Aerial View of Cancun Beach

Your Trip to Cancun: The Complete Guide

••• Wei Fang / Getty Images

Cancun is Mexico's most popular resort area. It is located on the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo on what was previously a long strip of forest flanked by beaches. Cancun's history as a tourist destination dates back to the 1970s when the Mexican government chose the spot for development thanks to the area's great weather, beautiful beaches, clear waters, and nearby coral reef. It's now the biggest resort area in the country, with a population around 600,000 and receiving more than six million visitors annually.

map of Cancun
TripSavvy / Ashley Nicole DeLeon

Areas of the City

Cancun is divided into two distinct areas: "Ciudad Cancun" which is also referred to in English as "downtown Cancun" and "Isla Cancun," or "Cancun Island." Downtown Cancun is a somewhat typical Mexican town on the mainland, where the majority of Cancun residents, most of whom work in the tourism industry, make their home. There are economical hotels, markets, and restaurants in this area, but it is very different from Cancun Island, the main tourist area, known more commonly as the "Zona Hotelera" or hotel zone. This Cancun hotel zone is located on a 15-mile-long sandbar in the shape of the number seven just off the mainland and connected by causeways on either end. Only one road, Kukulkan Boulevard, runs the length of the hotel zone. Tourist infrastructure such as restaurants, upscale shopping, and nightlife is concentrated in this area. The body of water between the hotel zone and the mainland is called the Nichupte Lagoon.

Maya Museum sign
TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

What to Do

The top activity in Cancun is enjoying its beautiful beaches, either by just lazing around with a cold drink, taking a languid stroll, or getting active with the number of water sports activities on offer, including swimming, water skiing, windsurfing, para-sailing, snorkeling, and scuba diving.

What many visitors don't realize is that you can also learn about and appreciate Mayan culture while in Cancun. To do so, your first stop should be the excellent Maya Museum and adjacent San Miguelito archaeological site, both of which are conveniently located right in the hotel zone.

Visitors interested in shopping will find many options, including a number of upscale shops and boutiques in La Isla Shopping Village, Luxury Avenue, and Kukulcan Plaza. For affordable handicraft markets and gift shops, head to Mercado 28.

Where to Stay

Cancun has a huge array of hotels and resorts from which to choose. The majority are all-inclusive, but you will also find hotels offering a European plan, which may be a better choice if you're planning to spend most of your days outside of the resort exploring the area. 

Where to Eat

Since the majority of Cancun's resorts are all-inclusive, many people don't venture to restaurants beyond their resort's walls. Fortunately, many of Cancun's resorts offer excellent cuisine, including some truly fantastic gourmet options such as Tempo Restaurant at Paradisus Cancun. If you're feeling adventurous, try some authentic Yucatecan cuisine at Labná Restaurant in downtown Cancun.

Coba Archeological Site
TripSavvy / Christopher Larson

Day Trips

There is much to see and do in the surrounding area, and much of it can be done as day trips. Cancun is the ideal starting point for discovering the Riviera Maya, for example, and it's easy to make day trips to Playa del Carmen or the archaeological sites of Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Coba. Several tour companies offer day trips and will pick you up at your hotel in the morning and return you at the end of the day. One example is the Coba Excursion offered by Alltournative Off-Track Adventures.

Isla Mujeres is an island with beautiful, tranquil beaches and a laid-back vibe located just off the coast of Cancun. 

There are numerous nature and water parks in the area. One of the most popular is XCaret eco-archaeological park, which offers a whole range of diversions from swimming in an underground river to learning about the natural world and Mexican culture. Xel-Ha is a natural water park ideal for snorkeling.

Climate and Nature

Cancun has a tropical climate. The weather is warm year-round but can be cool at night during the winter. The vegetation is characterized by low forest trees and brilliant flowers. The mangrove swamps and coral reefs are inhabited by an astounding variety of animals, and the area is a paradise for bird-watchers.

Getting There and Getting Around

Cancun's international airport (Airport code CUN) is the main point of entry. It is located just 13 miles from the hotel zone and receives flights from major international airlines as well as charters. 

The ADO bus station in downtown Cancun is the main spot for catching long-distance buses to destinations along the Riviera Maya and elsewhere in Mexico. 

For transportation within the city, local public buses run frequently along Kukulcan Boulevard in the hotel zone and to downtown Cancun. They are convenient and economical. Bus drivers give change. Just be careful crossing the street; traffic is very fast. Renting a car, on the other hand, is a great option for exploring farther afield. Unlike some other areas of Mexico, roads in Cancun and the Riviera Maya are generally in good condition, and there is ample signage.