What’s there to do in Cancun? First of all beaches! Soft white sand, clear turquoise water, warm sunny weather. Then there’s the activities! jet skiing, snorkeling and parasailing. Bring loads of sunscreen!
Then there’s day trips to explore beyond Cancun to amazing spots such as Isla Mujeres and swimming holes known as cenotes. And don’t forget to venture to the Seventh Wonder of the World at Chichén Itzá.
This perfect Cancun, Mexico 5 day itinerary will leave you refreshed with great memories whether a solo, family or couples vacation.
GETTING TO CANCUN
Cancun is located on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. It’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
You’ll need a passport to visit Mexico. Yes, even if you’re a U.S. citizen. I know it sounds crazy, but I saw loads of tourists trying to check into the flight with their driver’s license and even arguing that it’s a REAL ID. But the confusion may be that to travel by land or sea, the requirements may be slightly different.
You’ll also need an Official Entry Immigration Form (or FMM). The FMM, or tourist card, is free if your point of entry is from a commercial airline. To avoid any delays, the FMM can be completed online at home and then printed to bring with you. Upon entry, an immigration official will stamp the card to validate the it. The validated FMM permits you to stay in Mexico up to 180 days. You’ll need to provide the validated FMM upon exiting Mexico.
The airline will usually issue the physical FMM if you didn’t prepare one already. Use a pen to complete the card. You’ll give half the card to immigration when entering Mexico. Keep the other half safe, maybe with your passport, because you’ll need to provide the other half upon exiting Mexico.
Depending on your time and budget, here are a few ways to get to Cancun.
The easiest way is to fly into the local Cancun airport, Cancun International Airport (CUN). It’s a quick 2 hour flight from Miami, 2.5 hours from Dallas, and about 4 hours from New York and Los Angeles.
These major cities have plenty of daily flights. There are also plenty of budget airlines to choose from, but my airline of choice was American Airlines and Jetblue from Las Vegas.
In addition to your passport and tourist card, you’ll be required to complete a health questionnaire. At this time, other than the questionnaire, Mexico does not have any additional requirements such as a negative test or quarantine. Be sure to check my post for tips on how to navigate travel during a pandemic.
The Hotel Zone is about 15 miles (24 km) from the airport and downtown is about 10 miles (16 km). Depending on traffic, it’s a short drive, about a 30 minute taxi ride and the cost should be about $40-$50 USD. Then let your vacation begin!
Book your international flight at Booking.com for great availability and low prices.
TRAVELER’S TIP: You should definitely get a taxi from the airport. The airport is a madhouse of tour companies aggressively trying to stop you to sell you tours and rides to your destination. They’ll even ask where you are going and say that they are a representative of that place. It’s full of commotion and frustration. Book your taxi online and exit as fast as you can. Better yet, arrange private transportation through booking.com.
If you are a lover of long road trips, you can get to Cancun by vehicle from the United States. If you choose to rent a car in the US to get to Mexico, be sure to follow all the policies set by the rental car company as you don’t want to be stranded in a foreign country.
A few of the documents you will still need are:
- A passport;
- FMM; and
- Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit: This requires proof of vehicle ownership, American registration, a temporary importation document, an American Driver’s license.
If you choose to rent a car in Mexico, you will need to be 21 years of age and be sure to follow the policies set by the rental car company. Either way, you definitely want insurance. Whether this is provided by your credit card or purchasing a policy in Mexico. Just be aware that if you are liable for an accident, you may not be able to leave the country until the damage is paid in full.
Renting a car in Mexico City allows you to take a scenic drive through Vera Cruz, Tabasco, Isla del Carmen to get to Cancun. The road trip will take about 20 hours with some of it along the coast.
By Cruise Ship
A popular method of visiting Mexico is by cruise ship. Cancun unfortunately does not have a harbor deep enough for these ships to dock, but there is a cruise dock in Cozumel, which is located at the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Some cruise ships that go to Cozumel are Royal Caribbean (the family boat), Carnival (the party boat!), Norwegian (the laid back boat), and Regent (the luxury liner).
Then Cancun Is easily accessible by a short ferry ride from Cozumel to Cancun.
By Ferry or Private Boat
You will need to already be in Mexico to take a ferry ride to and from Cancun. Popular ones that operate in and around the Yucatan Peninsula are Ultramar, Winjet Fast Ferry and Barcos.
Similarly, You will need to already be in Mexico to boat to and from Cancun. This can even be done as an excursion from other popular places in Mexico.
GETTING AROUND CANCUN
Getting around Cancun is pretty easy. The easiest way is by bus. The bus makes frequent stops along Boulevard Kukulcán and within the downtown area. A one-way fare is about 60 cents USD. The bus is a great way to get to the best places in Cancun, including downtown, shopping malls, restaurants, local beaches and city plazas.
You can always splurge and take a taxi as taxis are usually hanging around the hotels. It’ll cost about $10-$15 USD each way to transit between the hotel zone and downtown. Although there are many places that take USD, you may just want to carry Mexican pesos anyway.
Another popular way to get around Cancun is to book tours. You can be picked up directly from your hotel and taken for an excursion in or around Cancun, or even just downtown to do some local shopping and grab authentic food.
TRAVELER’S TIP: Cancun’s currency is the Mexican pesos. But the American dollar is usually accepted by most of the hotels, taxis, businesses, and restaurants.
BEST TIME TO VISIT CANCUN
The best time to visit Cancún is from December to April during the peak season. You’ll experience more sun and the least amount of rain. Because it’s a favorite winter getaway, the crowds will be heavier. But you’ll get some of the lowest flights and room rates.
There are two bad times to visit Cancun. The first is from mid-March to early April to avoid the spring break crowd. And the second is from June to November during the Caribbean hurricane season. Although Cancun hasn’t seen a hurricane in decades, it can be prone to storms that are the worst during September and October.
However, May usually has loads of sea turtles sightings. And from July through August, there are usually an abundance of whale sharks, mostly in pods.
15 AWESOME THINGS TO DO IN CANCUN MEXICO
While by no means a comprehensive itinerary, this should give you a good starting point for planning your visit and seeing what Cancun attractions you think you might like over others. This list could actually be used to put together an itinerary for several more days in Cancun if you want to revisit a place or take more time to relax.
Relax on the White Sand Beaches of Playa Delfines
Playa Delfines (Dolphin Beach) is also known as El Mirador (the Lookout) because of its sweeping views of the Caribbean Sea and the beauty of Cancun. It’s arguably the best beach in all of Cancun and conveniently located in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, you’ll spend plenty of time in and around this beach.
To top it off, dolphins regularly are spotted frolicking in the waters here, which is why the beach is so aptly named.
Playa Delfines is a public beach where there is a lifeguard, restrooms and you can rent umbrellas and chairs. It does not offer much else such as food or water unless you are staying at one of the nearby resorts in the Hotel Zone. There are vendors that will come around with a few snacks and souvenirs, otherwise, you will need to BYO (bring your own) if you are not a guest in the Hotel Zone.
Stroll Around Downton Cancun
Head for El Centro (downtown Cancun) and wander down the main street of Avenida Tulum. Here is where the locals are to experience “real Mexico.”
Hang out along Yaxchilan Avenue, lined with several bars that have live music. Don’t worry about being late, the music usually start around midnight and can go until ???
If you’re downtown on a Tuesday, Friday or Sunday night, catch a lucha libre match at Arena Cancun. The entry fee usually includes tacos and beer and you can even get close enough for your favorite masked wrestler to hear your cheers. It’s really cheap and entertaining… if that’s your thing 🙂
Be sure to hit up Mercado 28 (Market 28), a flea market open air shopping center to grab handcrafted, unique travel gifts. Haggle over hats, pottery, shot glasses and shoes to make you feel like a real local.
It’s vibrant and colorful, and really much of the souvenirs are the same. So be sure to HAGGLE as most likely you can go elsewhere and get what you’re looking for, maybe at a better price.
You can also book travel excursions for in and around Cancun here, which makes it a good first day stop.
Devour tacos at Parque De Las Palapas
For good food at Cancun’s tastiest Mexican street food stalls, head to Parque De Las Palapas, not far from Market 28. Easily identified by the palapas or thatched roof made of palm leaves that mark the square.
Try different style tacos. From beef, shawarma, pork, even pineapple and cow tongue! There’s even a taco tour you can join to get your taste buds better acquainted to these delicious foods. Or try empanadas, ice cream or other tasty treats.
This is also a livelier spot after dark, with beer drinkers, mariachi bands, and live entertainment, such as a fashion show and dance productions. All the best entertainment as you dine on the street food.
Learn about one of the 7 Wonders of the World at Chichen Itza
You MUST check out one of the 7 Wonders Of The World at Chichén Itzá. This UNESCO World Heritage site is not to be missed. These ancient Mayan ruins were originally the main hub of the Mayan civilization and have been kept in pristine condition for nearly 1,000 years.
The main ruin is the 75 feet (22 m) tall pyramid El Castillo that used to be the temple of Kukulkan that the Mayans used for their astrological endeavors. You will also be awed by the colonnaded Temple of a Thousand Warriors and the Upper Temple of the Jaguar.
The best way to see the ruins is with a guided tour with a qualified historian to get the historical background behind these great and looming structures.
Learn About Mayan culture at the Maya Cancun Museum
Stop into this inexpensive contemporary museum to continue to learn about the Mayan culture. It holds some of the most prized Mayan artifacts. Displays include art, sculptures, jewelry and pottery.
Take a walk through the jungle path of the San Miguelito ruins
Right behind the Maya Cancun Museum is a jungle path to the archaeological site of the San Miguelito ruins that stretch over 80-hectares. This was a former Maya maritime community that includes temples, pyramids and even ancient homes.
The site has four areas to explore: The Chaak Palace, the North Complex, the South Complex and the Dragon complex. It’s a self tour so explore at your own pace, but an hour should suffice to see all the areas.
Snap some photos with iguanas at the El Rey ruins
The San Miguelito ancient ruins once included El Rey ruins, which are just down the street. It too once served as a center for maritime trade. These small ruins have about 47 structures and should only take about 30 minutes to see the area. You can also hire a tour guide if you wanted an in depth history.
The El Rey ruins are easily accessed from Playa Delfines. And has become a tourist attraction, not because of the ruins, but because hundreds of iguanas have made themselves home here, so be camera ready!
Go swimming in cenotes
Visit a few cenotes (say-NO-tays), no two are the same. Cenotes are limestone sinkholes that exposes underground freshwater. You can swim, snorkel or scuba in most of them. They are usually covered in stunning foliage, and some even have ropes for swinging in or cliff platforms for diving.
Visit by way of a planned tour that usually includes a stop at about three to four cenotes, lunch and pick up and drop off. Or rent a car and enjoy them at your leisure. I’ve included a few specific ones, but there are hundreds of cenotes on the Yucatan. Entry fee varies and there’s usually a restroom, changing area and some have lockers.
Spend the day at the Gorgeous Isla Mujeres
Take the 20 minute ferry and spend the day at Isla Mujeres (Island of Women). The frequent ferries run about every 30 minutes, starting at 5am.
Such a gorgeous island located on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second-longest coral reef system in the world. The Reef is home to dolphins, tropical fish, eels, lobsters, nurse sharks, and majestic eagle rays. Perfect for the nature-loving scuba diver or snorkeler!
Rent a golf cart, the preferred method of transportation, and ride on down to Punta Sur, the southernmost point and highest point on Isla Mujeres. A surreal beautiful historic/eco park that includes Mayan ruins of Ixchel, a lighthouse, trails, and iguanas lazing in the sun. Hang out while wild waves smash into Punta Sur cliffs.
This island is also famous for the brightly colored buildings that line the streets. So your ride will be festive!
Scuba or snorkel the largest underwater museum
Possibly the largest underwater sculpture project in the world. This underwater museum holds over 500 sculptures of people, animals, and other everyday things. It’s also rich in tropical life and coral reefs and plants that grew on the sculptures, bringing them to life.
There are several levels to the museum. If you’re not interested in getting wet, rent a glass bottom boat and the crystal clear waters allow you to still experience this unique aquatic gallery. And only the deepest level calls for scuba diving.
MUSA is located within the Cancun National Marine Park, which is between the tip of the Hotel Zone and Isla Mujeres. Although you need a tour operator to get to it, you technically can take a tour from a few locations, such as Punta Nizuc, in Cancun. If you board a tour from here, it’ll most likely include a beach stop, a tour of mangroves and jungle landscapes, and snorkeling on the Reef.
Swim ethically with whale sharks
Want to swim with sharks? The docile whale sharks of course! From June and September, they can be seen in abundance around Isla Mujeres. Although nothing is guaranteed, you can take about an hour boat ride from the island to try and get in the water with these gentle giants. Be sure to follow the STRICT RULES when swimming with these majestic ocean creatures.
For best practices with swimming with whale sharks, read this post before you go.
Go bird watching in a natural reserve
Isla Contoy is National Park is home to more than 210 species of birds, 4 species of sea turtles, and an abundance of flora and fauna. A bird watcher’s paradise for sure.
Because it is a natural reserve, sanctuary for birds and marine fauna, the island works with a few tour companies as it only permits 200 visitors per day. Therefore, you need a special permit to visit. It can only be visited during the day and for a few hours, until 5 pm. This is to keep the inhabited island in pristine condition and the ecosystem in tact to prevent the dangers of extinction.
Play all day at a theme park
Calling all adrenaline junkies! Xplor is a large theme park that includes jungles, cenotes an underground river system and paths for off-roading. It’s a fun time for the active adventurer.
To start, this theme park has two zip line circuits that take you across the park, each with 7 routes to get your heart pumping. The highest point is 147 feet (45m). After zipping speedily high above ground, some routes even empty you right into a pool!
Drive an amphibious vehicle through the jungle as you tour in and out of dirt trails, caves, steep slopes and hanging bridges.
The underground rivers of Cancun were formed by limestone soil, and there are plenty here to explore. Walk, swim or float on an oversized tire to through this underground adventure.
Take a day trip to Tulum
Tulum is about a 2 hour drive from Cancun. The magic of Tulum includes the Mayan ruins, famous cenotes and more warm water crystal clear heavenly beaches.
See the Tulum Ruins. Visit one of the most beautiful archaeological ruins for about $4 USD, or about 80 pesos. The archeological fortress and the remains of the Castillo overlook the Caribbean. One of the best places for photos is at the Templo Dios del Viento on the shoreline.
Once you are done here, take the staircase down to the beach and hop on in! Take advantage because the only access to this beach is from the ruins.
While here, have fun in some incredible cenotes:
- Gran Cenote
- Casa Cenote
- Cenote Cristal
- Cenote Escondido
Book an eco tour in a biosphere reserve
Near the Tulum ruins you’ll find Sian Ka’an (Where the Sky is Born) biosphere reserve, one of the largest protected areas in Mexico seeing that it is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s home to 800 plant species, 350 species of birds, the jaguar, puma, ocelot, crocodiles, and many types of turtles.
Here, you can kayak through the pristine wetlands, look for elusive manatees and sea turtles at Boca Paila Lagoon, or simply relax under a forest canopy. It is an unforgettable experience!
Because of the sensitive tropical ecosystem and sustainable development here, tours groups are small, so be sure to book early.
CANCUN ITINERARY 5 DAYS
So now that you know what to do, how should you plan your days? Use this Cancun itinerary to plan out what to do for your five day stay. If you have more time, then adjust accordingly.
Also check out these travel tips so you know how to pack for your vacation!
Day 1 Itinerary Get to Know Cancun Mexico
Hopefully you will be on a flight that arrives early. In that case, take the time to get to know the resort. Cancun’s Hotel Zone is a popular destination and your hotel will likely be located here.
As you are taken by taxi along Kukulcan Boulevard to the hotel zone, you will pass a wall of hotel after hotel. Some very modern, some interestingly architectural, and some exude luxury. If you fly into Cancun, you can see this beautiful sight from the air as well.
The Hotel Zone is the perfect place to stay as many of these hotels are all inclusive resorts. They are also sitting on the beachfront property adjacent to Playa Delfines. Sitting right in the heart of the hotel zone! So grab your swimsuit, pick up a few margaritas from the open bar and spend some time on the Caribbean sea.
All the resorts in the Hotel Zone are connected by the beach. If you’re feeling restless after your hours of travel, take a long stroll or jog along the white sand beach to check out what’s going on at the other resorts or just join a game of beach volleyball!
Find the famous colorful CANCUN sign at Playa Delfines and grab your phone to take a selfie or two! The restless ocean backdrop is perfect!
TRAVELER’S TIP: The currents are pretty strong, so swimming may not be the activity of choice here. A better beach with calmer waters for swimming that’s not too far is Playa Tortugas. It also has beachside restaurants!
If you’re still feeling a little restless, head to downtown Cancun. Haggle over prices at Mercado 28, then watch lucha libre up close and personal. After cheering worked up an appetite again, head to Parque De Las Palapas for the best tacos in Cancun!
Day 2 Itinerary Learn About the Mayan Ruins
Now that you’ve already spent some time getting acquainted with the sand and sun, make this an adventure day!
Chichén Itzá is a great place to learn about Mayan history. Be sure to bring plenty of water (you will find none here), a hat (no real shade), bug repellent and comfortable shoes for loads of walking.
TRAVELER’S TIP: If you can’t make it out to Chichen Itza, there are two exceptional ruins not far from the Hotel Zone. El Meco and El Rey are smaller ancient ruins, but give you a good glimpse into Mayan archaeological sites.
After all that walking through that amazing archaeological site, it’s time for another unique experience – swimming in a cenote (sinkhole). These famous blue waters will be a welcome refreshment. Ik Kill is close to Chichén Itzá so it’s a no brainer to head there after.
As you head back to the resort, the Maya Cancun Museum or Museo Maya de Cancun is very close to the hotel zone. Exit out the rear of the museum and follow the jungle path to the San Miguelito ancient ruins. Continue to follow that path to the El Rey ruins before heading back to the resort.
Chichén Itzá is about 2 hours from Cancun. You can book a day trip tour that will take you to there and to some cenotes. Or rent a car to visit on your own schedule. If you decide to visit on your own, as you can imagine, the ruins are popular tourist attractions, so get there as soon as it opens at 8am to avoid the massive crowds and book a tour guide to get the full significance of the history.
Day 3 Itinerary Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy
Take the ferry to Isla Mujeres to see some more of the best things Cancun has to offer. You can’t leave Cancun without at least one snorkeling adventure. Book a snorkel tour that includes getting an up close (but not too close!) to look at marine life, tropical fish and and an underwater museum!
Definitely rent a golf cart to get around the island. It’s the primary mode of transportation.
Ride to Punta Sur to catch views of the Mexican Caribbean and pick up a few travel gifts.
Have you ever been to an underwater museum? Scuba dive or snorkel to explore Cancun Underwater Museum of Art, or MUSA.
If it’s the season, book a tour to swim with some whale sharks.
Visit the beach at Playa Norte, named one of the best beaches in the Caribbean. Maybe because it’s family friendly with calm waters and most of all, boasts one of the best sunset views in all the Caribbean.
TRAVELER’S TIP: Although Isla Mujeres is an island full of eco friendly places and encounters with animals in their habitat, I do not suggest Garrafon Park due to the dolphin captivity. It’s not where I want my tourism dollars to go.
If you have time, the untouched natural wonder of Isla Contoy is 15 miles (30km) north of the popular Isla Mujeres. As all the island here, don’t forget to bring your swimsuit!
Day 4 Itinerary Go Ziplining and Swimming in Cenotes
It’s another adventure day! Spend the day at the theme park located close to Cancun. Xplor Park is for adrenaline junkies!
All inclusive admission to this unique park is $116 USD, which includes lunch and unlimited drinks. For an extra cost, Xplor can pick you up from your resort.
Day 5 Itinerary Take A Day Trip to Tulum
It’s time to get back to the beautiful beaches and Caribbean waters. Take a day trip to Tulum.
Start at the Tulum ruins and don’t forget to take the staircase down to the swim at the “private” beach. Then either head to a local cenote or take a tour at the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve.
If you choose the cenote route, Dos Ojos (two eyes) is a stunning cenote located between Tulum and Playa del Carmen. Actually made up of two cenotes connected by a 400 meter long passageway. The waters are crystal clear and pretty deep and resembles more of limestone caves. In fact, its not uncommon to see a few bats (ew!)
Swim, snorkel or even scuba dive to explore these cavernous cenotes. If you choose to dive, you have to do it with a guide. You won’t regret it, there’s definitely plenty to see underwater here.
Download this cheat sheet for planning a visit to Cancun.
CANCUN TRAVEL TIPS
- Don’t have a drone? The Cancun Scenic Tower (aka Torre Escenica) offers amazing views of the Caribbean coast, and Cancun itself. It’s open every day from 9am – 9pm.
- Pickpocketing is pretty common, especially in crowded areas such as the Hotel Zone.
- Bring bug repellent!
- Ride share is not legal in Cancun, don’t get to the airport and try to call and Uber.
- The “taxi mafia” operates in Cancun. Negotiate the price BEFORE hopping in.
- Research transportation. It’s not a bad idea to rent a car, even for a few days for your day trips.
- If you stay in the Hotel Zone, make sure you venture out! Even if you are in an all inclusive, there’s sooo much more to see!
FINAL THOUGHTS ON CANCUN MEXICO
I personally think 4-5 days exploring Cancun and the Riviera Maya is sufficient. Cancun is a great place to be a starting point and gateway to so much on the Yucatán Peninsula!
Have you been to Cancun? What do you recommend or better yet, have any tips to share?
Going somewhere else? Check out some of my other travel guides:
- How to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef
- How to visit Phuket Thailand in one day
- 12 best places to travel the world