Though you can’t visit Cancún without spending some time on the beach—nor would you want to—there’s another side to this ever-popular vacation spot, one that includes traveling back in time at ancient Mayan ruins, playing a round of golf on a pro-designed course, and scuba diving among hundreds of underwater sculptures.
What’s more, Cancún is a quick (and often direct) flight from most major U.S. cities, so you won’t waste much time in transit. Here are seven great ways to make the most of your time in the sun.
Take a Day Trip
Isla Mujeres may be eight miles off the coast of Cancún, but it feels a world away. A 20-minute ferry ride will drop you off on the north side of the tiny island, which is not even five miles long and less than a mile wide. The preferred mode of getting around is a golf cart or scooter. You can rent your ride near the port and then head due south for a visit to Tortugranja, a government-funded turtle farm that protects the fragile eggs that are laid on the beach. It also has a small aquarium filled with different turtle species and other marine life.
From here, you can continue down as far as possible to Punta Sur. This rocky coastal cliff is the highest point on the Yucatán Peninsula and home to a lighthouse, a sculpture garden featuring works by 23 Mexican artists, and the remains of a Mayan temple dedicated to Ixchel, the goddess of the moon.
History buffs may prefer a one-day getaway to Chichén Itzá, a larger, more impressive archaeological site that is considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It’s a longer trek—about 2.5 hours by car from the Hotel Zone—but you’ll be rewarded with well-preserved structures that date back to the fifth-century, including the pyramid of El Castillo (also known as the Temple of Kukulcan) and the Temple of the Warriors. It’s best to arrive early so that you can beat the heat—and the crowds.
Go on a Shopping Spree
In Cancún, souvenir seekers have plenty of places to peruse, from spiffy shopping centers to busy flea markets. In the Hotel Zone, La Isla Shopping Village houses a mix of international and locally owned stores—a number of them are swimwear brands, so getting beach-ready is a cinch—and a movie theater, in case you could use a couple of air-conditioned hours.
About a 40-minute drive away, Mercado 23 is one of the oldest markets in town, filled with stalls selling crafts as well as everyday grocery items such as fruits, vegetables, and tortillas. At the nearby and somewhat touristy Mercado 28, you can put your bargaining skills to the test with vendors hawking everything from colorful pottery to leather sandals to tequila.
Discover an Underwater World
The MUSA Cancún Underwater Museum of Art is the type of museum you have to see to believe. The aptly named site has more than 500 life-size sculptures installed right into the seabed, mostly of human figures in various poses—including Inertia (a man sitting on a couch watching television) and Understanding (a group of men sitting cross-legged around what looks like a fountain).
The pieces are made from marine cement, which promotes the growth of algae and, in turn, coral. It’s an eerie yet unmissable choose-your-own-adventure experience: You can explore it by riding in a glass-bottom boat, snorkeling, or, in the deeper Manchones section, scuba diving.
At El Camaleón Mayakoba, about an hour south of the Hotel Zone in the Riviera Maya, you’ll find a Greg Norman masterpiece that has hosted the OHL Classic (the first PGA Tour event outside of the U.S. and Canada) since 2007. The challenging par-72 course was built around jungle, mangroves, and the beach—and there’s even a cenote (a natural limestone sink hole) on the first fairway. Nearby, there’s also native vegetation on the 18-hole course at Grand Coral Golf Riviera Maya, a Nick Price creation.
Here you can also play FlingGolf, a lacrosse-golf combo that involves—you guessed it—flinging the ball from hole to hole; the stick doubles as a club for putting.
Beach destinations are often known for their top-notch spas, and Cancún is no exception. Build in some relaxation time at the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancún’s Gem Spa, where the treatments are designed around different types of stones. The facial portion of the Mayan God’s Ritual, for example, incorporates copal resin and tigereye, while obsidian is used during the Taino Sacred hot-stone massage.
You can’t come to Cancún and not take full advantage of its seaside locale—even if it means eating seafood all day, every day. Elegant Lorenzillo’s is set inside a thatched-roof palapa right in the water of Nichupté lagoon. Don’t miss the lobster, which you get to select yourself before it’s prepared one of 20 ways, from simply grilled to served with garlic and guajillo chili vinaigrette. The sunset views are also epic. And near the aforementioned Mercados 23 and 28, the family-owned, white-tablecloth La Habichuela has been a favorite for more than 40 years. The string bean and vegetable soup dates back to the original menu and goes well with the fresh catch, served whole or filleted. It’s a good idea to reserve online in advance, and we recommend requesting a table in the junglelike garden, which twinkles with lights at night.
Sign Up for a Cooking Class
Why just dine on local cuisine when you can learn to make your favorite dishes and relive your getaway back home for years to come?
In Puerto Morelos, about 40 minutes south of the Hotel Zone, The Little Mexican Cooking School offers full-day (10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) lessons during which you’ll make up to eight dishes and then eat them in a festive group lunch. Rotating menus highlight different regions of the country; for example, the coastline option focuses on seafood, like fish tacos and shrimp ceviche, while the Central Mexico–themed class includes mole verde and quesadillas.
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