Cancun is a destination sometimes overlooked by the independent traveller, mainly down to the stereotype of this destination having large, luxury resorts, all inclusive packages and perhaps limited Mexican culture. However, don’t disregard Cancun immediately as there's a wealth of amazing things to see and do in the surrounding area which could end up being the highlight of your trip!
I recently visited Central America and because Cancun was a cheaper arrival destination, I began my overland trip from Cancun in Mexico to Panama. Arriving in the Yucatan peninsula opens up potential for exploring Central America where the culture is rich, wildlife is abundant, Mayan ruins are scattered everywhere. You can easily access the Caribbean coast for diving and chilled out islands blasting reggae or the Pacific side for a bit of surfing.
Additionally you’ll find with some multi-stop and round the world tickets, it’s often necessary to have a transfer, arrival or departure in Cancun when flying between North and South America in order to keep your ticket within the permitted mileage. Importantly, if you want to visit Cuba, you can’t enter directly from the USA, so Cancun makes and ideal stop before flying on to Havana.
Here are some ideas which may inspire you to add Cancun and the Yucatan Peninsula into your multi-stop itinerary:
London - Havana - Cancun - San Francisco // LA - Rarotonga – Auckland // Christchurch – Melbourne // Brisbane - Singapore - Yangon – Kathmandu // Delhi - London Flights from £1,879 pp including taxes
London – Cancun // San Jose - Los Angeles - Papeete - Auckland - Noumea – Singapore // Ho Chi Minh - London Flights from £1,685 pp including taxes
Paris - New York - Cancun - Havana – Lima // Calama - Santiago - Easter Island - Papeete - Auckland - Hong Kong – Paris Flights from £3,000pp including taxes
If you’re a traveller on a shoestring wanting to stay in Cancun, there are a number of cheap backpackers hostels, from USD$4 per night. If you prefer a more comfortable option, we’d recommend finding you somewhere comfortable to luxury standard in nearby Playa del Carmen or in Tulum which are both just a short transfer from the airport.
If your flight arrives during the day, I’d recommend taking a short boat trip from Cancun and staying on Isla Mujeres. Backpackers will love the Poc Na Hostel which has cheap dorms and shows a film on the big screen every night, followed by live music and then the lively beach bar gets into full swing.
This island boasts beaches of equal beauty to Cancun, clear and turquoise water but with no high rise buildings as a backdrop. Isla Mujeres is peppered with brightly painted buildings, fantastic beaches, and lots of marine life, a turtle sanctuary, an underwater sculpture park, golf carts to get around and quite a few souvenir shops.
The underwater sculpture park on Isla Mujeres is an experience not to miss! You can see eerie statues of local inhabitants looking up from the seabed, VW beetles, houses and bankers burying their heads in the sand! The underwater installations are all designed to form a kind of manmade reef to encourage marine life to take hold and to provide an inspiring backdrop to the living and evolving exhibition of marine life. July is the prime time to snorkel with the majestic whale sharks who arrive en mass. Giant manta rays also grace the area with their presence in July, and May to October is turtle nesting season on the beaches!
Another beautiful area to visit is Tulum, just 2 hours from Cancun by local bus and costing around 100 pesos. Tulum has a wide beautiful beach with a laidback vibe and sunsets are outstanding with hues of pastel pinks, purples and blues against the soft yellow sand.
Just under a 45 minute stroll along the beach, Tulum has one of the most dramatically positioned Mayan ruins, perched on a cliff top overlooking the waves below. Tulum town is a 10 minute taxi ride from the beach and if you’re looking for a cheap dorm room - head for the town. Alternatively, for around £20+ per night you could get your own cabana on the beach front!
From Tulum there are some good day trip ideas including a visit the Coba Mayan ruins, set in a deep tropical jungle 48km northwest of Tulum. Also the Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka'an is a UN world heritage site that offers kayak bird watching tours. The close by beach of Pubts Allen offers great snorkelling and chances to see turtles too.
You can't go to the Yucatan and miss visiting some cenotes. The Yucatan peninsula is peppered with these limestone sinkholes which offer a cool rest bite from the searing heat. Some are perfect for snorkelling, some you can dive into from great heights, whilst others offer kilometres of underwater caves cave divers to discover.
I visited a few whilst exploring the area; one had a natural skylight sending a piercing sunbeam into the swimming hole below, another; Dos Ojos near Tulum was perfect to discover with a snorkelling guide who took us from cave to cave by torchlight.
The cenote dubbed 'the pit' (also near Tulum) was my favourite. You can sign up for a deep scuba dive, descending to 40m. The water is so clear as you sink through the vertical tunnel until around 25m depth, where salt and fresh water collide, giving a few meters of blurry vision. At around 35m deep, a hydrogen sulphide cloud is suspended. Before being enveloped in the misty white cloud you can see the branches of a fallen tree pierce through the top of the cloud, giving the impression that you are skydiving to earth!
Once inside the cloud it resembles being in the smokiest room and it is hard not to be mesmerised by the dancing smoke trails. Once you pass through the cloud, you need torches to explore the giant stalagmites and stalagtights. Possibly due to the effects of nitrogen narcosis (where your brain can go a bit loopy from a deep dive!) I swear I spotted a couple of mermaids on my ascent to the surface!
From Cancun, it would be near criminal to miss a visit to Chichen Itza, the seventh new wonder of the world and the most famous and best restored of all the Mayan sites. Costing 182 pesos for a day ticket and an additional 75 pesos for the sound and light show be prepared to find Chichen Itza packed with every tourist and their grandmother as it’s so impressive!
Chichen Itza is a full day trip from Cancun, a 3-4.5 hour journey, depending how you travel. Backpackers on a budget may choose the cheaper 2nd class bus, but if you want to spend longer at the ruins, I’d recommend the first class bus which drops you in front of the ruins.
You can book a package trip which will take you via a cenote and a 'traditional village' where they try and sell you all sorts of overpriced souvenirs. This trip also includes lunch and a guide at the ruins. It’s a great option as everything is organised for you, but your time at the ruins is limited and you might feel like you’re being herded around.
If you have time to discover a bit more of Mexico, head West to the state of Oaxaca and the surrounding area is well worth a visit; cheaper than the Yucatan peninsula, backpackers will find your money goes further. You could also cross over to Guatemala and visit the famed Tikal ruins (said to be the mother of all Mayan ruins) set deep in the Guatemalan forest. From Guatemala, it’s easy to hop into Belize for a bit of Caribbean island life and an instant culture shift where the pace of life slowed to the reggae beat. Divers and snorkelers, heads up: Belize is also home to the second larger coral reef in the world.
If you’d like to make the most of a Cancun transit and stop over here, if you want to know more about Mexico and Central America or want to book your trip now, contact Sara or request a quote by email. We can give you some inspirational trip ideas and suggestions to maximise your trip of a lifetime.