As summer vacation season nears, few things sound more appealing than a trip to a tropical paradise. The stunning city of Cancún, situated on the northeast Yucatán peninsula in Mexico, can make an affordable beach destination — especially with all the free and cheap things to do in the area. Here's a list to help with planning a budget-friendly Cancún getaway.
A few hours' visit to the Maya Museum affords a thorough glimpse into this fascinating Mesoamerican culture, which existed from 2,000 B.C. to 1697 A.D. The museum houses paintings, pottery, jewelry, and other artifacts from various eras of Maya civilization, and visitors can see archaeological evidence of the famed Mayan hieroglyphs. Admission costs about $5 a person, including outdoor access. The museum's grounds feature a lovely garden and the San Miguelito ruins, the remains of a small step pyramid.
For meals in the Yucatán peninsula, choices boil down to: foreign restaurants (pizza, burgers, etc.), touristy "Mexican" food, and authentic Mexican food. Make that last choice for the most delicious and inexpensive food in Cancún. According to the local newspaper, tourists should look for restaurants with painted or handwritten menus, cooking stations up front, and modest decor. Choose establishments that are crowded with locals rather than empty (there's a reason). Don't miss the tacos, pozole (a hearty red soup with chicken, avocado, veggies, and spices), whole fish, empanadas, and ceviches. Note: While tap water in Mexico isn't suitable for drinkin, most restaurants serve bottled water.
Take in the local Mexican culture in the main city square, the Park of the Palapas (palapa refers to a thatched-roof shelter). This recently renovated, family-friendly park (free to enter) has ample seating for groups to relax and enjoy cheap snacks from food stands: Corn on the cob, fried plantains, and quesadillas are the specialties. Kids can run around and play soccer while adults sit in the open-air food court or browse the artisan stands (which are in the design of palapas). Free outdoor live music plays weekends and most weeknights, too, and visitors often can catch a performance from a mime or other street entertainer.
Of course, don't miss the gorgeous, free-entrance beaches while in Cancún. Locals reportedly love Playa Tortugas (Turtle Beach) for a more low-key atmosphere and pristine quality. Another option farther outside of the crowds: Playa Delfines (Dolphin Beach), which offers free parking, rare in the area, or easy access by bus or taxi. Visitors might find the waves at Delfines a bit rougher than those at Tortugas. For more populated, action-packed beaches, try Playa Las Perlas (Beach of Pearls), Playa Linda (Beautiful Beach), and Playa Langosta (Lobster Beach), all open for free public access and located just north of the hotel zone. The last three beaches are sheltered from turbulent waters by Isla Mujeres (Island of the Women), just off the coast.
A day trip to the famous Maya ruins at Tulum and Chichén Itzá costs about $70 to $80. But right in Cancún, tourists can see spectacular archaeological ruins for less than $5. What is possibly an old lighthouse at Cancún's highest point, Yamil Lu'um (Hilly Land) -- aka Templo del Alacrán (Temple of the Scorpion) -- dates to 1200 A.D. and offers free admission. For about $3 to $4, visitors can explore El Rey Ruins or El Meco Ruins, sites of old Maya temples and structures. Look out for free-roaming iguanas and awesome views of the lagoon.
A giant outdoor flea market in downtown Cancún, Market 28 holds more than 100 artisanal stands selling jewelry, clothing, crafts, and pretty much any kind of souvenir imaginable. While browsing, locals and tourists alike frequent a wide variety of local Mexican grocery and prepared food stands. Market 28 is also the place to go for banks, post offices, Internet cafes, and ATMs. Most places and stands in the area accept U.S. dollars but not credit cards.
The premier spot for nighttime revelry in Cancún is Coco Bongo. The booze runs freely, but there's no conventional dance area for patrons. Rather, the club features thrilling, nonstop performances by acrobats, musicians, aerial dancers, conga lines, and more. The air stays filled with balloons, confetti, and soap bubbles. Cover charges run on the steep side: $70 Monday to Wednesday and $80 Thursday to Sunday. However, that includes unlimited domestic drinks from 10:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., plus the entertainment, so for partying night owls, Coco Bongo could turn out to be a relatively inexpensive night out.
Located in the La Isla Shopping Village, Ah Cacao Chocolate Cafe attracts locals and tourists alike for its out-of-this-world coffee and cold chocolate drinks, delicious desserts like corn cakes, and friendly service. It earns top honors from reviewers on TripAdvisor and Foursquare. Ah Cacao sources its coffee and chocolate directly from Mexican plantations and seeks to support farmers using sustainable growing practices. It also has locations in nearby Playa Del Carmen.
The warm Caribbean Sea breeds exotic fish and coral reefs that are best enjoyed with a mask, breathing tube, and fins. Getting off the beaches and into designated snorkeling zones affords the best glimpses of underwater wildlife. Many ideal spots are free for independent snorkeling, including cenotes (swimming holes with limestone formations and coral reefs dating to the Ice Age, as well as underwater caves), Punta Cancún (with lots of bright parrot fish), Paamul Cove, and the Puerto Morelos coral reefs. To save on rental fees, bring along snorkel equipment (all-inclusive resorts might provide it for free); otherwise, renters pay about $6 to $10 each.
The Interactive Aquarium Cancún maintains 13 tanks as well as marine artifact exhibits. The wide variety of aquatic life includes eels, piranhas, jellyfish, lionfish, sea lions, clownfish, rays that visitors can touch, and sharks. Every evening at 7, guests can watch a unique dolphin presentation for no extra charge. The aquarium is 365 days a year, and general admission costs $14 a person.
Bicycling lets visitors see a city in a new way -- and avoid renting a car or constantly paying for transportation. Guided bike tours charge lots, but bike rental can be incredibly cheap. One standout in reviews on TripAdvisor is Hola Bike. It rents adjustable beach cruisers for $10 a day (minimum four days), including a lock, drop-off, and pickup. Extras such as helmets, baskets, lights, and kiddie seats are just $1 to $2 more. A more rugged mountain bike from a company such as Elite Cyclery runs $30 for a half day and $40 for a full day with discounts if multiple bikes are rented.
Dubbed "Island of the Women" due to its history as a sacred site to Ix Chel, the Maya goddess of childbirth, Isla Mujeres has crushed-coral sands, pristine water, and a calming ambiance. From Cancún's hotel zone, ferries run to Isla Mujeres for about $8 round trip; for even cheaper (though longer travel time), guests can take a quick bus ride downtown and catch a ferry for about $2 each way. While on the island, be sure to shell out the $3 entry fee to visit the sea turtle sanctuary Tortugranja (Turtle Farm), where indoor and outdoor pools house six species of sea turtles under a year old. Generally the sanctuary holds a ceremony in October, open to the public, for releasing the hatchlings to the sea.
Dance like crazy late into the night at La Vaquita nightclub. The name literally means "The Cow," and indeed, the place is decked out in cow-themed decor. The cows apparently inspire revelry, because La Vaquita is the hot spot for hip-hop dancing in Cancún. A skip-the-line pass, which includes entrance and bottomless drinks all night, costs $35. The open bar, as in most clubs in Cancún, begins evenings at 10.
A walk down the area's main boulevard, Tulum Avenue, offers another way to get a taste of local culture just outside the more touristy hotel zone. From one of the main hotels, a bus ride for less than $1 takes guests to the shopping district. Browsing the shops can be a free means of cultural immersion. When making purchases, note that haggling is customary; Avenida Tulum is a great place to practice speaking Spanish, as some shop workers probably won't speak English.
A day trip to the huge rainforest park of Aktun Chen, which translates from Mayan to "natural well inside a cave," could be the highlight of a Yucatán vacation. National Geographic named the caves, which house fruit bats and feature amazing fossils and rock formations, among the world's most impressive underground walkways. From Cancún, take the cheap ADO bus and then grab a taxi for a quick ride to the park. Activities include zip-lining, swimming in the cenote, and cave tours. Customers can purchase single activities separately for $30 to $45 each or a package deal for $106, but there are discounts of 15 percent to 20 percent if ordered online.
According to Expedia, rental cars can be hired for less than $10 a day in day in Cancún, and many are less than $5, from popular and well-known agencies like National, Alamo, and Budget. The resort town of Playa Del Carmen is only about 40 miles away if you’re looking to hit the road for a bit.
Throughout the touristy areas of Cancún, visitors can choose to rent personal watercraft, which cost about $40 for half an hour, and hit the water on their own. However, Jungle Tour Cancun’s professionals lead jungle tours on an exciting course through the mangroves around the coast. For two people (on a two-seater speedboat), the tour costs about $55 for about two to three hours and includes a snorkeling opportunity, too.
Artists and brothers Renato and Adán Dorfman create gorgeous, Maya-influenced works in various media, including painting, sculpture, mural, music, architecture, and poetry. Their work can be browsed in the Dorfman Art Gallery, located conveniently in the Plaza Kukulcán within the city's hotel zone. Head artist Renato creates renowned work in the style of authentic pre-colonial Mexican tradition, with his own environmentally attuned touch. Guests can browse the gallery for free, and it's also purportedly an esteemed spot to pick up traditional Mexican art.
Under the sea off the shores of Punta Cancún, Manchones Reef, and Punta Nizuc lie over 400 humanoid statues, shallow enough for snorkelers, divers, and glass-bottom boats to see. The reefs in the area have sustained damage due to climate change, so these statues serve as artificial reefs designed to attract marine life. Artist Jason deCaires Taylor has created exhibits including "The Silent Evolution," "The Garden of Hope," and "Man on Fire." Snorkeling and scuba diving tours are about $40 to $60; divers must be certified. The Fodor's travel guide reports that swimmers can explore the area for free independently.
Another way to get immersed in a place's culture is to visit the local houses of worship, whether during a service or not. The lovely, modest Iglesia del Cristo Rey (Church of Christ the King), located in Parque de las Palapas, has an open-air design and attracts flocks of residents and travelers alike. A large statue of Mary and a rock fountain in a serene garden in the back allow for quiet contemplation. Iglesia del Cristo Rey is cited as a primary spot for religious wedding ceremonies in downtown Cancún. The Chapel remains open 24 hours; Sunday Masses start at 8, 10, and 11 a.m. and 12, 5, 6, and 8 p.m. (free entrance, of course). English translations are available, and certain Masses may be celebrated in English.
Most tours in the Yucatán peninsula cost hundreds of dollars, so an ATV tour available through Viator is a steal at $55. For about 90 minutes (some reviews estimate the tour lasts more like an hour, although that doesn't dampern most of the feedback), guests drive semi-automatic all-terrain vehicles through the jungle and along the pristine coastline. The tour stops to allow riders to take a dip in the Caribbean Sea or hang out at the restaurant in the area. The cost includes hotel pickup and drop-off, a bilingual guide, and the ATV rental.
If time allows, visit the "beautiful white city" of Merida for a step back into Mexican colonial times. The city has lovely white houses, horse-drawn buggies, ancient trees, and many historical monuments to explore. On Saturday nights, the main square closes to traffic for outdoor cultural dancing and performances, free to the public. The bus ride from downtown Cancún to Merida lasts four hours and can cost $25 each way, though prices do vary dramatically both higher and lower. The buses reportedly accommodate passengers with comfortable seating and on-board movies. Visitors who choose to stay overnight in Merida can find many hotel rooms for $40 a night or less.
Hiring a fishing charter can cost hundreds of dollars, but frugal anglers will be happy to hear that fishing from land or a pier doesn’t even require a permit, according to reports online. Keep it even more affordable by bringing your own gear, but be sure to stay away from areas where people are swimming.
Here's a hidden gem that offers a green escape from Cancún's bustling, touristy chaos: Kabah Ecological Park, aka Parque Urbana Kabah. With playgrounds, seating, and paths for jogging and walking amid jungle foliage, visitors can breathe deeply and beat the heat, as well. What many park-goers love most is the wildlife: turtles, badgers, deer, coatis (adorable!), and exotic birds all hang out in the park, right in the middle of one of the biggest tourist cities in the world. Within Kabah, the small Casa Maya Museum displays photographs from Cancún's past and the Campamento Chiclero (Bubblegum Park) offers brief lessons on how the Maya produced chewing gum from tree resin.
A list about Cancún wouldn't be complete without one more wild nightlife spot. A cheap and popular option is Señor Frog's, a family-friendly restaurant during the day that turns into a crazy club by night, with tequila conga lines and wet T-shirt contests, among other risqué activities. Accommodating up to 1,500 guests, Frog's keeps the entertainment going until 3 a.m. (late for the area), and has live music and DJs every night. It’s mostly frequented by the 18-to-25 crowd. At about $5 to $15 each, the cost of alcoholic drinks can add up quickly. Señor Frog's offers an “open bar” deal ($60 if ordered online) that includes dinner and all you can drink until closing time.