If nothing else, Cancún is proof of Mexico’s remarkable ability to get things done in a hurry – so long as the political will exists. In the late 1960s, the Mexican government decided to develop a new resort area to diversify the economy. Computers crunched weather data, and surveyors scouted the country’s natural attractions to identify a 25-kilometre-long barrier island just off the northern Caribbean coast as the ideal combination of beautiful beaches, sparse population and accessible position.
Construction of the resort paradise began in 1970, and when the first hotel opened in 1974, it relied on a generator for electricity and trucked-in water. In the twenty-first century, Cancún has struggled to shed its reputation for tacky fun, and it has also successfully courted Mexican tourists. But it is facing a mild crisis as seasonal storms in recent years have significantly eroded parts of the beach, the city’s literal raison d’être. Independent travellers often find the glitz of the hotel strip off-putting and the beachfront pleasures expensive, and, for anyone who has been out in the rest of the Yucatán or is eager to get there, all the concrete can be a downer. But a night spent here on the way in or out doesn’t have to be wasted, so long as you appreciate the city as an energetic, successful frontier experiment, rather than lament its lack of history.
A closer look reveals lively salsa clubs, bare-bones beach bars and inexpensive taco stands, all frequented by cancunenses who are friendly and proud of their city’s prosperity.
Cancún has two parts: the zona comercial on the mainland (also called the centro or downtown), which has developed a bit of soul in its short lifetime, and the zona hotelera, a narrow, 25-kilometre-long barrier island lined with hotels and tourist amenities. It encloses a huge lagoon, so there’s water on both sides. Paseo Kukulcán runs the length of the hotel zone, from the airport up to Punta Cancún (where the road splits around the convention centre and a warren of nightclubs and bars) and back onto the mainland. From Punta Cancún it’s a half-hour bus ride to Avenida Tulum, the main avenue in the downtown area that runs north–south and eventually turns into Hwy-307, the highway that follows the length of the Caribbean coast.
The superb location of Cancún, its year-round mild climate, and its gorgeous, warm, sandy white beaches washed by the Caribbean Sea are ideal for water sports.
The waters of the bay sheltered by Isla Mujeres are calm and perfect for surfing, sailing, underwater diving and boat trips; those facing the open surf have stronger currents but are also suitable for fishing and snorkeling.
Cancun has a first rate tourist infrastructure and services. The most famous hotel chains in the world have combined luxury and comfort with hospitality and all of them offer access to tennis courts and relaxing spas.
Nightlife in Cancun’s hotel zone is extremely varied. You will find some of the largest discotheques in the world and restaurants with some of the world’s most famous chefs as well as fast-food outlets. If you are looking for a calmer atmosphere, there are jazz or piano bars, as well as those with traditional mariachi music.
The numerous marinas facilitate all kinds of aquatic activities in both the bay and Laguna Nichupte where we recommend you try kayaking.
Cancun has fascinating Mayan remains, as well as a museum displaying pieces from this culture. Its excellent overland and air links will whisk you to some of the most impressive places in the Mayan World in both Quintana Roo and neighboring state of Yucatan.
However, Cancun also has plazas and malls carrying everything from handicrafts from all over the country to an impressive array of imported goods.
The city and beaches:
There’s little in the way of sights in downtown Cancún, though it is a pleasant place to stroll in the evenings, particularly around the central Parque de las Palapas, which is ringed with food stalls and often serves as a venue for live music; smaller parks in the neighbourhood host craft or art shows. For a sense of the city’s hum away from the tourist trade, head for Mercado 23, north of the bus station off Avenida Tulum at Calle Cedro.
The market is a small maze of stalls with the flavour of a village market, complete with butchers, herbalists and vegetable sellers. The bigger Mercado 28, west from the park on Avenida Sunyaxchén, was formerly the city’s main general market, but now stocks primarily tourist tat; it’s good for food stalls, though. Most visitors head straight for the zona hotelera and the beaches. The public ones on the north coast of the zona hotelera – playas Las Perlas, Langosta and Tortugas are the nicest – face a bay, so the water is calm and very good for swimming; they can be crowded, however, and all have loud bars nearby.
On the east coast, playas Ballenas, Delfines and others have more surf and occasionally dangerous currents; between beach erosion and condo construction, some have become quite narrow, but Delfines is by far the most scenic. All are free, but you may have to pay a small charge for a shower.
You can see a small Maya ruin at El Rey, at Paseo Kukulcán km 18, overlooking the Nichupté Lagoon. They’re the largest Maya remains in Cancún, but that’s not saying a lot. There’s very little information available to explain them, but the area is peaceful and good for spotting birds and iguanas. The best snorkelling in Cancún is at Punta Nizuc, at the far southern point of the peninsula. Its coral has been damaged by unchecked crowds, but the array of fish is impressive. When you visit by boat, a national-park fee is charged. The typical outing is the so-called jungle tour, which entails riding two-passenger speedboats through lagoon mangroves, then out to the reef.
Eating and drinking
In downtown Cancún, the most popular eating-places line Tulum and its side streets. For budget food, follow the locals for lunch at the downtown markets: Mercado 28 and Mercado 23. At night, excellent food stalls at Parque de las Palapas serve open-face huaraches and quesadillas with an array of toppings; they’re open until about 11pm. Almost all of the restaurants in the zona hotelera are geared towards one thing only: parting tourists from their money. But the few recommended here are solidly delicious. If you’re staying on the beach, you’re often better off taking a cab or bus downtown, where you’ll find more satisfying food at reasonable prices, plus a congenial mix of people.
Entertainment and nightlife
As Cancún’s goal is to encourage some two million visitors a year to have fun, the zona hotelera’s array of huge dance clubs, theme bars and top-volume everything (most clustered around Punta Cancún and rolling from about 10pm till the wee hours) is lavish – or remorseless, depending on your mood. Downtown, people often dance on weekend evenings at the Parque de las Palapas to traditional Mexican music, and the stretch of Avenida Yaxchilán north of Sunyaxchén is a popular local hangout, with terrace restaurant-bars and karaoke open till 3am or 4am, all punctuated by roving trovadores.
Cancún has a dizzying number of hotels, but most are very expensive for the casual visitor. Downtown, on or near Avenida Tulum, holds the only hope of a true budget room; in the zona hotelera, you can stay on the lagoon side for less than in the glittering beachfront palaces – but last-minute or low-season online deals can be impressive. All-inclusive resorts are on the wane – if you do book one, don’t skimp, as the cheapest places are all very old constructions, and usually cut corners on food. Hostels are numerous, though generally poor quality, and some have quite short lifespans. The most reliable hotels for Cancún are listed here.