Cancun, Maya Riviera, Mexico
Cancun, Mexico’s most famous resort, is overbuilt but offers fine, white sand beaches, warm shallow waters, cool strong drinks and everything else a tourist might need except real ethnic colour, style or unspoilt serenity. Photo by Mauro Barea.
Why Vacation in Cancun?
Mexico’s most famous resort, Cancun, is an overbuilt beach resort on the sunny northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Quintana Roo state. But Cancun does offer fine white sand beaches, warm shallow waters, cool strong drinks and everything else a tourist might need except real ethnic colour, style or unspoilt serenity.
Cancun comprises 14 miles of dazzling white beaches and high-rise resorts along on a skinny peninsula, with turquoise seas (in season!), a flourishing underwater world, world-class vacation facilities and is not far from an astonishing selection of Mayan archaeological wonders.
Cancun and the Riviera Maya offer the best value-for-money beach holidays in the Caribbean Sea.
The Cancun resorts zone is based entirely on the tourist industry so stay here if you don’t mind spending your vacation with other tourists in a sand-lined concrete bubble. Inland around downtown Cancun however, is a real Mexican city, especially once you get away from the bus station and nearby hostels and hotels.
Delfines Beach, Cancun’s best public beach. Photo by Luis Miguel Sanchez.
Popular with locals as well as tourists Playa Delfines is public so there is no entrance fee and plenty of space but the sand and facilities are clean and well maintained. It faces east so gets a fair amount of surf but can get breezy. Parasols and sun loungers are available to rent.
If you get there mid-morning the beach will be virtually empty and parking will be easy. It’s a short bus ride from Cancun hostels/hotels and the drivers all know to stop there.
Cancun’s Main Attractions
• Parroquia de Cristo Resucitado
This modern, stylish, partly open-air Catholic church makes a peaceful retreat from Cancun’s wild side on the city’s primary road – Blvd. Kukulkan, Km 3. 5 – serving the hotel zone with Masses in both English and Spanish as well as a fine place for weddings.
• Dolphin Discovery
A place for kids to meet dolphins or even ride them, depending how much the parents are willing to fork out.
However, there are two caveats. Some believe that this kind of operation is exploiting a highly intelligent animal. In addition personal cameras are not permitted so photos of dolphin experiences have to be bought from the professional photographer at a considerable price.
Complaints have been made at this sharp practice. Dolphin Discovery can be found at the Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort.
The peninsula region of Cancun with Boulevard Kukulkan’s strip clearly visible on the right. Heading right (east) goes to the downtown area on the mainland while straight down the strip and then right at the far end gets to the airport. Photo by Safa.
La Isla shopping village off Boulevard Kukulkan is home to upscale shops and fine souvenirs.
This long road (aka the strip) connects all Cancun’s dots (see map below) and offers every service you can imagine somewhere along the route, including the airport and most hotels, shops, bars, discos, restaurants, beaches, churches, museums, ferries, parks and even some modest Maya ruins (La Ruina).
Some Americans describe Avenida Kukulkan (as it’s also known) as Miami beach and Las Vegas all rolled into one. One size fits all.
Avenida 28 stop is a fun place to look for souvenirs and gifts, a bazaar full of kiosks selling Mexican trash as well as treasures, though the salesmen can be tiresomely persistent.
Buses both air-conditioned and not run up and down the strip all day until about midnight; bus drivers are generally friendly and helpful so ask them to tell you when the bus reaches your stop. The cost per ride is less than a dollar.
Museo Maya de Cancun
This small but interesting Maya Museum just off Kukulkan is a calm and entertaining way to spend a few dollars and learn about this country’s ancient Maya culture with some English displays, cultural relics, videos and a/c if you’re hot and bothered.
The galleries are cool and spacious with high ceilings and large panels telling the story of the Mayas, along with impressive ceramics and engravings. Outside a path winds through shady woodland past the ruins of a five storey pyramid. Blvd. Kukulkan Km 16. 5.
This observation tower offers magnificent panoramic views over Cancun and the Caribbean enabling tourists to get a good sense of the city’s layout, but it’s better in the daytime than at night. Beware that entry is quite expensive, especially if you take a family in, BUT it is free if you have bought an XCaret group pass. Blvd. Kukulcan Km 4. 5 .
Car rentals are not recommended . Some of the roads are well maintained, but others are sand or have potholes big enough to swallow a VW. Police may pull you over for a minor violation and demand a bribe. If you are pulled over, be respectful.
Unless you are plan to explore outside the ‘Hotel Zone’ or downtown, a car is not necessary and may be more of a burden than an asset, parking in nightlife areas can be a major pain. Alternative transportation is plentiful and inexpensive 24/7.
Buses are a better way to get around, cheap and frequent but beware pick-pockets. Most bus drivers are courteous but do not expect buses to have amenities such as air conditioning or seat cushions!
Places to stay or visit near Cancun
Tulum’s beach and quite interesting ancient Maya ruins. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.
More adventurous travellers can easily find rooms on beautiful and less crowded beaches down the Maya Riviera coast an hour or two south for much lower cost. Rent a car or take the bus to Puerto Morelos (20 minutes) or Tulum‘s beach and Maya site (1 hour). Playa del Carmen (45 minutes) is between the two, but these days also specialises in all-inclusive holidaymakers.
Ruinas El Rey are small and not very exciting Mayan ruins of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization in Cancun’s Hotel Zone.
There’s a bigger pile of stones, El Meco, outside the city on the road to Punta Sam as well as sites not far away such as Coba, Polé (now Xcaret, see below), and Kohunlich, Kinichná, Dzibanché, Oxtankah, Tulum, and Chacchoben, in the south of Quintana Roo state.
The real thing, however, and one of the world’s best pyramid complexes is at Chichen Itza in the neighbouring state of Yucatán, a couple of hours drive.
Things to Do Near Cancun
To escape Cancun tourist overload, head for this little island is just a 20 minute ferry ride from the hotel zone or from Puerto Juárez Dock, 5 minutes from downtown Cancun.
Rent a scooter to get around the island fast and cheaply but do try not to come back with gravel rash. There is a terrific eco-water theme park, Garrafon, with grand land views as well as a magical underwater world.
Snorkelling with Whale Sharks
These massive creatures enjoy cruising the plankton-rich waters around Isla Mujeres, as do adventurous snorkelers who can swim beside these monstrous but harmless beasts of up to 18 metres long. Dozens of boats take tourists out to see the big fish daily during the Whale Shark Festival in June. To avoid disturbing the whale sharks only two swimmers are allowed in the water at a time and each boat gets 30 minutes.
Whale Shark Tours leave from Isla Mujeres, Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
An ‘eco-archaeology’ park about 46 miles south of Cancun and less than 4 kms south of Playa del Carmen. Xcaret is home to tropical flora and fauna typical of the region as well as different expressions of the Mayan culture. There are underground rivers, a beach, a butterfly pavilion, an orchid greenhouse, a Mayan village, jaguar island and more.
Xel-ha, Maya Riviera. Photo by Kyttzy.
An outdoor water theme park that encompasses Mexican/Caribbean nature. There are natural, ecological attractions and water-based activities such as snorkeling and diving in lagoons, caves and creeks, as well as pricey swimming-with-dolphins experiences.
The best months are December – May.
Peak season in Cancun runs from December to April with high temperatures around 82F (28C) and occasional rain showers.
Prices in both airfare and hotel increase dramatically during the winter season, while dropping in the summer and early autumn months. Late June is especially hot, so come prepared or try the off season. Hurricanes can be a major threat in the summer and early autumn. September is absolutely the worst month.
Cancun – Playa del Carmen 1 hour, 68 kms
Cancun – Cozumel island. As Playa del Carmen + walk 2 blocks from bus terminal to ferry terminal. Take a 50 minute ferry ride to San Miguel. Ferries run every hour from 6am to 11pm
Cancun – Tulum 1hr 40m, 131 kms
Cancun – Chichen Itza 2 hours, 196 kms
Cancun – Merida 3 hours, 300 kms