Go beyond the hotel zone to see the other side of Cancun with a Nomad's insider tips.

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Photo © Getty Images/Wei Fang

Downtown Cancun

Catch a bus from the beaches in the hotel zone to explore Downtown Cancun (El Centro). Go shopping for souvenirs such as local arts and crafts, t-shirts and handmade items at Merecado 28.

Stroll around the main park, Parque Las Palapas, and smell the food wafting from food carts (salty corn-on-the-cob, anyone?), or grab a cheap meal from the outdoor food court. On weekends, this park comes alive with families, and live music.

About 8mi (12km) away from Downtown, see iguanas as you wander around the ancient Mayan ruins of El Meco, an ancient archaeological site that was once an important port for Isla Mujeres, just off the coast of Cancun. The structure is 41ft (12.5m) high and dates back around 1,000 years.

Day Trips from Cancun

The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef runs 620mi (1,000km) from the Yucatán Peninsula down to Belize, Guatemala and the Bay Islands of Honduras. Take an easy day trip from Cancun to go scuba diving and snorkeling on part of the reef at Isla Contoy or Isla Mujeres.

Check TourRadar for the best zip-lining and off-roading tours available in the area. Check to make sure your travel insurance policy covers you for these activities.

Perhaps the best thing about Cancun is the nearby Mayan ruins and the thousands of cenotes (natural swimming holes). At Xcaret, 40mi (64km) south of Cancun, you can swim in underground rivers and explore Mayan ruins.

Most travelers take a day trip to see Chichen Itza, a two to three hour, 125mi (201km) drive from Cancun. If you’ve got your own car, leave early to beat the crowds.

Visit the fishing village of Akumal, 62mi (99kkm) south of Cancun, for windsurfing or snorkeling with sea turtles.

The archaeological site of Tulum is 72mi (115km) south of Cancun. Make a day of it and stop by Xel-Ha on the way back (68mi/109km from Cancun). At this water theme park, you can float along the river on tubes, snorkel with tropical fish, and see cenotes.

Museo Subacuático de Arte (just 8mi/13km from Cancun) is an underwater museum with an artificial reef with more than 500 sculptures. To get up close, you’ll need to go scuba diving. Otherwise, you can see them from above while snorkeling.

Playa del Carmen is 35mi (56km) south of Cancun, another great place to stay if you’re venturing south for many of these day trips.

Car Rental in Mexico

Parking is a hassle in the hotel zone of Cancun, and everything in the town is within walking distance. Explore at your own pace by renting a car, but know that Mandatory Basic Personal Liability Insurance is required when you rent a car in Mexico. Your standard insurance purchased outside of Mexico will not cover your vehicle in the case of any incidents that might occur. This could triple the original price you were quoted when you asked around for rental prices.

Drivers must be over the age of 25, require a valid license plus registration and insurance papers to rent and drive in Mexico. Be sure to have these papers and your license on you at all times – there are a lot of checkpoints, especially on the highway of Tulum to Cancun.

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