15 Essential Cancun Travel Tips: Things I Wish I’d Known Before My Mexico Trip

Ahh, Mexico. The country is abundant with rich culture, endless beaches, and amazing food everywhere you turn. The beach destinations of Mexico (think Cancun, Tulum, Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, etc.) are very popular year-round vacation spots for many travelers.

For beach dwellers, Mexico is well-known for its impeccable all-inclusive resorts and pristine turquoise waters. Not to mention, your dollar is stretched further here!

Cancun is definitely one of the more well-known destinations in Mexico. It is a beautiful coastal city on the Yucatan Peninsula in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. If you’ve chosen Cancun as your destination of choice, read on! I’ve visited Cancun a handful of times, and each of my trips certainly has its ups and downs.

So without further ado, here are my top 15 Cancun travel tips, featuring a list of things I wish I’d known before visiting Cancun. In this post, I’ll provide you with my suggestions and personal learnings from previous trips–good and bad!

*Please note: This post may contain affiliate links. You won’t be paying a cent more, but in the event of a sale, the small affiliate commission I receive will help keep this blog running/pumping out useful content. Thanks!


PREPPING FOR YOUR TRIP: CANCUN TRAVEL TIPS

1. Watch ‘The Mask’ for fun.

If you plan on visiting the most touristy area of Cancun, you should watch The Mask starring Jim Carey, just for kicks. (You certainly don’t have to hang out in this area; a walk through this zone was good enough for me!)

I won’t give too much away, but what you’ll notice when you’re in Cancun is a wildly popular club named Coco Bongo— and tons of people outside dressed up as The Mask. You’ll appreciate this touristy area slightly more once you refresh your memory.

2. Book a resort or hotel outside of the ‘Hotel Zone’.

Stay at least part of your vacation either downtown (to experience the local culture) or in a town further away from Cancun’s Hotel Zone. Other than a bunch of all-inclusive resorts stretching on for miles and miles, the Hotel Zone in Cancun is extremely boring, commercialized, and hard to get around by foot.

If you want to do anything else other than laying out on the beach, I’d suggest spending some time exploring the culture-rich area of Downtown Cancun or in other nearby coastal towns.

Whenever I go to Mexico for the all-inclusive life, I aim to stay in nearby areas outside of the Hotel Zone such as Playa Mujeres or down in the Riviera Maya area (Excellence Riviera Cancun in Puerto Morelos is where I stayed most recently— highly, highly recommend!).

The stunning view from our balcony at Excellence Playa Mujeres.

3. Save your immigration form from the airport.

Mexico requires travelers to fill out an Official Entry Immigration Form before passing through customs once you land at the airport.

If you want to be prepared, you can fill this form out online before traveling, though airlines will hand these out to everyone before landing so you can complete it then. If you missed it, you can also fill out the form in the lobby before customs.

Once you exit customs, you will be provided the bottom portion of the sheet, or the exit portion. Keep this tucked away with the rest of your documents or in your passport, and DO NOT lose it. If you cannot present the exit form at security before boarding your flight home, you will be fined.

4. Bring bug spray.

This is one of my most preached Cancun travel tips. Even if you’ll be spending most of your time at the resorts, bringing bug spray is a must. The mosquitos tend to come out at night and especially after a day of rain or thunderstorms.

When I was in Cancun, I took a stroll through a walkway lined with trees and I kid you not, within 5 minutes I had gotten just about 15 mosquito bites that itched like crazy for the next few days. Spare yourself and just be prepared for potential bugs.

5. Pack all other “just in case” medicines and toiletries.

Bring all your first aid supplies and toiletries with you–sunscreen, allergy medicine, ibuprofen, itching cream, etc.

Why? You’re entering a pretty touristy area, which means all these necessities will surely be marked up and be very expensive.

For sunscreen, opt for the travel-size if you don’t plan on checking a bag (otherwise you won’t be able to get it through airport security).

See More: 30 Travel Essentials for Hot Weather and Tropical Climates

GETTING AROUND: CANCUN TRAVEL TIPS

6. Uber is not legal here.

Do not try getting a ride through Uber at the airport, or anywhere else for that matter. Even though the app may work, Uber isn’t legal in Cancun. You will have to go the old fashioned way of getting around with either a rental car or via taxi.

This was a hard lesson learned after my first trip to Cancun. Hailing a taxi in person is such a pain— the drivers tend to overcharge you astronomically. You can practice your bargaining here, but make sure to agree on a set price before hopping in. This is so not my cup of tea, so whenever I go now, I tend to ignore everyone shouting things at me at the airport to avoid getting ripped off.

Here’s what I’ve done on my subsequent Cancun trips—it’s super easy and straightforward: I pre-book transportation through a private airport transportation site (like eTransfers or Booking.com) and provide them with my flight information as well as the estimated arrival time. A driver will get in contact with me (likely through text message) and will let me know where to meet them when I arrive at the airport.

Pre-booked transportation options include shared vans, shuttles, and private transfers. Compare the prices between each of the options and choose the one that fits your budget. It’s as simple as that! It’s also way cheaper than the in-person prices the taxis advertise. 

7. Research how to get around town.

Take a look at your transportation options ahead of time, because it’s really not as straightforward without the ridesharing conveniences that many of us are used to. Many resorts will send shared shuttle buses to the Cancun International Airport throughout the day to pick up incoming guests, so this is another option for getting to your hotel.

Again, private transportation booked through sites like eTransfers or Booking.com is great if you know where you’ll be going ahead of time.

Looking to get around during your trip? You can take the bus around the Hotel Zone and into Downtown Cancun for a day of exploration. The bus system in Cancun is pretty darn convenient. Buses run around the clock and run up and down the hotel zone every few minutes. They are safe, super affordable (~$0.50 USD), and easy to ride with 24/7 service. Make this your primary form of transportation within the Cancun city limits. The main routes are the R-1 and R-2.

Looking to visit nearby towns or heading to/from the airport? Consider the ADO bus. These are first-class buses that travel to destinations like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, as well as to the Cancun International Airport. Tickets can be purchased on the same day. (Or, go with good ol’ private transportation–this option hasn’t failed me yet!)

And if that all seems too complicated, then just take the taxi (but be prepared to pay a premium for that luxury).


WELCOME TO CANCUN: CANCUN TRAVEL TIPS

8. Authentic Mexican food is harder to find.

If you’re looking for authentic Mexican food, skip the overpriced, chain restaurants in the Hotel Zone and head to Downtown Cancun. The busiest street carts or the least pretentious restaurants tend to have the best food.

Make sure to check out Parque Las Palapas in Downtown Cancun for a massive array of authentic Mexican food choices. The park is open on a nightly basis!

9. Don’t plan too much for your first day there.

Allow your body to adjust to the weather as well as to any time zone changes you may experience after landing. Since Cancun is a tropical destination, you may need some time to adjust to the humidity and heat.

On my last trip, I had a mission to head straight into town to eat and explore upon dropping my bags off at the villa hotel. I didn’t care that a thunderstorm had just passed through and that the residual humidity was off the charts!

Well, out I went and boy was I not prepared for the exhaustion that had overcome me in less than an hour. It was like I had been drained of all the energy from my body and all the pep in my step was just wiped out of me.

What I ended up needing was a long 2-hour nap in an air-conditioned room.

So just heed my warning, if your body isn’t used to hot and humid conditions, take it slow and remember to stay hydrated!

10. Leave the Hotel Zone to shop at local markets.

Looking for souvenirs to bring home for your friends, family, and coworkers? Skip the airport gift shops and check out local markets and artisanal shops.

Mercado 28 is the only place you really need to go for this. Here, you will find an endless assortment of handmade goods, kitschy souvenirs, and food/alcohol gifts.

If you’re coming from the Hotel Zone, you’ll take the R-2 bus to Market 28. Tell the bus driver this is where you want to go. When you get dropped off, don’t be fooled by the first strip of overpriced stores you see (here’s how you’ll know— people will be standing in front of these shops stating that you’re at Mercado 28). Instead, you’ll have to keep walking a few more blocks up the street.

At some point, you’ll see the Mercado 28 archway on the other side of the street. You’ve made it—now get ready to sharpen those bargaining skills!

Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Cancun, Mexico - www.travelswithelle.com
You’ll find a wild assortment of colorful, handmade crafts in local markets.

11. Get out of Cancun with some day trips.

Exploring the lesser-traveled destinations in Mexico requires a little bit of planning, but it will be so rewarding. While it might be tempting to chill poolside all day in your all-inclusive resort, be sure to leave Cancun to explore the rest of Quintana Roo!

Isla Mujeres, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen are within arm’s reach from Cancun. Not only are these places beautiful, but they also carry a boatload of historical significance. These unique beach communities are all very different, making them perfect for day-tripping.

  • Isla Mujeres is a small yet breathtaking island just 8 miles north of Cancun. Upon disembarking the high-speed ferry, you’ll see a quaint town with lined with wispy palm trees and golf carts rolling by everywhere you look. The streets between the endless beaches are lined with charming local bars, eateries, and shops. Spend your afternoon relaxing by the Playa Norte beach, walking down Hidalgo Street, hanging out at the sea turtle sanctuary, or exploring the outskirts of the island in a golf cart of your own. You can reach Isla Mujeres by ferry or by booking a day trip on a catamaran
  • Playa Del Carmen is an hour south from Cancun. Here, you will find a little bit of everything —upscale villas and resorts, great shopping, and people watching on Fifth Avenue, as well as the Xaman-Ha Mayan ruins.
  • Tulum is just a bit further south from Playa Del Carmen. It is home to a picturesque set of Mayan ruins by the coast, as well as a good variety of boho/eco-hotels, shops, restaurants, and other things to do that you won’t want to miss. There are amazing cenotes near Tulum that you certainly won’t want to miss!
Dreaming about the fine sand and warm, turquoise waters at Playa Norte (Isla Mujeres).
Don’t Miss: How To Get To Isla Mujeres From Cancun (Hotel Zone or Downtown)

12. You can do a bunch of activities without renting a car.

Many tour operators hold full-day tours that will pick you up from your hotel. If you want to experience Mexico outside of Cancun, consider the following:

  • Day Trip: Tulum Ruins and Cenote Swim | Combine ancient history with adventure on this 9-hour tour of the Tulum archaeological site and a swim/snorkel experience in subterranean cenotes and limestone caves. Transportation, lunch, and snorkel gear included.
  • Day Trip: Chichen Itza, Valladolid with Cenote Swim| Explore Chichén Itzá and learn about its impressive ruins from an informative local guide, then swim in an underground river on a guided excursion, finally, enjoy a guided tour of the colonial town of Valladolid. Transportation, buffet lunch, and cenote admission included.
  • Day Trip: Tulum, Coba, Cenote And Playa Del Carmen | Visit two of the most important Mayan archaeological sites with a certified guide on this full-day tour: Coba and Tulum. In the afternoon, you’ll be able to swim in a cenote, enjoy a traditional Mexican lunch, and explore the city of Playa del Carmen. Round-trip transport and lunch included.
  • Isla Mujeres All-Inclusive Catamaran Tour | Experience the white sands and turquoise waters of Isla Mujeres (in my opinion, a must for anyone visiting the Cancun area). On this full-day tour from Cancun, cruise to the island on a catamaran and snorkel in the protected waters of a marine park. Spend your remaining free time relaxing on the beach, feasting on a lunch buffet with open bar, and roam the quaint streets of the island. Hotel pickup and drop-off in Cancun are included.

Whatever tours you choose, make sure to carve out some time to visit a cenote! Cenotes are truly unique to the Riviera Maya and cannot be found so common across the world.

Additionally, you shouldn’t overlook the culture and history of the region. It’s teeming with thousands and thousands of years worth of historical significance!

Chichen Itza, 20+ Things To Do In Cancun, Mexico - Travels With Elle

13. Exchange for pesos in Downtown Cancun for better rates.

Exchanging your home currency for pesos from an ATM downtown is a much better deal than exchanging it at your local bank or at the airport. You’ll notice at shops and restaurants in Cancun, you’ll have the option of paying in US dollars or pesos. One thing I’d definitely recommend is paying with pesos.

Paying with dollars (not recommended) will cost you an additional 15-20% more that what you need to pay.

14. Always have pesos available for spending (and tipping).

You should always keep pesos on hand, as you’ll find not everyone outside of your resort will accept credit cards. By doing this, you will also avoid fees that are sometimes incurred when using credit or debit cards internationally.

Having pesos on hand also means you can tip easily (which is something you should do to support the local workers). Even if you’ll be spending all your time in an all-inclusive resort, you should tip. A small tip at the bar, the restaurant or after room service can go a long way.

Pro Tip: you’re likely to get better service and be prioritized before the other non-tipping hotel guests.

15. Relax and have fun!

You are on vacation, YES! Go into it with the most positive attitude and embrace where you are– a tropical haven. If you want to spend all your days fitting in action and adventure, do it. But don’t forget to carve out some time to do nothing but relax. Ahhhhhh…..

Cancun Travel Tips - Travels With Elle


CANCUN, MEXICO: THE ESSENTIAL PACKING LIST

  • Lightweight Packable Day Bag | Inside my larger travel backpack, I always bring a lightweight, packable backpack to use for day-to-day exploration. The Fjallraven Kanken Mini is perfect for carrying a few snacks, a lightweight jacket, cameras, phones, a water bottle, and whatever else I need for the day.
  • Packing Cubes | Start packing smarter. The key to smart packing is going to be compartmentalization, aka packing cubes. This set comes with a bunch of different sizes, so you can create a separate compartment for undies and socks, for clothing, for toiletries, and for anything else you may want to organize. By using packing cubes, it’s so much easier to pull out only what you need, rather than dig through all of your luggage to find that one thing you’re looking for.
  • Laundry Bag | Summer = lots of sweaty, smelly worn clothes. Don’t soil your entire bag by mixing worn clothes with your unworn clothes! Definitely bring a laundry bag to separate your clean clothes from your dirty clothes to maintain the utmost freshness.
  • Clothing | Pack your usual summer clothes for Cancun, as well as a few layers for unexpected cooler temperatures. This includes tanks, shorts, swimsuits, and swim coverups!
  • Light Rain Jacket | Traveling to tropical areas does not necessarily mean there won’t be rain or wind. Packing a light rain jacket will definitely come in handy in unpredictable tropical climates. This one for men and this one for women are some of the best jackets for any kind of travel. They’re ultralight, wind and water-repellent, and take up virtually no space so they’re easy to carry wherever you go.
  • Adventure Sandals | Tevas and Chacos are my go-to brands for multipurpose summer sandals. If you’re planning on having an adventurous day or two, you should definitely consider getting adventure sandals — comfortable for long-distance walking, safe for submerging in water, and super durable.
  • Walking Shoes | One pair of closed-toed shoes (walking shoes or running shoes) is always crucial for any trip. These ones that I’ve been traveling around with are super light and breathable. I can even walk 15+ miles in them before getting sore feet.
    • For women: Adidas Cloudfoam runners are classic looking and ultra-comfortable.
    • For men: ON Running Shoes have risen in popularity, and for good reason! They are comfortable as heck, my boyfriend loves his pair.
  • Cooling Facial Mist | When you’re faced with mid-day humidity, it can be very hard to deal with. Keeping a small bottle of facial mist in your purse or backpack on a hot day will save your life. This mist takes all the cooling, soothing ingredients you can think of—aloe, cucumber, and green tea—and combines them into one refreshing spritzer for your face.
  • Dry Shampoo | Bring some dry shampoo to use in between washes to instantly revitalize and freshen your semi-dirty hair.
  • Leave-In Conditioner | I recommend bringing a leave-in conditioner to help nurture your hair after spending time in pools and the salty ocean. As someone with naturally frizzy hair, my hair tends to get tangled, coarse, and even more frizzy after it’s submerged in water. This leave-in conditioner is a cult favorite – just put it in your damp hair after your shower and comb it through.
  • SPF 30+ Sunscreen (For Face) | COOLA sunscreen is my new go-to facial sunscreen. My face doesn’t feel sticky or goopy, which is so important for feeling comfortable when you’re out and about in humid areas. If you’re going anywhere in the tropics, you’ll be close to the equator so you really want to use a high SPF – I don’t go below SPF 30 in hot and sunny climates. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s reef-friendly!
  • Sunscreen (For Body) | Applying sunscreen to your body is absolutely necessary for tropical destinations. Even if it’s overcast and cloudy, the UV index can be very high, so be sure to apply whenever you’re outdoors. If you plan on snorkeling near the reefs, choose a coral reef-safe brand like Coola or Sun Bum, as traditional sunscreen contains chemicals that damage and even kill the precious reefs.
  • After Sun Cooling Spray| Let’s be real– you’re probably going to be spending the majority of your vacation outdoors under the sun. Chances are, you’re going to get a nice tan, and maybe even a sunburn or two! Even if you don’t get sunburned, you should still treat your exposed skin to some much-needed hydration with an after-sun cooling spray or after-sun lotion.
  • Hand Sanitizer | Hand sanitizer gel or wipes are a must any time you’re going to be in contact with surfaces many other people have touched. Never leave your hotel room without it! And if you do happen to forget it, remember to wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your face.
  • Emergen-C packets or Liquid I.V. Hydration Packets | These are a great way to support your immune system and overall health on a trip. They are light, take up no space, and are very easy to pack! If you’re going to be partying, you’ll need these.
  • Body Wipes / Feminine Wipes | Feeling a bit gross but don’t have the time to shower right in that instant? Just whip out one of these body wipes for a quick refresher. The feminine wipes I like are infused with cucumber and aloe. Trust me, you will feel and smell so much better. Always good to have a few handy in your travel bag.
  • Oil Blotting Sheets | On a typical day in a hot and tropical place, your makeup will slide/sweat off your face in exactly three seconds after stepping outside. Rather than layering on more makeup, first, focus on tackling your shiny, sweaty glow. The solution? Use blotting sheets whenever your face starts getting sweaty.
  • Cooling Face Mask | After a long day of exploring, nothing will feel better than propping your feet up and slapping on a cooling face mask for 10-20 minutes. Lay back and relax!
  • Insect Repellent Lotion | Mosquitos love hot climates, so I would definitely recommend packing insect repellent with a high DEET percentage, no matter the season you’re traveling. Sawyer makes some really great bug repellent products, and they’re travel-friendly too!
  • Permethrin Insect Repellent Spray for Clothing | This clothing insect repellent spray is a game-changer. If you’re going to be outdoors in areas where mosquitos are prevalent, I’d highly recommend preparing your clothes with this fabric spray!
    • How does it work? This is a treatment spray for clothes that adheres only to fabrics, leaving no smell or residue on clothes and doesn’t harm human skin. Permethrin spray lasts for up to 6 machine washes, which is more than enough for most tropical trips. Real life story– I hiked Machu Picchu after treating my hiking clothes with this, and I only got a total of 2 mosquito bites after the 4-day trip, whereas some of my friends got 20+ bites. Worth it.
    • Pro Tip: Buy and use before you leave for your trip. A few days before departure, spray all of your clothes, plus anything else made of fabric that you’d like treated.
  • Insect Repelling Lightweight Pullover | Too lazy to treat your clothes with insect repellent? I know, it’s a process. The ExOfficio BugsAway pullover is the next best thing– it’s super lightweight too.
  • Hat, Bandana, or Buff | Keep the sun off your skin with a fancy sunhat, bandana, or a Buff. All three can be used to shield your neck or forehead from the sun. As a bonus, bandanas and Buffs can be used as headbands to keep hair and sweat off of your face. Soak your bandana or Buff then put it on your head, face, or neck for a quick cool down.
  • Cooling Towel | Perfect for working out, a day at the beach, or simply sitting there baking in the sun—you’ll feel Chill Pal‘s cooling effect as soon as you take it out of the package. To activate the cooling towel, just soak it in water and wring it out, then wear it as a bandana or use it as a towel. Another hot weather game-changing travel essential.
  • Travel Towel | These are light and quick-drying, which is exactly what you need in hot, humid climates. Super useful if you plan on having beach days or staying in hostels.  This one is a great option.
  • Travel Clothesline | This is a small and portable clothesline that allows you to hang up your wet clothes almost anywhere. I’ve found that it’s really handy whenever I have wet bathing suits or towels that need to be air-dried. I love it for its multi-purpose functionality!
  • Dry Bag | Another multi-purpose item on the list! Dry bags are completely necessary for keeping your dry belongings (clothes, electronics, money, etc)… dry. Don’t set foot on a kayak, boat or canoe without putting your stuff in a dry bag. Trust me, it’s better than ending up with a phone or camera submerged in water in the case where the boat tips or something. It’s also super handy for carrying around wet bathing suits and towels. Or even doubling as your laundry bag!
  • Underwater Smartphone Housing | Don’t want to invest in an underwater camera? That’s fine, just stick your phone in the AxisGo’s underwater housing! It’s designed to protect your phone from the harshest weather conditions while offering the freedom to safely capture those special moments underwater.
  • Portable Power Bank | You’re probably going to be out all day, snapping away taking pictures, GPSing to all the great food spots… the last thing you want is to be stranded with no phone battery! A portable power bank is a must-have, and Anker’s ultra-light, ultra-portable power bank is tried and true by so many travelers! I never embark on a day of exploration without it.
  • Soft Hydration Flask | Stay hydrated in the warm weather with a water bottle that can go anywhere with you—and fold up when not in use. I love the packability of these bottles!
  • Snorkel Set | If you plan on snorkeling a lot, bring your own set to save on rental costs.
  • Medicine | If you get motion sickness, consider bringing a motion sickness reliever like Dramamine for the ferry ride over to Isla Mujeres. If you need other meds, don’t forget your pain killers, antacids, etc.

I hope you enjoyed my list of Cancun travel tips! What are some of your Cancun tips and experiences? Feel free to share below!

Want more Mexico travel tips? Read More:

25+ Things To Do In Cancun That Will Make Your Trip Unforgettable

30 Travel Essentials for Hot Weather and Tropical Climates

17 Exciting Things To Do On Isla Mujeres, Mexico: The Complete Activity Guide

Mexico All-Inclusive Packing List: 60 Essential Things To Bring With You

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