Cancún is a great place to experience 21st-century Mexico, because it has everything you’d want in a vacation: shopping, sports, spas, and beaches. Here you’ll find five-star resorts, exceptional food, Mexican culture, and natural beauty, all within day-trip distance of the world-famous Mayan ruins. That said, there isn’t much that’s quaint or historic in this distinctively modern city.
The locals—most of whom have embraced the accoutrements of urban middle-class life—typically live on the mainland in a part of the city called El Centro, but they work in the Zona Hotelera’s tourist hub. The zone’s main drag is Boulevard Kukulcán, and kilometer markers along it indicate where you are, from Km 1 near El Centro to Km 25 at the southern tip of Punta Nizuc. The area in between consists entirely of hotels, restaurants, shopping complexes, marinas, and time-share condominiums. Most travelers base themselves in this 25-km (15½-mile) stretch of paradise.
The party atmosphere of Zona Hotelera has inevitably earned it the title "Spring Break Capital of the World." Dozens of bars and nightclubs cater to college students just south of Punta Cancún at Km 9. Fortunately, this late-night/early-morning scene is contained within a small area, far from the larger resorts. Cancún, though, isn’t just a magnet for youth on the loose. Adults with more sophisticated tastes appreciate its posh restaurants and world-class spas, while families are drawn to the limitless water sports and a plethora of children’s activities.
If you believe that local flavor trumps the Zona Hotelera’s pristine beaches, El Centro beckons. Although it is less visited by vacationers, the downtown area holds cultural gems that will remind you that you really are in Mexico. Hole-in-the-wall cantinas promise authentic regional food; evocative markets offer bargain-priced goods; and the hotels, while much more modest in terms of scale and amenities, provide true Mexican ambience.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Near Ruinas del Rey, where Boulevard Kukulcán curves into a hill, "Dolphin Beach" is one of the last before Punta Nizuc. Hotels have yet to dominate this small section of coastline, and there's an incredible lookout over the ocean with a huge "Cancún" sign making for a great photo op. On a clear day you can see at least four shades of blue in the water, though swimming is treacherous unless a green flag is posted. This resort-free area has plenty of sand and waves, and it's one of the few places in Cancún you'll see a surfer (during a wind swell). Even during hurricane season, waves seldom hit "epic" status; at best, you might find choppy, inconsistent surf. Amenities: parking (free); lifeguard; toilets. Best For: solitude; surfing.
PLAYA LAS PERLAS
"Pearl Beach" is the first heading east from El Centro along Boulevard Kukulcán. Located at Km 2.5, between the Cancún mainland and the bridge, it's a relatively small beach on the protected waters of the Bahía de Mujeres, and is popular with locals. There are several restaurants lining the sand, but most of the water-sports activities are only available to those staying at the nearby lodgings like the Imperial las Perlas. There's a small store beside that resort where you can buy sandwiches and drinks if you want to have a beach picnic. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; water sports. Best For: swimming.
Don't be fooled by the name—this spot is seldom frequented by tortugas. It’s the opportunity to swim, snorkel, kayak, paraglide, and ride Wave Runners that really brings folks to "Turtle Beach." The water is deep, but the beach itself (the nicest section of which is on the far right, just past the rocks) can get very crowded. Passengers usually grab a drink or snack here before catching the ferry to Isla Mujeres, and locals from El Centro will spend their entire weekend on the sand. So if you are looking for isolation, it's best to head elsewhere. There's an over-the-water bungee jumping tower where your head will actually touch the water. Amenities: food and drink; water sports. Best for: partiers; snorkeling; swimming.
Accessible via a road next to Kukulcán Plaza, "Marlin Beach" is a seductive stretch of sand in the heart of the Zona Hotelera at Km. 13. Despite its turquoise waters and silky sands, the waves are strong and the currents are dangerous. If this beach is crowded, you can walk in either direction to find quieter spots. There's also a small tent where you can rent boogie boards, snorkel gear, and motorized sports equipment. Although there are currently no public facilities, you can always walk over to Kukulcán Plaza if you need a restroom. Amenities: water sports. Best For: snorkeling; surfing; walking.
Also known as Whale Beach, this is a raw stretch of sand and crystal water at Km 14.5 between the Hard Rock Hotel and Secrets The Vine. Jet Skiers often zoom through the water, and the strong wind makes the surf rough. The beach is open to the public; parking and beach access are at Calle Ballenas. Food and drinks are available at any of the resorts along this stretch, including the Hard Rock, Secrets The Vine, and Sandos Cancun—but keep in mind these all-inclusives cater only to hotel guests. Amenities: parking (free); water sports. Best for: walking; windsurfing.
The last "real beach" along the east–west stretch of the Zona Hotelera is near Plaza Caracol and the Xcaret dock. Located at Km 8.5, the whole area has been eaten up by development, in particular the high-rise condominium complex next to the entrance. Playa Caracol (or "Snail Beach") is also hindered by the rocks that jut out from the water to mark the beginning of Punta Cancún, where Boulevard Kukulcán turns south. There are several hotels along here and a few sports rental outfits. It's also the launching point for trips to Contoy Island. Closer to the Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach hotel, the water is calm because of the jetty that blocks the wind and waves. Amenities: food and drink; water sports. Best For: swimming; windsurfing.
Small, placid "Lobster Beach" has safe waters and gentle waves that make it a popular swimming spot for families and Spring Breakers alike. On weekends, you'll be lucky if you can find a space on the sand. There's an entrance to the beach at Boulevard Kukulcán's Km 5. A dock juts out in the middle of the water, but swimming areas are marked off with ropes and buoys. Next to the beach is a small building with a restaurant, an ice-cream shop, and an ATM. Amenities: food and drink; toilets. Best for: swimming.
Located at Km 10 on Boulevard Kukulcán, Playa Chacmool can be accessed through the beach entrance across the street from Señor Frog's. As at Playa Caracol, development has greatly encroached on Chacmool's shores. There are a lot of rocks, but the water is a stunning turquoise; moreover, the beach is close to shopping centers and the party zone, so there are plenty of restaurants nearby. The short stretch to the south has gentler waters and fewer rocks. Public changing rooms and limited free parking are also available. The clear, shallow water makes it tempting to walk far out, but be careful—there's a strong current and undertow. Lifeguards are on duty until 5 pm. The closest hotel to Playa Chacmool is Le Blanc Resort. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking (free); toilets. Best For: partiers.
At Km 4 on Boulevard Kukulcán, "Pretty Beach" is where the ocean meets the freshwater of Laguna Nichupté to create the Nichupté Channel. Restaurants and changing rooms are available near the launching dock. Playa Linda is situated between the Barceló Costa Cancun and Sotavento Hotel. There's lots of boat activity along the channel, and the ferry to Isla Mujeres leaves from the adjoining Embarcadero marina, so the area isn't safe for swimming. It is, however, a great place to people-watch, with a 300-foot rotating scenic tower nearby that offers a 360-degree view. Amenities: food and drink; parking (free); toilets. Best For: solitude.
PLAYA PEZ VOLADOR
The calm surf and relaxing shallows of Playa Pez Volador make it an aquatic playground for families with young children. Marked by a huge Mexican flag at Km 5.5, the wide beach is popular with locals, as many tourists tend to head to the more active Playa Langosta. Sea grass occasionally washes ashore here, but by early morning it is cleared away by the staff of the neighboring Casa Maya Hotel. Amenities: none. Best For: swimming.
PLAYA PUNTA NIZUC
You’ll find Cancún’s most isolated and deserted beach on the southern tip of the peninsula. Far from the crowds and party scene, Playa Punta Nizuc has few amenities other than those available to guests at the nearby Wet 'n Wild Waterpark (Km. 25), Nizuc Resort (Km. 21), or Club Med (Km 21.5). The lack of beach traffic helps keep the white sands clean and the waters sparkling, except when sea grass washes up. Bordered by jungle to the south, Playa Punta Nizuc can be accessed directly from Boulevard Kukulcán, so there's plenty of street parking—but make sure you bring water, snacks, sunscreen, and an umbrella for shade. This is a great place to collect shells or swim, since waves crash only on stormy days. Amenities: parking (free). Best for: solitude; swimming; snorkeling; walking.
Located on Cancún's highest point (the name means "hilly land"), this archaeological site is on the grounds of the Park Royal Cancún and Westin Lagunamar, which means that nonguests can only visit from the beach side. The concierges at either hotel may let you enter through their property if you ask nicely, but otherwise head to Playa Marlín and admire the ruins from a distance. Although it consists of two structures—one probably a temple, the other probably a lighthouse—this is the smallest of Cancún's ruins. Discovered in 1842 by John Lloyd Stephens, the ruins date from the late 13th or early 14th century. Keep an eye out for roaming iguanas.
Bike tours, butterfly- and bird-watching adventures, as well as kayaking, diving, and eco-oriented snorkeling trips can be booked through Eco Colors. They also specialize in cultural programs and volunteer opportunities.
PLAYA GAVIOTA AZUL
Heading down from Punta Cancún onto the long, southerly stretch of the island, Playa Gaviota Azul (literally "Blue Seagull Beach," but also commonly called City Beach or Forum Beach) is the first on the Caribbean's open waters. Closer to Km 9, the waves break up to six feet during hurricane season, making it one of the few surfing spots in Cancún; lessons are offered by the 360 Surf School (wwww.360surfschoolcancun.com). If you'd rather just relax, ascend a short flight of steps to Mandala Beach Club at Km 9.5, where you can enjoy the full resort experience without booking into a hotel. There is paid parking at Plaza Forum plus minimal street parking. The closest hotels—Krystal Grand Punta Cancun and Aloft—are across the street from the beach. Amenities: food and drink; parking (fee); toilets; water sports. Best for: partiers; surfing; swimming.
Two decades ago, downtown Cancún was the place to be after a day at the beach. The once-barren Hotel Zone had very limited dining options, so tourists strolled the active streets of Avenida Tulum,Yaxchilán, and Parque de las Palapas. With the emergence of luxury resorts and mass tourism, a major shift brought the focus back to the Hotel Zone. Today many visitors are unaware that the downtown area even exists, while others consider "downtown" to be the string of flea markets near the convention center. In reality, El Centro's malls and markets offer a glimpse of Mexico's urban lifestyle. Avenida Tulum, the main street, is marked by a huge sculpture of shells and starfish in the middle of a traffic circle. This iconic Cancún sight, which many locals refer to as "el ceviche," is particularly dramatic at night when the lights are turned on. El Centro is also home to many restaurants and bars, as well as Mercado Veintiocho (Market 28), an enormous crafts market just off Avenidas Yaxchilán and Sunyaxchén. For bargain shopping, hit the stores and small strip malls along Avenida Tulum.
RUINAS EL REY
Large signs on the Zona Hotelera's lagoon side, roughly opposite Playa Delfines, point out the Ruins of the King. Although much smaller than famous archaeological sites like Tulum and Chichén Itzá, this site (commonly called El Rey) is worth a visit and makes for an interesting juxtaposition of Mexico's past and present. First entered into Western chronicles in a 16th-century travelogue, the ruins weren't explored by archaeologists until 1910, and excavations didn't begin until 1954. In 1975, archaeologists began restoration work on the 47 structures with the help of the Mexican government.
Dating to the 3rd to 2nd century BC, El Rey is notable for having two main plazas bounded by two streets. (Most other Mayan cities contain only one plaza.) Originally named Kin Ich Ahau Bonil, Mayan for "king of the solar countenance," the site was linked to astronomical practices. The pyramid is topped by a platform, and inside its vault are paintings on stucco. Skeletons interred at the apex and at the base indicate the site may have been a royal burial ground. In 2006, workmen unearthed an ancient Mayan skeleton on the outskirts of the park.
MUSEO MAYA DE CANCÚN
Opened in December 2012, this modern museum in the Zona Hotelera sits in the middle of a small, lush jungle with 14 excavated ruins. Air-conditioned second-floor exhibits, accessible by elevator, showcase Mayan artifacts such as pottery, jewelry, and stone-carved scripts from various eras of civilization. While there is much to see, signage is mostly in Spanish. On a sunny day, leave time to wander the grounds adjacent to the museum. The admission fee is taken in Mexican pesos, so be sure to have proper currency.
CANCÚN UNDERWATER MUSEUM
Locally known as MUSA, Cancún's Underwater Museum is made up of more than 400 lifelike statues sculpted by Jason de Caires Taylor. The stunning artworks, located off the shores of Punta Cancún, Punta Nizuc, and Manchones Reef near Isla Mujeres, create an artificial habitat for marine life that can be viewed by divers, snorkelers, and passengers on glass-bottom-boat tours.
Over the past four decades, Cancún has turned into the Miami of the south, with international investors pouring money into property development. The main attractions for most visitors lie along the Zona Hotelera, a barrier island shaped roughly like the number 7. To the east is the Caribbean, and to the west you’ll find a system of lagoons, the largest of which is Laguna Nichupté. Downtown Cancún—aka El Centro—is 4 km (2½ miles) west of the Zona Hotelera on the mainland.
WHEN TO GO
The sun shines an average of 253 days a year in Cancún. During High Season (late November to early April), the weather is nearly perfect, with temperatures hovering around 29°C (84°F) during the day and 18°C (64°F) at night. Hotel prices hit their peak between December 15 and January 5. If you plan to visit during Christmas, Spring Break, or Easter, you should book at least three months in advance.
Vacationers with travel-date flexibility can avoid the crowds and save 20% to 50% on accommodations during the remaining months. Be advised, though, that May through September are hot and humid, with temperatures that can top 36°C (97°F). The rainy season starts in mid-September and lasts until mid-November, bringing afternoon downpours that can last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. El Centro’s streets often get flooded during these storms, and traffic can grind to a halt.
Cancún is not the sort of place you can get to know on foot, although there's a cycling and walking path that starts downtown at the beginning of the Zona Hotelera and continues through to Punta Nizuc. The beginning of the path parallels a grassy strip of Boulevard Kukulcán decorated with reproductions of ancient Mexican art.
If you are planning to visit only Cancún, you don't need to (and probably shouldn't) rent a car. But if you want to explore the region, a car can be convenient if expensive. Be sure to read our extensive guidelines regarding road conditions, insurance requirements, and costs so that you can make an informed decision.
Cancún is one of the safest cities in Mexico. Reported violence generally takes place 2,090 km (1,300 miles) from Cancún on the northern border of Mexico, the same distance from New York to Texas. Don’t be surprised to see Tourist Police patrolling the Zona Hotelera, especially during the holidays and high season when security is increased. The C4 Surveillance and Rescue Center monitors the tourist area through video cameras installed in strategic points throughout the city, and an emergency 911 call center is available. Visitors are still advised to exercise caution and use common sense while traveling.
There’s a lot to see and do in Cancún—if you can force yourself away from the beach, that is. Understandably, many visitors stay here a week, or longer, without ever leaving the silky sands and seductive comforts of their resorts. If you’re game to do some exploring, though, it’s a good idea to allow an extra two or three days for day trips to nearby eco-parks and archaeological sites.
Located 16 km (9 miles) southwest of the heart of Cancún and 10 km (6 miles) from the Zona Hotelera's southernmost point, Cancún Aeropuerto Internacional receives direct scheduled flights from many cities, including New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Houston, Dallas, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale, Charlotte, and Atlanta. An increasing number of direct charter flights from other locales are also available. Hourly buses link the airport to downtown Cancún; taxis, colectivos (minibuses), hotel shuttles, and rental cars are other options.
For travel within the Zona Hotelera, buses R1, R2, R15, and R27 stop every five minutes along Boulevard Kukulcán and cost a flat MX$10 no matter where you get on or off. The R2 and R15 continue to El Centro’s Wal-Mart and Mercado Veintiocho; the R1 goes as far as Puerto Juarez and the main bus terminal in El Centro.
Buses for farther-flung destinations leave from El Centro's terminal. One of the oldest bus lines in Mexico, ADO has first-class buses that stop incrementally at Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Limones, and Chetumal; the full trip (concluding in Chetumal) takes 5 hours and 45 minutes and costs MX$354. Fifteen buses make the trip daily, departing between 6 am and midnight. Mayab, a division of ADO, has second-class buses leaving for destinations along the Riviera Maya every hour.
Terminal de Autobuses (corner of Avs. Tulum and Uxmal, El Centro, Cancún, Quintana Roo, 77500. 998/884–5552.)
It’s easy and cheap to get around Cancún by bus; if you prefer traveling by taxi, however, you can always find one. Cab rides cost MX$135–MX$270 within the Zona Hotelera and MX$67–MX$135 within El Centro. Fares between the two run around MX$270. A ride to the ferries at Punta Sam or Puerto Juárez will set you back MX$330 or more. Make sure you check the fare before accepting a ride; a list of rates can be found in the lobby of most hotels or you can ask the concierge.
Cancún Convention and Visitors Bureau. The civic tourist office has lots of information about area accommodations, restaurants, and attractions. Zona Hotelera, Blvd. Kukulcán, Km 9, Cancun Center, Cancún, Quintana Roo, 77500. 998/881–2745. www.cancun.travel.