What once was a city with just three inhabitants in 1970 (yes, three!), is now Mexico’s #2 tourist destination, second only to its capital city, as reported by the Ministry of Tourism last year. Cancun’s zero-to-sixty boom was thanks to strategic investment from the Mexican government, who recognized its potential when they spied its deserted jungles and turquoise waters in a plane survey. But the city’s enormous success has not come without challenges. In the '90s, Cancun gained a reputation as the perfect Spring Break destination for American college students -- a sure turn-off for vacationing families and older travelers.
Over the past decades, however, and after seasons of trashed rooms and disruptive behavior, hotels started requiring hefty deposits from college students during the March-to-May timeframe -- and some hotels blatantly refuse to rent to college clientele altogether. All this is to say: Cancun is now more than a Spring Break destination.
The beaches are comparable to the Caribbean, the exchange rate is more attractive, and there’s cultural exploration to be done, even here, despite the existing American comforts. Here are four reasons why may want to put Cancun back on your list.
With 32,000 hotel rooms and counting, Cancun’s resort reputation has its benefits: hotels competing for your business. Lots of them. Cash in your rewards points at major brand chains, or simply enjoy great deals. The J.W. Marriott Cancun, for example, occasionally runs a “Last Minute Weekend” promotion (not just for Marriott Rewards members) with waterfront rooms starting at $151 if you have flexibility with dates. August through early December are also the cheapest months to book, with general rooms starting at $200, and prices being even more attractive for rewards members.
Situated just north of the coastline band called the Riviera Maya, Cancun boasts the classically clear, aquamarine waters for which the Caribbean is known. Admittedly, the waves are a bit bigger here, but still fit for swimming. A ferry-ride away in Isla Mujeres, snorkeling is to be had, with a confetti rainbow of fish that shows off the Caribbean’s biodiversity. Of course, if you wanted to skip all of it and just lounge on a daybed with bottle service, no one would fault you for it.
If you want a “set it and forget it” vacation, Cancun is the place to go. Even if you don’t choose to stay at an all-inclusive resort (the types of which can vary greatly in value and quality), larger hotels make it easy for families, older travelers, and honeymooners to not have to think about planning and logistics. Packages include adventure activities (snorkeling with whale sharks, anyone?), fitness, and Mayan mud spa services. Even if you’re a more independent traveler, it’s a relief to have rides arranged and activities paid for upfront, so you don’t have to think about haggling. Make no doubt about it, Cancun makes vacationing easy -- and there’s no shame in that.
Let’s just get this out of the way: there’s a Forever 21 and a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in the Zona Hotelera (Cancun’s seaside hotel strip). But even with these American standbys (which may or may not be your cup of tea), the fact remains that Cancun is still in Mexico. Twenty minutes away in Isla Mujeres, winding streets and colorful alleyways await -- the perfect day trip before returning to your hotel room with a spa tub and champagne service in the evening. In downtown Cancun, where the majority of resort employees live with their families, there are hole-in-the-wall taco joints where the conchinita pibil is not to be missed. The dining in the Zona Hotelera can also be quite good, if you know how which tourist-pandering restaurants to avoid. Porfirio’s on the bay offers elevated Oaxacan and Yucatecan fare, well beyond saccharine margaritas and chicken fajitas. Their enmoladas – which can be thought of as enchiladas with mole sauce – are excellent, and their roasted bone marrow is luscious. Skip the tacos here, there are better dishes to be had.