On a map, the 14-mile-long Isla Cancún looks like a giant number "7" jutting off from the historic mainland downtown into the Caribbean Sea.
These days, the island is the center of the city's tourism industry, earning it the descriptive-but-unsexy nickname "Zona Hotelera" (or Hotel Zone). But this label belies the natural charm that first drew developers here: clean, white-sand beaches, towering palm trees, and even a few ancient Mayan ruins. The island is so jam-packed with attractions, in fact, that it's easiest to think of it in two parts — the top of the 7 and the bottom. The top east-west expanse divides two unique bodies of water.
On the north sits the tranquil Bahia de Mujeres, calm and perfect for teaching your kids how to swim in the waves or even snorkel. This northern part of the island also lies closest to the historic churches, artisan markets, and local restaurants back on the mainland in historic downtown — a great spot to unwind if you can manage to pull yourself away from that white sand for a few hours. To the south is Laguna Nichupté, full of mangrove forests, coral reefs, and wildlife-watching opportunities.
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Cancún gives New Orleans a run for its money during its annual Carnaval celebration, a weeklong bacchanal before the start of Lent, typically at the end of February or beginning of March. Flamboyant parades, dance parties, fireworks, and concerts stretch into the wee hours of the morning every night for a week across downtown Cancún.
The tranquil waters of the Bahia de Mujeres are a great place to snorkel without fear of choppy waters or undertow, and if you come during the summer off-season, you'll practically have the reef all to yourself. Rent equipment with Scuba Cancun to explore on your own or take a guided two-hour trip for $29 per person.
On September 16, head across the bridge to the mainland to celebrate Mexican Independence Day, one of the country's biggest national holidays. Downtown Cancún erupts with block parties, parades, and open-air concerts, as locals take to the streets to celebrate freedom from Spain. Tulum Avenue, near City Hall, is closed off to traffic and decorated from top to bottom in the red, white, and green colors of Mexico's flag. It's a great starting point if you want to be in the thick of the celebrations. The party typically starts there on the night before with a fireworks display, mariachi music, and dancing.
Few places are better for lazy days of swimming than the bathtub-warm waters off of Playa Tortugas, or Turtles Beach. Watch for the blue-and-white "Beach Access" signs as you stroll along Boulevard Kukulcan, and you'll find this free, public beach. The waters here are shallow, calm, and perfect for introducing young kids to the ocean, especially during Cancún's dry season from November to April.