Cancún is one of the most popular tourist hot spots in Mexico…If spectacular white powdery beaches and turquoise crystal clear lagoons are your things, or if your curiosity fires to vibrant nightlife and ancient Mayan history: Cancún, Mexico is your place… Cancún offers a fascinating mix of culture, food and natural beauty. It’s a place where you can choose whatever pace and lifestyle that suits your frame of mind, at any time… a place that has something to enchant everyone, whether Backpacking Adventurers or Luxury Travellers.
My first experience of Mexico was one of pure wonder and awe: I don’t know if it was the radiating, colourful culture, or the serenity of the nearby Islands, but the beauty and density of all of it: historical sites or just street corners, captivated me to the core. In honesty? Sometimes I wonder if it was all just a stunningly beautiful dream…
So let’s get to the facts….The original inhabitants of the peninsula, the Mayans were relatively (in their Time period, anyway…) advanced in science and recognised for their precision in calculations, as well as the complexity of their lives, including religious rites of passage. The entire peninsula itself was an important centre of commercial trade, dating back to approximately 1,000 CE to 1,500 CE.
After the Spaniards arrived in 1519, the main Mayan cities, Chichen Itzá and Uxmal were abandoned. Wars and conquests of other tribes, plus the rugged terrain, climate and the unpredictable threat of hurricanes, made it difficult at times for any civilisation to prosper.
It was in 1967, that the Mexican Government recognised the importance of the tourist industry as an active catalyst for economic growth, and since then, they considered, planned, and started building a strong tourist flow, which hit peaks during the 1990s. That was the point when Cancún started experiencing significant growth with hotels, shopping centres and a large array of entertainment facilities have followed suit.
Things to do in Cancún
Cancún, as a city, is divided into two distinctive parts, Zona Hoteléra (the hotel area) and the actual City of Cancún also known as ‘El Céntro’. The hotel zone is a 25km strip of the purest white sandy beaches, with an array of bars and nightclubs, especially near km 8. This is where international celebrities perform every weekend, some of which might just be holidaying in Cancún so keep your eyes peeled, you never know who you might meet!
As far as Entertainment itself goes, it’s vast enough to keep anyone happy. On offer, there are prominent Latin music bars, hip-hop clubs, cabaret shows or dance clubs. While I was there…where was the Party at?: Carlos’n Charlie’s, The City, Coco Bongo, Mambo Café or Crazy Hot Coyote.
That’s for the all-night crew…but how about the Daytime dwellers?…Families and Parents with young kids have the chance to offer their little ones the fantastic and unique experience of swimming with the dolphins, touching a stingray or feeding turtles at the Aquarium and the Dolphinaris, Cancún.
There is also a myriad of tours, activities and eco-parks in the greater Cancún area that can keep you busy for at least a day or two, offering unforgettable shows, all set in stunning lush tropical vegetation, featuring exotic wildlife encounters. They were designed to please and teach both young and old alike, so whoever you are, you should try to pay a visit to ‘Xel-Ha‘ and ‘Xcaret‘. Experience all the traditions and culture of Mexico, with incredible shows, 200% authentic, with proper ethnic costumes and all! Your holiday in Cancún will be unforgettable!
For the Outdoor crew….You can tailor make your tour to include driving through the Jungle in an open top jeep, mountain biking, zip lines, canopy walks or swimming in the cool, fresh waters of the ‘cenotes’. Trips can last from an hour to a week, just travelling around the Yucatan peninsula.
Water activities in Cancún
If you are more a Marine person… and seek Water Sports, the options can seem endless… Swimming, sailing, kayaking, windsurfing, kite surfing, parasailing, jet-skiing and diving or snorkelling: Cancún has it all and at respectable levels of quality.…
The place is blessed with the world’s second largest barrier reef, ‘Gran Arrecife Maya’, so it’s a dream dive trip here, with underwater beauty and biodiversity to amaze. Swimming with Whale Sharks is an unforgettable experience: Gentle Giants that can measure up to 15m (49feet!) who feed on plankton and can be spotted hovering around the reefs, usually between May & September. From February to April kingfish, barracuda, small reef shark, grouper and blue marlin appear, and between April to August, sailfish, tuna and mahi-mahi.
The entire History of the surrounding seas can be found in the Cancún Underwater Museum, located in different areas of the National Park of Isla Mujeres, Cancún and Punta Nizuc off Cozumel, which is another great diving spot, making it another absolute sunken paradise. This project is unique and fuses Art and Environmental conservation on a large scale. It contains the largest underwater museum in the world, with more than 500 life size sculptures actually helping to create artificial reefs. The submerged sculptures can also be seen from the surface, and when seen from above, they create the silhouette of a human eye! This project benefits the ecosystem, builds awareness while measuring the impact on the underwater ecosystem. How amazing is that?
There’s fishing, glass bottom boats or sunset cruises if you want to keep yourself ABOVE water, and if you want…even a fun-filled voyage aboard an authentic 18th-century replica of a Spanish Galleon, that allows you to step back in time to the time of Blackbeard and the Caribbean Pirates! Complete with a pirate’s dinner and an open bar, complimentary on the boat. During the cruise, prepare for a pirate attack, sword fights and swashbuckling like you have never seen!
On the Sporting Menu….Cancún boasts 10 top quality 18 hole golf courses created by world-class designers, the first and the most prominent of which, Pok Ta Pok, is a lifetime memory for golfers and spectators alike.
So much to do, so how to see it all at once? Fear not, fellow traveller…there is a way…. the magnificence of Cancún and its surrounding areas can be gazed upon from the 360° rotating tower, offering a spectacular birds-eye view of Zona Hoteléra from 100m above sea level. The view is unrivalled, during the day, at night, or at sunset in between.
Downtown (El Centró) is the backbone of Cancún, a true melting pot of the old and the new: a traditional Mexico and an ultra-modern urban sprawl, melted together. Easy to reach by public transport, the main street, ‘Avenida Tulúm’, is lined with shops, banks, cafes, bars & restaurants. On the weekend you can browse around artisanal stalls or try some of the local sweet delicacies in the street market next to Parque Las Palapas. Here lives a lively happy atmosphere, accompanied by entertainment provided by various local music groups.
Outside of Cancún
‘Isla Mujeres’, with its laid back Caribbean ambience, is just a 15-20 minute boat ride away from Cancún…Here you can discover pastel-coloured houses, lining narrow streets, each with its own charm and function – cafes, stalls and handicraft shops, restaurants, dive centres, etc. are also in abundance. This island will engage your senses, in exploring, swimming with dolphins, visiting turtle farms or the Maya temple dedicated to goddess Ixchel. Cancún’s skyline reveals itself perfectly from Garrafon Park, at the south of the island, or you could go on a tour to Isla Contoy, a natural wildlife reserve inhabited by biologists and restricted, for Sciences’ sake…to just 200 visitors per day…so if you are going: plan it in advance. You will be guaranteed one of the Best Diving spots in the World!
The Mayan Ruins
Take it for granted: those famous Mayan ruins, that pop up in Lost Kingdom Adventure Movies…are now at your beck and call ..they stretch for miles and miles in both inland, as well as along the coast, with ‘Chichen Itzá’ being the most famous of all: considered to be one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, it’s an absolutely breath-taking pyramid dating back to AD 600–900, located 180km (110miles) away from Cancún, so about a 2 hour drive…it’s worth it though: it’s famous worldwide for a bonafide phenomenon that occurs just twice every year: at the equinox sunset, the falling shadow creates the appearance of a snake that gradually weaves its way down the stairway of the pyramid!
Coba and Tulúm are equally as majestic, offering a lush jungle view, plus a spectacular backdrop of the clear turquoise waters of the open ocean. Also just two hours away by car, here you can visit several archaeological sites such as ‘Ruinas del Rey’, ‘Uxmal’, ‘El Meco’, some of the Best Mayan settlements.
Mayan ruins near Merida
The City of Valladolid
From here you can also head west to Valladolid, a town founded in the 16th century boasting great architectural character and a truly authentic Mexican ‘feel’. If you decide to drive through, on your way to Chichen Itzá, as I did, you are sure to marvel at the beauty of its downtown Cathedral ‘San Servacio o Gervasio’, its main centre park Francisco Canton Rosado, and don’t forget to make the important stop at the Cenote Zaci.
CATHEDRAL SAN SERVACIO O GERVASIO
PARK FRANCISCO CANTON ROSADO
The magnificent cenotes (sinkholes) are unique to the Yucatan Peninsula, and many, just like the pyramids, remain uncharted and unexplored to this day. Aside from cliff jumping into, and swimming, in a cenote or floating through caves, stock full of spectacular stalagmites and stalactites… some tour operators also offer cave diving excursions for very experienced divers, exploring underground sacred reservoirs, rivers and deep-sea caverns.
You will need to eat of course…but the world already knows about Mexican Food. Their cuisine is one of the most versatile, combining intense flavours, a variety of spices and it’s all colourfully decorated too. Tacos, nachos and guacamole, are just a few of Cancún’s culinary repertoire. The place has so much to offer in terms of gourmet international restaurants, as you’d expect, and through the fresh produce available, you can easily try the local street food specific to this region: char-grilled fish sandwiches with chimichurri and guacamole dips…wow! Those dips were so good, I still remember them to this day as one of the best grills I’ve ever had! If you want to pair the food with a real Mexican liquor, don’t just drink and be merry…check out the Tequila museum La Distilleria or Casa Tequila bar as well.
Amidst the culture, food and history, the shopping experience is just as expansive! Be them Boutique outdoor and indoor shopping malls, market stalls or street vendors, Cancún shoppers are versatile, colourful and creative, with a privileged tax status of being duty-free on everything, especially luxury goods, so don’t be shy with hunting out souvenirs and practising bargaining skills at the local markets. There are major shopping malls as well, where you can shop til’ you drop – La Isla Shopping Village, Kukulcan Plaza, Luxury Avenue and Market 28, all of which are dotted on the main boulevard of Zona Hoteléra, Avenida Tulúm.