Visiting Cancún soon? Here’s how to have maximum fun and minimal disappointment.
Millions flock to Cancún each year for sun, sea, and revelry. This Mayan Riviera hotspot has plenty of must-do activities, from dipping in the turquoise Caribbean Sea and spotting Mayan ruins to cenote hopping, visiting underwater museums and various beaches, and attending an epic party or two (or three). There are also many activities, places, and things to avoid if you want to stay out of trouble, evade sticky situations, and leave with your wallet, mind, body, and dignity intact. Here are 19 ways to have a great vacation in one of Mexico’s top beach resort destinations.
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Don’t Just Stay in the Hotel Zone
So, you’ve done some diligent Googling and booked a room at one of Cancún’s many Hotel Zone resorts. Maybe there’s an onsite spa? Maybe there’s an infinity pool? Maybe there’s no concrete reason to leave your resort of choice? Even so, you should leave your resort because Cancún has much more to offer than piña coladas by the pool. Venture into the downtown areas and explore the markets. Go scuba diving at the underwater sculpture park, or take the kids to the planetarium. Don’t worry, that infinity pool will still be there when you get back.
Don’t Lose Your Resort Bracelet
Paper or plastic wristbands are typically doled out when checking in to most Cancún hotels and resorts, especially ones with all-inclusive perks. After all, the managers don’t want just anyone wading up to the swim-up bar. With that in mind, don’t intentionally take off your bracelet. Keep a close eye on it, and don’t accidentally lose it at a rowdy foam party. You’ll likely have to pay a hefty fee to replace it at reception if you do.
Don’t Only Stay in Cancún
Cancún might have attractions that span beyond the Hotel Zone, but there are arguably more interesting cities, towns, and islands in the day-trip vicinity. Pay a visit to one of the nearby Caribbean islands—Cozumel and Isla Mujeres are two of the most popular—stop by some of the nearby archaeological ruins or go turtle-spotting in Puerto Morelos and Akumal. Bustling Playa del Carmen and Tulum warrant a look-in as well, and the Ruta De Cenotes (Cenote Route) has a tempting amount of natural limestone sinkholes for you to dip in and be dazzled by. The most popular ruins in Mexico, Chichén Itzá, are also just two and a half hours away from Cancún.
Don’t Eat at Señor Frog’s
Eating at Señor Frog’s while in Mexico is like going to Japan and only eating in McDonald’s. Sure, there’s a novelty factor, but it’s still just McDonald’s, isn’t it? So, skip the unimaginative food and drinks at the various Señor Frog’s outposts and go to one of the many other excellent restaurants. There’s one for all budgets that you’ll find in Cancún. Additionally, if you typically prefer your meals with a side of conversation, this is not the place for you. Señor Frog’s takes a “more is more” approach to music volume to foster a party-like atmosphere, so you’ll undoubtedly struggle to hear your dining companions.
INSIDER TIPPromo ladies at bars may give you shots and then coerce you to pay for them after—and they aren’t cheap. Always clarify prices before you consume anything.
Don’t Go During Spring Break
Unless you’re actively all about that Spring Break life—a.k.a., you want to drink too much cheap beer in the company of teenagers and dance ‘til dawn at foam parties—skip Cancún during Spring Break. Not only is it one of the region’s most popular periods (meaning prices will be hiked across all resorts), the fun of Spring Break is in the participation. Watching from the sidelines is just sad. Sure, you can stay at non-Spring Break hotels and skip their nightclub stomping grounds, but you can also just…visit Cancún during the more affordable low season instead?
Don’t Visit in the Summer
The worst time (if there is truly a “worst” time) to visit Cancún is during the sticky summer months. Sure, flights can be cheaper, and resorts empty out, but it’s with good reason. Your dreams of a perfect beach vacation might be dampened by the pungent sargassum seaweed that invades the beaches during the summer months. Temperatures also regularly reach the 90s (30s in Celsius). While that might not seem so hot, the added humidity can make Cancún during summer incredibly oppressive, and what’s the point of going on holiday just to lounge around in your air-conditioned hotel room? Instead, travel during shoulder seasons (right after Easter and before Christmas).
Don’t Rent a Car
There are few things more stressful than trying to get to grips with driving in another country—especially if that country is Mexico—so don’t put yourself through that when on vacation in Cancún. Instead, skip the cars and make the most of incredibly affordable local buses and convenient inter-city coach routes to places like Tulum and Playa del Carmen. Some resorts even offer free shuttles to popular tourist attractions. Taxis, on the other hand? They’re not metered, so the prices quoted are often marked up for tourists. If you need to take one, remember that it’s always best to pay in pesos, not dollars, and agree on the price before setting off.
Don’t Skip the Street Food
Cancún may well be home to a glut of national and international dining options, from casual cafes to upscale waterfront restaurants, but that doesn’t mean you should skip the street food. Mexico has a reputation for some of the world’s best street foods—think tacos, cream and cheese smothered elotes, and crispy Edam and Nutella filled rolled crepes, aka marquesitas—so be sure to sample some when you can in Cancún.
INSIDER TIPWorried about food poisoning? Look for the stalls with lots of people gathered around and seek out places where the food is prepped on the spot.
Don’t Drink the Water
“Don’t drink the tap water” applies throughout Mexico, and Cancún is no exception. Stick with bottled or filtered varieties if you’re thirsty and if you do use tap water to brush your teeth, the safest thing to do is rinse with purified water after. Thankfully, most all-inclusive resorts will keep your room stocked with bottled water. And what about ice? Ice is almost always made with filtered water, especially in large restaurants and resorts, so there’s no need to drink everything at room temperature.
Don’t Rely on Dollars
Like most popular tourist destinations in Mexico, you can easily drift through an entire vacation in Cancún without exchanging your dollars for pesos. However, it is worth bringing at least some local currency with you, especially if you want to eat street food, buy souvenirs in the markets, and eat where the locals do. Sure, plenty of places accept American dollars, but you’ll likely receive your change (at an unfavorable exchange rate) in pesos anyway.
INSIDER TIPDon’t exchange your dollars for pesos at the airport or even your hotel, as you’ll be stitched up on the exchange rate. Instead, go to a local bank or an ATM—preferably with a door lock.
Don’t Lose Your FMM Immigration Form
On the plane to Mexico, you will be given a Multiple Immigration Form (FMM) to fill out, which has two parts. The bottom half will be returned to you by customs officials, and you need this to exit Mexico. It is crucial that you don’t lose this as you will have to pay a steep fine at the airport (around $60) before you can leave. Lines to pay can be quite long, and you could miss your flight while doing so. Your FMM tourist card will state the amount of time you have been granted to stay in Mexico. It’s a good idea to always have a copy or photo of this with you if you are stopped and searched by police on the lookout for tourists overstaying their visas.
INSIDER TIPFill out the immigration form on the plane to save time when you get to customs (lines can be hours long during peak season).
Don’t Buy Drugs From Strangers
Unsurprisingly, most drug peddlers don’t have degrees in ethics. If you’re buying illicit substances from people you don’t know, you might get fake drugs or even a one-way ticket to jail. Some shady sellers are in cahoots with corrupt police officers who mysteriously appear right after you purchase. The drug cartels are one of the most unsavory aspects of life in the Yucatán Peninsula. Don’t fund them and their gang wars by buying drugs when in Cancún.
INSIDER TIPUnscrupulous police officers on night patrols might try to fine you for things you haven’t done or for “being drunk.” Take photo and video evidence of any interactions with law enforcement (particularly after dark) and jot down their ID numbers.
Don’t Carry All Your Valuables With You
Every city has fast hands and opportunists. While in Cancún, someone might come up to you and ask for help or try to sell you low-cost knick-knacks and then pickpocket you. Children are often used as a decoy. Keep your wits about you and store valuables like jewelry, expensive cameras, and your passport safely back at your accommodations. It isn’t a bad idea to have a dummy wallet filled with just a little bit of money that you can hand over if you have the misfortune of being robbed.
Skip the Timeshare Presentations
Cancún International Airport can be an overwhelming place. Car rental companies, tour operators, and people randomly yelling out, “amigo, welcome to Mexico,” will all be vying for your attention the second you walk through baggage claim. One of these individuals might try to woo you with a free breakfast or open bar in a luxurious hotel, but it’s actually a timeshare presentation. It might sound like a sweet deal, but that’s anywhere between two to six hours of your life that you will never get back. Ignore them and carry on your merry way.
Don’t Let Your Drink Out of Your Sight
Nobody wants to have their drink spiked. If you’re out at a bar or club, don’t leave your drinks unattended for any reason, and take them with you to the toilet if you have to. If you accept free alcoholic beverages from strangers, make sure you’re looking when the drinks are poured or opened. When buying drinks yourself, pay for each round immediately rather than having a tab in case a bartender decides to get crafty with your bill. If you’re hitting the booze hard, you might not be in the best position to dispute the check when it comes.
Get Everything in Writing
Tour sellers will promise you the moon on a stick to get you to book one of their packages. Is breakfast really included? How many cenotes will you visit en route to Chichén Itzá? Will there be any additional charges or entry fees along the way? Always ask for written confirmation of all inclusions, so there are no nasty surprises and have solid contact information for anyone you give money to.
Don’t Ignore the Beach Warning Flags
Cancún is known for its gloriously blue beaches. To ascertain when it’s safe to swim, snorkel, or surf in them, pay attention to the color-coded flags that authorities kindly put in place for everyone’s safety. Green means you’re good to go, yellow urges you to exercise caution when in the water, and red is a stern warning of highly hazardous conditions. Black is the most severe warning, and you shouldn’t swim at all. Also, always be on the lookout for passing boats and jet skis when in the water.
Don’t Miss Out on the Theme Parks
Good news for thrill-seekers. Dotted along the Mayan Rivieria are several fun-filled adventure theme parks owned by the X-Caret Group. Wander off from your resort and zipline to your heart’s content at Xplor, put your swimwear on and slide down a 131-foot lighthouse slide at Xel-Ha water park, float down a river on a Mexican gondola to the sound of mariachi music at Xoximilco or fraternize with tropical birds and meander through underground rivers at X-Caret (pronounced ish-ka-ret). And the best of all? When purchasing your ticket to visit any park, you can add round-trip transportation from your hotel or a pick-up location of your choosing.
INSIDER TIPYou can get discounts by simultaneously purchasing tickets to multiple X-Caret group parks.
Don’t Only Drink Corona
Modelo. Indio. Victoria. Bohemia. Dos Equis. These are just a few delightfully palatable national beer brands for raising a toast to a brilliant vacation under the Mexican sun. Over the years, Corona adverts have promised you summer in a bottle, but don’t be scared to expand your horizons to home-grown brews in which no limes are required.
Hi! I'm Mexican, I've been to Cancun a lot of times! I agree with you 100%!! Excelent advice!! And don't skip the parks!! Really! They are worth it!!