With its perfect beaches, cheap airfare, world-class Mayan ruins, endless tourist attractions and more than 100 hotels, Cancun is famously one of the world’s top destinations, attracting more than three million travelers per year. Thus, adventurous types often dread visiting this sun-drenched tropical paradise, which seems to offer all the street cred and opportunity for cultural enrichment of an all-you-can-eat booze cruise.
Fear not! Yes, your less intrepid friends and family may have voted for Cancun over Cartagena or Kabul. But there’s no need to resign yourself to being trapped in a boring all-inclusive sipping drinks with umbrellas—and admit it, that’s not a bad way to spend a vacation anyway. While it’s difficult to truly escape the crowds anywhere on the Yucatan, there is so much more to see and do.
1. Head for the Islands
Instead of staying on the strip in Cancun, in one of the mega-hotels lining the flawless playa, book a room on Isla Mujeres, a few miles offshore and a world away from Cancun proper. It’s hardly an undiscovered paradise, but the laid-back vibe and ecofriendly luxury appeals to independent travelers, and offers all the amenities and luxuries you’d expect from a Cancun vacation. Somewhat less-developed, Isla Holbox is great for nature lovers, particularly May through September when the whale sharks swim through.
2. Go Beyond Chichen Itza
While it’s well worth fighting the crowds to see the mystical Mayan city of Chichen Itza, there are other, less crowded ruins here in the ancient heart of the empire. Outstanding Uxmal, with its astronomical alignments and almost Egyptian architecture is incredible, and surrounded by several smaller cities such as Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labna; rent a car and see them all. For the full Indiana Jones experience, head to Coba, a huge city still largely unreconstructed and carpeted with dense rainforest. Rent a bike at the entrance to enjoy its enormous expanse.
3. Do A Community Cenote Tour
The Yucatan Peninsula’s limestone heart is riddled with underground freshwater rivers, some of them accessible from the surface via caverns called cenotes. While it’s easy to book a tour to the most popular cenotes, several small Mayan communities well off the tourist trail offer community tours to the almost undiscovered swimming holes around their own traditional villages. Look around online, or ask about them at tour operators geared to no-frills indigenous tourism.
4. Visit the “Real” Mexico, in Merida
Cancun was constructed in the 1970s to be the perfect resort town, where visitors can speak English, spend dollars and never really feel like they’re in Mexico. Not for you? Check out peninsula’s biggest city, Merida, “founded” in 1542 by Spanish conquistadors and a Mayan capital for centuries longer. With its classic plaza and cathedral, wonderful assortment of museums and access to Celestun Wildlife Refuge, famed for its pink flamingos, as well as the ruins and cenotes less traveled, you’ll find Mexican history, charm and culture to spare. It’s hardly undiscovered—there are dozens of hotels for every budget, as well as shops and restaurants galore. But it’s authentically Mexican, a working city and a great place to spend a day or more when you need a break from paradise.