Founded in 1970, Cancun has quickly become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mexico. Originally built as a resort, the city is known as a party location and is particularly popular from February to April for Spring Break.
However, Cancun is much more than a series of well-planned parties. The city and the wider Riviera Maya area is actually steeped in a deep history with culture and traditions well worth exploring if you plan to travel to the region.
We think anyone coming to Cancun should at least experience some of what makes this place so special. So that’s why we’ve put together this guide to all that Cancun culture has to offer in terms of food, customs, and history.
Explore Local Cancun Culture and Customs
Designed for tourists, it can be hard to find legitimate local culture in Cancun. Being built as a resort city means that a lot of its amenities are designed to benefit foreigners rather than local citizens. However, there are still pockets of genuine Cancun culture to explore.
1. Mora Mora
If you’re looking for local music with good food and heat that builds, Mora Mora is perfect. Open from 5PM to 1AM, you can arrive for dinner and then be treated to music from local musicians with styles ranging from jazz to trap music to hip-hop. This establishment really highlights modern local Cancun nightlife.
The people here are extremely nice, the food is great, and it’s great fun. What’s even cooler is that it’s more or less hidden from view underground, which makes it a challenge to find. But with the music and partial art gallery contained within, it’s worth the effort to find it.
2. Teatro Xbalamque
An independent theatre, Teatro Xbalamque offers intimate musicals, comedies, and monologues that are loved by locals. They are all in Spanish, so you get a genuine insight into arts and culture in Cancun.
The small and intimate space is largely visited by locals, so you know that what you’re getting is legitimate and of good quality. The Google reviews are largely positive and supportive of the small establishment.
3. Local Art Galleries
If you’re someone who likes finding those perfect items to immortalize your trip, supporting local creators and sellers is the way to go. Cancun has a variety of art galleries that feature local artists and some sell art that you can take with you on your way home.
Key art galleries include Galeria Balance Cancun, which largely features paintings, and Antaras Onix, which has a large collection of sculptures. Smaller galleries like Tierra Huichol and Plaza 28 also exist for you to peruse and, hopefully, support local.
4. Cultural Festivals
Cancun has a variety of festivals spanning the entire year, highlighting history, culture, music, and foods. Planning your trip around such festivals isn’t the worst idea.
Carnaval: Along with most other places in the world that celebrate Carnaval, Cancun’s festival takes place during February or March. There’s plenty of parties and five days of parades that include amazing floats full of locals who are happy to party in their brightly colored dress and masks. Carnaval is a great introduction into Mexican culture.
Spring Equinox at Chichen Itza: Around March 20th every year, the spring equinox happens. It’s the day the sun shines directly on the equator and the day and night are roughly equal lengths. At Chichen Itza, a little way outside of Cancun, the sun creates a snake-shaped shadow on the temple of Kukulkan, the serpent god. Both locals and tourists gather for this unique sight. It’s a great way to experience Cancun culture.
Dia de los Muertos: Mexico’s most famous festival, the Day of the Dead takes place a couple of days after Halloween. The day is meant to bridge the gap between those in families who are living and dead. While sometimes mistaken as a celebration of the morbid, the festival is actually very spiritual and emotional. It’s also filled with color and altars set up to honor the dead. In the Yucatan Peninsula, you’ll also find the Maya tradition of Halan Pixan, the offering of regional foods and tequila to the dead.
Historical Exploration of the Maya People in Cancun
Cancun has a rich Maya history that extends well before its founding years. It was originally known as Nizuc by the Maya inhabitants, most of whom died as a result of the Spanish Conquest and the disease, warfare, piracy, and famines that accompanied it. It’s largely a sad history from this point. Before then, the Maya people were spread throughout Mesoamerica, the largest group located in the Yucatan Peninsula where we find Cancun.
Because of this amazing local history, there are several things to see and do that give you a greater insight into how the locals celebrate life.
1. Parque Nacionel Isla Contoy
Located on Isla Contoy, this national park is not your typical destination for Cancun history. You won’t find any ruins, and you certainly will not find the place crawling with tourists!
However, it has a history of use dating back to 300 BC as a fishing resource and a place to collect various objects like shells and stingray spines used for rituals, jewelry, and small tools. It was never a permanent settlement though. The only known structure is that of a Maya shelling station that is now in ruins. With the arrival of the conquistadors, it became a resting point for those plundering and exploring the area.
With an interesting array of birdlife, the government of Mexico declared the island a nature reserve, which was the first to be founded in the Yucatan Peninsula. The only way to get there is through a guided tour from Cancun or nearby Isla Mujeres, but there are limited operators allowed and a limit of 200 people allowed in the park per day.
If you’re able to go, you’ll have a great glimpse into the past and how the region might have looked long before human development. (Recommended: The Common, Rare & Dangerous Animals in Cancun You Might Meet!).
2. Museo Maya de Cancun
Where better to learn about local history than in a local museum? The most popular museum in Cancun is Museo Maya. Along with beautiful exhibits of history and art, you’ll also find one of the best collections of Maya artifacts from nearby archaeological sites. One of the most interesting parts of the museum is its integration with the jungle around it.
Behind the museum, you’ll find a winding path that leads towards the San Miguelito ruins. Once a maritime community, San Miguelito was a strategic port that flourished between 1200 and 1350 CE. Small plaques around the site explain the importance of the ruins, an 8-metre-high pyramid.
If you’re wanting to learn more about the history of the Maya people or want to see specific exhibits, this is a necessary stop on your travels!
3. Various Archaeological Sites
Cancun and the surrounding area is steeped in archaeology. In fact, various archaeology tours exist that will bring you from site to site. Most of the sites feature temples in the form of pyramids synonymous with the Maya culture, but you’ll also find unique structures and insights into history of which you may have been otherwise unaware.
To get the full experience of Maya culture and history, it’s best to hire a tour company whose guides are known for their knowledge. It’s all well and good to visit on your own, but you’ll miss out on firsthand knowledge from people who not only live in the area and explore history for a living, but who may also be descended from the Maya people!
Foods in Cancun
Mexican food is popular worldwide, especially in the form of tacos, burritos, and nachos, but that doesn’t mean the world always gets it right. If you’re going to spend time in Cancun, why not make sure you get the best food? These restaurants are the top-rated hidden gems for quality Mexican food that even locals gush about.
1. Loncheria El Pocito
This small restaurant is located in a small Cancun neighborhood away from the hustle and bustle of tourism. Hailed by customers returning year after year, their Yucatecan cuisine is about as good as you can get in Cancun.
And it isn’t just the food that makes it great either. It’s the atmosphere. If you’re looking for high-end design and comfort, you’re better-served elsewhere. Folding chairs and plastic tablecloths are what you’ll find at Loncheria El Pocito, but it’s often these kinds of restaurants where the quality of the cuisine is above the rest.
2. La Bamba Mex Seafood
For those seafood lovers among us, this restaurant is small but mighty with visitors returning multiple times during their stay in Cancun. Food is prepared and served with a simple but elegant flair that will have you wondering if your tacos should always look so pretty.
While it’s hailed as having the best seafood, for those less into fish, there are delicious non-fish options on the menu so that everyone can enjoy this spot.
3. Calypso’s Mexican Restaurant
With twenty years of business, Calypso’s is run by fun people who appreciate each and every visitor. With more great seafood options along with foods for those who are seafood-averse, this restaurant is great for a family staying in Cancun.
And the décor plays into the theme of fun and color that you find a lot around Cancun. With orange walls, multi-colored table coverings, and a collection of fun wall decorations, you’ll feel like you stepped into an entirely different world that somehow fits just right.
Local Places to Stay
If you want to get insight into living local, looking for homestays or other unique types of accommodation outside of the hotel strips will help you achieve that. Because Cancun was built as a resort though, staying in a hotel is honestly just as ‘local’ as staying in a home. That being said, here are three types of local stays available in or around Cancun.
There are several homestays available in Cancun where you stay in a room within a family’s house, interacting with a family as much or as little as you want (though if you’re choosing a homestay, interacting with the family seems like an important part of that!).
Most will offer you hotel-like amenities with the friendly insight into the best things to do around the city – the way only a local knows. Some of the more highly recommended homestays are Casa Xpuhil, Mariposas Rooms, and Casa Bonita SM31.
2. Guest Houses
Like homestays, there are plenty of guesthouses available in Cancun. The difference is getting an entire home to yourself, usually in the local style.
The guest house may be located on the same land as a family home but is more likely to be an entity all of its own within a local community. You may gain some insight into the everyday lives of locals as a result.
Some of the more highly rated guest houses are Habitacion Privada en el Centro de Cancun, Casa Tropical, and Casa Bugambillas.
3. Bed and Breakfasts
Like homestays, bed and breakfasts offer a little personal touch from the owners. Some of the higher-end ones may also have the feeling of a hotel at a fraction of the price. Be prepared for similar amenities, with some even having private pools for you to use – perfect for those hotter Cancun days.
The most popular bed and breakfasts right now are Casa Kin33, Bed and Breakfast Pecari, and Cielito Lindo, all which, of course, have breakfast included in the price of the stay. No more worrying about where to get breakfast in the morning!
Our Final Thoughts
Whatever you do in Cancun and wherever you stay, we hope this guide has helped you start the planning process. Make the most out of your trip by diving into Cancun culture, cuisine, and history so that you can return home with a new view of Mexico and an urge to go back.