15 Famous Landmarks in Cancun, Mexico to Visit


7 min read
Aerial of blue water and a stunning white sandy beach with nipa hut umbrellas
Cancun is famous for its Mayan temples and amazing sandy beaches

There's no shortage of famous landmarks in Cancun, Mexico. The Yucatan Peninsula was once home to the Mayans, whose temples still dot the region. It's also known for its resorts and merry-making for singles, families, and honeymooners alike.

Whether you're looking for adventure, culture, relaxation, or romance, you'll find it in Cancun, and this list of famous landmarks will help you sort out where to begin and end your journey.

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15 Famous Cancun Landmarks

Cancún Landmarks Map

Using the map of Cancún landmarks, you can explore all the landmarks.

© Kmiragaya via Depositphotos
Tourists in life jackets swim in a lazy river that runs through a natural wall
In Xcaret Park, nature lovers can swim in the famous underground rivers

Cancun Scenic Tower

The Scenic Tower in Xcaret Park, also known as Torre Escenica in Spanish, gives breathtaking views of the Caribbean Sea and the Riviera Maya coastline. At 260 feet high (80 meters), you can see the natural surroundings and gain a panorama of the park that the colorful, rotating tower is found in.

The sprawling Xcaret is one of the best landmarks of Cancun, and it aims to be a one-stop-shop for tourists. For nature lovers, there are snorkeling locations and underground rivers to explore. The wildlife found here is diverse and includes manatees, a jaguar paddock, and a butterfly garden.

"Xcaret Mexico Espectacular" offers dinner and a jaw-dropping show that celebrates the country's history from pre-Columbian Mayan culture to modern times. It is one of the best things to do in Cancun at night.

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© Ratherton via Depositphotos
Human sculptures standing underwater
Over 473 underwater sculptures can be found in the Cancun Underwater Museum

Cancun Underwater Museum

The floor of the Caribbean Sea has been transformed into a canvas for the fascinating Cancun Underwater Museum. The installations combine human sculptures with the otherworldly silence beneath the water to produce powerful and haunting tableaus.

There are two exhibits that you can see, depending on your interests and experience. The first is the thirteen-feet-deep Punta Nizuc at the edge of the hotel zone (zona hotelera). These thirty-three sculptures are easily viewed by snorkelers and are more easily accessible to visitors.

The more expansive Manchones exhibit at Isla Mujeres has 473 sculptures, but at twenty-five feet deep, you'll need to go scuba diving to see them properly.

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Mayan ruins surrounded by trees under a partly cloudy blue sky
Temple of the Sun in Centro Ceremonial Kohunlich, built around 500 CE

Archaeological Zone of Kohunlich

A visit to Centro Ceremonial Kohunlich in southern Quintana Roo makes an excellent overnight trip from Cancun. This pre-Columbian Mayan ruin is about a five-hour drive away, so you'll probably want to find a place there to stay or arrange a tour with overnight accommodation rather than heading straight back to Cancun.

The most impressive feature of the 21-acre archaeological site is its wonderfully preserved Temple of the Sun. It was built around 500 CE and is also called the Temple of the Masks due to the stucco masks lining its central staircase.

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El Meco Archaeological Site

The El Meco ruins just outside the Hotel Zone contain the tallest temple in this region of the Yucatan peninsula. The site was an important city for trade before the arrival of Europeans.

El Meco was opened to the public in the early 2000s after decades of excavation and restoration efforts. There are now three plazas where you can explore the centuries-old structures, making it an excellent way to spend the morning before setting off for other points of interest in Cancun.

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Aerial view of ancient ruins with trees around
El Rey Archaeological Zone is one of the famous landmarks in Cancun, Mexico

El Rey Archaeological Zone

Head to El Rey Archaeological Zone if you're looking for Mayan cultural heritage or historical sites in Cancun without leaving the Hotel Zone. Most of its forty-seven surviving structures date back over five hundred years, and beneath the ruins are the burial sites of at least five hundred ancient Mayans.

El Rey means "The King" in Spanish, and the site received this name from travelers in 1909 who thought that a sculpture they saw there represented royalty. Today, the sculpture is protected in the Archaeological Museum of Cancun.

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Iglesia de Cristo Rey

Constructed in 1971, Christ the King Church in Cancun was the first Catholic Church built in the city. Two gardens surround the simple but beautiful church, and often open-air masses are held here.

This church is a popular option among people who want to make Cancun the site of a destination wedding or for travelers who want to catch a mass on vacation.

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Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen

The Church of Our Lady of Carmen is in Playa del Carmen, about an hour away from the Hotel Zone in Cancun by bus or car. The church manages to be small yet grand with its unique design, and the tall, white outer walls make it picture-perfect as a wedding location.

They also hold an English service at 10 am on Sundays for travelers still struggling with the local language. Playa del Carmen itself is a beach town with a lot to offer, so you may consider sticking around for the rest of the day to enjoy a different kind of vibe from the Hotel Zone in Cancun.

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Foamy waves break on a green rocky coast under a blue sky with a few clouds
Isla Mujeres offers one of the best beaches in Mexico

Isla Mujeres

Just across Bahia de Mujeres (Bay of Women) from Cancun lies Isla Mujeres (Island of Women). Both the bay and island get their names by being sacred to Ixchel, the Mayan goddesses of the moon and fertility.

Here, you'll find a more laid-back getaway from the steady hum and busier landmarks of Cancun, and its Playa Norte is considered one of the best beaches in Mexico. Isla Mujeres offers more than relaxation, though, and visitors can enjoy water sports, marketplaces, and swimming with whale sharks.

One of the most fascinating places to visit here is the estate built by the famous pirate Fermin Mundaca as his luxurious home away from the high seas.

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Pelicans standing on a wooden pier over beautiful blue water on a nice day
Isla Contoy is home to the brown pelican and the double-crested cormorant

Isla Contoy

Isla Contoy is uninhabited by humans and has been protected by the Mexican government since 1961. It's an important preserve for migrating bird and fish species, such as the brown pelican and double-crested cormorant.

While there are no lodging options on the island, you can reserve your spot as one of only two hundred visitors allowed there per day. On-site biologists lead tours to bird-nesting locations, and you can stop to snorkel in the Ixlache Reef on your way there or back.

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Mayan Museum of Cancun

The Mayan Museum of Cancun, or Museo Maya de Cancun, opened its doors in 2012 to celebrate the once-powerful Mayan civilization and the historical places in Cancun.

The first room in the museum is dedicated specifically to local archaeology in Quintana Roo, moved here from places like El Meco, El Rey, and Centro Ceremonial Kohunlich.

The second room shares a more general history of the Mayan civilization, and the third room hosts a rotation of temporary exhibits. For this reason, only about 350 of the museum's 3,500 artifacts are on display at any particular moment.

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The ancient San Miguelito Ruins are one of the famous landmarks in Cancun, Mexico
The San Miguelito Ruins are a 200-acre site named after a coconut ranch

San Miguelito Archeological Site

The San Miguelito Ruins are located right next to the Mayan Museum of Cancun. The Mayan name has been lost, but the modern name comes from the San Miguel coconut ranch that operated on the site between 1950 and 1970.

There are four main groupings of the ruins: the North Complex, the Dragon Complex, Chaak Palace, and the South Complex. A north-south path connects the two-hundred-acre zone.

It typically takes about an hour to meander through its different sections and is one of the unique things to do in Cancun.

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A red and white striped lighthouse standing on a rocky cliff by the blue sea
Punta Cancun Lighthouse is 40-feet tall and the perfect spot to watch a sunset

Punta Cancun Lighthouse

Cancun, Mexico landmarks are famously photogenic, but this favorite of locals and tourists is especially beautiful and a great spot to catch a sunset.

The red-and-white striped Punta Cancun Lighthouse is found on a rocky outcrop and stands 40-feet tall at the far northern end of the Hotel Zone.

The external staircase spiraling its way to the top of the lighthouse does not reach the ground, however, and it's not accessible for tours.

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Tourists on a beautiful white sandy beach, with turquoise water, on a sunny day
You can relax on quiet beaches, explore Mayan ruins and swim with dolphins in Cozumel

Cozumel

Cozumel Island is one of the most visited ports for Caribbean cruise ships. As a port of call, there are many ready-made adventures and tours to be found that are designed to last for a few hours before getting guests back to their ships.

These activities include snorkeling or scuba diving in the coral reef, taking jeep tours of the island, and swimming with dolphins. This lines up well for daytrippers, but if you're staying nearby and can spend a little more time on the island, you'll find no shortage of things to do.

On the island's eastern and southern coasts, you can visit secluded beaches, find lesser-known Mayan ruins, see nesting turtles, and marvel at ocean blowholes.

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Distant view of old ruins on a rocky cliff, overlooking the blue ocean
The Tulum Mayan Ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Tulum Archaeological Zone

Perhaps the most famous of the historical landmarks in Cancun and Quintana Roo is the Tulum Mayan Ruins. A short road trip from Cancun, Tulum was a seaport specializing in jade and turquoise trade. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the top landmarks in North America.

The limestone walls that protected the important Mayan city are about a half-mile in perimeter and conclude at the Castillo. The Castillo backs up to the sea and is one of the largest and best-preserved Mayan ruins in their once expansive territory.

Visitors who climb the steep stairs of the Castillo are rewarded with an impressive panorama of crystal-blue waters, deep green jungle, and the worn-grey stones of the Maya.

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Sun rays passing through an underwater cave with divers exploring the area
Xplor Park is famous for its underground rivers, ziplining circuits, and ATV tours

Xplor Park

Another attraction in nearby Playa del Carmen is Xplor Park. Xcaret runs Xplor, but the less developed surroundings allow visitors to more fully experience one of the unique features of the Yucatan peninsula: cenotes.

Cenotes (say-NO-tays) are sinkholes or caverns filled with water, like underground lakes connected to an intricate system of subterranean rivers. The whole system is found lining the perimeter of the impact crater Chicxulub, formed by the meteorite credited with knocking out the dinosaurs.

Xplor Park also has two ziplining circuits and ATV paths through the jungle, and its nearby sister-site of Xel-Ha has a huge natural water park.

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Conclusion

Cancun is a popular destination for a good reason, with lots to see and do in and around the resort area. The all-inclusive resorts will let you sit back and not worry about a thing.

When you're feeling refreshed enough to go adventuring, the Yucatan peninsula awaits with adventure, beaches, and ruins.

This article was edited by Loredana Elena.

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Written by Andrew Sayles

atsayles WRITER Traveler, teacher, and blogger. I have lived in 5 countries, traveled to 60, and crisscrossed the continental US an unhealthy number of times.