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. This is the first article in a three-part series that provides you with a complete travel guide to Cancun Mexico with information about shopping, dining, and key attractions. In it, we’ll cover the basics including travel tips, some information about Cancun itself and its history, and more. Enjoy!
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 Yucatan peninsula. There are two bridges that cross the Nichupte 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. This 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.
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! Canacun’s downtown region is home to quite a few comfortable hotels, 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.
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.
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 and the Best Time to Visit
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.
For many travelers, the best time to visit Cancun is between the months of December and April, when weather Is sunny, dry, and warm, with highs around 85 degrees Fahrenheit. 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.
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.
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!
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.
Is Cancun Safe to Travel?
This amazing island is well-insulated from crime. You’ll want to take normal 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.
What are some Cancun Shopping Highlights?
Shopping is one of the best indoor activities in Cancun Mexico! You’ll find hundreds of stores both along the Cancun hotel strip as well as downtown. Try Plaza las Americas, Forum by the Sea, 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, take in a movie, or even commemorate your trip with a brand-new tattoo or piercing. The sky is 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.
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