Cancun is the major tourist hub of the Yucatán. The city actually has two very distinct parts: the Downtown where the locals live and conduct their business and the Hotel Zone where almost all of the tourist amenities are located. The Hotel Zone is located on a narrow sandbar that juts into the Caribbean, which means there are ocean or lagoon views in every direction. This tiny strip of pearly white sand is fully developed with dozens of high-rise towers along the beaches, upscale shopping centers, and (apparently, as we don’t stay out very late to know for ourselves) a lively night-life. We ended up in Cancun by accident and, to my surprise, I loved it.
Cancun in Context
Until the 1970s, this narrow sandy strip was completely undeveloped and almost unknown. However, late in the 1960s the Mexican government identified Cancun as an ideal location to develop as a tourist destination. Plans for this new tourism center were approved in 1969 and included three facets:
- A tourist hotel zone with shopping centers, golf courses and marinas – but without any housing for permanent residents
- A full-service city for residents, with residential and commercial areas, roads, public buildings, schools, hospitals, and markets
- An international airport on the mainland south of the city
The project not only required the usual infrastructure (bringing in electricity over some distance and constructing water and sewage treatment systems), but it included dredging thousands of acres of mangroves to improve water flow in the lagoons and bringing in hundreds of acres of topsoil and fill. But with financial support from the government, the project moved right along. By 1974 the airport and four hotels opened; Cancun was up and running.
Today Cancun hosts over 3 million visitors each year. At the same time, the city’s permanent population has grown to over 800,000.
Cancun is one of those places I always swore I would avoid. Then I went there. Despite the monster hotels, luxury shopping malls, and all the other things I hate about over-developed tourist ghettos. . . I loved Cancun. The beach here is that beautiful. The fact that this stunning beach is completely lined with towers just makes its beauty all the more surreal.
I ended up here sort of by accident (we saved a lot on our rental car by renting in Hotel Zone, rather than at the airport), but it won’t be an accident next time. I can’t wait to see that beach again.
- Kitesurfers Along the Beach
- I Think I’ll Just Stay Right Here for the Rest of the Trip
Although access to the beach may be limited by the development that surrounds it, once you reach the beach you can walk along it for miles without impediment. Note, however, that beach-side lounge chairs and other facilities are only available to hotel guests and restaurant customers. . . so stop in for lunch or Happy Hour and enjoy the view.
Like most tourists here, I never saw the actual town of Cancun. The original plan for the city (apparently abandoned after Hurricane Gilbert in 1988) called for an unusual street layout with trapezoidal mega blocks intersected by U-shaped residential streets. It sounds like a place every city planner should see, and I look forward to doing so on my next trip. . . assuming I can tear myself away from that glorious beach.
Other activities we didn’t do, but will try to get to next time:
- Wander El Centro, the commercial hub of Downtown Cancun, where the restaurants offer local favorites and the shops offer local goods
- Snorkel at the Underwater Museum, sculptor Jason de Caires Taylor’s combination reef restoration/art project
- Sip a late night cocktail at a bar along the beach and then follow the moonlit beach back to my hotel
- View Mayan artifacts inside the Mayan Museum of Cancun and then wander the lush grounds
The boat to Isla Mujeres departs from Cancun, but that deserves to be more than a day-trip. Likewise, it is possible to visit Tulum, Chichèn Itzá, Cobá, and a variety of self-described “eco-parks” from Cancun, but visits to Tulum and Chichèn Itzá are so much better if you stay nearby and get there early in the morning. As fun as Cancun is, there is a LOT more to Mexico!
Whatever you do in Cancun, please do me and dolphins everywhere a favor and do NOT visit institutions that treat dolphins as entertainment or playmates. These activities are highly stressful for the dolphins involved. Worse, they lead to a continuing demand for dolphins that is too-often met through the brutal capture of wild dolphins. Even if the park you want to visit doesn’t use captured dolphins, they are still complicit in the continued capture of dolphins for other parks. If you still aren’t convinced, check out the nausea-inducing videos on the Sea Shepherd’s Cove Guardian website. I have a friend who has seen this first-hand – this is what really happens. And you are supporting it when you visit dolphin parks and shows.
Getting to and Around Cancun
Most visitors arrive in Cancun via the city’s international airport. Package tours should provide transfers to/from the airport and your hotel. Independent travelers should check to see if their hotel has a shuttle, as most seem to. If you are being picked up by a shuttle and the driver is not meeting you inside the terminal, move as quickly as you can to exit the terminal. This requires moving through a barrage of helpful “tourist agents” who happily provide you with maps and other useful information before trying to talk you into the “special deal” they have available. Remember that any deal too good to be true is and, if you miss your shuttle, you might need to arrange your own transport.
Taxi fare from the airport to the Punta is around $20 US.
There is really only one road through the Hotel Zone and no spot is more than a couple blocks wide, so getting lost shouldn’t be too much of a concern.
The northern part of the Hotel Zone (around and including the Punta) is densely developed, making it relatively easy and enjoyable to walk or grab the local bus to get around. However, this is not true for those staying in expansive all-inclusive resorts in other areas, where the distances are greater and there are fewer restaurants and shops nearby.
Buses in the Hotel Zone run 24 hours a day, are inexpensive, and stop regularly.
Wherever you stay, your hotel should be able to arrange transportation and tours for you. You will pay a premium for this, but it is convenient.
You don’t need a car to get around in Cancun. However, if you will be leaving Cancun to visit other areas of the Mexican Yucatán, you should consider renting from an office in the Hotel Zone instead of the airport. We saved considerable money renting out of the Isla Shopping Plaza (Alamo, in our case, but Hertz, Avis, and others had offices here as well) instead of the airport. Rent your car well in advance (the number of cars available in the Hotel Zone is quite limited) and pick it up when you are ready to head out of town.
Lodging in Cancun
There are three locations for lodging in Cancun. The hotel zone on the peninsula is the most popular for visitors from the north. Cheaper options can be found in downtown and near the airport.
In the Hotel Zone
The Hotel Zone is completely dedicated to the needs of Cancun’s millions of tourists. Built on a 14-mile sand island/spit with the Caribbean Ocean on one side and the freshwater Nichupté Lagoon on the other, the best hotels sit directly on the white sands of the Caribbean and have stunning views of the water. When traveling into the Hotel Zone from the airport, the closer you get to the Punta (the point or tip of the sandbar), the more the density increases. In this area it is relatively easy to walk or take the local bus from your hotel to any number of shops, restaurants, and bars. Those staying at the more expansive all-inclusive resorts closer to the mainland are likely to find they need a taxi to visit destinations beyond the confines of their resort.
Hotel prices in Cancun seemed a bit high for Mexico, but there is a variety of lodging available in Cancun. While true “budget” accommodations may be hard to find in the Hotel Zone (I don’t think the Mexican government was looking for ways to attract backpackers when they dreamed up Cancun), there are hotels at a wide range of price-points. All-inclusive resort hotels seem to be the norm for package tours here, but I’d avoid them in favor of a standard hotel. There is no shortage of restaurants in the Hotel Zone and they are easy to reach if you choose a hotel where you can walk or bus along the peninsula’s one main road. That also gives you an excuse to take in the Hotel Zone’s exuberant, completely overbuilt tropical streetscape.
Remember that the Hotel Zone is surrounded by water. Upgrading to a room on a higher floor, even if it doesn’t directly face the Caribbean, will likely yield a view of water somewhere in the distance.
We stayed at the Krystal Grand Punta. While we weren’t there long enough to check out much of the surrounding area, the hotel sat on a gorgeous section of beach and we had lovely distant views (along with construction noise) from our room.
- Krystal Grand Punta Cancun
Near the Airport
If you are only going to be in Cancun for a night (say before an early morning flight), then it makes the most sense to stay near the airport. (It can easily take a half-hour or more to reach the airport from various destinations in the Hotel Zone.) There are a couple of options available; there are fewer than one would expect in a destination of this size. (Obviously no one comes to Cancun for a meeting at an airport hotel!) We stayed at the very affordable Airport Comfort Inn. The hotel was simple, but clean with large, comfortable rooms and free wifi. They have a free airport shuttle, which must be reserved ahead and doesn’t wait very long at the airport, so allow plenty of time to pick up your luggage and get through immigration, customs, and the swarm of timeshare salesmen between you and the shuttle parking area.
Dining in Cancun
We were only in the Hotel Zone for one night and ate at our hotel. We saw lots of restaurants, so there seem to be a wealth of options spread through the more heavily developed sections of the Hotel Zone.