Cancun in Mexico might not sound like an obvious travel destination for independent travellers. But if you look beyond the high-end Mexican resorts, there are quirky things to do and see in and around the Yucatán Peninsula.
Recently I went on a work trip to Cancun and found myself in a perfectly manicured all-inclusive Mexican resort.
It’s a tropical paradise: azure-blue Caribbean sea, white sand, elegant palm trees, infinity pools and an all-you-can-eat buffet. A combination that’s hard to resist.
Mexico is certainly a go-to destination if you’ve been dreaming of the interchanging blue hues of the Caribbean Sea, soulful sunsets, and peaceful sunrises.
But if you are into culture and history, then you can easily combine your beach-bar-beach days with a number of fascinating Mayan sites.
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1. Tick Off One of the New Seven Wonders of the World
A new Seven Wonders of the World list was announced on 7th July 2007 in Lisbon. Among the famous landmarks around the world, the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have been included in the list.
That’s a good enough reason alone to visit Cancun and the Yucatán Peninsula if you’ve been dreaming of ticking off some of these fascinating sites.
The site is beautiful and the main attraction, the El Castillo Pyramid, dedicated to Kukulcan - the Maya Feathered Serpent - is stunning. It also reflects the astronomical events and the importance of Yucatan snakes in Mayan culture.
The 24-meter-high Kukulkan Pyramid, combined with the natural rotation of the earth creates the most spectacular light and illusion show. Twice a year, during the spring and autumn equinox, the Feathered Serpent comes back to Earth.
It slithers down the northern staircase of the temple and reunites with the stone snakeheads perched at the bottom of the steps. The shadow of the feathered serpent stays in its entire glory for around 45 minutes before vanishing into the unknown.
To see the phenomenon created by the ancient Mayans, visit the site on the 21st of March, the first day of the astrological year. Allow at least two to three hours to explore, cover up and be sure to apply plenty of sunscreens, the Mexican sun is fierce.
Other significant objects here include many more fascinating architectural discoveries including The Great Ball Court. It’s a massive 100-meter-long and 32-meter-wide playing field with gigantic walls measuring 12 meters in height.
The site is the largest court found in Mesoamerica. As you wander around, pay attention to rubbings on the walls, they tell a story of the ancient Mayan games.
The Ball Game, also known as Pok-Ta-Pok, is more than just a game. It’s a sacrificial ceremony, a ritual between the good and evil. Interestingly, it was the winners who were sacrificed to the Mayan Gods.
For the warriors, it was an honour to offer their sacrificial death to the Gods as saviours and protectors of the community.
How Much Does it Cost and How to Get to Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza, one of the most mystical sites in the ancient Mayan world, is located in Yucatán state, between Valladolid and Merida and is just 120 km away from Merida. Even though it takes over two hours to drive to the site from Cancun, the road is well-maintained and the journey is easy.
Chichen Itza ticket per adult: 242 MXN (Mexican pesos) plus an extra conservation fee for foreigners (172 MXN).
An additional fee of 45 MXN applies if you are going to use GoPro or any other professional filming/photography equipment. Tripods are not allowed. You are free to film with your smartphone.
For a whole day’s trip, organised via our resort, we paid $89 (US dollars) per person. The price included transport both ways, entrance to the archaeological park, a guide, lunch and an entrance fee to the Ik Kil Cenote.
Be vigilant as resorts may try to overcharge you for these kinds of trips. If you can, organise a tour yourself with the local companies, it should cost you around $60 per person. It’s always a good idea to check the TripAdvisor for the best recommendations.
2. Swim in the Most Beautiful Cenote in Mexico
Another cool site to visit while you are out and about is Cenote Ik Kil, arguably, one of the most beautiful cenotes (sinkholes) in Mexico.
It was also the spookiest thing I came across while visiting Cancun. While we enjoyed a refreshing swim in this impressive, 27-meter-deep sinkhole, I didn't realise it had such a dark side to it…
Maya sources suggest that certain cenotes, including this Sacred Cenote that I enjoyed so much, were used for religious rituals, sometimes, human sacrifices. The sacrifices mostly took place in times of drought as part of worship to the rain god Chaac.
Victims, who were thrown into the Well of Sacrifice, were usually killed beforehand, but there were instances when humans were flung alive into the emerald-green water of the sinkhole.
It was between 1904 and 1910 that the archaeologist Edward H. Thompson decided to dredge the sinkhole where he discovered gold, precious stones, pottery and... lots of human remains.
If you don’t feel comfortable swimming in deep waters, you can still float about while holding the rope that is stretched out around the cenote for less confident swimmers. Don’t be frightened if you feel something brushing along your sides, it’s not the mystical creatures but black catfish enjoying the swim.
There are changing rooms on-site with lockers provided at a fee of $3 per cabinet. Sharing is always a good idea. Towels are provided on-site for a deposit of $3, but to skip the queue, bring your own, if you can.
Don’t forget to bring flip-flops as you will have to descend a few slippery and murky flights of stairs until you reach the emerald-green pool.
How Much Does it Cost and How to Get to Cenote Ik Kil
The site is located on Hwy 180, Km 122, a 5-minute drive from the Chichen Itza site. It makes perfect sense to combine the two trips together into one fun day out.
Entrance fee to the Cenote Ik Kil per person: 80 MXN.
3. Visit the City of Dawn on the Caribbean Coast
Located along the Caribbean coast, Tulum was originally known as Zama - the City of Dawn - because it faces the sunrise. Tulum was an important trading hub and due to easy access to both land and sea, it traded with Central America and especially with Central Mexico.
Some of the main trading valuables were jade and obsidian, a volcanic glass. Other goods included salt and textiles which were brought to Tulum via sea.
The archaeological site of Tulum is much smaller than Chichen Itza but nonetheless interesting. It is also one of the best-preserved coastal sites in Mexico. Allow yourself a good couple of hours to explore the scenic Tulum ruins atop 12-meter-high limestone cliffs, stretching along the gorgeous Caribbean coastline.
While Tulum was protected by the high cliffs from the sea, the defensive 748-meter wall of the city inland was, no doubt, as effective; in places eight meters deep and three to five meters high. As you explore the ruins, pay attention to other defensive structures on the southwest and northwest corners of the site; these are identified as watchtowers.
Even though there are more than 60 Mayan structures, the Pyramid El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God are the main three buildings within the archaeological park.
Temple of the Frescoes contains a three-level mural depicting the Maya world of the dead at the lowest level, the living in the middle, and the gods of rain at the top.
El Castillo - The Castle - is the most eye-catching structure due to its location. Built right on the edge of the cliff, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, it appears to have a small niche through which trading canoes would most likely come in back in the day.
The stunning tiny beach beneath the historic site is a protected turtle nesting area, but it’s open to the public for swimming and sunbathing. Remember to pack swimwear, water, sunscreen and a hat - the site doesn’t have much shade.
Once one of the most well-known fortified sites of the Maya, Tulum is now a tourist-friendly destination with stunning resorts dotted along the Caribbean Sea.
It’s divided into four main areas: the historic ruins, pueblo (main town), Zona Hotelera (resorts), and Sian Ka'an, a biosphere reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.
How Much Does it Cost and How to Get to Tulum
The entrance fee to Tulum's archaeological site is 35 MXN plus a 45 MXN extra fee for professional filming/camera equipment.
The distance between the site and the main entrance is around 1 km which you can easily conquer by walking or taking a small train.
Tulum is located around 130 km south of Cancun and takes around 2 hours to get there. To get to Tulum from Cancun independently, you can catch a daily bus at the bus station.
There are a few bus options. We suggest checking online before travelling as timings and ticket prices are subject to change. Bus services such as Wayak, can pick you up and then drop you back off at your hotel.
The bus terminal in Cancun is located on the corner of Tulum and Uxmal street (avenida). There are daily buses departing Cancun from 6 am till 10 pm. Price per person varies between 136 - 176 MXN.
If you are driving, you can reach Tulum via the Federal Highway 307 from Cancun. The roads between the towns are in very good condition and the route between Cancun and Tulum is pretty straightforward, winding along the Caribbean coast.
4. Splash Out at the Irresistible Mexican Markets
If you don’t feel like going too far out, visiting a local Mexican market in Cancun is a great activity. Colourful Mexican mercados are brimming with gleeful souvenirs, dare-to-taste treats, and tequila-tasting stalls.
There are quite a few markets in town that you can check out. But be sure to budget for your Mexican trip, otherwise, you can soon lose track of how many cute and colourful knick-knacks you've bought.
Mercato 23 was the first market built in Cancun and therefore, is the most well-known. If you come here, you’ll definitely feel the local vibe by exploring vibrant stalls, interacting with the locals and tasting local delights.
Mercado 28 is one more entertaining option. This is a predominantly touristy market with prices, naturally, higher. Your negotiation skills will come in handy at this market.
For local fare, and to support the local community, head to Mercado de la 95. Here locals mostly sell their own produce at much cheaper prices than in other markets. Tianguis de la 100 is another Mexican street market in Cancun full of cheap chácharas.
While being vigilant is advisable, just like in any other country in the world, Mexican vendors are friendly and humble. Don’t forget to smile, they are only trying to make a living.
How to Get to the Local Mexican Markets in Cancun
The easiest, hassle-free way to get to mercados in Cancun is to get a taxi from your hotel. Taxis are readily available and charge from 45MXN for a round journey.
We were lucky to get a driver who was happy to wait for us while we browsed the market. As always, sharing a cab is a cost-effective idea.
Best Places to Stay in Cancun
With a coastline as beautiful as the Caribbean, it’s no surprise Cancun is peppered with all-inclusive resorts. And, unsurprisingly, with a high price tag attached to your dream holiday.
On a budget? Then check out this guide to backpacking Mexico.
Paradisus Cancun Luxury All-Inclusive Resort
Accommodation-wise, Paradisus Cancun could be a good option if you are looking for a luxury holiday. The resort offers luxurious amenities including a 9-hole, par 3 golf course, four pools and the signature YHI Spa.
The food was fresh and lovely, especially the guacamole, but I was expecting more of a Mexican vibe. When it comes to cocktails at the pool bars, inconsistency in quality was a bit too frequent. However, if you go for a neat drink, they have a lovely selection of spirits.
As a rum lover, I was more than happy to indulge in beautifully robust Jamaican spirits as well as my favourite, Havana Club 7 Años from Cuba. The Nicaraguan Flor de Caña 5 Black Label rum was delicious too.
The air-conditioned rooms are very spacious, super clean and well-stocked with a minibar, TV, ironing facilities, a coffee maker, and cosy dressing gowns. The staff are very lovely and helpful.
It was a very enjoyable experience staying at the resort and one I could easily recommend if you are a resort lover. One thing to remember though, getting up early is essential, sunrises here are spectacular.
Do I Need a Visa to Travel to Mexico?
Citizens of the US, Canada, Japan, the UK and countries in the European Union’s Schengen area are allowed to stay in Mexico for up to 180 days.
If you are a citizen of the above countries, you don’t need to obtain a Mexican visa in advance. You’ll get stamped into Mexico on arrival. Easy.
Just don’t forget to check your passport validity before travelling. You should have at least 6 months left until your document expires, as with most countries.
If you are flying to Mexico via the US, you’ll need to apply online for ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization).
The application usually takes 24 hours to process and costs $14. But we recommend obtaining it well in advance to avoid any complications.
Cancun Flights From Europe and North America
You can fly directly to Cancun from most major European destinations such as London and Paris and North American airports in New York City or Miami.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic airlines operate direct flights from London, the UK, and Air France operate direct flights from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France.
You’ll catch your Miami - Cancun flight with the American airlines while a number of different airlines including American, Delta, and JetBlue will take you to your luxury destination from NYC.
Direct flights from London to Cancun take around 10 h 20 min, 11 hours from Paris, under 5 hours from New York City and a mere 1.5 hours from Miami.
If you are catching a connecting flight from Mexico City to Cancun, beware that you will have to collect your luggage and then check them back in. Changing at Mexico City can be a little confusing so be sure to follow the signs.
Connecting flights via Mexico City from Paris take under 14 hours and under 13 hours from London.
Is it Safe in Cancun?
There is a lot of negative press about Cancun and Mexico in general, but I felt perfectly safe at the resort. Here is a great post from our lovely travel buddies about the most common misconceptions about Mexico, if you want to read an unbiased opinion from expats in Mexico.
Yes, there were are few clashes among local drug lord gangs during my stay in Cancun, but bad things happen all over the world. Always use caution and common sense when travelling and try to avoid becoming complacent.