Cancun – Beyond Spring Break

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Cancun, on the northeast tip of the Yucantan Peninsula, in Mexico, may be more famous for its bikini-clad, booze fuelled, Spring Break parties than its culture and natural beauty. But if you explore beyond the Hotel Zone you’ll uncover a very different Cancun. Here’s 10 of Cancun’s best kept secrets to get you started…

1: Mayan Ruins

Mayan Ruins
Photo by Celso Flores via Flickr

One of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’, Chichen Itza, is located a couple of hours drive west of Cancun. While spectacular, tourists flock there daily, ensuring large crowds. For a quieter experience try the Mayan city ruins at Tulum to the south or the El Meco ruins, north of Cancun. El Meco also boasts some new residents: Iguanas have moved into the ruins, making it a must for nature and history enthusiasts.

2: Explore In-land

Photo by Adam Jones via Flickr

Take the 180D road west out of Cancun and experience some colonial Yucatan culture in Valladolid. Sympathetically restored, brightly coloured haciendas house boutiques and stores, and Mayan culture heavily influences everything in the town, from the food to the clothing: Traditional Mayan cotton dresses are still worn and sold in the area. Visit the Convent de San Bernardino de Siena for an architecturally impressive historic building. The convent’s secret tunnels offer a cool retreat from the sun and bustling town square.

3: The Heart of the City

Mercado 28
Photo by Price travel pictures via Flickr

Los Jarochos – Mercado 28 77500 Cancún
Avoid the shopping mall and seek out Mercado 28, an open air market at the heart of Cancun where, among souvenir and bric-a-brac stalls, you can also find restaurants serving authentic local dishes. One of the best is Los Jarochos, worth a visit for the Mexican version of a prawn cocktail, the Veracruz Cocktail, containing octopus, prawns, scallops and oysters in a sweet cocktail juice.

4: Swimming with Sharks

Swim with Sharks
Photo by wplyn via Flickr

Take a boat trip to Isla Hulbox (north of Cancun) and snorkel in the crystal blue ocean waters. As well as a host of fascinating sea life, you’ll also have the opportunity to swim with whale sharks – the largest fish in the ocean. Although intimidating, these gentle giants feed on plankton and can be spotted close to the surface on clear days.

5: Café Culture

Marakame Café – Av. Circuito Copan Super Manzana 19, Lt. 25, Cancun
Tucked away in downtown Cancun is the Marakame Café. A beautiful setting at night for an evening drink with lights strung through the trees, the café has impressive drinks menu to suit every taste. There’s an extensive cocktail selection or smoothies, iced teas and juices for anyone wanting a refreshing drink after a day in the sun.

6: Island Hopping

Isla Mujeres
Photo by Roberto Ventre via Flickr

Isla Mujeres, east of Cancun’s shoreline has a secluded stretch of coastline populated with upscale luxury hotels. Find a stretch of beach to explore or take a snorkelling trip with Casa Del Buceo – families and beginners can snorkel among barracuda, stingray and even spot sea cucumbers! Alternatively take a dive exploring an underwater museum. This unique art installation has over 500 sculptures on the sea bed, in an attempt to keep divers away from the fragile coral eco-system.

7: Delicious Seafood

Photo by Palestrina55 via Flickr

Va Q’Va – Region 220, Mz 38, Lote 18 y 19, 77517 Cancun
For authentic Mexican seafood stop off at Va Q’Va. This restaurant, popular with locals at the weekend, is far from the Hotel Zone in Cancun so be sure to get good directions or take a taxi. Get away from the tourist vibe and enjoy some fresh local fish dishes accompanied by the sound of a live marimba band.

8: Experience Life as a Local

Parque de las Palapas
Photo by Shinya Suzuki via Flickr

To experience Cancun through the eyes of a local resident family, visit Parque de las Palapas. In the evenings the area becomes a bustling mix of live music, dance and performances with street vendors selling food and local handicrafts. Try the empanadas while you soak up the surrounding culture.

9: Swim in a Sinkhole

Photo by Robert Pittman via Flickr

Cancun’s most stunning natural wonders are the ‘cenotes’ or sinkholes which are full of water and make great places to swim or dive. Because of their popularity some can charge high fees to tourists. More secluded cenotes offer a calmer experience and better value for money. Cenote Chikin Ha is close to the popular Cenote Kanten Chi, but a fraction of the price. Alternatively, take the three-hour tour of Rio Secreto, a series of underground caves and waterways which started to form 50 million years ago.

10: Beach Life

Photo by Robert Pittman via Flickr

With no shortage of shoreline in Cancun, finding the beach that’s right for you can take some research, depending on the atmosphere you’re after. For surfers, the best location is Playa Defines, although there may be long stretches between swells. Looking for some European chic? Playa Del Carmen has a hip feel to it, though it is becoming a tourist hotspot popular with cruise ships. North Beach on Isla Mujeres has calm waters and fewer tourists mean market vendors avoid the area.