I just got back from two wonderful weeks in Mexico visiting my dad and his gigantic side of the family for the holidays. As part of that trip, we went to Cancun for New Year’s and a week of outdoor adventures. For those who haven’t been, Cancun has a great mix of ancient archaeological wonders, alongside beautiful cenotes for swimming, amazing snorkeling, and gorgeous beaches. This was my 4th time visiting so I’ve finally put together a travel guide on what to pack for Cancun in the winter.
Beyond packing, I really wanted to share all of my thoughts on the best things to do and places to stay in Cancun. Plus, my tips for getting around, what to skip, and how to keep your hair looking fresh. This post is long so click below if you want to skip to any specific section:
- What to Pack for Cancun
- What NOT to Pack
- Beauty Tips for Cancun
- What To Do in Cancun
- What NOT to do in Cancun
- Where to Stay
- General Cancun Tips
What To Pack For Cancun In Winter
During winter, when I went, it gets up to a luxurious 80 degrees if the sun is shining. If there is cloud cover during the day or if you’re in the shade, the temperature drops to 65 degrees. You also get 65-degree evenings. It can get even chillier if you are on a boat with the wind blowing on an overcast day. And let’s not forget there can be some tropical rain. It sprinkled heavily on two days of my recent 7-day trip there. Thankfully, the rain didn’t affect the temperature much. With these weather conditions in mind, here’s what to pack for Cancun in the winter…
What To Pack For Cancun: Multiple Swimsuits
Pack no less than 3 swimsuits for a week-long trip. It takes two days for a swimsuit to dry in tropical climates, such as Cancun, and nothing is more uncomfortable than climbing into a wet swimsuit. I packed two bikinis and a one-piece for my trip. I wish I had also packed my long-sleeved swimsuit for my days at the cenote and the Xplor adventure park.
What To Pack For Cancun: Long Sleeve One-Piece Swimsuit
Material: 85% recycled nylon, 15% elastane
What To Pack For Cancun: Rash Guards
If you want to be in the water for over an hour, and you want more versatility than a long sleeve swimsuit, you will need a rash guard for warmth and sun protection. Also, you’re not allowed to wear sunscreen if swimming in a cenote, so if you’re concerned about sun protection you’ll definitely want a rash guard or long sleeve swimsuit.
What To Pack For Cancun: Waterproof Hat
Make sure you bring a hat that won’t be blown off by the wind on a boat, aka a hat with a chin strap or a snug-fitting ball cap with a hole in the back for you to put your hair through. This hat is available at Nordstrom and Amazon.
Material: 52% polyester, 36% cotton, 12% spandex
What To Pack For Cancun: Sunglasses
If you like snorkeling or scuba diving, it’s definitely worth the investment to purchase your own snorkel and mask rather than renting one when you travel.
What To Pack For Cancun: Waterproof Phone Necklace
Even if you don’t want to trust this waterproof phone case to keep your phone safe while swimming, you’ll still want this water protection when you throw your phone in your backpack, board a little boat, and head out snorkeling.
What To Pack For Cancun: Water Resistant or Dry-bag Backpack
If you’re jumping from boat to boat for snorkeling tours, you don’t want to have to worry about your stuff getting wet.
What To Pack For Cancun: Lightweight Water Shoes
Water shoes are a must for protecting your feet from rocks when visiting the cenotes.
What To Pack For Cancun: Waterproof Sandals and Shoes
Sizing: Run small, if you fit between sizes, size up. 5-11M.
Material: Synthetic upper, lining and sole
What To Pack For Cancun: Water-friendly Shorts
Athleta’s Crossroads shorts are so easy to throw on over a bikini! I cannot rave enough about the ease and style of these shorts. Plus they have a zipper pocket that I used constantly for items I didn’t want to lose, like my room key, handkerchief, credit card, ID, and cash. Unfortunately, Athleta no longer sells them, but Poshmark has a bunch of them.
Material: Recycled Polyester, Spandex
What To Pack For Cancun: Lululemon Workout Leggings
Lululemon Fast and Free leggings are a versatile water-friendly legging. I used these constantly. I wore them in the water on cold days, to the gym for my workouts, and on the plane for travel. A fantastic purchase and a versatile item to pack for visiting Cancun in the winter. (You can read my full review of these amazing leggings in my post on The Best Workout Leggings.)
Material: 84% Nylon, 16% Lycra elastane
What To Pack For Cancun: Throw on Dress, Jumpsuit, or Caftan
You definitely want to bring a throw-on maxi dress, caftan, or jumpsuit for hanging around your lodgings. Whether you are at a resort, hotel, or Airbnb, you will want to throw on a dress in the morning when you go into public for your breakfast. I wore the same Balinese parachute jumpsuit every morning to grab breakfast with my fellow guests at All Ritmo. This dress is available at Nordstrom, Shopbop, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and FRWD.
Sizing: S-XL, Petite available
Material: 55% cotton, 45% viscose
What To Pack For Cancun: A Midi Dress
If you’re doing some slightly dressier exploring of Cancun with a lot of walking, you will want a midi dress. The length will give you some coverage, but the hem won’t drag on the ragged streets or get caught on the many stairs that take you to the beaches, restaurants, etc.
Material: 100% rayon
What To Pack For Cancun: A Maxi Dress
I love a maxi dress because it protects your legs from the sun and can warm you when the temperature drops in the evening.
Material: modal, viscose.
What To Pack For Cancun: Versatile Lightweight Cardigan
You will need a little coverage in the evening, but you don’t want anything bulky that will take up space if you need to shove it into your purse, backpack, or what have you. Select a color that will go with most everything you packed. This cardigan is available at Nordstrom, Anthropologie, Zappos, Paige and Revolve.
Material: 52% acrylic, 28% polyester, 20% nylon
What To Pack For Cancun: Reef-Safe Sunscreen
What To Pack For Cancun: Hand Sanitizer
I don’t go anywhere without a hand sanitizing spray since the pandemic. In Mexico, it is even more vital. You never know when there will be access to water and soap, and many of the bathrooms at tourist spots or beach hangouts will not have it. Fun fact: the day I flew out of the Cancun airport, there was no running water in any of the bathrooms at Terminal 2!
What Not To Pack For Cancun In Winter
- Heels: Although I did see quite a few ladies wearing heels and wedges at my resort, I would never recommend packing any kind of elevated footwear for Cancun. It’s all about water sport shoes and sandals. If you do plan on doing some nicer activities at night, a nicer flat sandal will do nicely. As you can see in my picture below, I wore some flat black sandals on New Year’s Eve which I ended up throwing off anyway since we were at a beach party.
- Silk: Skip any materials that can wrinkle easily or stain.
- Expensive Jewelry: Generally, I recommend skipping your fine jewelry for Cancun. The risk of losing it on the beach or to petty theft is too high.
Beauty Tips for Cancun in Winter
- Wear your hair in a braid for all water, boat, and snorkel activities. This will protect your hair from tangles and damage. I wish I had understood this years ago. I have lost so much hair to snorkel masks and wild boat rides.
- Pack enough hair conditioner for daily use. Your hair will need it after all the seawater and sun damage each day. For maximum moisture, get your hair wet and condition it before and after getting into the sea.
- The water is amazing for my acne-prone skin. I forgot my face wash in Mexico City, and I was able to get away with not washing my face (only one little blemish showed up). This same water can dry out my body’s skin though if I don’t rinse it off, so I recommend you rinse your face, hair, and body after getting out of the water, or in the shower back at your lodgings before bed.
- Use a vitamin B+ C serum each night, and apply plenty of reef-friendly sunscreen each morning. If you use retinol make sure to apply it at night rather than in the morning and be extra vigilant with the sunscreen since it can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Or just take a break from using it while you’re there, like I did.
What To Do In Cancun In Winter
Swim in the Cenotes – Must do!
Cenotes are natural pits, aka sinkholes, that form in the ground and fill up with groundwater turning them into stunning places to swim and explore. They had spiritual significance for the Mayans, and there are thousands of cenotes in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula where Cancun is. We went to Cenote Azul on New Year’s Day. Only my family and three other people were there when we arrived at 10:30 am, which is unheard of. Cenotes are usually a zoo if you don’t arrive first thing at 9 am. We really lucked out. If you are in Cancun for New Year’s, New Year’s Day is the BEST day for tourist activities.
What To Pack for Cenotes:
- Lightweight water shoes: The steps are slippery, the moss on the rocks is slippery, and there are a lot of rocks that will scratch your feet as you walk around.
- Your own quality snorkel if you don’t want to rent a cheapy one
- A rash guard and leggings if you run cold, or if want more protection from rocks, branches, and random scuffs that nature will throw your way. The cenotes can also get a bit cold since the water is shaded by rocks, land, and the surrounding jungle.
- Note: Don’t wear sunscreen or bug repellent in a cenote. They do not allow it. Everyone must shower and soap up before getting into the cenote to protect the habitat. This is where a rash guard or long-sleeved swimsuit can really help protect you from the sun. You may also want a waterproof hat to protect your face from the sun, but keep in mind, there is lots of shade from the surrounding jungle.
There are dozens of cenotes within a 3-hour drive of Cancun (some are as close as 30 minutes away). I plan to do a cenote day at some point to discover as many as I can. My cousin Paolo says they are all different.
Explore Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is about a 2.5-hour drive from Cancún and the pyramids are absolutely striking. I recommend you explore this former Mayan city in its entirety. But it is very touristy, so you must go first thing in the morning on a weekday to avoid the major crowds. Going early also makes it the ideal activity for a hot or cold day. If it’s hot, the early morning hour will protect you from extreme heat, while on a cold day, it will give you something amazing to do while you wait for the sun to heat up the water in the nearby Ik Kil cenote. This famous cenote is less than 15 minutes from the pyramids.
Tip: Make sure to pee before you get into the site. It is huge and has only one bathroom at the beginning — use it!
Zipline & ATV at Xplor Adventure Park
Xplor is an all-inclusive jungle adventure park. We arrived at lunchtime for the food (the buffet that comes with your ticket purchase was fantastic), hit the zip lines, did the ATV experience, and spent our last hour exploring the caves before being kicked out at 5 pm. It was hands down the best zip line experience of my life, I loved the ATV experience, and realizing that most of the park is built into these gorgeous natural caves blew my mind.
If you want to explore the whole park, which also includes a massive waterslide and stalactite river, among other things, make sure to arrive early in the morning. I also highly recommend visiting Xplor on New Year’s Day. All of Cancun’s natural parks are open, and the holiday massively reduces the crowds.
You are rarely in the sun at this park. It is mostly underground caves and has heavy tree cover. In December, I found myself getting quite cold in just my one-piece bathing suit. I recommend wearing swim shorts and a rash guard or some kind of waterproof get-up that will keep you warm and protect your tush on the ziplines. Definitely wear your hair in a braid. This hairstyle was required for the ziplines, and it is simply efficient at protecting your hair during all the adventures.
Also, get ready to walk. All the Cancun natural parks are massive, and you will get your steps in at Xplor, especially if you do the ziplines. You will climb up stairs, walk up steep hills, and log thousands of steps.
They do not allow your cell phone on the zip line experience, which takes about 30 minutes. If you want your cell phone on your person for the rest of the park, you definitely need a waterproof phone necklace. I forgot mine, so I put my cell phone in a locker. I was so sad I couldn’t log my steps that day — it was easily 10,000!
Visit the Tulum Archaeological Site
The Tulum archaeological site is a former Mayan city that sits up on the cliffs. The view is incredible and it’s very cool to see. While you’re there, you must go to Playa Santa Fe and rent a boat ride to take you to see the ruins from the sea. After viewing the ruins, they take you snorkeling, which was wonderful. There were so many massive manta rays and sting rays — eek! But they don’t bother you. There was also some delightful coral and fish. This was the best snorkeling we did while there. You can purchase a short experience, or a longer one from a shanty on the beach. We purchased ours from a random man in a yellow tourist shirt when we were driving into the archaeological site, miles away, which confused me, but my Dad was on a roll talking away and buying experiences I didn’t understand. In the end, it was well worth it, and one of the most fun days of my trip.
Tip: Make sure to pee before you get into the site. It is huge and has no bathroom. I am mortified to admit I had to pee in a bush — a handful of feet from a relic!
It was lovely celebrating the New Year with my family on the All Ritmo resort beach (full hotel review below). There was classic party music and a gorgeous ambiance since we were directly next to the water and a small marina. Every single resort had fireworks (and parties), so it was a magical midnight when each resort set off their sparkly display. As for the All Ritmo demographic, there were quite a few families that included young children and grandparents, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this resort for a hip couple wanting to be around a bunch of other hip couples. But I had a great time with my 71-year-old father, his partner, my young brother, and his girlfriend.
What to Skip in Cancun
Playa del Carmen: I personally don’t recommend going there as I found it very busy and touristy. If you have rented a car, parking is awful, and the traffic is crazy. Maybe it was because we went on a Friday, but it was absolutely insane and I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.
Isla Mujeres: Isla Mujeres is an island located off the coast of Cancun. Compared to all the amazingness of Cancun and Tulum, I was not impressed by Isla Mujeres. The underwater museum was cool, but the snorkeling by the Tulum ruins was better. This could have been because we didn’t book the right tour, but based on my experience I would recommend skipping it.
Where to Stay in Cancun: All Ritmo Review
We stayed at the competitively priced All Ritmo resort for a week. It is a 25-minute drive from the Cancun airport and a 20-minute walk from the Puerto Juarez port, which is where you catch the Ultramar ferry to Isla Mujeres. There was also a boat tour available directly next to the resort that I would have liked to have tried, but ran out of time.
The rooms were great with an incredible view and the service is solid. They have four different restaurants on site, but I would say the food selection was just “acceptable,” which is fine for me since I prefer to be out on excursions and often eat away from the resort. Their breakfast was so useful though. I loved starting each day with eggs, chiliquiles, beans, and fruit — they did all this perfectly!
Unfortunately, the ocean swimming in front of the resort was not great, and there is no comfortable path to run on along the beach, although it is fine to walk on if you don’t mind getting your feet wet where the beach becomes very short.
In short, All Ritmo is a solid option for those who want a quality resort experience in Cancun on a budget.
General Cancun Tips
1. Transportation: Rent a Car!
Traffic can be harsh in tourist areas! Start early, and plan accordingly. Weekends are especially hectic.
In terms of getting around, there are expensive taxis, Uber works (but they are not allowed to go to resorts or the airport), and a lot of the tours include shuttles or large coaches. But if you love adventures on your own time, like me, you must rent a car. Hertz was good and conveniently located at the airport. Definitely get the rental insurance. We blew out both tires because of a broken grate in the road alongside 12 other cars. It was one of those waking nightmares, but thankfully we got full insurance, with no deductible, and were only 10 minutes from the airport when it happened. A tow truck came, picked us up with the car and took us to the Hertz section of the airport, and we were back on the road in a new car within an hour.
For local rides, Cancun buses are easy to grab and a fun local experience. There are no seatbelts and you will ride with the workers of the city. They are white vans with red writing on them. The ride costs 10 pesos. It was a great way for us to skip the 20-minute walk to Puerto Juarez from All Ritmo, where we were staying. It appeared to me that there were no actual bus stops. You just flag the buses down, and then yell, “Bajan!” when you want to get off.
Anytime you see an available bathroom, use it! Outside of your lodgings, you never know when you will get access to another one. It is also a good idea to have extra tissue in your bag in case the bathroom does not have any, which it regularly does not. This is also helpful when you pass by one of the many bathroom attendants and you don’t have change to tip them. I don’t like accepting their tissues if I don’t tip them. Also, some bathrooms require payment for use. Keep 1 peso and 5 peso coins around for this purpose.