While many travelers from all over the world today are avoiding the troubled border between the United States and Mexico, the latter nation’s wildly popular international tropical playgrounds remain active and enticing to the savvy visitor. This is certainly true when it comes to Cancun, which, along with Acapulco, makes up the most popular tourist destination in Mexico. Cancun sits on the northeast coast of the state of Quintana Roo in far southern Mexico and is well over 1,500 miles from Mexico City.
Designation as a major international tourist site did not come randomly or organically to Cancun. Instead, the Mexican government inspired by international development authorities decided to transform what was then a sleepy fisherman’s village surrounded by virgin forest into a tourism mecca. The plan worked and in addition to being one of the most popular Latin American tourist destinations, Cancun’s successful re-visioning and development has been lauded by entities such as the World Tourism Organization.
Perhaps ironically, Cancun’s historic significance is linked directly to its role in tourism, having been a little-visited site during much of the European influenced history of the Yucatan region. However, years before that the island was home to some of the Maya people who were early inhabitants of the region. The name ‘Cancun’ is believed to have been derived from the Mayan tongue although that remains unclear. Today, not only is Cancun a gateway to many Maya ruins and historic sites; but visitors are very likely to hear native local residents conversing in Mayan.
Access to Maya history is just one appeal of Cancun. It’s water sports and activities are considered some of the best in the hemisphere, resorts and nightlife abound, and the city has a keenly developed cuisine representative of fascinating cultural influences. Modern Cancun is a well-rounded international playground.
Getting There and Around
Cancun is connected by Cancun International Airport to airlines from around the world. Once in Cancun, the easiest ways to get around are buses and taxis. A regularly scheduled bus zips between the airport and downtown and from downtown, buses are available to virtually anywhere. Still it takes time to learn to use Mexican public transit so cabs can be the wisest choice. Taxis are ubiquitous but rates can be a tricky negotiation. Check your hotel for a chart of traditional rates and for recommendations on taxis.
Most hotels, resorts and attractions in the city are located within Cancun’s Hotel Zone. Since the town really only grew up around the contemporary tourism market, there is little historic about the city itself and most visitors have little inclination to visit outside the Hotel Zone, except to visit specific restaurants, clubs or shops. While Cancun has largely avoided the problems facing other parts of Mexico, particular precautions are always best taken when exploring the greater Cancun region.
The Sun and the Sea
Cancun’s azure waters and sandy white beaches are its primary appeal and many activities here revolve around these assets — and of course, around the Great Mesoamerican Reef which is the second largest reef in the world. With more than 14 miles of white powdery sand beach and the spectacular reef, Cancun watersports are an enthusiast’s dream. Whether you want to windsurf, parasail, or learn to scuba dive, Cancun is the perfect watersports destination. Professional guides, instructors and equipment rental and sales shops are located throughout the city. There are more than 25 professional watersports centers in the city and they are generally well-equipped and staffed by professionals who are used to dealing with sophisticated global travelers.
Cancun institutions such as Aquaworld and Aquafun offer diverse lineups of tours and waverunner rentals, and the Marina & Yacht Club hosts its highly regarded Jungle Tour. Snorkeling and Scuba outfitters and dive boats are ubiquitous in Cancun and some of the favored underwater sites include Punta Cancun, El Garrafon National Park and Puerto Morelos. Cenote or Cave Diving has become increasingly popular and the region is rich with undersea caves and crevasses to explore.
Although the sportfishing in Cancun is famed around the world, fewer people know that the lagoon system around Cancun offers the angler all year round opportunities to catch and release a great variety of species such as tarpon, bonefish, barracuda, sea trout, and red snapper. Fly fishing can be done in the sea, lakes, lagoons or rivers and is done in shallow, clear waters using artificial bait called a fly. You can book fly fishing lessons with one of the many tour operators.
Dolphinaris Cancun is just one of the area operations that allows guests to interact and swim with Dolphins – one of the highlights of any Cancun visit for many.
Parasailing and horseback riding (Bonanza Ranch’s jungle and waterside riding are highly praised) are just a few of the other sporting opportunities that take advantage of the natural splendor of Cancun. Adventure and eco-tourism experiences do as well. Among the most attractive options are visiting Xplor, a unique underground world formed by a massive asteroid 65 million years ago. Rio Secreto by Alltournative lets participants explore an underground natural museum. Selvatica is an “adventure kingdom” half an hour outside of Cancun that offers adventure experiences for everyone from 6 to 96 including acclaimed zipline circuits. However, scores of other tours, adventure experiences and sporting options are available in Cancun and your choices will boil down to time allotted and personal preferences. Fear not, though, whether its lounging on the beach sunbathing or flying along a zipline through a jungle cave that appeals to you – you will find it in sunny Cancun.
Maya culture dominated the Yucatan during its years in ascension and despite the virtual disappearance of the Maya civilization, remnants remain in the Cancun region and attract tourists from all over the world. In Cancun, it is easy to arrange for tours or trips to numerous Maya sites in the area. Many hotels offer this excursion information or can connect visitors with tour providers. While some sites can be reached individually with a map and directions, tours provide easier access and a wealth of information, legends and stories.
The leading Maya attraction is Chichen Itza, a World Heritage Site located about 117 miles west of Cancun. The ancient Maya city is home to a number of specific interesting historic and archaeological aspects including the Temple of Kukulcan, The Great Ball Court, The Temple of the Warriors and many more.
Other notable Maya sites include the city of Coba, Ek Balam and Kohunlich.
While the appeal of the surf and sand are strong in this part of the world even the visitor most in need of relaxation shouldn’t miss the opportunity to explore the legacy of the great and mysterious Maya culture. Chichen Itza is arguably the single most significant must-see in the Yucatan.
Cancun offers accommodations across a broad spectrum of price points and amenities, including the following.
Le Meridien Resort and Spa. Holding a lofty position on Conde Nast Traveler’s Gold List, this exquisite resort is a destination in and of itself. With 213 residential-style rooms, three gourmet dining options, the award winning Spa del Mar, a magnificent three-tiered cascading pool, and close proximity to downtown nightlife and historical attractions, Le Meridien Cancun Resort & Spa entices all five senses. Le Meridien Resort and Spa
Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach Cancun Resort and Spa. Endless ocean views, expansive suites, myriad dining destinations and a spa unlike any you’ve seen before are some of the appeal of this award winning resort. Coral Beach Gem Spa has 26 treatment rooms: 10 multi-function rooms, six massage and facial rooms, two Spa Master Suites with hydro-massage bathtubs with chromo-therapy, five couples treatment rooms, one VIP Spa Suite for couples with a double Jacuzzi and steam room, and two rooms for Shiatsu and Thai massage. Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach Cancun Resort and Spa
Live Aqua. Ideal for romance or for a group of traveling friends, Live Aqua is adults only and offers an all-inclusive rates package. The result is a sophisticated, upscale adult environment that feels as if it was created specifically for each individual visitor. Excellent friendly service, diverse dining and its beautiful setting are all high points prized by visitors. Live Aqua
Ritz Carlton Resort. Minutes from many lively and leisurely attractions, this luxury hotel features 365 guestrooms overlooking the sea, a full-service spa, an impressive culinary center, award-winning restaurants and a stunning beach club featuring the largest beach in Cancun. Ritz Carlton offers some of best amenities and highest level of service in the industry and that’s as true in Cancun as anywhere else. Ritz Carlton Resort.
Dining and Nightlife
If days in Cancun are defined by the intersection of sand and surf, then the nights are defined by an energetic nightlife. At all times of day, dining in Cancun is diverse and demonstrates many of the region’s cultural and environmental influences.
The Yucatan Peninsula has a unique cuisine characterized by the intersection of Mexican and European flavors. While use of local ingredients and of the bounty of the sea is prevalent, much of Cancun’s cuisine is likely to be different than the Mexican food with which many Americans are accustomed to eating at home. Many dishes are more mild than what some would expect, even with the use of a host of colorful peppers. Seafood is abundant and often integral to local dishes. If you like seafood, you must try ceviche, a tropical Mexican specialty featuring fish or seafood such as shrimp, octopus or shellfish, with finely chopped onion, cilantro and tomato. All the ingredients are bathed in fresh lemon juice, resulting in an incomparable explosion of flavors.
But local and regional Mexican food isn’t all that can be found in Cancun. From steak to seafood, Asian to Argentinian and from American to Italian and many famous brand names, Cancun restaurants offer a world of culinary options. From fine dining to fast food, you will find tantalizing fare wherever you go.
Among Cancun’s most celebrated restaurants are Peter’s Restaurante downtown, La Panza Es Primero and Habaneros – all considered family-friendly. Trattoria La Veneziana Da Bertilla is considered one of the better Italian restaurants in the city, while Locanda Paolo is one of the more romantic settings.
Dining can be as informal or formal as you might like, and it is a good idea to inquire about dining options at your hotel.
The nightclubs in Cancun are renowned for being some of the best in the world and the environment will feel comfortable to those familiar with American clubs. In Cancun nightclubs such as The City, Coco Bongo, Dady ‘O and the Bulldog Cafe there are laser and light shows, acrobats, special live acts and you will get to hear some of the best DJs from around the world. There are many lively Cancun bars open until the early hours with a true party atmosphere. Some of the most famous are Senor Frogs and Carlos n’ Charlies. Leading lounge style bars include Nectar and Thai Lounge.
Located just south of Cancun, Playa del Carmen resembles Cancun of years ago, having begun as a small fishing town and subsequently begun to grow from the tourist trade. But Playa del Carmen hasn’t reached critical mass in either residents (there are about 150,000) or visitors. As a result, while it has many attractions, shops, restaurants and scenic settings of its own – it is far less crowded than Cancun.
Tourist activity in “Playa” as it is simply known regionally centers on Quinta Avenida, (Fifth Avenue), a pedestrian walkway located just one or two blocks inland from the beach. Fifth Avenue is lined with hundreds of shops, bars and restaurants. There are many small boutique hotels on Fifth Avenue as well as just off Fifth Avenue and on the beach.
The Xcaret Eco Park, a Mexican-themed "eco-archaeological park", is a popular tourist destination located just south of the town in Xcaret.
Playacar is a contemporary development with residential development and attractions catering to visitors.
Smaller, less congested and slower paced than Cancun, “Playa” provides the opportunity for visitors to enjoy the same sand and surf as at its larger neighbor – but in a quieter setting.