The sun-drenched party capital of Mexico, Cancún is synonymous with high-end hotels, glamorous clubs and spring breakers lining those dazzling beaches. But there is more to this town than the surface level of glitz aimed at tourists in search of a good time. 

Cancún is a multi-layered city with ancient historical sites, beautiful natural landscapes and a rich cultural heritage – and many of these experiences come for free or at a very budget-friendly price. Our round-up of the best cheap things to do there will give you a memorable vacation at a fraction of the regular price.

Beautiful beach on the Caribbean coast. Zona hotelera, Playa Delfines, Cancun, Mexico
Cancun has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world © Iren_Key / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Playa Delfines 

Playa Delfines is a breathtaking Caribbean beach with soft sand and impossibly turquoise waters. With no high-rise hotels on it, the beach is also one of the few in the Zona Hotelera that is easily accessed (so easy, there’s a designated bus stop and car park). 

The vibe is chilled-out and family-friendly – playing in the waves, sandcastle-making and reading novels are the main events. Just as nice are all the free amenities: rows and rows of palapas, clean restrooms, a playground…even lifeguards. All you need is your beach blanket! 

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Parque de las Palapas 

Tucked into a quiet neighborhood in downtown Cancún, Parque de las Palapas is a welcome slice of local flavor. An open, leafy plaza, it comes alive in the evenings, when the heat of the day subsides. Food cart vendors do brisk business in impossible-to-resist street eats, while others sell handicrafts and traditional clothing. 

Kids zip around the park in toy sports cars as families and couples stroll around. On weekends, free entertainment lights up the palapa-shaded mainstage – everything from live jazz to traditional dance groups – with a cultural treat for locals and visitors alike. 

Museo Maya de Cancún 

Sitting among the high-rise hotels, this contemporary museum showcases over 400 Maya artifacts – vases, jewelry, masks – found at key archaeological sites around the Yucatán Peninsula. Multi-media exhibits are engaging and informative, most with English translations. The admission ticket (US$4) includes access to the adjoining ruins of San Miguelito, a Maya community dating to the 13th century. Jungle paths wind past ancient dwellings, alters and even a 26ft-high (8m) pyramid – a reminder of the Cancún that once was.  

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San Miguetito, Mayan Ruin in Cancun, Mexico
Mayan ruins right in the hotel zone are a great way to engage with Indigenous history  © Indigoai / Getty Images

Zona Arqueológica El Rey  

Located across from Playa Delfines, this small and very reasonably priced (US$2.75) archaeological site makes a good break from the beach and poolside games. A wide path runs down the center of this former Maya maritime and fishing community, with small temples and ceremonial platforms on either side. The site gets its name from a sculpture excavated here of a noble, possibly a rey (king), wearing an elaborate headdress. Keep an eye out for the beefy iguanas – many of them make their home here! 

Teatro de Cancún 

The Teatro de Cancún is easy to overlook – who goes on a beach vacation to go to the theater, after all? But taking in a show at this modern playhouse is an inexpensive way to fold in some genuine Mexican culture to your trip. Shows range from traditional dance performances and classical music to plays and comedy shows. Tickets start at just $5. And yes, you can even wear your flips flops. 

Mora Mora 

A go-to spot in Cancún’s alt-nightlife scene, Mora Mora is the place to catch some Mexican hip-hop, reggae and punk bands. A combo restaurant, bar and gallery, the place is decked out in murals with tables and couches all around. Bands rock out on an open-air stage in the rear garden; most shows are free (and the drinks cheap). When the stage is dark, stop in for free screenings of arthouse- and cult-favorite films.  

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Tigres v Diablos Rojos - Mexican Baseball League
The Mexican Baseball League is a favorite past time throughout Mexico and catching a game makes for a fun evening © NurPhoto / Getty Images

Tigres de Quintana Roo 

Shake things up with a professional baseball game in downtown Cancún. The Tigres de Quintana Roo, one of 18 teams in the Mexican professional baseball league, play in the Beto Ávila stadium from March to September. 

The ambiance is family-friendly, down to the team’s goofy mascot. And be sure to order snacks – local faves include chicharrónes (pork rind) doused in hot sauce and tropical fruit on a stick. The beer is ice cold and cheap too. Tickets start at just $2 and top out at $12 (a steal!).   

Mercado 23 

Mercado 23 is a bustling city market and a great place to experience the sights and scents of local Mexico: rows and rows of tropical fruits and vegetables, buckets of colorful flowers and sacks of dried shrimp and all manner of animal parts. Souvenirs and handicrafts can be found here too – most of the same ones you’d find in the Zona Hotelera but at a fraction of the cost.  

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Parque Kabah 

Parque Kabah is tropical nature reserve in downtown Cancún, a public park appealing to nature- and fitness-lovers alike. A 1.2-mile trail loops through the park, popular for running and walking; along the way, local wildlife like coatis and iguana can be seen.

A set of ponds are home to turtles and young crocodiles; in the winter, migrating birds also make them their temporary home. A wood playground and simple park museum round out the space. Park-goers encounter occasional farmers markets, yoga classes and other free events here too.  

La Isla Shopping Village 

Yes, it’s a mall, and yes, the boutiques and activities are pricey (there’s an aquarium and Ferris wheel) but La Isla is also a pleasant place for a stroll in the Zona Hotelera – a tough thing to find if you’re not on the beach.

Canals with Venice-style gondolas wind through the outdoor shopping “village,” street performers are engaging and there’s a boardwalk that opens onto Laguna Nichupté, a beautiful spot to take in the sunset. If it’s raining, stop into the multi-plex movie theater ($3.50), where on Tuesdays two-for-one tickets are the best deal in town.  

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This article was first published June 2021 and updated September 2021

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