Cancún, which generates about one-third of Mexico’s tourism revenue, might be the least Mexican city in the country. You can spend your entire vacation without speaking a word of Spanish or exchanging a single dollar for pesos. Since the first three hotels opened in 1974 on a deserted spit of land visited only by local fishermen, Cancún’s Hotel Zone has acquired a phalanx of massive resorts and megamalls, sprawling for 23km (14 miles) like the love child of Miami and Las Vegas. Yet no amount of change has tarnished the gift from nature that put it on the map four decades ago: an expanse of soft alabaster sand and a Caribbean sea the color of blue Curaçao. The brochures, in this case, don’t lie.
Cancún today offers more than 32,000 rooms and has an estimated population of nearly 800,000. It is not only the Yucatán Peninsula’s most prosperous city but one of the entire Caribbean’s most-visited destinations. And its influence continues to grow. With precious little real estate left in the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone), the phalanx of luxury resorts marched relentlessly south down the coast, spurring an aftershock of luxury development along the Riviera Maya. A huge, upscale “city within a city” called Puerto Cancún is under development north of the Hotel Zone, with a marina, hotels, and gated communities, a golf club, shopping center, and business complexes. Taking shape north of Ciudad Cancún (Cancún City, or “downtown”) on the mainland is Playa Mujeres, a kind of mini–hotel zone with several hotels, a golf course, and more sublime beaches.
So what do you experience in Cancún’s raison d’être? Well, the narrow, dog-legged spit, barely wide enough for a single boulevard lined by imposing resorts that vaguely resemble pyramids, palaces, and Cubist sculptures, has nothing resembling the central plaza where so much of traditional Mexican life takes place. You won’t stroll sleepy side streets, meet artisans who have been practicing their craft for generation after generation, or find a pristine, unmapped beach to call your own.
This Cancún is a culture unto itself, an idyllic Caribbean cocoon where life consists of sipping margaritas on those legendary sands, shopping in glittering retail palaces, gyrating in thumping, all-night discos, and seeking fortification in an array of fine restaurants so you can do it all again the next day. It’s easy to get to, largely English-speaking, does business in dollars, and is well supplied with familiar international chains. It was designed from the ground up solely as an enclave of hotels, restaurants, shopping centers, golf courses, and marinas. The all-inclusive resorts that account for a large, and growing, percentage of Hotel Zone lodging eliminate the need to venture beyond their boundaries at all. This is vacationing at its purest.
The one demand Cancún makes is on your wallet. Tabs at the ever-more-luxurious resorts equal or surpass those at comparable U.S. properties.
While the Zona Hotelera draws the tourists, Ciudad Cancún—El Centro (Downtown), as it is often called—is what makes it all work. Built on the mainland to house workers building the resorts and restaurants, it has no more history than the Zona Hotelera does, but it is a genuinely Mexican city that most foreign visitors overlooked until recent years. This is where Mexicans make their homes, conduct their business, do their shopping, and let off steam. With permanent homes, commercial areas, public buildings, parks, schools, hospitals and markets, it has evolved into a lively metropolis fusing Mexican, Yucatecan, Maya, Caribbean, and North American lifestyles. An ample supply of affordable hotels and restaurants that don’t tone down their authentic flavors for tourists’ palates makes it a reasonable alternative to the Hotel Zone for some travelers. Even Hotel Zone vacationers are venturing to the mainland in search of respite from sun-and-sand hangovers.
With downtown’s increasing appeal, Cancún is achieving a balance as it matures, offering attractions for the adventurous spirit as well as the sybaritic vacationer. Though the Hotel Zone has perfected the art of relaxation and pampering in luxurious surroundings, you’ll miss a lot if you don’t venture past its alluring shores—you’ll miss Mexico.
Because of its enormous popularity and resulting competition among airlines, Cancún’s airfares are the lowest you’ll find to Mexico outside of the capital. That, along with the good roads, sophisticated hotels, and enlightened tour companies make Cancún an ideal launch pad for forays to the Riviera Maya and fishing villages farther south, inland Maya ruins, and the splendid Yucatecan capital of Mérida to the west. Wherever you stay, make time to take advantage of perhaps Cancún’s greatest virtue of all—its prime location in one of the most naturally blessed and culturally rich regions of Mexico.