Though you can’t visit Cancún without spending some time on the beach—nor would you want to—there’s another side to this ever-popular vacation spot, one that includes traveling back in time at ancient Mayan ruins, playing a round of golf on a pro-designed course, and scuba diving among hundreds of underwater sculptures.
What’s more, Cancún is a quick (and often direct) flight from most major U.S. cities, so you won’t waste much time in transit. Here are seven great ways to make the most of your time in the sun.
Take a Day Trip
Isla Mujeres may be eight miles off the coast of Cancún, but it feels a world away. A 20-minute ferry ride will drop you off on the north side of the tiny island, which is not even five miles long and less than a mile wide. The preferred mode of getting around is a golf cart or scooter. You can rent your ride near the port and then head due south for a visit to Tortugranja, a government-funded turtle farm that protects the fragile eggs that are laid on the beach. It also has a small aquarium filled with different turtle species and other marine life.
From here, you can continue down as far as possible to Punta Sur. This rocky coastal cliff is the highest point on the Yucatán Peninsula and home to a lighthouse, a sculpture garden featuring works by 23 Mexican artists, and the remains of a Mayan temple dedicated to Ixchel, the goddess of the moon.
History buffs may prefer a one-day getaway to Chichén Itzá, a larger, more impressive archaeological site that is considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It’s a longer trek—about 2.5 hours by car from the Hotel Zone—but you’ll be rewarded with well-preserved structures that date back to the fifth-century, including the pyramid of El Castillo (also known as the Temple of Kukulcan) and the Temple of the Warriors. It’s best to arrive early so that you can beat the heat—and the crowds.
Go on a Shopping Spree
In Cancún, souvenir seekers have plenty of places to peruse, from spiffy shopping centers to busy flea markets. In the Hotel Zone, La Isla Shopping Village houses a mix of international and locally owned stores—a number of them are swimwear brands, so getting beach-ready is a cinch—and a movie theater, in case you could use a couple of air-conditioned hours.
About a 40-minute drive away, Mercado 23 is one of the oldest markets in town, filled with stalls selling crafts as well as everyday grocery items such as fruits, vegetables, and tortillas. At the nearby and somewhat touristy Mercado 28, you can put your bargaining skills to the test with vendors hawking everything from colorful pottery to leather sandals to tequila.
Discover an Underwater World
The MUSA Cancún Underwater Museum of Art is the type of museum you have to see to believe. The aptly named site has more than 500 life-size sculptures installed right into the seabed, mostly of human figures in various poses—including Inertia (a man sitting on a couch watching television) and Understanding (a group of men sitting cross-legged around what looks like a fountain).
The pieces are made from marine cement, which promotes the growth of algae and, in turn, coral. It’s an eerie yet unmissable choose-your-own-adventure experience: You can explore it by riding in a glass-bottom boat, snorkeling, or, in the deeper Manchones section, scuba diving. Tickets are available through AquaWorld, which also offers parasailing and swimming with dolphins.
At El Camaleón Mayakoba, about an hour south of the Hotel Zone in the Riviera Maya, you’ll find a Greg Norman masterpiece that has hosted the OHL Classic (the first PGA Tour event outside of the U.S. and Canada) since 2007. The challenging par-72 course was built around jungle, mangroves, and the beach—and there’s even a cenote (a natural limestone sink hole) on the first fairway. Nearby, there’s also native vegetation on the 18-hole course at Grand Coral Golf Riviera Maya, a Nick Price creation.
Here you can also play FlingGolf, a lacrosse-golf combo that involves—you guessed it—flinging the ball from hole to hole; the stick doubles as a club for putting.
Beach destinations are often known for their top-notch spas, and Cancún is no exception. Build in some relaxation time at the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancún’s Gem Spa, where the treatments are designed around different types of stones. The facial portion of the Mayan God’s Ritual, for example, incorporates copal resin and tigereye, while obsidian is used during the Taino Sacred hot-stone massage.
You can’t come to Cancún and not take full advantage of its seaside locale—even if it means eating seafood all day, every day. Elegant Lorenzillo’s is set inside a thatched-roof palapa right in the water of Nichupté lagoon. Don’t miss the lobster, which you get to select yourself before it’s prepared one of 20 ways, from simply grilled to served with garlic and guajillo chili vinaigrette. The sunset views are also epic. And near the aforementioned Mercados 23 and 28, the family-owned, white-tablecloth La Habichuela has been a favorite for more than 40 years. The string bean and vegetable soup dates back to the original menu and goes well with the fresh catch, served whole or filleted. It’s a good idea to reserve online in advance, and we recommend requesting a table in the junglelike garden, which twinkles with lights at night.
Sign Up for a Cooking Class
Why just dine on local cuisine when you can learn to make your favorite dishes and relive your getaway back home for years to come?
In Puerto Morelos, about 40 minutes south of the Hotel Zone, The Little Mexican Cooking School offers full-day (10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) lessons during which you’ll make up to eight dishes and then eat them in a festive group lunch. Rotating menus highlight different regions of the country; for example, the coastline option focuses on seafood, like fish tacos and shrimp ceviche, while the Central Mexico–themed class includes mole verde and quesadillas.
25 Calle Margarias; 011-52-998-884-3158; dinner for two, $65*; lahabichuela.com, site in Spanish
The Little Mexican Cooking School
768 Av. Javier Rojo Gomez, Lot 8, Smz. 2, Puerto Morelos; 512-410-8146; classes, $128 a person; thelittlemexicancookingschool.com
Blvd. Kukulcan km 10.5, Hotel Zone; 011-52-998-883-1254; dinner for two, $90; lorenzillos.com
El Camaleón Mayakoba
Puerto Juárez km 298, Playa del Carmen; 011-52-984-206-4653; greens fees, from $239 a person; mayakobagolf.com
Grand Coral Golf Riviera Maya
Carr. Federal Puerto Juárez km 294-700, Playa del Carmen; 011-52-984-109-6025; greens fees, from $299 a person; grandcoralgolf.com
Blvd. Kukulcan km 9.5; 011-52-998-881-3200; treatments, from $97 a person; gemspacancun.com
Blvd. Kukulcan km 15.3; 866-210-1236; tours, from $58 a person; aquaworld.com.mx
About 2.5 km from the small town of Piste
MUSA Cancún Underwater Museum of Art
Between the coast of Cancún and Isla Mujeres; 011-52-998-206-0182; admission, $20; musamexico.org
77400 Isla Mujeres; admission, free
La Isla Shopping Village
262 Blvd. Kukulcan km 12.5; 011-52-998-883-5025
SM 23 west of Avenida Tulum
Enter Calle Xel-ha, at Sunyaxchen
RCI® affiliated resorts in Cancún include:
This all-inclusive has a blue-tile pool facing the Caribbean with in-water lounge chairs. Km. 14.5 Paseo Kukulcán, Hotel Zone, Cancún
Member Review: “The restaurants were great.”
Eight specialty restaurants and a private beach. Blvd. Kukulcán km. 8.5, Cancún
Member Review: “So quiet and peaceful.”
Luxury condominiums sleep up to four and have organic toiletries and a spacious stone walk-in shower. Blvd. El Cid SM. 03, MZA. 20, Lote 1-01, Puerto Morelos
Member Review: “Great gym with a variety of classes.”
Set on a white-sand beach. Blvd. Kukulcán km. 12.5, Lote 18, Fraccionamiento 1-B, Hotel Zone, Cancún
Member Review: “The kindest staff I’ve ever met.”
Kids will love the mushroom water features and larger-than-life snake statue in the teen pool area. Carr. Cancún-Tulum km. 327, Cancún
Member Review: Not yet rated
Units available for a couple or up to six family members. Blvd. Kukulcán km. 20.5, second stage, Hotel Zone, Cancún
Member Review: “Easy beach access.”
Looking for a stress-free vacation? Booking an all-inclusive getaway is a great solution. All-inclusive packages vary by resort; however, many all-inclusive resort packages offer all meals and snacks, unlimited beverages, and resort activities. To find out more, visit RCI.com/AllInclusiveSearch. Also, select resorts offer three- and four-night stays if you are looking to visit for only a few days. Just search RCI.com to find the resort that is right for you.
For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Cancún include:
Finest Playa Mujeres
Swim-up suites come with a private hammock-strung cabana at this family-friendly all-inclusive.
Prolongacion Bonampak, S/N, Punta Sam Lote Terrenos 001 MZ; 866-540-2585; finestresorts.com; doubles from $326 a night
Live Aqua Beach Resort Cancún
An adults-only property with multiple pools—including an infinity—plus a dozen restaurants and bars. Blvd. Kukulcan km. 12.5; 800-343-7821; liveaqua.com; doubles from $515 a night; rooms sleep up to four guests; pricing includes food, drinks, and nonmotorized water sports
- *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: Winter 2018