One look at Cancún's aquamarine Caribbean waters and you'll understand why snorkeling, swimming, boat tours and other water-related activities are so central to a visit here. Most of the city's star attractions – namely its beaches, museum, and ruins – are in the hotel zone, while downtown Cancún, with its quality restaurants and nightlife, provides the local flavor. From exploring ancient Maya culture to wildlife-watching and the best nights out, here are the highlights of a visit to Cancún.

A shot aimed upwards on some ancient stone steps
See the ruins of a Maya maritime community at San Miguelito © EQRoy / Shutterstock

Museo Maya de Cancún and San Miguelito archaeological site

Anyone interested in learning more about the fascinating ancient Maya culture should get off the beach and hit the state-of-the-art Museo Maya de Cancún museum and its adjoining San Miguelito archaeological site. The Museo Maya, which was built on a raised structure to avoid flooding, houses hundreds of mostly Maya artifacts found in and around the peninsula. After the museum visit follow the sacbés (ancient dirt paths) to the adjacent San Miguelito site, where you'll see the ruins of a Maya maritime community, including an 8m-high pyramid.

A diver swims above an underwater sculpture made up of many individual standing figures
The Museo Subacuático de Arte was built to divert divers away from deteriorating coral reefs © Jason deCaires Taylor /

Visit the Underwater Museum 

With some 500 life-sized sculptures submerged off the coasts of Cancún and Isla Mujeres, the Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA) or Underwater Museum of Art, is a unique experience. Visitors can marvel at the lifelike sculptures on scuba-diving and snorkeling tours, or on a glass-bottom boat ride. The ocean galleries are the creation of British-born sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, who, along with several Mexican artists, built them to divert divers away from deteriorating coral reefs. Among the highlights is a 450-piece installation called Silent Evolution.

An aerial view of a pristine and undeveloped stretch of coastline with turquoise seas
Enjoy the undeveloped coastline of Isla Blanca © age fotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

Isla Blanca

A day trip to Isla Blanca, a remote stretch of coastline north of downtown, offers a look at what Cancún was like before it became the highly developed resort we know today. Unfortunately, some of the big hotels are starting to move in to the area but you can still find plenty of quiet spots along a dirt road that dead-ends at a precious white-sand beach backed by a lagoon. Along the way you can stop for drinks at family-run beach clubs with views of Isla Mujeres across the bay.

Aerial shot of a tropical palm-covered island with a few sandy paths running through it
Isla Contoy is a top bird-watching destination © Tono Balaguer / Shutterstock

Watch wildlife at Isla Contoy National Park

Birders will love exploring the uninhabited island of Parque Nacional Isla Contoy, which is home to 170 bird species, including red flamingos and frigates. It's also an important turtle nesting ground in the summer months and whale sharks are sighted north of Contoy between mid-May and September. Only 200 visitors are allowed to access the park each day, making it a pleasantly uncrowded getaway to enjoy activities such as snorkeling and hiking. Boat tours to the pristine island depart from downtown Cancún.

A huge beast swims along underwater. It is a dark colour with lighter spots. Two divers are watching on from a distance
Always practice responsible tourism when near wildlife © Ken Kiefter / Getty Images / Cultura RF

Swim with whale sharks

If you've never had the opportunity to swim or snorkel alongside these gentle giants you're missing out on a real Cancún highlight. From mid-May to mid-September enormous whale sharks congregate in the waters north of Cancún to feed on plankton. During that time, you can head out on boat tours departing from Cancún. It's definitely a memorable experience, but one that should always be done with outfits that practice responsible tourism. The best time of year for whale shark sightings is July and August.

The best places to swim with whale sharks

An aerial shot of a heavily developed strip of land with ocean on one side and a lagoon on the other
Zona Hotelera is home to many great restaurants and vibrant nightlife © Christopher Lin / Shutterstock

Zona Hotelera

The hotel zone, home to Museo Maya de Cancún, is touristy, but once you get a good look at the 12 miles (19km) of postcard-perfect Caribbean beaches you'll understand why. You'll find some of the most swimmable waters on the Zona Hotelera's north side, between Km 4 and Km 9. Foodies will rejoice while discovering some of the city's best restaurants, from waterfront seafood joints to gourmet establishments serving Mexican and international fare. There's also an infamous nightclub zone, with an unabashed party scene that rages on until the break of dawn.

A person attached to a parachute flies high above the ocean towed by a boat
Take advantage of Cancún's range of water sports © Brand X Images / Getty Images

Scuba diving and other water sports 

In addition to ocean reef diving, local tour operators such as the family-run Scuba Cancún offer cenote dives at various sites, allowing you to explore mysterious limestone caverns that make up part of the Yucatán's vast underwater cave systems. First-time divers can take introductory dive courses or complete a multi-day PADI-certified dive course. Other water-based activities include swimming, kayaking, kiteboarding, parasailing, and boat trips. Most of the major resorts rent kayaks and the usual water toys; a few make them available to guests free of charge.

Where to find cenotes - Mexico's amazing natural swimming holes

Downtown Cancún (Cancún Centro)

For slices of everyday life, Cancún Centro has got your back in a major way. You might find yourself knocking back drinks with locals, and practicing your Spanish while browsing through colorful old markets or eating at atmospheric taco joints and loncherías (eateries specializing in regional homestyle cooking). When it comes to nightlife, have a dance at downtown's lively salsa clubs, take in an open-air concert on the iconic Parque de las Palapas, or hit the hip cocktail bars and open-air restaurants serving creative contemporary cuisine on Avenida Náder. This street, one block east of Avenida Tulum, has emerged as one of the trendiest areas in downtown Cancún. It offers a refreshing change from the loud (and often crowded) club atmosphere in the Zona Hotelera, and bars here tend to draw a good mix of people.

You might also like:

The 5 best day trips from Cancún  
7 stunning Cancun beaches  
Mexico's family-friendly destinations to explore with kids  

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