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The Ultimate Guide to Cancun

It’s that Mexico-calling time of year.

By Kristin Busse

Published on 3/1/2022 at 6:15 PM

Before you brush it off as a name you’ve heard too often, consider that there’s a reason why so many people go to Cancun. Take the nearby cenotes, for example. Imagine underground caves, open to the sky and dripping with green moss along the walls, with an aqua blue pool at the bottom—perfect for a refreshing dip on a hot Mexico day. Or consider the ancient Mayan temples, the gray pebbly pyramids with so many steps, adorned with skulls and surrounded by lush jungles, which you can explore on bicycle. There are also the white sand beaches that never burn your feet, snorkeling and scuba diving, and warm, turquoise-colored Caribbean water that Cancun is known for.

One of the first cities to open up to tourists after the pandemic began, Cancun grows and changes daily, so even if you’ve been before, you’ll still find new offerings. There’s the flashy Greek restaurant Ilios that includes live dance and fire torch performances. You could actually get slimed on—like, full-on green slime—at the new Nickelodeon Riviera Maya (maybe for your kids, maybe for your fake kids). There’s even new shopping in the soon-to-come Grand Outlet Malltertainment—should be good, since they made up a new word for it—which is scheduled to open later this year. And there’s now an even larger ferris wheel at recently-opened Plaza La Isla II. For those who wish to venture outside of Cancun, the Mayan Train, which will transport locals and visitors all over the Yucatan Peninsula, is under construction and should be completed in 2023.

Whether you want to be pampered by an all-inclusive resort or roam in Parque las Palapas after a perfect beach day at Playa Delfines, trying tacos al pastor from a street vendor along the way, this well-established vacation spot still has you covered. Here’s everything to do in Cancun.

Stay where everything is at your fingertips

Cancun is most famous for its all-encompassing, all-inclusive resorts, where meals and entertainment are included with your room. Many of them are located in the Hotel Zone—a 14-mile narrow island lined with resorts on the Caribbean side and restaurants with a front row view to Cancun’s golden sunsets on the Nichupte lagoon side. Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun All Inclusive Spa Resort is one such convenient, oceanside property. Here, you almost can’t tell where the swimming pools end and the beach begins, with lounge chairs and thatched umbrellas spilling from the wooden deck directly onto the sand.

Meanwhile, Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya made the wise decision to separate the adult section, Heaven, from the family section, Hacienda. Being a Hard Rock means you can have a record player and even guitar delivered to your room or splash down numerous slides in the on-site water park. Whereas being a resort means you could opt for a massage directly on the beach or arrange trips to go swim with dolphins, ziplining, sailing, or venture to the ancient ruins of Chichen Itza.

Further south and away from the Hotel Zone, Hotel La Semilla is a small, gorgeously designed bed & breakfast. It’s located in the heart of downtown Playa del Carmen, yet is surrounded by cenotes, jungles, and even a small Mayan ruin. The nine rooms were decorated with items purchased at Mexican flea markets, which gives it an eclectic, creative feel. Beach life here is serious business: yes, there’s wifi, but there are no TVs in the rooms.

Without a doubt, Hotel Xcaret Arte, a tribute to Mexican and Mayan culture and artistry, is the most visually striking resort in the Riviera Maya, the coastal area south of Cancun that encompasses towns like Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. There’s a breathtaking postcard moment around every corner. Each of the six casas have a different theme—weaving, painting, pottery, dance, literature, and cooking.

If you’d rather spend your money on spicy tacos and snorkeling excursions, check out friendly hostels like Nomads downtown. This oasis in steamy downtown Cancun has a funky bar/restaurant and a pool on the roof, and it’s just steps away from inexpensive public transportation to the beach.

Try some Mexican heat and mucho more

The Yucatan Peninsula, where Cancun is located, is known for its habanero salsa, which will burn your face off. But the most popular vacation destination in Latin America offers cuisine from all over the globe. For a treat-yourself dining experience, check out Tora. This new Japanese restaurant in the Hotel Zone offers wagyu tartare, hamachi sushi, and hot rice pot—plus an all-out show with fire, live drumming, and fireworks.

Cantina la No. 20 in swanky Puerto Cancun Marina Town Center puts a glittering contemporary twist on Mexican cuisine, including every kind of taco, from rib-eye to octopus, and cocktails like the Mezcal Julep. After dinner, stay for the videos on the giant screen, live trio, and tequila. Sip it with sangrita, a spicy, tomato based chaser.

For something a little more understated, La Palapa Belga, a French-Belgian spot located in a small hotel in the Pok-Ta-Pok neighborhood in the Hotel Zone, has been a treasured local secret for years.

But of course you can’t miss out on street food in Mexico. Try fried quesadillas from Tierra del Sol (don’t forget to add pink pickled onions and fiery green salsa) and esquites, a creamy corn snack—look for the giant metal pot—at Parque las Palapas, the main park in downtown Cancun.

Drink margaritas and cervezas like there’s a fiesta every day

If you wanna go all out to see what the party scene in Cancun looks like, the pounding bass, flashing lights, and flying confetti get the blood pumping… and that’s just when you’re standing on the sidewalk. Coco Bongo, the huge antro (meaning nightclub) is Cancun’s most famous den of sin. Dance on the bar, do body shots, and see Madonna and Michael Jackson impersonators.

For a stylish, upscale club ambiance with house beats and DJ sets, head to HRoof at kilometer 14 on the lagoon side in the Hotel Zone. Leave your flip-flops and shorts in the hotel, the dress code is party chic. For something on a smaller scale, try Monkey Business for dinner, live music, and karaoke.

If you want an authentic local experience, head to Route 666, which has been open for almost as long as Cancun has been around. It’s technically a biker bar, but Cancunenses from all walks of life party at Route 666, because of the cheap fare and the live music.

For a totally different experience, visit Xoximilco by Xcaret, Cancun’s version of the colorful Xochimilco canal in central Mexico. This lively boat fiesta featuring food and cocktails takes place aboard a brightly decorated gondola-like vessel called a trajinera, with stops along the way for authentic Mexican entertainment, including live music and folklore dancing.

Find your own slice of beach

There’s really no place better than a Cancun beach. The beaches on the top part of the Hotel Zone (which is shaped like the number seven) are calm and shallow, while the beaches on the bottom part have larger waves with that perfect Cancun-blue water. One of the best public beaches in the Hotel Zone is Playa Delfines, also known as el Mirador. It’s located at kilometer 18 and is the only beach that still doesn’t have any hotels built on it. This is also where the world-famous Cancun sign is. You may have to wait in line to take a photo, but you won’t miss it.

Visiting a beach club is a fantastic way to spend a day on the sand because they supply everything: chairs, an umbrella, food, and drinks. Sacbé Beach Shack, nestled under the pool at the Marriott Cancun, serves up decadent cocktails, snacks, lunch and DJ music with a bohemian party vibe. Or try local favorite My Paradise in Puerto Morelos for margarita on the rocks with a salted rim.

See one of the Seven Wonders of the World

When in Cancun, a visit to a Mayan ruins site is practically obligatory. Chichen Itza is the most well-known, thanks to its status as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The ancient city is said to have been founded by water sorcerers and was a sacred site formed in the 5th century. Today, there are still over 26 ruins of the city to explore, the crown of which is the pyramid with its many, many steps.

Coba is another important site that is a little less well-known and not as crowded. This ancient city sits next to a few lakes and has numerous temples, white stone roads leading to different buildings, ball courts for ancient sport, and emblems of jaguars—all swallowed up by green jungles.

Dive into cenotes or soar above jungles

The Yucatan Peninsula is covered in thousands of cenotes, natural freshwater sinkholes that are connected by underground rivers. On a sweltering hot day, a cool cenote really hits the spot. You’ll find a whole line of them, one after another, in La Ruta de los Cenotes near Puerto Morelos, just a 30 minute drive from Cancun proper. Try Cenote La Noria, which has a rope swing and zip lines.

To pack in as much adventure as possible, head to Xcaret, a nature and cultural park with a lively night show. The different parks at Xcaret are a little pricey, but provide quality facilities and experiences. Xplor is the ziplining and adventure park where you can fly above the jungle or swim under it. Xenotes offers four different kinds of cenotes and guides visitors through them via kayak, cliff jumping, or repelling. Xel-Ha is a nature park that boasts the largest natural aquarium in the world. Previously mentioned Xoximilco is a Mexican fiesta that cruises on a boat across the water. Xavage is an extreme adventure park with white water rafting and driving Monster Trucks. And lastly (phew!) Xenses park combines adrenaline activities with soothing floating in salt rivers and mud baths.



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