My first impression of Cancún
My flight arrived in Cancún in the early morning. Peaking out the tiny plane window, I could see the sunlight just starting to shine and hit on the treetops of a tropical forest as if I was welcome by a limitless green carpet. That’s where the airport is, in the middle of a tropical forest, and I could hear the crowd on the plane was also getting excited about their tropical vacation in December. I came here from Los Angeles because I was planning my trip to Cuba at that time, and there were no direct flights available from the United States to Havana, leaving Cancún a “hop over” but then I learned that this is also the best place to explore the ancient Mayan civilization, I had a great time learning all about the history, scientific and cultural development of this fascinating tribe, and also the enjoying the sunshine and virgin white sand beaches in the tourist zone.
Once I had gone through the immigration, I was greeted by a warm (humid) tropical breeze, the sound of birds from the woods, and my hotel shuttle driver, who was about to transport me to the resort.
Cancún’s city layout
Cancún is divided into two distinctive areas: The downtown (a.k.a. El Centro – a Mexican residential section), and the island tourist zone (Zona Hotelera). Most of the hotels, resorts, entertainment, and shopping centers are located in the tourist zone, and here is also where the beaches, and the world’s second-longest barrier coral reef, are located. Typically, tourists like me stay in the zone and it’s generally more safe, clean, and well-maintained. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t explore the downtown area if you have more time to spend and want to get in touch with the locals’ lives. While there aren’t many landmarks or attractions in the downtown area, it is a great area to just stay there and relax because the food, shopping, and accommodation are much cheaper than in the tourist zone. Check out the Parque Las Palapas, a large plaza and park with a food court, local handicrafts, and souvenirs; as well as the Malecon Americas Shopping Center, or Market 28.
Getting around Cancún
Back to the tourist zone, the best way to get around the city is the bus. The tourist zone is a long strip and there’s only one main boulevard, Avenida Kukulkan, poking through the zone. That makes it easy to navigate and it’s okay to walk down the Boulevard, and then take a bus to return to your hotel or any place that you want to go next.
I was excited to go out and see the tourist zone!! We stayed on the south side of the strip and it’s extremely easy to travel back and forth. Traveling northbound, the lagoon is on the left side of the road while all the resorts are built on the right. For visitors who don’t rent a car, there is a bus line (#R1/R2) running up and down the strip for 12 Mexican Pesos, and buses come rather frequently, and the service is 24 hours.
In general, the bus ride is safe, but you can still go for a taxi ride if you don’t want too much hassle but it’s comparatively much more expensive.
Visit Cancún at the best time
Where we stayed was (like most people do) a resort built on the Cancún trip, the resort was merely 10 miles away from the airport (and I will explain the geography of Cancún later). Soon after the driver left the airport the skyline of Cancún’s beachfront became visible – it was a lineup of stunning, and luxurious resorts on the edge of the coastline of Cancún.
Cancún is a popular travel destination in North America for a reason. I would say it’s meant to be based on its climate, location, and resources. First of all, the city enjoys a decent tropical climate that it’s warm all year long. Given that it’s a tropical destination, it’s actually the peak season between December and April – as most tourists are from the United States and want to go somewhere warmer during winter. I visited in December and it feels warm and comfortable when the sun hits. Secondly, the location of the city is just so right! It’s located in Mexico’s Yucatán province and it’s facing the Caribbean Sea. That’s why the majority of the resorts are eastward-facing, with a balcony to enjoy the gorgeous, unobstructed sunrise every morning. That’s how I love to start my day! Finally, the city has beautiful beaches, entertainment facilities and a scatter of historical Mayan heritage sites nearby, it’s a place for both ‘young-at-hearts’ and ‘mature-in-minds’.
Where to stay in Cancún
Since we arrived so early in the morning, we had to wait until noon for the check-in (not so bad), and we headed into the resort for some breakfast and early pool time :). I am not sure if all the resorts in Cancún work the same way but my guess (and research), should be similar. The resort is a big complex with facilities such as pools (and poolside bars and lots of chairs), playgrounds, grocery stores, post offices, shops, restaurants, and even bike rental. We could basically stay within the resort, not going out to the city we could still have a fabulous time. That’s what some families do while they were traveling in a big group and I saw the parents were seriously stocking up for the winter and feeding the herd in the grocery store…
When checking in, we got a card which we could add value to any spending within the resort (like dining and grocery shopping), well, obviously the digital money concept is not something groundbreaking, but it helped a lot to deal with all the transactions and payments with the hotel guests.
In Cancún, the US dollar is very welcome in restaurants and shops and it’s almost an unofficial currency in the city. I only got a small amount of Mexican peso cash for transportation and tipping… (Yeah, tipping is how the service people make money and so all service people around you expect a tip in Cancún – drivers, servers, hotel staff…), and we usually tipped similar to the US: 15% – 20%.
The resort we stayed in, was only about US$100 per night and it has a balcony with a view of the ocean. Besides, each resort has close and easy access to the beach. The beach is generally for the public it is connected from one resort to the other – all the way from South to North. However, sun chairs could possibly be exclusive to hotel guests, but there were plenty of them the time I visited and so the chairs were not strictly safeguarded. The beach was quite huge and so you do not feel crowded (or lying on top of each other). Not many people swim in December, but many of them enjoyed walking along the beach under the warm sun.
What to see and do in Cancún
There are many shopping malls and entertainment complexes on the side of Avenida Kukulkan, from classy and luxurious to economy and budget. This is really where everything is located. The bustling and dynamic walkway offers a lot of fun from shopping to live music. Forum by the sea, Plaza Caracol, Kukulcan Plaza, Plaza Las Americas, Flamingo Plaza, Mercado 28, and La Isla Shopping Village are some of the popular choices. La Boutique Palacio has upscale luxury brands and boutiques, the Isla Malls offers some young and trendy choices, and the Negro Flea Market Mall has local handicrafts / cheap souvenirs and tourist products…
Apart from the shopping malls and dining experiences, there is also a list of outdoor activities that you should venture to:
- Enjoy the city’s vibrant nightlife
- Rotating Scenic Tower is located on Isla Mujeres, grab a boat and the top of the tower offers an amazing view of the city.
- Museo Maya de Cancún can be a prep course before exploring the magnificent Mayan heritage sites – the museum showcases some artifacts and some ancient Mayan architecture.
- Go a little bit further and venture to Ruins El Rey, it’s a small ruin near the city that you could take a look at before heading to Chichen Itza.
- Cancún Underwater Museum is a unique experience as it combined art and active sports. The site was founded in 2009 and two exhibits are underwater with around 500 sculptures – where you get to see them diving into the location, or snorkel if you are less experienced. The artworks are made to promote biodiversity, and the purpose of this museum is to draw tourists to a less visited area of the reef, allowing the popular parts to have a chance to recover.
- Parroquia de Cristo Resucitado is a catholic church for those who enjoy some sightseeing. It is a modern cathedral that is close to the tourist area, admire the clean design and an open floor plan that welcome a lot of sunlight.
- Go fishing, hop on a boat trip, go swimming or just sunbathe on Playa Delfines.
- Watersports in Nichupté Lagoon
- Go to Riviera Maya and swim with turtles! You don’t need a scuba diving license to do that.
I was pleasantly surprised by my experience in Cancún and I wish to visit there again, if not now. Some say the city became too commercial, restaurants and shops were overpriced and most servers expect tips, tips, and tips. Well yeah, that’s somehow true but I thought it was within a reasonable range. Most of the service people, tour guides, and drivers I encountered were friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful; the tourist area is safe and the city was clean :). One thing, though, I experienced a serious lack of efficiency at the airport. Maybe that’s the true color of working without tips?
What to see and do in the outskirts of Cancún
Cancún is definitely a city that could stay for a few days to a week – a few days in the resort and 1 to 2 excursions; Xcaret, Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an, and Xel-Ha are great places for nature (and they are also theme parks). I just had to see the Chichen Itza and Tulum, they are probably the two most popular Mayan UNESCO world heritage sites anyway – and both places are a few-hour drive away from the city; Playa del Carmen is a smaller town in the south with lots of water sports opportunities and all sorts of outdoor activities such as snorkeling, scuba diving, and a chance to explore the amazing and wondrous water underworld. Check out my other articles about my day trips to Yucatan if you are interested to know more!