While I was living in London I received a proposal from a friend to go with her to Mexico. My first thoughts were, why on earth go to a dirty, third world country when Europe is on my doorstep. But after some consideration I thought, why not! To my unexpected delight I discovered a coastal paradise known as Cancun (pronounced Cancoon). I learnt there is so much to see and do in Cancun. Here are my suggestions on what to see and do in Cancun, from swimming in the spectacular turquoise ocean, lying on golden sandy beaches, exploring Mayan ruins, discovering Mexican culture, particularly the flavoursome food and enjoying the vibrant nightlife.
Where is Cancun?
Cancun is situated on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, facing the Caribbean Sea and was an alligator infested swamp before becoming a water enthusiast’s and sun worshipper’s paradise. If you enjoy lying on golden sands, swimming in a turquoise coloured ocean or perhaps sipping a cocktail by the pool before discovering Mayan ruins, then Cancun is definitely a place for you.
Cancun has been devastated a number of times by various hurricanes but always rebuilt. It comprises a long island joined to the mainland by a bridge at each end. On one side there is the Nichupte Lagoon with its bustling marinas. The ocean side has inviting turquoise crystalline waters lapping the white sands that stretch the length of the island, some 5 kilometres.
Cancun has two distinct areas: El Centro and the Zona Hotelera. Have a look at the map following.
El Centro is very different to the hotel zone as this is where you will find the local people of Cancun going about their daily business. You will find many good restaurants, shops, grocery stores and everything else you need here.
Zona Hotelera is located along the beachfront strip. This is where you will find high-rise hotels, nightclubs, shops and restaurants. And this is where I was staying in the Fiesta Americana Condesa Hotel.
Best time to visit Cancun
Anytime is a good time to visit Cancun. After all, it was created in the late seventies after a survey showed the area had the best year round weather, that being hot and tropical. On saying that, the high season for Cancun is during January to March when you will find the least amount of rain. But it is also expensive and crowded during this time. March is when the youngsters on Spring Break arrive and unless you want to party with them, I would avoid this time particularly if you have a young family. Most families visit from April to November and if you want to travel on a budget then come during the rainy season from July to October.
How to get to Cancun
Cancun has its own international airport, The Cancun International Airport which is a major hub. It has tons of options for direct flights from all over North and South America and some places in Europe. It is a super convenient places to travel to and allows easy access to the resorts nearby and beyond.
Cancun International Airport has four terminals and most international travellers will arrive at either Terminal 3 or 4. At the arrivals hall you might be greeted by a random person offering you a ride to your hotel. I would suggest you ignore them as they are not legit taxi drivers and will be happy to rip you off. Taxis are available outside to get you to your accommodation but are expensive so haggle for a good price. Or you could take the public ADO bus that drops you at the bus terminal on Av Tulum in Downtown / Centro Cancun. From here, you can take a city bus to the Zona Hotelera. It’s only about a 20 minute ride.
I had an airport transfer included in my holiday package and it was wonderful to have a lift waiting for me. It reduced my waiting time and alleviated the stress of having to sort a lift on arrival. If you don’t have one included in your holiday package you can book an airport transport here for your arrival.
How to get around Cancun
The local ADO buses can get you around Cancun and they are pretty cheap. You can rent a car or van at the airport, from your accommodation or in advance to explore Cancun and beyond. There are also many bus tour operators that can take you to the major sites which you can easily book from your hotel.
Accommodation in Cancun
Map of Zona Hotela – use this to help you choose your accommodation
Choosing a hotel on the strip is hard because of the fantastic array available. I stayed at the ‘Fiesta Americana Condesa’ which is typical of the hotels in the area. Like many of the others it offers every amenity under the sun, has luxuriant surroundings and fantastic views of the ocean or lagoon.
Our room was large, accommodating two double beds, cable TV, a well stocked bar, a safe, free wifi and a balcony overlooking the pool and the beach. The bathroom had sachets of shampoo, conditioner, body moisturiser, a hair dryer and a water purifying machine. I didn’t really need to leave the room if I didn’t want to. At night the maids would roll down the bed covers and leave a chocolate on the pillow – I felt very spoilt and loved every minute of it.
The hotel was right on the ocean and it was only a short stroll to the beach, but unfortunately the lack of protection made it windy. This particular week, the seas were rough and so after being caught in one too many on-shore dumpers, I decided to make the even shorter stroll to the pool. Here there were free beach towels, swim—up bars, volley ball courts in and out of the water, sun shelters (to protect my acquired English tan) and beach wear fashion parades everyday. Waitresses served drinks (although rather watered down) from 10.00am onwards. Sun chairs were placed in the shallows of the pools so that you could hang your hands and feet over the edge into the water when you began to warm up.
My stay included breakfast every morning and what an array of food there was. It was a buffet style where you could pile loads on your plate. From fresh fruit, cereals and cooked foods. The juice was freshly squeezed and the coffee freshly made and the view over the pool out on to the beach and the ocean was a great way to start the day.
Every evening we went down to the bar for happy hour and experience a number of local cocktails, of which margaritas became my favourite before heading to one of the number of restaurants for dinner. You really didn’t need to leave your hotel for anything as most of them, like mine, provided every service known to the human race. However, we ventured into town and hit the bars and enjoyed copious Corona Beers. Other nights we walked along the Cancun strip and checked out some of the other hotels along the strip.
As I mentioned there is a plethora of accommodation available. There are plenty of hostels to stay in. If you are after a party hostel then consider the Fiesta Party Hostel. It is close to downtown Cancun and offers free beer, free dinner and no check-out time. Another hostel with the party spirit is the Mayan Monkey Hostel which is in the heart of the hotel zone with views of the lagoon and an easy walk to the beach. If you would prefer a quieter hostel that is in the hotel zone, is on the beach and is more like a budget resort then consider the Cancun Plaza Condo Hotel. For more hostel options visit HostelWorld.
For resort style accommodation you can’t go past the Fiesta Americana Condesa where I stayed but there are plenty of others to choose from. From the Marriott Cancun Resort to world-renowned hotel chain names like the Ritz Carlton, Holiday Inn, Hyatt Sheraton, etc. Check out Booking.com for more Cancun accommodation options.
Enjoying cocktails at Happy Hour at the Fiesta Americana Condessa
What to See, Do, Eat and Visit in Cancun
Visit Cancun City & Beaches
The Cancun strip of hotels are built along the beach facing the Caribbean Sea. You can walk along the beaches and maybe have a selfie with the ‘Cancun Beach Sign’. If you are short of time you might want to visit some of the beaches on a tour that could incorporate a tour of Cancun City itself. If interested in such a tour of Cancun City and its Beaches you can book one here.
Be a ‘Gringo’ (foreigner) in a Cancun Cantina
Being another ‘gringo’ in the many cantinas was fun and good value. The food was glorious, and not just tacos and fajitas either. Fresh fish, lobster and shrimp were plentiful and you mostly chose the way you wanted them cooked. You could try the Ceviche which is classified as raw fish, but is marinated in vinegar with onions, peppers and spices and served on rice — very nice!
Conch was very popular dish that I tried. Conchs are mollusks that are related to the snail and have have meat or ‘scungilli’ inside. It was served fried in bread crumbs, like fritters and it was a little chewy like squid but tasted more like crab, very tasty. Chicken and beef were served in onions, green peppers and sauce, and wrapped in soft tortillas with Salsa Sauce (a spicy tomato and onion sauce) – simply a must! Guacamole was plentiful, fresh and truly yummy – even better washed down with a shot of Tequila. If these delights weren’t enough, McDonalds was in the centre of town along with many pizzerias.
If you would like to enjoy a traditional Mexico fiesta then give Xoximilco a try. This Mexican party is held on trainers (gondola-like boats) where you can experience live music, traditional Mexican dishes served with beer and/or tequila. I never went on one but wish I had. You can book your Xoximilco Fiesta experience here.
Enjoy the nightlight
There is plenty of nightlife to enjoy in Cancun. Ranging from happy hour at your hotel to partying at clubs all night. The choice is yours. One of the most popular clubs in Cancun is the Bongo Night Club. You can experience the club by turning up but be aware there can be long queues of people waiting to get in. I discovered a tour you can go on that takes you to 3 top rated clubs before taking you to the Bongo Night Club which will see you skip-the-queue. You can book the Bongo Night Club Tour here.
Conch Fritters – very tasty
Shop till you drop
Shopping in Cancun is interesting. Items range from cheap to expensive. Some trinkets looked cheap and nasty, though, if you found a street stall you could pick up an authentic handmade wood carving of a Mayan God, some jewelry or a traditional woven Mexican blanket. Shopping malls are springing up all over the town with money exchanges (which you don’t need as they accept US Dollars), car rentals and designer stores — but who goes to Mexico to pick up the latest Chanel! Of course T-shirts were plentiful and how could I resist my ‘I’ve been to Cancun too’ shirt in psychedelic pink.
Cancun’s Mercado 28 (Market 28) is a popular place to explore. It is a huge shopping centre in downtown Cancun and is a giant flea-market boasting some 600 vendors where you can buy unique handcrafted items to maracas to leather items. If you like flea markets you will love this place. If you would like to be taken to some of the most popular stores you can always go on a shopping tour, you can book one here.
Visit some of the hotels in the Zona Hotelero
The Zona Hoteera is primarily a tourist area. Along the 15 mile strip there are tons of hotels offering every service possible to its visitors. Making the area a place that some people don’t need, or want to leave. From all the luxury during the day to being a party zone at night visiting different hotels is a must-see and do. My friend and I spent some times walking along the beach and popping in to some of the hotels. It was fun to see what the other hotels looked like inside and out. At night, many of hotels were alive as revellers partied hard.
Discover Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza
Chichen Itzá is one of the Yucatan’s most spectacular, well-preserved and largest archaeological Mayan ruin sites. When you visit you will learn first-hand about the Maya people that inhabited this ancient Maya capital. The site is well-preserved and you can walk around and admire stone-carved serpent heads on the gigantic stepped pyramid El Castillo. Be careful as it is very steep and the steps are small. Some people, when they get to the top cannot get down as fear overcomes them because the steps are so small. Many people crawl down on their bottoms.
You will also discover the secrets behind Juego de Pelota (the Great Ball Court) where sports tournaments ended in human sacrifice. Maybe have a dip in the limestone swimming hole, known as a cenote which is sacred to the Mayas.
You can reach Chichen Itza independently by taking an ADO bus. It can take around 3 hours however, going on a day tour which includes your transport, lunch and a guide is a great and enjoyable experience. I did a tour which we booked from our hotel. You can book one in advance here.
Cozumel is an island located about 19km offshore from Cancun. The island is about 48km (30 miles) long and 16km (9.9 miles) wide with much of it covered with mangroves however, if you venture there you will be treated to great snorkelling and scuba diving. If you prefer to stay on land then I suggest sitting on a beach of walking around the main town of San Miguel. Cozumel can be reached by a short ferry ride that you can book from your hotel or you can book a trip to Cozumel here.
If you enjoyed the visit to Chichen Itza then you will enjoy a visit to Tulum as here you will find more Mayan ruins to explore. These ruins are situated on 12 metre high tall cliffs along the coast. Quite spectacular to see. You can visit independently or go on a tour. You can book a trip to Tulum here.
Participate in water activities
If you would like to do more than a quick dip in the pool or ocean there are plenty of water activities in and around Cancun to undertake. There is stand up paddle boarding (SUP), snorkelling and scuba diving. One of the best places to snorkel is at the amazing Underwater Museum or MUSA where you will find 500 sculptures created to encourage coral reef development. Sculptures include VW Beetles, statues of locals and huge hands. Plus there is loads of local wildlife to see swimming around.
Cancun is a place that has a lot to offer the traveller. My favourite things to do and see in Cancun were relaxing by the pool and beach, enjoying the local food and shopping for Mexican products. And then there was my trip to Chichen Itza which was incredible to learn about the Mayan culture. Cancun has so much to offer and I am so glad my friend convinced me to take a holiday in Cancun in Mexico. If you find yourself in South America I would definitely include Cancun in your itinerary.
Please Note: This was not a sponsored trip. I went on a package deal that included my flight from LA to Cancun, an airport transfer and 7 nights accommodation staying at the Fiesta American Condesa that included breakfast every day.
Sharyn McCullum has travelled most of her life thanks to her dad who worked at Sydney Airport. In her 20’s she left Australia and spent 4 years on a working holiday in London before working and travelling in other countries. She currently calls Melbourne home.