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Visiting Cancun for the First Time? Here's What to See and Do


Visiting Cancun for the First Time? Here's What to See and Do
Hi, I'm Leah!

Leah Still Joll is a freelance writer based in San Francisco with a specialty in travel writing. Her favorite destinations include Maui, Sayulita, the Northern California coast, Paris, Morocco, Indonesia, and Western Australia.

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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 Yucatán hot spot, including historical and cultural attractions, water sports, and day trips. Here are our top recommendations for first-timers.


Swim with whale sharks

An adventurer's favorite.

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.

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Sail to Isla Mujeres

The perfect Cancun day trip.

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.

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Catamaran rides to Isla Mujeres are popular first-timer activities. Photo: Stanislav Nemashkalo / Viator

Check out an adventure park

There are plenty to choose from.

South of Cancun near Playa del Carmen, a collection of family-friendly parks offer the chance to see a different side of the Riviera Maya. Depending on your interests, choose from 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.

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Visit Maya ruins

For those interested in learning about the cultural history of the Yucatán, there are a few Maya archaeological sites that can be visited on tours from Cancun. Chichén Itzá 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 Cobá features the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan.

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Chichén Itzá is an understandably popular day trip from Cancun. Photo: Carlos Rivera Arvizu / Viator

Enjoy the nightlife

It's among the best in the country.

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. CoCo Bongo 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.

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Discover a cenote

Refreshing, cool, and picture-perfect.

One of the Yucatán’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.

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Make time for a dip in a Mexican cenote. Photo: Stanislav Nemashkalo / Viator

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Hi, I'm Leah!

Leah Still Joll is a freelance writer based in San Francisco with a specialty in travel writing. Her favorite destinations include Maui, Sayulita, the Northern California coast, Paris, Morocco, Indonesia, and Western Australia.

Keep exploring
See all Cancun tours
3,110 tours & tickets
Things to do in Cancun
See all things to do in Cancun
Where to Find the Best Views in Cancun
Where to Find the Best Views in Cancun