The Sweet Spot: Cancún

by  Christina Garofalo | Updated on Aug 12, 2019
Cancun aerial view
Cancun aerial view / Iren_Key/iStock

Since 1974, when developers first targeted Cancún as a tourist destination, the destination has transformed from a scarcely inhabited strip to the one of Mexico's top resort destinations.

In addition to the many all-inclusive beachfront hotels, Cancún is home to one of the world’s largest coral reefs, and it’s a couple hours’ drive from the 1,000-year-old Mayan ruins of Chichén-Itzá.

Downtown Cancún is easily accessible by bus and is a great place to enjoy colorful street performances, food stalls, and shopping. If you’re on a budget, independent travel in the region is safe, easy, and cheap -- even if you don’t speak Spanish. All of that (plus the picturesque turquoise water, white sand beaches, and tropical climate), make Cancún one of our favorite beach destinations.

The Perfect Time to Visit

December and April

Cancún’s weather is best from November through April. During this time, you’ll enjoy daytime highs in the mid-80s and evening lows in the mid-60s. Avoid traveling in mid-December through mid-February, when prices peak, or in March, when the town is overrun by spring breakers. We like early December and April, when the weather is comfortable but the prices are lower. (However, if Easter falls in April, prices will skyrocket. In this case, it's worth looking at dates in May or November.) When booking airfare, you’ll find the best deals from late spring through December.

When to Visit

September and October

September and October are the two wettest months of the year. However, there are many people who prefer to visit during this time because the weather is usually okay. As long as it's not raining, the beach is lovely -- and the crowds are at their thinnest. Keep in mind that September and October are part of the active tropical storm season, and, if you do book during this time, be sure to monitor the forecast ahead of time. 

For a happy medium, consider planning your trip for the very end of October, when Cancún transitions to drier weather.

What to See and Do

The Caribbean Sea offers countless activities, including snorkeling, jet skiing, and parasailing. The water surrounding Cancún is home to underwater caverns, coral reef, and cenotes, making it an especially good place for scuba diving. The Great Maya Reef is the second largest coral reef in the world. In the northern part of Punta Cancún, entry- and mid-level divers can visit the Banderas and El Bajito coral reefs, while experienced divers can visit the San Miguel and Aristos reefs. Fishing is also popular here. The sea is home to sawfish, red snapper, and grouper, to name a few.

Culture vultures can take a day trip to ancient Mayan pilgrimage site Chichén-Itzá. (though we recommend doing an overnight if possible). If you do head down for the day, plan to arrive as early as possible to beat the heat -- and the crowds. Alternatively, head to Las Ruinas del Rey or visit the Mayan ruins at the Museo Maya de Cancún. El Meco, a larger archaeological site, is located just outside the Cancún city limits and is easy to get to from the Hotel Zone.

Though it has become a bit like a Mexican Disneyland, Xcaret Park in Riviera Maya -(about 70 minutes by car from Cancún) offers impressive nature-based attractions, including a river through a Mayan village and a subterranean area where you can swim and snorkel.

For a taste of Spain, visit Plaza de Toros, a small bullring in downtown Cancún where bullfights are held every Wednesday. Another fun activity? Hop on a sunset or night cruise to the nearby beaches of Isla Mujeres. Cancún is a golfer’s paradise, and is home to an array of courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jr., and Greg Norman. You can also pilot your own two-person speed boat or jet ski to explore the jungle in the Nichupte Lagoos mangroves, where you'll find a variety of wildlife.

If you're visiting during the off-season, consider a trip to the aquarium, which is a great indoor attraction. In the open-air section, you can swim with dolphins and touch sea urchins, stingrays, sea turtles, and conches. 

Tips to Save Even More

A taxi from the airport can be expensive. Instead, take the bus. Cancún's bus system is affordable and easy to use. The buses leaves every half hour until 11:30 p.m. and takes about 30 minutes to get to the Hotel Zone district (62 pesos or $5 per person). The  bus also runs downtown.

Stock up on inexpensive snacks, bottled water, and other groceries at Chedraui, a large grocery store with locations in both the Hotel Zone and downtown. Note that prices tend to be cheaper at the downtown locations. 

For free entertainment, head to Palapas Park in the evenings. The park is populated with food stalls and you can catch wrestling, the Yucatán Symphon Orchestra, or just people-watch. There’s also a carousel along with bouncy houses for kids.

Consider staying downtown, which is just 20 to 30 minute bus ride from the Hotel Zone. Here, you'll find better prices on hotels, restaurants, and souvenirs. There are a number of lovely public beaches that are easily accessible from downtown, including as Playa Juventud and Playa las Perlas. Outside of high season, you can score room rates as low as $20 to $40 per night. 

Another tip: Avoid touristy beachside restaurants. Instead, search for authentic Mexican eateries. These restaurants are usually characterized by menus painted on the walls, a big flat grill out front, bright lighting, and minimal decor. You'll find great restaurants in and around Parque las Palapas in Cancún and the Bazar Municipal in nearby Valladolid.

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