Cancun Travel Guide

Overview

Cancun, Mexico, is wrapped in crystal clear water and brilliant sunshine, so it's no wonder its shoreline gets top billing. Government developers, looking for a way to eradicate the poverty of the region, created this comfortable resort area on the Mexican Caribbean from the sand up to take advantage of the gorgeous aquamarine water and tropical temperate climate. Cancun is the top resort area in Mexico.

Travelers who enjoy the feel of Old Mexico will never find Cancun to be as traditional, colorful or as spontaneous. With more than 32,000 hotel rooms, it's not necessarily the place for isolated sun worship, either. But those hankering for a no-hassle beach vacation can fly in and soak up the sun without speaking a word of Spanish (or exchanging U.S. dollars). And those interested in learning about the ancient Maya civilization can visit several exceptional archaeological sites on day trips.

Also within reach is the island of Cozumel, a haven for divers and snorkelers. And Playa del Carmen—once an oasis of rustic, laid-back charm—is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, with a great variety of restaurants, bars, shops and entertainment. It is also the hub of a growing ecotourism movement. Isla Mujeres, the closest island to Cancun, is still famous for snorkeling and hasn't lost its friendly fishing-village allure. For a small-town experience on the mainland, Puerto Morelos, once just home to local fishermen, is just 20 minutes south of Cancun.

Geography

There are actually two Cancuns: the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) on the island and "Ciudad" Cancun (better known simply as "downtown"), a district on the mainland that is more of a residential and business enclave. You can get from one to the other via a short bus or taxi ride.

The island, which is where most visitors spend their time, is 14 mi/22 km long, less than 0.5 mi/1 km wide and shaped rather like the number seven. It is connected to the mainland by bridges at each end, which were built after a landfill linked the island to the peninsula. It has calm, shallow waters off its northern side, wilder Caribbean seas to the east, and the vast, brackish Nichupte Lagoon between the island and the mainland.

There are no street addresses on Cancun island because there's really only one road—Boulevard Kukulcan. Places on the island are located by their distance (in kilometers) from the northern end of the boulevard, which begins at the edge of downtown Cancun. Markers indicate every kilometer along the side of the road.

The bridge that connects the northern tip of the island to the mainland is just past the Kilometer 4 marker; the southern bridge to the mainland is at Kilometer 25. Thus, a hotel whose address is "Km. 12" is about 7.5 mi/12 km from the north end of Boulevard Kukulcan. Downtown Cancun, on the other hand, does indeed have streets with names and regular-sized city blocks.

History

The low-slung jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula were first settled more than 2,000 years ago by the Maya. Their advanced civilization and elaborate temples continue to fascinate archaeologists and casual visitors alike. By the time Hernan Cortes began the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519, the Mayan culture was already in decline, but the conquistadores accelerated that decline with deadly European diseases and weaponry. Eventually, the northern part of the Yucatan was settled by landowners of Spanish descent who used the Maya as workers.

Despite its scattered agricultural holdings, the area was largely ignored by the rest of Mexico, both during the colonial period and after independence. That was mostly because the region was very isolated, and so forbidding that during the dictatorship of Gen. Santa Ana, prisoners were sent to the Yucatan as the ultimate punishment. For centuries, the only practical way to get there was by sea: The first rail line wasn't built until 1949, and the first airline, which was inaugurated with flights to Mexico City, started in the 1950s.

When the Mexican government began scouting sites for a tourist resort in the 1960s, the idea of Cancun was born. After a few years of furious building, the idea became a city. The first two resorts opened for business in 1974, and the surrounding region was designated as the state of Quintana Roo at about the same time. In the decades since, Cancun has grown more and more popular and has stimulated a booming tourism business along the Yucatan coast.

The island of Cancun now has no land left for building, but new developments with hotels and golf courses have been built on the coastal area south of Cancun, the Riviera Maya.

Sightseeing

The sights most Cancun visitors want to see are the beach and the ocean. That's probably a good thing, because there aren't many other attractions—no true casinos, few historic sites, few public parks or gardens, and no historic neighborhoods.


The hotels themselves are attractions. We recommend stopping at some of the more outlandish ones along the Zona Hotelera to have a margarita and marvel at the architecture—you'll find variations on Miami Beach and Las Vegas, along with Mexican themes. The buildings are a dizzying melange of styles, from block-long pink palaces with towers and cupolas to sleek, mirrored pyramids with huge, tree-filled atriums. Keep in mind, however, that many of them are all-inclusive and do not allow access to nonguests.

There are a few escapes from the resorts, however. Ruinas del Rey provides a decent, if brief, introduction to the ancient world of the Mayan civilization, especially if you can't make it to one of the bigger archaeological sites. Most hotel travel desks sell lagoon tours or something billed as a "jungle tour" that's actually a boat ride through the lagoon with a stop for snorkeling at a coral reef.

For anyone interested in Mayan history and culture, a visit to one or more of their ruined cities is essential. Tulum, on the coast south of Cancun, is the closest, but tends to fill up with motor coach parties. Chichen Itza—voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World—is the most famous and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Coba, the least developed of the three, is in a vast, shady jungle, making it ideal for an afternoon visit. Local tour operators offer convenient packages, or you can hire a car and organize your own visit.

Nightlife

Cancun is famous for its nightlife, and several of the big resort hotels in the Zona Hotelera have clubs. Some also host Mexican fiesta nights that include dinner and a folkloric show. Many are within walking distance of each other on Boulevard Kukulcan near the Cancun Convention Center.

You also can take the fiesta to the water on one of Cancun's "party cruises."

Most bars stay open until at least 2 am, and clubs until at least 3 am. Many places keep going until dawn, especially when spring-break revelers are in town.

Dining

As you might expect in a town full of upscale resorts, all kinds of international foods are available—haute cuisine as well as Chicago-style pizza and ribs. And wherever there are tourists, expect the usual U.S. franchises. Although dining is good in Cancun, it has become even better with the addition of several gourmet restaurants headed by celebrity chefs.

A late dinner is often the high point of the day (usually starting around 9-10 pm for locals, earlier for tourists). Be sure to taste some Yucatecan specialties such as pollo pibil or cochinita pibil—outstanding dishes of chicken or suckling pig in a rich achiote (annatto seed) sauce, wrapped in banana leaves and baked in a clay oven. Vegetarians will enjoy papadzules, tacos stuffed with boiled eggs and covered in pumpkin-seed mole. Fresh seafood, such as shrimp, fish and especially Caribbean lobster, is always an outstanding choice. Ceviche—fish marinated in lime juice—is a local specialty.

The southern half of the Hotel Zone has the greatest concentration of restaurants. Youth-oriented cafes and well-known chains are found in the many malls along Boulevard Kukulcan, especially at Forum by the Sea. Several restaurants have relocated or opened branches at or near the upscale La Isla Mall. Some hotels have exceptional specialty restaurants and often vie with other resorts to lure their guests away.

Those who want to dine "where the locals go" find many choices in downtown Cancun on the mainland, or on the beach under thatched palapas. This is where you'll often find the best dining deals.

It's best to make reservations at the pricier places Friday and Saturday nights during the high travel seasons, including Christmas week, Easter week and during July and August.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on dinner for one, not including tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than US$20; $$ = US$20-$40; $$$ = US$41-$65; $$$$ = more than US$65.

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