12 Cancun Hidden Gems: Cancun Off The Beaten Path

Your Friend the Nomad

12 Cancun Hidden Gems: Cancun Off The Beaten Path

With over nine million people flying into Cancun international airport every year, is possible to experience Cancun off the beaten path?

Yes! If Cancun’s party scene and all inclusive resorts aren’t for you — or if you just need a little escape during your trip, these Cancun hidden gems will be perfect!

My list of hidden gems in Cancun includes unique things to do in Cancun as well as lesser known day trips if you have a little more time to spare.

Note: This article may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through these links, at no cost to you. But don’t worry, I only share products I’d truly recommend to a friend.

🌴 My Cancun Favorites 👙

🥾 Day Trip to Chichen Itza & Valladolid: Don’t miss Mexico’s most iconic ruins at Chichen Itza and my favorite Yucatan town, Valladolid! For the best experience, book this VIP private tour from Cancun, or check out this budget-friendly option.

👙 Swim in Cenotes: The Yucatan is home to thousands of gorgeous cenotes (natural sink holes) that make the perfect swimming holes! Rent a car and go explore them!

🏺 Mayan Museum: Learn about Quintana Roo’s Mayan history at this museum, located in Cancun’s hotel zone, then explore the San Miguelito ruins onsite!

🌊 Beach Hop: What makes Cancun so popular? Its beaches! There are many to choose from and each are different—check out a few on your Cancun vacation!

⛵ Boat Adventures: Kayak through the mangroves in Cancun, experience a sunset cruise to Isla Mujeres, or rent your own luxury yacht for the day!

🌺 Where to Stay: Oceanview penthouse with private pool at Nizuc Resort & Spa, swim out suite at beachfront luxury Atelier Playa Mujeres (all-inclusive, adults only), lagoon view suite at Casa Tortugas, or budget-friendly quirky La Villa du Golf à Cancun.

Find more of my Cancun favorites and Mexico travel tips at the bottom of this article!

12 Unique Things to do in Cancun

I’m a full time travel blogger and most of my work is focused on lesser known destinations in Mexico. But with Cancun being such a popular tourist destination, I wanted to create a guide for folks who visit but want to experience off the beaten path Cancun.

I already had a few Cancun hidden gems in mind from past visits, but on my most recent trip to Quintana Roo I spent extra time in Cancun with the goal of discovering non-touristy, different, and ‘secret’ things to do in Cancun. I was pleasantly surprised with that I found and I can’t wait to share all these hidden gems with you!

I have lots of other Mexico travel guides (plus guides for Hawaii, Belize, and the Caribbean) so be sure to browse my site as you plan your vacation!

But let’s get back to the topic at hand — the best hidden gems in Cancun, Mexico:

1. Kayaking in the Nichupté Lagoon

If you haven’t been to Cancun before, you might not realize that the city is home to giant lagoon full of turquoise blue water, thousands of mangrove islands, and an abundance of wildlife—birds, fish, crocodiles, and more.

Even though the lagoon is literally steps away from most of Cancun’s popular resorts, very few Cancun vacationers explore this breathtaking natural ecosystem.

On my recent visit to Cancun I signed up for this kayaking tour through the Nichupté Lagoon. It is by far my favorite thing I’ve ever done in Cancun and I can’t recommend it enough!

Couple kayaking through Nichupté Lagoon, one of the Cancun hidden gems

Paddling through the mangroves with a friendly local guide in the afternoon was the perfect way to escape the busyness of downtown Cancun and the hotel zone, and immerse in nature.

The kayak tour is designed to be beginner friendly and takes about 2-3 hours, depending on your pace. My husband and I actually both don’t usually like kayaking, but I’m so glad we still did this because it was so enjoyable. Along the way we spotted a baby crocodile, herons and other birds, box fish, and other wildlife.

2. Mayan Museum of Cancun (Museo Maya de Cancún)

The Mayan Museum is another delightful Cancun hidden gem I discovered on my recent trip. I’ve visited a lot of museums and Mayan sites across Mexico and I really think Cancun’s Maya Museum is one of the best!

It is a small museum, but the exhibits give you an efficient overview of the area’s history, and the artifacts and Maya art are some of the most stunning I’ve ever seen! I will admit I usually speed through museums, but each intricate ancient artifact here was intriguing, and almost every display included information in English.

But the best part of visiting the Maya Museum is that after walking through the exhibits you can step outside and wander through the ruins of the San Miguelito Archeological Site which is located on the same property. There really is something about learning about history in a museum and then standing right where that history happened (to be fair, San Miguelito is a very small site but still!)

The Maya Museum is located in Cancun’s Hotel Zone and is easily accessible via taxi or the bus from anywhere in Cancun. It costs $90 pesos to enter the museum, which includes entry into the San Miguelito Archeological Site as well.

Keep in mind that you will be asked to leave bags and backpacks at the entry, so I recommend a small fanny pack to carry your valuables (phone, wallet, keys, etc.) if they don’t fit in your pockets.

3. El Rey Archaeological Zone (Zona Arqueológica de El Rey)

Wandering through the ruins of an ancient Mayan city is one of the most unique things to do in Cancun. Although many Cancun vacationers visit Mayan archaeological sites like Chichen Itza and Tulum, few realize that there are actually several Mayan sites right in Cancun.

The El Rey Mayan ruins are just across the street from one of Cancun’s most iconic beaches (Playa Delfines) but its very easy to miss them. When I visited, there were only a few other people so I nearly got the place to myself.

El Rey Mayan Ruins, one of the secret things to do in Cancun

I’m going to be honest, Cancun’s Mayan ruins are nowhere as grand as the ruins at Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, Tulum, and other more significant sites, but if you’re interested in history, they’re still worth visiting!

For more information this Cancun hidden gem, check out my full guide to visiting the El Rey Archaeological Area in Cancun.

4. Swim with Whale Sharks

Imagine diving into the water with the biggest fish. These gentle giants swim by you and you get to cross ‘swimming with whale sharks’ off your bucket list.

This once-in-a-lifetime experience is something you can do in Cancun if you visit sometime between May and September during whale shark season.

There are several local tour providers that lead whale shark boat tours in Cancun, but this one is my recommendation as they don’t feed the marine life and they have hundreds of 5 star reviews, too. The guides will even take photos of you in the water with the whale sharks!

In addition to swimming with whale sharks, you have the chance to spot dolphins, sea turtles, manta rays, and other sea life. The tour also includes a stop at Isla Mujeres’ beautiful Playa Norte for lunch.

Keep in mind that the boat ride to where the whale sharks are can be lengthy, and the water can be choppy. Consider taking dramamine ahead of time if you’re prone to sea sickness.

5. Lagoon Parks

It wasn’t until my second time in Cancun that I discovered the serene waterfront parks along the Cancun lagoon. Exploring these serene parks along the hotel zone is one of the best non-touristy things to do in Cancun! This waterfront park is a tranquil escape and the perfect place for a walk or picnic. My husband and I loved watching the sunset here.

Woman sitting by the lagoon, one of Cancun's hidden gems

The lagoon water is crystal clear so you can also spot fish and other marine life in the water from above. The park is right next to the Punta Calinda bridge, so you can also watch the boats come in from the ocean to the lagoon.

6. Downtown Cancun

If you’re looking for local things to do in Cancun, head downtown! It feels completely different than the hotel zone, and although there isn’t a ton to do, it might still be worth a visit if you’re looking for cheaper (and more authentic) food.

Some spots to explore in downtown Cancun include:

🌮 Parque del Artesano: A small park that often hosts local vendors, food carts, and artisans in the evenings. My husband and I loved all the vegan options here!

⛱ Parque de las Palapas: (Closed for construction in February 2024) Essentially Cancun’s main park, the perfect place for people watching!

🚦 Avenida Tulum: The main road in Tulum where you’ll find many restaurants and shops

👟 Malecón Tajamar: Waterfront walkway beside the Cancun lagoon, a great place for a leisurely stroll

🌿 Parque Ecológico Kabah: An ecological park where you can walk and see wildlife like iguanas, pizotes, turtles, and more

Colorful street in downtown Cancun, one of the best local things to do in Cancun

If you do choose to explore downtown Cancun, just be on guard for scammers and drug dealers. On our recent visit to Cancun my husband and I were immediately offered a laundry list of drugs by a waiter after being seated at a bar. We got up and left because we have no interest in supporting businesses that are controlled by the cartel!

This is an unfortunate reality you have to face if you visit any major tourist destination in Mexico, especially Tulum and Cancun which tend to attract the type of tourists who want to buy illicit substances. The demand for them brings in criminal operations and makes these beautiful places dangerous for both tourists and locals.

That being said, I think you can still explore downtown Cancun, just be aware of what you might encounter. Sadly, despite Cancun being Mexico’s #1 tourist destination, it is the place I’ve felt most unsafe in the country.

7. Visit a Public Beach

You went to Cancun for the stunning beaches, right? There are dozens of public beaches in Cancun, each with their own feel!

If you want to get off the beaten path in Cancun, check out one of the lesser known beaches that are popular amongst locals, like Playa del Niño. Keep in mind that this beach is smaller and less maintained than Cancun’s more popular beaches, but it is a completely local hang out spot!

Playa Delfines in Cancun

But truth be told, I think I prefer the more popular Playa Delfines over Playa del Niño. Although Playa Delfines certainly can get crowded, it tends to be less busy than the main beaches by Cancun’s resorts, and it is a Blue Flag Beach!

Still, Playa del Nino is one of the best places to go if you’re interested engaging with local culture.

Hidden Gem Day Trips from Cancun

8. Puerto Morelos

Puerto Morelos is a darling fishing village that is one of the best hidden gems along the Riviera Maya. It is only 40 minutes south of Cancun, so you can easily take your rental car, or a shuttle.

Some of the best things to do in Puerto Morelos include:

👙 Spend a day at Unico Beach: The best beach club in Puerto Morelos, with a waterfront seating, a highly-rated restaurant, a pool, a spa, live music, and a boutique store. If you want to spend a day by the beach but are hoping to escape the busyness of Cancun, Unico Beach might the the perfect spot!

🤿 Go snorkeling: Being so close to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, Puerto Morelos is a wonderful place to go snorkeling! Choose from this budget-friendly snorkeling tour or this catamaran sail and snorkel experience.

☀ Relax at Puerto Moreleos beach: The city’s public beach is a lot more chill than the beaches in Cancun. If you want, you can rent a beach chair from My Paradise Beach Club.

⛵Catamaran sailing to a secret sandbar: If sailing on a luxury catamaran is on your bucketlist, this is the sailing tour for you! It leaves from marina between Cancun and Puerto Morelos, and includes lunch and unlimited drinks!

🌮 Puerto Morelos food tour: Foodies, join this food tour to experience local cuisine off the beaten path! Led by an English-speaking local guide, you’ll explore lesser known parts of Puerto Morelos and taste the very best local food!

9. Isla Mujeres Sunset Tour

My husband has a local friend from Cancun and on our first trip to Cancun he invited to take a trip to nearby Isla Mujeres, which has some of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico. And better yet, the sunsets on Isla Mujeres are amazing!

This sunset cruise to Isla Mujeres is one of my top recommendations for all Cancun vacationers! The roundtrip boat journey to and from Isla Mujeres from Cancun includes live music from a skilled saxophone player, plus cocktails, beer, and other drinks.

Two men in the water watching the sunset from Isla Mujeres

But the highlight of this boat experience has to be watching the sunset from Playa Norte, which was ranked as the 9th most beautiful beach in the world in 2019. With powdery white sand and crystal clear water, it is easy to see why!

10. Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve

Just south of Tulum, Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve is a massive protected area with neon blue lagoons, jungle trails, ancient ruins, and an abundance of wildlife.

My favorite thing to do at Sian Kaan is the Muyil River Float, where you gently float down a natural lazy river that was carved out by the Mayans who used to call this lagoon home!

Legs floating down the Muyil River Float near Cancun

It is such a unique experience and truly one of the most fun things I’ve done in Mexico after exploring the country for over 8 months.

I have a full article on the Muyil River Float if you’re interested in learning more as there are several things you’ll want to know before you go. For instance, go with a guided tour with roundtrip transportation from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum, or you can drive to the lagoon, but you’ll still need to hire a tour guide onsite to do the river float!

11. Isla Contoy

Isla Contoy National Park is another hidden gem Cancun day trip. This 5-mile long secluded Caribbean island is situated north of Cancun and Isla Blanca. It only be reached by a boat tour or private boat, which makes it feel like one of the ‘secret’ things to do in Cancun.

If you came to Cancun hoping for pristine white sand beaches but were disappointed by how crowded Cancun can be, this small island might be the answer!

There are only a few tour operators that offer day trips to Isla Contoy, and this one seems to be the best, but be aware that many reviewers describe it as a ‘party cruise’. If that isn’t bothersome to you, sign up and experience secluded island paradise!

12. Valladolid

Valladolid is one of my all-time favorite places in Mexico, and certainly my favorite spot on the Yucatan peninsula. It is home to the most beautiful cenotes, colorful streets, and several Mayan ruins.

Valladolid is a common stop on most Chichen Itza tours, but few vacationers take more than an hour or two to explore this hidden gem!

There is so much to do in Valladolid that I cover in my Valladolid travel guides, but if you only have a day, here are some of my recommendations:

👟 Wander along Calz. de Los Frailes: Valladolid’s most picturequse street, lined with colorful buildings housing vintage shops, cafes, bars, and plenty of hidden gems.

👙 Cenote hopping: Cenote Xcanahaltun and Cenote Secreto Maya are my favorites, but they’re also a little bit out of town. Cenote Saamal and Xkeken are some other great options closer to town, and Cenote Zaci is located right in town if you’re pressed on time.

🙏🏼 Convento de San Bernardino de Siena: Interesting historical convent painted pink and white on the inside.

💒 Uayma church: This gorgeous church’s facade is like nothing else I’ve seen in this part of Mexico! It is 15 minutes outside of Valladolid and definitely worth the drive just for a look!

Text reads also see best day trips from Cancun with photo of woman standing in front of El Castillo temple at Chichen Itza

Where to Stay in Cancun

👙 Atelier Playa Mujeres: Escape to the secluded beaches north of Cancun and stay at this luxury resort in a room with your own swim-out pool! This is an all-inclusive, adult-only resort.

🌺 Nizuc Resort & Spa: Stay at Punta Nizuc, which is known to have the best snorkeling in Cancun! This resort has a beautiful property and many rooms have private pools!

☀ Casa Tortugas: Stay in a lagoon view room at one of Cancun’s best boutique hotels, located conveniently in the hotel zone.

🌿 La Villa du Golf à Cancun: This quirky budget-friendly boutique hotel is situated in a quiet neighborhood with a beautiful pool and garden.

Getting Around Cancun

🚕 Taxi: I’ve taken a lot of local taxis in Cancun and usually have a positive experience, but every so often a taxi driver tries to rip me off. Be sure to ask for the price before you get in the car so they can’t overcharge you!

🚘 Private shuttle: Many tourists choose to book a private shuttle from the airport to their hotel. Ask your hotel about this option.

🚌 Public bus: Cancun has a surprisingly good bus system with busses running between the hotel zone and downtown every few minutes. The busses are cheap ($12 pesos), safe, and efficient. I also highly recommend ADO buses for regional travel between Cancun and other parts of Mexico!

👟 Walking: Some parts of Cancun are walkable, but it is very spread out. If you only need to travel short distances between your hotel and the beach, walking is always a great option!

🚙 Renting a car: Renting your own car is the best option if you want to explore more of Mexico outside of Cancun. Compare local rental companies here.

🚌 Guided tours: If you don’t rent a car, you can still visit other parts of Mexico on day trips with a local guides. I usually book tours through Viator and have always had a great experience—I always read reviews before booking to make sure I’ve chosen the best possible tour.

My Favorite Things to do in Cancun

🥾 Day Trip to Chichen Itza & Valladolid: Don’t miss Mexico’s most iconic ruins at Chichen Itza and my favorite Yucatan town, Valladolid! For the best experience, book this VIP private tour from Cancun, or check out this budget-friendly option.

⛵ Boat adventures: Kayak through the mangroves in Cancun, experience a sunset cruise to Isla Mujeres, or rent your own luxury yacht for the day!

👙 Swim in cenotes: The Yucatan is home to thousands of gorgeous cenotes (natural sink holes) that make the perfect swimming holes! Rent a car and go explore them!

🏺 Mayan Museum: Learn about Quintana Roo’s Mayan history at this museum, located in Cancun’s hotel zone, then explore the San Miguelito ruins onsite!

🌊 Beach hop: What makes Cancun so popular? Its beaches! There are many to choose from and each are different—check out a few on your Cancun vacation!

More Yucatan & Quintana Roo Travel Guides

✨ The Ultimate Bacalar Itinerary: 1-7 Days in the Lagoon of Seven Colors

☀ The Perfect Valladolid, Mexico Itinerary: 1-7 Days

🚤 Ultimate Guide: Muyil River Float and Mayan Ruins

🛵 The Ultimate Guide to Renting a Scooter in Cozumel

🐢 How to Visit Xcacel Beach Turtle Sanctuary Near Tulum

Cancun Travel Guides

Final Thoughts: Unique Things to do in Cancun

I hope this article helped you figure out some fun, different things to do in Cancun! If you have any questions about my favorite Cancun hidden gems, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

This post 12 Cancun Hidden Gems: Cancun Off The Beaten Path first appeared on Your Friend the Nomad.