There's more to the "Las Vegas of Mexico" than just its sand and surf, including incredible historic sites, authentic cuisine, and hotels for every kind of need, be it a kid-friendly all-inclusive, party pad, or luxurious wellness retreat. Headed to the Yucatán hot spot? Here's what to know before you go.
Yes, the U.S. State Department did expand their travel watch list for Mexico this year, but Cancún is still as safe to travel to as any other major U.S. city or Caribbean resort town. A case of the Zika virus has been reported, so use caution if you are pregnant or plan to be so in the next few years.
Let’s face the facts: this is not some exotic Mexican village full of empty beaches and locals going about their business. Its 10 miles of shoreline, known as the Hotel Zone, are packed with sprawling resorts, vacationers toting sunburns and neon t-shirts emblazoned with “I <3 Cancun,” and malls full of luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci. The beaches get crowded, especially in high season, especially during Spring Break. But there’s something appealing about letting loose and not obsessing over whether or not your friends are impressed back home. Head off the main drag and you’ll find a few spectacular gems—swimming offshore with whale sharks, for one, or exploring cenotes and Mayan ruins.
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Most tourism venues, hotels, and restaurants will accept either—though it’s worth exchanging your dollars to pesos in advance in order to avoid having to convert currencies in your head or being scammed when using a credit card.
Mexico perfected the all-inclusive—the stress-free all-for-one-price package that ensures you never lose your wallet on the beach or by the pool again. After all, that’s what swim-up bars were meant for, right? Getting a drink in your hand as fast as possible while the kids (if they’re even in the picture) are burning off energy in the shallow end of the pool? Cancún’s Hotel Zone is saturated with options. Hyatt Ziva Cancun is the newest family-friendly all-inclusive to hit the Hotel Zone, whose exhaustive menu of daily activities includes theater shows, water sports, yoga classes, and tequila tastings. Looking for romance? The adults-only Le Blanc Spa is sophisticated and luxurious, with 24-hour butlers and an impressive spa. The Hard Rock Hotel is far more lively, with none-stop entertainment like live music and poolside parties that extend well past dark.
Then again, maybe that whole pay-for-everything-in-advance vacation model isn’t your cup of tea. That’s okay! There’s no harm in only paying for what you’ll actually take advantage of. Stays like Nizuc Resort & Spa and the Ritz-Carlton offer a far more tailored getaway—think spa treatments in Mexico’s only ESPA-branded spa and inside experiences like cooking classes with a chef or baby turtle releases.
That the fish tacos and guacamole taste better here than at home might be expected, but you’re not limited to standard staples here, even if you never leave your hotel. There’s no time like the present to taste regional specialties like Mayan-influenced dishes hailing from the Yucatán including sopa de lima (lime soup) and pescado tikin-xic (fish prepared with annatto paste and baked in banana leaves).
Better yet, head into town. La Destileria is famous for its tequila tasting flights and vegetarian dishes, while romantic La Habichuela Sunset woos with its Mayan architectural design and seafood specialties (like curried lobster and shrimp) served beside views of the Nichupte Lagoon.
You probably know the drill, but it’s worth mentioning again. Avoid ingesting tap water, be it for drinking or brushing your teeth, and be cautious of ice in beverages at outside restaurants (some do not purify it). Even at the most high-end resorts, drink only bottled water, which is often provided the moment you arrive.
One common misconception held by first-time Cancun-ers is that public transportation will be expensive and dangerous. On the contrary, buses here (and in many other major Mexican hubs) are predominantly safe, clean (sometimes air-conditioned), and prompt—making it a breeze to get around Cancún's Hotel Zone and to other popular points of interest. As for the fare? A one-way bus ride within Cancún is roughly 8.5 pesos ($1). Getting to Chichén Itzá from Cancún, a three-hour journey west, costs 258 pesos (roughly $15). Taxis, while private, are far more expensive.
Beyond the beaches, parties, and margaritas, Cancún offers more than its share of Mexican history and heritage. Opened in 2012 in the Hotel Zone, the Museo Maya de Cancun doubles as a gallery and archaeological space: its interior exhibition halls showcase 3,500 rotating pieces of Mayan pottery, jewelry, and sculpture; outside, the museum grounds sit on the San Miguelito archaeological site, which comprises some 40 structures including a 26-foot-high pyramid. Another archaeological site, the El Rey Ruins, which includes a temple and several ceremonial platforms, is a four-minute drive down the road.
It might be all too easy to lose track of time sunning on the beach, swimming and snorkeling offshore, and attempting to try every restaurant (and margarita bar) in your resort’s sea of options before the nightly entertainment—but it’s definitely worth striking out and exploring more of the area. Isla Mujeres, a 20-minute ferry ride from Cancún, is a tropical idyll where guests come to snorkel with whale sharks and dolphins and kick back on sublime stretches of beach. Despite how commercial Cancún feels, you’re also within striking distance of some of Mexico’s most sacred ancient sites. Chichén Itzá, two hours away by car (three by bus), is Mexico’s most popular archaeological site, made up of temples and step pyramids. Ek Balam, a more newly discovered ruined city north of Valladolid, built around 100 B.C., is far less crowded but no less impressive. It’s one of the Yucátan’s largest Maya sites, with an Acropolis covered in ornate carvings and frescoes. For now, visitors can still scale the temple for an up-close look and an even better view. And let’s not forget Tulum, a now world-famous boho-chic beach town, just two hours down the coast.