The Cultural Side of Cancún

Though well-known as a spring break destination, Cancún offers a surprising array of attractions for those seeking culture and history
January 28, 2020 Updated: January 30, 2020
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Spring break and raucous parties usually come to mind when one thinks of Cancún (Kan Kun or “den of snakes” in Mayan). This famous coastal destination is the largest city in Mexico’s state of Quintana Roo, and where fine white sand and the Caribbean’s clear turquoise waters seemingly touch pastel-tinted skies. In Cancún, the beaches are the draw and simply some of the most idyllic you’ll find anywhere in the country.

All-inclusive packages are everywhere in the town’s Hotel Zonelera (the 14-mile long Vegas-like Hotel Zone studded with resorts), attracting an army of college students each year. Cancún, however, is a place for much more than suntans, revelers, and unlimited Margaritas. 

This eastern section of the Yucatán Peninsula also celebrates the Maya, who still inhabit parts of the region. Hence, travelers who desire a more cultural experience can dig deeper and explore the area’s history and traditions. Archaeological sites, therapeutic spa treatments rooted in Mayan heritage, wonderfully delicious food, and Mexico’s colorful culture are ready and waiting, as is the warmth of the people. 

Leave the Zone and Head Downtown

To take a break from the hotel zone, hop a taxi to El Centro (downtown), Cancún’s energetic city where you can catch a taste of everyday life. One place to stop is Mercado 23, a go-to flea and farmer’s market selling fresh produce, meats, cheese, spices, freshly prepared Mexican food, crafts, and souvenirs. Be prepared to pay cash, so take pesos with you, and brush up on your Spanish while browsing.  

A 10-minute walk from the market, El Parque de las Palapas is another can’t-miss attraction in downtown Cancún. Here, eat like a local—try the Marquesitas, rolled crepes stuffed with Nutella, cheese, fruit jam, or banana—mingle, and watch music and dance performances. Most of the action happens in the evenings, so hang out until later in the day when Cancún natives reveal the vibrant spirit of Mexico.

Art and Archaeology

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El Rey. (Tracy Kaler)

Chichén Itzá and Tulum are doable day trips, but you won’t have to travel but a few minutes to experience Mayan ruins in the heart of Cancún. Few people know about El Rey, an archaeological site dating back hundreds of years to pre-Columbian Mayan times. Discreetly tucked off the main road mere minutes from the Hotel Zone, this deep, unshaded lot houses more than 40 structures, some remnants, and others still intact. El Rey was once a crucial port on the Caribbean coast, but the Maya fled the site when the Spaniards invaded in the 1500s. Dedicate an hour or so (including transit time from your hotel) to exploring the ruins where several iguanas have taken up residence.

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Maya Museum of Cancún. (Tracy Kaler)

On Avenida Kukulkan only three minutes from El Rey, Museo Maya de Cancún (Maya Museum of Cancún) highlights the prehistory of the state of Quintana Roo and other Mexican states as well as Central America. Architect Alberto Garcia Lascurain’s modern design connects visitors to the ancient world of the Maya via three interior galleries showcasing ancient artifacts, ceramics, and jewelry. 

Just inside the entrance, an attractive garden leads to the jungle paths of the San Miguelito ruins, an archaeological site adjacent to the museum. Entry to both the museum and the ruins costs just 70 pesos. While some placards are in English and Spanish, others are in Spanish only. No handbags, backpacks, etc. are permitted in the museum but lockers are available.

Luxury With Culture

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Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancún. (Tracy Kaler)

High-end resorts line Avenida Kukulkan, but Mexican culture abounds at the five-star Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancún. The blissful property is set at the end of the Hotel Zone on a quiet stretch of beach, boasting jaw-dropping ocean views. 

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The view from Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach. (Tracy Kaler)

At the resort’s Gem Spa, guests can reinvigorate their senses in the 10-step hydrotherapy ritual, including sauna, steam, an ice room, a multi-jet shower, a polar plunge, and heated whirlpool. The aquatic therapy session culminates with a pebbled labyrinth and the “pool of sensations”—a bubbling basin complete with jets, cascades, and thermal springs. Use the water as a warm-up before your Mayan Four Hands Jade Massage. For more than an hour, two therapists use jade stones to massage and encourage peace, harmony, and healing within the mind and body.

One of only four AAA Five-Diamond restaurants in Cancún, the romantic Le Basilic focuses on French-Mediterranean fare but adds a tinge of Mexico to the culinary feast. Guests savor every bite of their steak au poivre and chocolate mousse as acclaimed Mexican artist León Alva paints whimsical art while relaxing piano music sounds in the background. Le Basilic also acts as a gallery for Alva’s pieces, nicely displayed and adding splashes of color to the mostly neutral interior. 

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An interactive dinner at La Joya. (Tracy Kaler)

La Joya, the on-site Mexican restaurant, offers a chance to learn about tequila while partaking in a trio tasting. And after sipping mezcal, surely you’ll be hungry. The evening can culminate with an interactive dinner at The Table, a dedicated section of La Joya reserved for myriad courses with wine, beer, and cocktail pairings. Chef Sergio Zarate pairs local products with indigenous culture, as each plate tells the story of a different chapter in Mexican history. Save some appetite for the melt-in-your-mouth cacao-braised short rib and vanilla-poached lobster with beurre blanc toward the end of the meal. Live Spanish music only adds to the ambiance. 

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Tequila tasting at La Joya. (Tracy Kaler)

A Ferry Ride Away

Eight miles and a 20- or 30-minute ferry ride off the coast of Cancún, Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) is ideal for an afternoon getaway. With little vehicular traffic, this piece of heaven promises sun, sand, relaxation, and adventure. Discover Playa Norte, one of Mexico’s most beautiful beaches, several seaside eateries, a lively downtown with great shopping, and Instagram-worthy Punta Sur, a breathtaking overlook and the highest point on the Yucatán Peninsula. 

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Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres. (Tracy Kaler)

Trek through Garrafon Natural Reef Park—a park recognized for its unbelievable reef formation, part of the longest in the Western Hemisphere—until you reach Punta Sur. A lighthouse, sculpture park, an ancient temple dedicated to the Mayan moon goddess, and captivating cliffside views over the Caribbean Sea complete the experience. Adventurous travelers can zip line, snorkel, and scuba dive. To best explore Isla Mujeres, rent a golf cart for about $45.

Book a Tour

For more adventure in the Cancún area, book an all-day excursion with Alltournative, a sustainable tourism company hosting trips to Coba, Tulum, Chichen Itza, and Ek Balam, an ancient Mayan city. Activities include a Mayan purification ritual led by a shaman, a swim in the crystalline waters of a cenote (a deep pit formed when a cave’s ceiling collapses, revealing the water underneath), a traditional Mayan meal, and guided tours of world-renowned archaeological sites. Transportation to and from hotels is provided.

Cancún may continue to be a frontrunner for the spring break crowd. Still, this slice of the country also appeals to anyone curious about the deep-rooted history and natural wonders of Mexico.

Tracy Kaler is a travel writer based in New York. She’s written for The Telegraph, Barron’s Penta, amNewYork, and other publications. When she’s not glued to her laptop, she’s wandering the city she loves or off discovering another part of the planet.

The author was a guest of Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancún.