The Sweet Spot: Cancún

by Christina Garofalo | August 4, 2017
all-inclusive beach hotel top budget destinations

The Sweet Spot: Cancún

Bringing you the world’s best travel destinations — and when you should visit them for the best value.

Since 1974, when developers first targeted Cancún as a tourist destination, the northeast tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula has transformed from a scarcely inhabited strip to the country’s top resort destination.

In addition to the all-inclusive beachfront hotels, Cancún is home to one of the world’s largest coral reefs, and it’s a couple hours’ drive from the 1,000-year-old Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá. Downtown Cancún is easily accessible by bus and is a great place to enjoy colorful street performances, food stalls, and shopping. If you’re on a budget, independent travel in the region is safe, easy, and cheap -- even if you don’t speak Spanish. All of that, plus the picturesque turquoise water, white sand beaches, and tropical climate, make Cancún is one of our favorite beach destinations at every price point.

The Perfect Time to Visit

December and April

Cancún’s weather is best from November through April, when you’ll enjoy daytime highs in the mid-80s and evening lows in the mid-60s. Avoid mid-December to mid-February, when prices peak, and March when the town is overrun by spring breakers. We like early December and April, when the weather is still comfortable but the prices drop. However, if Easter falls in April, prices will skyrocket. It is worth looking at prices in May, in that case, as well as November.

When booking airfare, you’ll find the best deals from late spring through December.

The Cheapest Option

September and October

September and October are the two wettest months of the year, with an average of 9 inches of rain per month. However, there are many people who prefer to visit during this time because the weather is usually good -- as long as it's not raining, the beach is lovely -- and the crowds are at their thinnest. However, bear in mind that September and October are part of the active Tropical Storm season. If you do book during this time, monitor the forecast for potential risks.

For a happy medium, you might try the very end of October when Cancún is transitioning to drier weather.

The Smart Place to Stay

The Royalton Riviera Cancún
New in 2017, the Royalton Riviera is a five-star all-inclusive resort with 840 modern, minimalist suites that feature marble bathrooms, free in-room wifi and Bluetooth speakers, and international calling. There's an expansive spa and wellness center, an outdoor pool, a private beach, tennis courts, a nightclub, and grocery delivery. An on-site splash park and supervised kid’s and teen’s clubs make it ideal for families. The hotel can also arrange activities like windsurfing and snorkeling. We found rooms for as low as $319.48 USD per night in mid-October to $340 per night in December, inclusive of all meals, compared to $534 per night in the peak months of February and March.

Hyatt Ziva Cancún
Following a multimillion-dollar renovation last year, the former Dreams Cancún hotel has reopened as the all-inclusive Hyatt Ziva Cancún. Situated on two pristine beaches, the resort has three infinity pools overlooking the sea, a spa and fitness center, and on-site dining. The hotel's 547 rooms are separated into areas for families and exclusively for adults. All are equipped with modern amenities, marble bathrooms, and private balconies. The resort hosts shows, water sports, and has its own microbrewery, and it's located within a short walk from the nightlife center. You can snag an all-inclusive stay for $396 USD per night in mid-September and October, compared to $581 per night in January and $624 in February.

Iberostar Cancún
This year, the Iberostar Cancún unveiled a new 13-floor all-suites tower with its own terrace bar, pool with swim-up bar, a new restaurant. Each of the 156 suites has a whirlpool on its own private terrace. The resort, located just five minutes from Cancún International Airport, now boasts a total of 582 guest rooms and suites. The property is known for its convention center, which has unobstructed views of the Caribbean. Other facilities include seven infinity swimming pools, a gym, a salon and spa, as well as two tennis courts, a professional football field, and an onsite 18-hole golf course. The resort requires a minimum three nights’ stay, which can range from as low as $756 USD (approximately $250 per night, all-inclusive) in November and December to nearly $1,200 (approximately $400 per night, all-inclusive) in January and February.

What to See and Do

The Caribbean Sea offers countless activities, including snorkeling, jet skiing, and parasailing. The water surrounding Cancún is home to underwater caverns, coral reef, and cenotes, making it an especially good place for scuba diving. The Mayan Barrier Reef is the second largest coral reef in the world. In the northern part of Punta Cancún, entry- to mid-level divers can visit the Banderas and El Bajito coral reefs; experienced divers can visit the San Miguel and Aristos reefs.

Fishing is also popular, as the sea is home to Sawfish, Red Snapper, and Grouper, to name a few.

Culture-hounds can take a day trip to ancient Mayan pilgrimage site Chichen Itza (though we recommend doing an overnight if possible). If you do head down for the day, plan to arrive as early as possible to beat the heat and crowds.

If you can’t get all the way to Chichen Itza, opt to see Las Ruinas del Rey, located right in the resort area, or the Mayan ruins at the Museo Maya de Cancún. El Meco, a larger archaeological site, is also nearby just outside the Cancún city limits.

Though it has become a bit like a Mexican Disneyland, the Xcaret eco theme park in the Riviera Maya -- located about 70 minutes by car from Cancún -- offers impressive nature-based attractions, including a river through a Mayan village, and a subterranean area where you can swim and snorkel. You can reach the park by taxi, which will cost between $80 and $100 USD each way, or by car (on-site parking is free).

For a taste of Spain, visit Plaza de Toros -- a small bullring in downtown Cancún, where bullfights are held every Wednesday.

Hop on a sunset or night cruise to the nearby beaches of Isla Mujeres.

Cancún is a golfer’s paradise, with courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jr., and Greg Norman.

If you're visiting during the off season, the interactive aquarium is a great indoor attraction. In the open-air section, you can swim with dolphins and touch sea urchins, stingrays, sea turtles, and conches.

Pilot your own two-person speed boat or jet ski to explore the jungle in the Nichupte Lagoos mangroves, where there is a variety of wildlife and coral reef.

One of the first shopping malls developed in the Cancún Hotel Zone, Kukulcán Plaza, is undergoing a large renovation this year and should have even more to offer shopaholics.

Tips to Save Even More

A taxi from the airport can be expensive. Instead, take the bus. Cancún's bus system, called ADO, is easy to use and cheap. Located to the right when you exit the airport, the bus leaves every half hour until 11:30 p.m., takes about 30 minutes, and costs 62 pesos ($5 USD) to the hotel area. The bus also runs downtown.

Stock up on inexpensive snacks, bottled water, and other groceries at Chederaui, a large grocery store with locations downtown and in the Hotel Zone (prices are cheaper downtown).

For free entertainment, head to Palapas Park in the evenings. The park is populated with food stalls and you can catch Mexican wrestling, the Yucatan Philharmonic Orchestra, or just people watch. There’s a carousel and bouncy houses for the kids.

Consider staying downtown instead of at the resorts. Downtown Cancún is just 20 to 30 minutes by bus from the Hotel Zone and the beaches. By staying downtown, you can get better prices on everything, including hotels, restaurants, and souvenirs. If you opt to stay here, there are a number of lovely public beaches, such as Playa Juventud and Playa las Perlas, that you can reach easily and cheaply for the day. Outside of high season, you should be able to get a decent room from as low as $20 to $40 USD per night.

Avoid touristy restaurants on the beach and search for inexpensive, authentic Mexican food. These places are usually characterized by menus painted on the walls, a big flat grill out front, bright lighting, and minimal decor. As always, only go to a restaurant if it's crowded -- you can probably bet it is good. If it’s empty, it’s empty for a reason. There are many authentic eateries around Parque las Palapas in Cancún and the Bazar Municipal in Valladolid.

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