reach out to me by email.