Cancun is the perfect place for a quick, long weekend getaway. Airfare from the Continental USA and Canada is cheap, the flights are often short and it feels a world away from business as usual. With an array of hotel options, from ultra-inexpensive hostels to five star all inclusive resorts that cater from every demographic, from backpackers to families, to honeymooning couples and retirees, you’ll find what you’re looking for in Cancun.
If you’re flying in one one of the long weekend package deal you’ll want to prioritize to make the most of your time.
Day 1: Fun & Sun
You came to Mexico to relax, so let’s start there! Odds are, your hotel has a pool or a beach to enjoy so spend some time holding down a beach blanket and reading your book. All beaches in Mexico are considered public property, so you can go anywhere you like. However, the hotels built on the beach are unlikely to let you use their facilities unless you’re a registered guest or buy food at their restaurants. Waters on the lagoon side of the strip are calmer than on the ocean side where you should watch for flags announcing swimming conditions to change throughout the day.
Book a snorkeling tour or take a resort SCUBA dive trip and see some beautiful underwater wildlife, rent a jet ski, or go parasailing (tip: talk to the boat captain, make sure he’s sober! No kidding.)
While relaxing on the beach, “No Gracias!” is your phrase of choice. It means “No thank you,” and you’ll need it often to ward off the many hawkers that work the resort beach strip selling their wares. Be warned, if you buy from one, you’ll have many others within minutes.
Day 2: Choose Your Own Adventure
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There are so many possible options for activities in and around Cancun that choosing just one or two is tough. Here are a few of my favorites for a range of tastes:
X-Caret is an eco park that will provide a one stop introduction to Mexican history, culture, geography and wildlife. Part zoo, part conservation area, part museum, part theater and cultural celebration it’s well worth a day trip. Be sure to stay for the evening show, which is one of the most magical celebrations of Mexican history in the country.
Xel-ha is a natural aquarium park that brings visitors face to face with ocean life. Snorkel their protected lagoon and see fish in quantities and sizes that you just won’t anywhere else on the coast. Their dolphin swim and research program is one of the most humane and ethical anywhere and is worth supporting. If you plan to swim with dolphins, do it here instead of through your hotel.
Most people take the bus trip to Chichen Itza or Tulum to visit a Mayan ruin site. My recommendation is to forgo both of the over touristed “biggies” and instead take the longer bus ride out to Coba. You’ll pass through tiny pueblos and countryside on the way before you hike through the jungle to one of the most fascinating and unique sites on the Yucatan. Nohoc-Mul is the tallest pyramid on the Yucatan and is one of the few remaining that visitors are still allowed to climb to the top of. The view of the jungle is spectacular. This will be an all day trip with a lot of walking, so plan accordingly.
There are lots of resort dives and SCUBA shops abound in Cancun. If you’re an avid diver and are looking for an excellent dive company with high safety standards, and the best reef on the coast, consider SCUBA Mex. They operate from the Paamul RV and Cabana/hotel complex and are staffed with American dive masters. Quality gear can be rented and full SCUBA courses are offered if you’re interested in certifying.
Day Three: Shopping
Doubtless there is ample shopping within a stone’s throw of your hotel. Cancun has no shortage of shops catering to the tourist crowd and street hawkers stalking your every move. If you’d like to get beyond the hotel strip and experience a bit more “authentic” side of Mexican commerce hop in a cab and ask them to take you to Mercado 23. You’ll easily while away half a day lost in the labyrinth of this local market. Take time to savor the sites and smells of each section. Even the meat and fish section.
Here you’ll find local folks shopping for their daily needs and you won’t be accosted by hawkers selling tacky t-shirts or woven bookmarks. This is solidly off the tourist strip and not for the faint of heart. It is the real Mexico, or as close as you’re going to get in a resort town!
Do yourself a favor, buy your souvenirs here. Don’t, however, flash large wads of cash or carry every credit card or form of ID you brought with you in your back pocket. Leave the bling at your hotel, travel light for the day, and spend a day walking in the realities of the place you came to visit.