A Guide to Cancun Mexico – Part I: About the City

By Camila Perez on May 04, 2019

If you’re just now planning your first trip to Cancun, you’re in for a treat. Back in 2005, Hurricane Wilma destroyed much of the island’s infrastructure. It has rebounded beautifully, and once again, it’s among Mexico’s hottest vacation destinations.

To make your visit to this tropical paradise memorable, I suggest that you bookmark this complete travel guide to Cancun now. You’ll be glad you did it as it covers all the information that you’ll need when visiting
Cancun Mexico, from its history to the attractions that no visitor should miss. I’ve also included secret travel, shopping, and dining tips that will make your vacation in this Caribbean city as memorable as it should be.

In this guide, we'll take a look at:

  • 1. The Best Cancun Travel Tips
  • 2. Where is Cancun Mexico Located?
  • 3. How to Get to Cancun
  • 4. About Cancun Mexico
  • 5. Main Cancun Neighborhoods and a Few Main Attractions
  • 6. Paying for Things
  • 7. Cancun Time Zone
  • 8. Best Time of the Year to Visit Cancun, Mexico
  • 9. Packing for Your Trip
  • 10. Cancun Mexico Hotels
  • 11. Is Cancun Safe to Travel?
  • 12. Cancun MX FAQ:

The Best Cancun Travel Tips

Let’s start with some tips;

  • Get TSA PreCheck Clear and Global entry– Cancun is high on the list for most tourists planning for a vacation on the Mexican Caribbean coast. This means that long and annoying airport lines at the international terminal are a part of the mix. If you don’t have them yet, acquiring TSA PreCheck Clear and Global entry will help reduce this hassle as you get the privilege of bypassing slow-moving lines.
  • Consider a hotel with airport shuttle service– If you’re planning to take a direct flight to Cancun International Airport, take advantage of hotels that offer free rides to and from the airport. Of course, you could grab a cab or shuttle to the famous Hotel Zone, but besides being an expensive option, this is often chaotic as taxi drivers scramble to win you over.
  • Book excursions and adventures when you get there – Cancun is famous for its infinite Instagram-worthy tourist sites and activities. You’ll find tens of tour companies that offer discounts of up to 20% if you book the excursion several days earlier. This seems like a great idea if you’re looking to save some bucks, however you’ll soon realize that booking your excursion when you get there is much cheaper as there are many vendors around the Hotel Zone. Upon arrival, you’ll also have many more tour options than what you find online.
  • You can bring US dollars– but always pay with Pesos!- Cancun is one of the busiest and best places to visit in Mexico. This is the official entrance to the Yucatan Peninsula too. Therefore, it’s not surprising that you can use the US dollar or Mexican Pesos around the Hotel Zone and Downtown area.There’s a catch, though: when paying in US dollars, it’s a norm for the vendors and cab drivers to give change in pesos and at very lousy rates. That’s why exchanging your dollars for pesos might be a much better idea for you. One more thing- avoid using credit cards as Cancun ATMs are notorious for obnoxious exchange rates.
  • Exchange your money at your local bank– The best place to exchange your dollars for Pesos is at your local bank before leaving home. If you’ve already traveled, the next best alternative will be the ATMs at the airport. Go for ATMs that dispense Pesos. These ATMs have the same exchange rate and transaction costs as other ATMs in Mexico. Avoid the ATMs that dispense US dollars and the Cambios (currency exchange booths) within the airport. They tend to slap you with excessive transaction fees besides offering you very poor exchange rates. Most hotels also offer currency exchange services, but they are unregulated and may end up shortchanging you.
  • Be generous- give tips– Most of the resorts and bars staff won’t ask for tips (propina in Spanish). However, tipping is encouraged as it goes a long way in complementing their low wages. If you’re feeling generous, a 10-20-Peso tip per bag is the norm for porters. For housekeepers, 20-50 pesos per night should do. You may also give tips in US dollars, but remember to use bills only as coins can’t be exchanged into Mexican Pesos.
Selina Cancun Downtown

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Where is Cancun Mexico Located?

Officially known as Cancún Quintana Roo Mexico, this barrier island is shaped like the number seven. It is located off Mexico’s southeast shore, right off the tip of the northeast coast of the Peninsula. This is one of the most significant Mexican tourist destinations that lie along Highway 307, and it’s around 44 miles north of Playa del Carmen and 79 miles north of Tulum. 

Cancun city is separated from the Zona Hotelera by the Nichupte lagoon. There are two bridges that cross the lagoon, connecting the Hotel Zone to the mainland and downtown as well as to other nearby hotspots, including Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, where you can explore ancient Mayan pyramids

How to Get to Cancun

Most travelers opt to fly directly into Cancun International Airport (CUN), which is located about 9.9 miles from Cancun downtown. The second busiest airport in Mexico and the largest along the Caribbean coast, Cancun is an international airport with direct or connecting flights to and from the major airports around the world.

Flying to Cancun is the most convenient option, as most hotels offer prepaid taxis, shuttles, and other transport for their guests. Before you can head to your hotel and start enjoying your vacation, you’ll need to present your passport as well as a tourism card called an FMM. FMM tourism cards are sometimes issued by airlines, Mexican tourism offices, and Mexican consulates.

It’s a very good idea to make a copy of your FMM card as well as your passport. Carry the copies with you while you’re out and about, and keep your originals safely stored at your hotel.

Getting Around

Although travel to and from the airport is included in many Cancun travel packages, it’s also possible to book your own taxi online. Once you’ve reached the hotel zone, the best way to get around is via bus. Fares are inexpensive on Cancun public transportation, and there are plenty of stops all throughout the downtown area. Of course you can hire a taxi if you’d like to avoid public transportation, but it really isn’t necessary.

In many areas, we recommend renting cars since it can be fun to sightsee. Cancun Mexico is different, though. The roads are narrow, traffic patterns are unusual, and local drivers have their own way of doing things. You can rent a car if you want to, but it isn’t really necessary.

About Cancun Mexico

Cancun is situated on the Caribbean Sea, which offers clear, turquoise water and the white, sandy beaches that make images of the island so wonderfully enticing. Its 14-mile length includes a total area of about 764 square miles, and just offshore is a vast portion of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which is the second-longest coral reef on the planet.

This makes Cancun an excellent base for diving excursions, with numerous scuba hotspots including the MUSA underwater museum, which is home to more than 470 underwater statues.

Vibrant colors and bright sunlight welcome you to Cancun.

Cancun History: A Quick Trip Through Time

Thousands of years before it became a popular tourist destination, this amazing island was home to pre-Columbian Maya people, who called it Nizuc, which roughly translates to “point of grass” or “promontory.” The Mayan El Rey archeological site is situated in the Hotel Zone, providing a look into the island’s past and offering intriguing contrast with its contemporary structures.

After the decline of Mayan civilization, the island was mostly uninhabited. In fact, by the time the first resort was placed under development in 1970, there were only three coconut plantation caretakers living full-time on the island, enjoying the Cancun Mexico weather that makes it such a popular destination today.

Since no one could guess whether the concept of Cancun Mexico hotels and resorts would be well-accepted or if people would be willing to travel to Cancun, investors were reluctant to dip their toes in the water. Mexico’s federal government took the plunge and financed the first nine hotels as part of the FONATUR (Fondo Nacional de Fomento al Turismo) program.

Growth has continued since then, and these days, Cancun is recognized by the World Tourism Organization as one of the planet’s best vacation destinations.

Main Cancun Neighborhoods and a Few Main Attractions

Cancun’s long, narrow land mass is divided into two distinct regions, and nearby Isla Mujeres is just a short distance away by boat.

• The Hotel Zone – Accessed via Boulevard Kukulcan, which is the city’s main thoroughfare, Cancun’s Hotel Zone features large resorts, smaller, more intimate hotels, and a variety of attractions. Beaches including Playa Delfines, Playa Marlin, Playa Tortugas, and Playa Langosta are easy to access by bus as well as by foot. Many a famous Cancun restaurant is located here; whatever your taste in food, you’re likely to find tons of options!

• Downtown – The island’s downtown area is smaller and quieter than the Hotel Zone, making it the ideal destination for visitors who want to enjoy a slightly scaled back experience – particularly when spring break transforms the Hotel Zone into a nonstop party! We suggest you find a hotel close to downtown Cancun where you’ll be surrounded by lots of wonderful restaurants, plenty of shops, the famous Market 28, and many other attractions that you won’t want to miss.

• Isla Mujeres – While it isn’t exactly part of Cancun Mexico, Isla Mujeres is near enough! This lovely little island is well worth a visit – whether you want to encounter sea turtles, play golf, enjoy snorkeling, kayaking, or ziplining at Garrafon Reef park, or visit an ancient Mayan temple that was built in honor of the moon goddess, Isla Mujeres is the place to be. Try a relaxing catamaran tour if you’re not in a hurry. For a speedier trip to Isla Mujeres, you can catch one of the ferries. Plus, the Selina Isla Mujeres hotel recently opened its doors to visitors, and it’s the perfect place to continue your travels along the Caribbean coast.

Paying for Things

Just like other regions of Mexico, Cancun currency is the Peso. U.S. dollars are accepted in many places, and most establishments accept major credit cards. There are convenient currency exchanges at Cancun International Airport. The airport publishes exchange rates daily, so you can get a feel for the current value of your own currency in relation to the Mexican Peso and other common currencies including Euros and Canadian Dollars.

An important thing to be alert to is that although most outlets will accept payments in U.S. dollars, this convenience often comes at a hidden cost. Businesses and service providers who decide to take non-official currency will set their own exchange rate, which is often some pesos short of the official rate. This means that if you insist on paying using U.S. dollars, you’ll be spending around 20% extra with every payment, and this can add up pretty quickly.

Cancun Time Zone

The island recently changed to Eastern Standard Time (EST), which is GMT-5:00. The Cancun time zone is always EST, even when the U.S. east coast region swaps over to daylight savings time.

Cancun weather is usually amazing! Thanks to its location, this beautiful island offers warm, tropical weather with lovely sea breezes all year ‘round. Most days are sunny; in fact, the island offers an average of 240 to 253 sunny days per year. This near-perfect weather makes it an incredible tourist destination for pretty much any time of the year.

However, there are other factors that come into play when determining when to travel. Precisely, the best time to travel to Cancun, Mexico boils down to what exactly you’re looking for. That being said, here is our opinion on the best time to visit Cancun for different types of travelers:

Best Time to Visit Cancun for Great Weather

For many travelers, the best time to visit Cancun is between the months of December and April, when the weather is sunny, dry, and warm. These months achieve highs of 82 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit, making the Caribbean water bathtub warm and perfect for swimming and snorkeling. If you’re thinking about a trip to Cancun during Spring Break, Easter, or Christmas, you’ll want to book well in advance since these are the most popular times to visit the island.

Best Time of the Year to go to Cancun on Budget

Other travelers prefer to save money while still enjoying everything this marvelous destination has to offer. You’re likely to find better prices on accommodations and other travel essentials if you visit between May and October. Temperatures tend to be a bit higher, but sea breezes blow year-round, and most properties offer air conditioning, swimming pools, and shady pavilions where you can relax and unwind.

The hurricane season normally occurs between June and mid-October, so it pays to watch weather predictions as you plan for your trip. This overlaps with Cancun’s rainy season, which starts around the end of August and ends around mid-November. As in other tropical regions, the rainy season doesn’t mean constant day-in, day-out rain – it simply means that there’s a greater likelihood of afternoon downpours, and the streets can sometimes flood when rain is intense. While rain can be heavy, it’s usually brief. Complete rain days are rare, normally occurring only when a tropical storm is part of the forecast.

Best Time to Travel to Cancun as a Family

If you’re traveling as a family with kids, the period between April and November will favor you most. The beaches and attraction sites are less crowded between these months, making it easier to ‘see the world’ without the fear of losing anyone in the crowds. The weather around this time is ideal for swimming, too, and the water’s visibility is fair for snorkeling.

Selina Cancun Downtown

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Best time to go to Cancun for swimming, snorkeling, and diving

Cancun is known for many things, but its long stretch of dreamy, white sandy beaches has the biggest draw. If your vacation will be all about swimming and unwinding along the Caribbean’s shores, the months of July and August promise the best weather. Cancun isn’t the best place for diving and snorkeling due to low visibility, especially around the Hotel Zone.

However, a couple of tour companies take visitors to Isla Mujeres, Punta Nizac, and the Museum of Underwater Art (MUSA). These areas sprawl with active marine life and have the best water visibility. If snorkeling is at the top of your list, the months between November and May will be the best time of the year to visit Cancun.

Best time to see and swim with whale sharks in Cancun

Besides its beautiful landscapes and charming Latin culture, Cancun also boasts some of the world’s best whale shark sightings. Swimming and diving with these graceful sea creatures is a sure bet in Cancun, and most tour operators actually offer a “money back guarantee.” The whale shark season starts between Mid-June through mid-September, although the peak season is usually in July and August.

Best time to visit Cancun for nightlife

The fun never ends in this slice of paradise. As the masses leave the sandy beaches around sunset, you can rest assured that lines are forming outside Cancun’s nightclubs, including the famous Coco Bongo. And partying here lasts from dusk till dawn.

The Spring Break, which is between late February and mid-April, is legendary for night party lovers. If you want to connect with high-school grads, June to mid-July is the best opportunity for you. Note that Spring Break is often noisy in Cancun. For party-goers who prefer an exhilarating but grown-up nightlife, I suggest planning your trip to Cancun between December and February.

So, what’s the best time to go to Cancun? Anytime that suits your schedule! Travel to the island whenever you like!

An aerial view of Cancun shows the Hotel Zone, where accommodations are often right on the beach.

Packing for Your Trip

Sunny weather calls for lightweight clothing, so it’s easy to pack for a trip to Cancun without worrying about extra luggage charges. Here’s a list of essentials that most people carry along on Cancun Mexico trips.

Casualwear: Most people spend their days relaxing in casual, comfortable clothing like shorts, tank tops, and tees. Sundresses and light, airy skirts are nice to have, too.

Dressier options: If you’re planning to enjoy some clubbing or hit a few nicer restaurants, you’ll want to dress up just a little. Men normally opt for linen trousers and a lightweight collared shirt, and most women wear short, lightweight dresses.

Bathing Suits: Bring at least two bathing suits so you can wear one while the other one is drying. Be sure to bring some kind of beach coverup as well; guys can get away with a favorite T-shirt, while women might want to throw on a sarong or a strappy sundress. You might want to bring a hat, as well – the tropical sun can be intense!

Footwear: Get a pedicure before your trip, because your toes are going to enjoy plenty of exposure! Most people opt for sandals while visiting the island. Since there’s lots of walking, you’ll want comfortable options that won’t leave your feet feeling sore at the end of the day. Bring a few different pairs to complement your outfits. Consider your choices of places to visit, too: If you’re planning to take a side trip to Chichen Itza, Tulum, or Coba, be sure to bring a pair of comfortable hiking shoes. Supportive open-toed options should be fine unless you’re planning to climb the pyramids!

Just in Case: In case of cooler weather or rain, it’s a good idea to pack one long-sleeved shirt or sweater, a pair of long pants or jeans, and a pair of comfortable closed-toe shoes. Feel free to skip these if you’re running out of space; you can always stay indoors if it’s raining!

Personal Products and More: Don’t worry too much about bringing lots of soap, shampoo, hair styling product, etc. You’ll want to bring travel sizes only (check current airline regulations for specifics) and you can easily purchase anything you need while you’re there. Do remember to bring any medications as well as prescriptions in case you lose anything or need a refill.

It’s also a good idea to bring a money belt, a tote to carry to the beach, chargers for any electronics, and maybe a paperback or two. Be sure to purchase a tube of sunblock as soon as you arrive, particularly if you’re light-skinned and haven’t been exposed to the sun in a long time.

Cancun Mexico Hotels

You’ll find that Cancun Mexico hotels are available at every price point, from simple, basic bare-bones options to luxury resorts. Most accommodations options fall somewhere between the two. As for location, there are definitely choices! You can stay in the vibrant Laguna / Hotel Zone region, or you can opt for a slightly more laid-back experience at a hotel in the Downtown region. Both options have plenty to offer – so much so that we’ve got an entire guide covering where to stay in Cancun. Read on to learn more about the different types of accommodations available as well as what to expect in each neighborhood and the best places to stay in Cancun. Sightseeing details are covered in-depth in part three. Truly, there is something for everyone!

Is Cancun Safe to Travel?

This amazing island is well-insulated from crime. Although this is not the picture you get from movies and news headlines, Cancun is several fold safer than St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Detroit.

You’ll want to take standard travel precautions naturally: however, most people are traveling to Cancun, Mexico, for the same reason you are – they want to relax, soak up the sun that makes Cancun weather so desirable, and enjoy themselves.

I’d recommend hovering around tourist-oriented areas and avoiding less glitzy parts that are far away from the Hotel Zone for your safety. The Hotel Zone, Cancun beaches, and shopping malls are considered generally safe for tourists.

You’ll want to exercise a higher level of precaution when shopping around Cancun Mercados (large open-air shopping areas) as they are flocked with pickpockets and scammers.

In addition, if you’re planning to rent a vehicle in Cancun, beware that the streets can be dangerous for visitors. On this note, the State Department warns that most cars, jet skis, and mopeds aren’t maintained regularly in Mexico. So there’s the risk of them breaking down when least expected. Honestly, you don’t want this to happen to you when you’re in the middle of nowhere and more so in a foreign country.

Useful Telephone numbers in Cancun, Mexico

Cancun is generally safe, provided you avoid its high-risk areas, and stay aware of your surroundings. However, as with any other touristic city, the situations are fluidy in Mexico and can change in a snap.

For that reason, here is a list of useful emergency numbers in Cancun that might speed up emergency assistance;

  • Tourist Police- 01 (998) 885277
  • Federal Highway Police- 01 (998) 884 1107
  • General Hospital- 01 (998) 884 2967
  • Ambulance services- 065
  • Mexican Red Cross- 01 (998) 884 1616
  • Ministry of the Mexican Navy- 01 800 627 4621
  • Fire Department- 01 (998) 884 1202

Cancun MX FAQ

  • Is Cancun an Island?

    Yes and no. The Hotel Zone is an island that’s connected to the mainland, where downtown is located. If you look at a map or an overhead image, you’ll see that the island portion is long, narrow, and curved. The Caribbean washes the shore on one side, and a calm, protected lagoon sits inside the island’s curve.

  • What are some Cancun Shopping Highlights?

    Shopping in Cancun is one of the perks of visiting this little paradise, that is, if you’re strong enough to drag yourself from the powdery and sugar-white beaches and the Caribbean waves. You’ll find hundreds of purpose-built stores both along the Cancun hotel strip as well as downtown.

    Try Plaza las Americas, Forum by the Sea, Mercado 28, Plaza la Fiesta, Plaza Flamingo, Coral Negro, or La Isla. These are some of the best shopping centers and malls in Cancun, offering much more than just stores: You can get a mani/pedi, catch a movie, or even commemorate your trip with a brand-new tattoo or piercing. The sky’s the limit!

    You can still shop if you’re visiting Cancun on a budget. There are lots of cool flea markets and local shops, and haggling is common (as well as expected) at many of these. Great deals are easy to find when you take a little time to look!

  • What are some of the best Cancun Places to Visit?

    Most people plan a trip to Cancun with beaches and relaxation in mind. There are lots of places to go in Cancun, though: Try Isla Mujeres, go snorkeling, try out a jungle tour, or enjoy a Rio Secreto underground river tour. For history buffs, there are Mayan ruins nearby as well as a Mayan museum. You’ll find a complete guide in Part Three of this complete series.

  • What State is Cancun Mexico In?

    This incredible destination is located in Quintana Roo, which has the longer official name of Free and Soverien State of Quintana Roo. If you have time or if you’d like to visit Mexico more than once, consider trips to neighboring destinations that are part of the same state: Playa del Carmen and Cozumel are famous for their resorts. If history excites you, consider a visit to some of Quintana Roo’s Mayan ruins: Tulum, Xcaret, and Kohunlich are a few.

  • Where is Cancun on the map?

    The city of Cancun is located in southeast Mexico on the northeast coast of the Caribbean Sea.

  • What’s the peninsula where Cancun is located?

    The Mexican Yucatan Peninsula consists of 3 states; Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and Campeche. Cancun is located in Quintana Roo state.

  • Where is Playa del Carmen in Cancun?

    Playa del Carmen is located around 44 miles (70 km) to the south of Cancun along 307 Highway.

  • Where is the best place to stay in Cancun, Mexico?

    If you’re looking for ultimate seaside charm, the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) located along the 14-mile expanse of white sandy beach boasts some of the best places to stay in Cancun. Travelers who want to balance beach activities and a more authentic local culture will prefer El Centro (Cancun’s Downtown area). The town is a short distance from the airport, and it’s easy to access the Hotel Zone and beaches from here.

  • Where is the airport in Cancun, Mexico?

    Cancun airport (CUN) is 9.9 miles (16 km) to the south of Cancun city.

  • Where is the ADO bus in Cancun airport?

    The ADO bus company has a booth in each of the 3 terminals in Cancun airport.

  • Where is Cozumel in relation to Cancun?

    The Island of Cozumel is around 45 miles (72 km) south of Cancun. There are ferry services from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel.

  • Can you surf in Cancun, Mexico?

    Yes, it’s possible to surf in Cancun at Playa Marlin, Playa Delfines, Playa Ballenas, and Playa Chac Mool. However, the swells aren’t as high as what you’d get in California or Hawaii. So, lower your expectations.
    Read part 2 >

  • Selina Cancun Downtown

    Benefit from beautiful accommodation, daily wellness, high-speed internet, and more at Selina Cancun Downtown!

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