Yes, Cancún offers much more than just beaches – but that doesn’t mean its famous stretches of Caribbean-lapped sand should be crossed off your list. In one week, a savvy traveler can experience many different sides of Cancún, from the jungles beyond the city limits to the fashionable local hangouts, the best tacos – and the most enjoyable beaches.

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Our seven-day itinerary incorporates the best times to avoid the crowds at the beach and the most enticing experiences the surrounding area has to offer.

Sunday: kick off with Mexican flavor

Avoid the weekend beach crowds by heading Downtown for an afternoon of Mexican culture. Occupying a full city block, Mercado 28 is a maze-like market of colorful local souvenir stands, where vendors call out to you in Spanglish offering sunglasses, sarongs, traditional Maya dresses and handmade jewelry. In the center is a courtyard surrounded by inexpensive open-air eateries, while the market’s northern corner is aptly named 'Plaza Bonita' for its pretty (bonita) buildings.

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Once the sun goes down, take a stroll to nearby Avenida Yaxchilán for dinner at La Parrilla ( Here, the harmonized melodies of strolling mariachi bands set the mood for a true cena Mexicana. Locals and travelers alike rave about the tacos al pastor, and the Margarita Especial just might be the perfect treat for your first night out in Cancún. Finish your evening with a walk to the food stands at Las Palapas Park for a traditional marquesita, a Yucatán treat made of a hot and crispy crêpe-like roll (best when filled with the salty-sweet combination of shredded edam cheese and Nutella spread).

Monday: get initiated into the Cancún beach scene

Today’s destination trades the Caribbean Sea’s characteristic turquoise for streaks of pale and navy blue. The pool-like Playa Langosta (Lobster Beach) remains a ‘local secret’, its knee-deep water perfect for swimming and the occasional school of tiny white fish make it worth bringing your snorkel. Arrive by 10am on any weekday and you just might have the place to yourself.

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For the evening, dress up a little for dinner at La Habichuela Sunset, known for its gourmet blend of Maya, Mexican and Caribbean cuisines. This restaurant is best appreciated when you arrive before sunset to fully enjoy the Nichupté Lagoon views. The dramatic two-story dining room features Maya-inspired decor, but the outdoor garden provides a more romantic setting.

Tuesday: scream like Tarzan

Ranking as one of the most loved day trips in the area, Selvatica takes you 45 minutes away from Cancún for a day of outdoor jungle fun. Cenotes and tree canopy tours are popular, and in addition to its high-flying traditional zip lines, Selvatica also has a rollercoaster-style zip line and the extra fast ‘Superman’, plus a few other bravery-testing leaps of faith.

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After a day of flying, grappling and screaming your way through the jungle, you’ll want to recharge your energy. So tiny you might miss it, the Surfin Burrito serves up California-style burritos and tacos with just three tables in an open-air reggae-inspired setting. They’re open 24/7 in case you crave a snack after a night at the nearby clubs later in the week.

Wednesday: tourist for a day

Cancún's busiest beach goes by two names: its official title is Playa Gaviota Azul, but locals just call it Playa Forum after its location behind The Forum shopping center. Weekends here are for music and beach-club crowds, but weekdays are for spreading your towel on the sand or splashing in the waves. To get calmer waters, walk to the northern end by the jetty.

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Gaviota Azul, aka Forum Beach, is busy at weekends but much quieter during the week © Laura Winfree/Lonely Planet

A few hours on the sand will have your belly rumbling for sodas and lunch, so grab some classic Mexican flavors at Taco Factory, set in the nearby alleyway tucked between the nightclubs of Party Center.

Thursday: cooling off in a cenote

Less than two hours south of Cancún lie the ruins of the walled Maya city of Tulum, made even more spectacular by their oceanfront setting. Hire an on-site guide so you can fully understand the history of each building, then take the staircase down the cliffside to the sands below the pyramids for a few hours of beach time.

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If you still need to cool off before returning to Cancún, stop by Cenote Azul right on the highway half an hour north of Tulum. Laid-back travelers will love snorkeling the shallower side of the cenote, while adventurers can jump off the small cliff again and again into the crystal clear pool of water below.

Friday: play all day, party all night

To complete your Cancún beach experience, spend the day at Playa Tortugas, where you can splash in the cool, calm Caribbean waters or sun yourself on the rocks at the eastern edge of the beach. Getting lunch is easy here with seafood restaurants on the beach and a convenience store at the entrance for picnics. On busier days, you can even brave the bungee jump right over the water.

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Save some time in the afternoon for a catnap because Friday is the best time for Cancún nightlife, and the party doesn’t even start until 11pm. Open only on Fridays and located in the main nightlife district, The City reigns as the largest club in Latin America, with a wild atmosphere and frequent celebrity performers. You can dance on the center bar or watch it all from the stadium-style stands surrounding the main floor.

Saturday: ancient to trendy, Cancún’s two sides

It might sound surprising but you don’t have to go far to find traces of ancient Maya civilization in Cancún: the ruins of a small city now known as San Miguelito sit in the Hotel Zone, within a well-protected jungle that blocks out the noises of the surrounding streets and provides a haven of forest pathways and tangled trees to lead you from one stone structure to the next. Connected to San Miguelito is the Museo Maya de Cancún, a compact but well appointed museum housing centuries-old artifacts from archaeological sites throughout the Yucatán Peninsula and beyond.

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Cancún has a history that goes back way beyond the start of beach tourism to the area, as shown at the San Miguelito archaeological site © Laura Winfree/Lonely Planet

Spend your last night in style at La Fonda del Zancudo on Downtown’s Avenida Uxmal. A fairytale atmosphere and a memorable menu of artisanal cuisine based on local and organic products make for a meal to remember. Afterwards, head around the corner for cocktails at fashionable hangout Nomads Cocina & Barra on Avenida Nader. The beautiful back garden fills up on weekend nights and is the perfect spot to round off your Cancún itinerary.

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