Unless you are a college spring breaker or a pair of middle-aged parents taking their family on vacation, Cancun is a no-no. At least, that’s what it seems like everyone thinks. Backpacking through Central America, I encountered many travelers who would just scoff at the thought of going to Cancun. In my mind, I felt pretty much the same. I had never been to Cancun but I assumed it was just as resort-y and touristy and terrible as everyone made it seem.
Yes, it is true that parts of Cancun have been overtaken by massive resorts, megaclubs, and shopping malls. Key word: parts. There is an entirely different side to Cancun that is completely ignored by travelers. It’s like going to New York City, spending your entire time in Times Square, and then saying New York City sucks.
Cancun’s Zona Hotelera is Mexico’s equivalent to Las Vegas. Endless hotels, gigantic clubs, luxury shopping malls, and painfully bad theme restaurants make up the entire experience for most vacationers.
One thing I didn’t know until I got to Cancun was that Cancun is a big, big city. There is a lot to do and a lot to see beyond the resort area. How people spend a week in Cancun without leaving the comforts of an area built entirely for tourists is beyond me. I’ve been to places in America more Mexican than Zona Hotelera. To put it one way, over 600,000 people live in Cancun. 99% of them do not live or even ever go near the tourist resort area. There is a huge city to experience outside of Cancun’s resort stretch.
P.S. This ain’t a bash to Zona Hotelera. I got drunk there many a time, but simply cannot fathom restricting myself to that area every day. I’ll confess, I did eat at a theme restaurant once called Senor Frogs. I won a free dinner from my hostel thanks to my expertise at trivia. It was the cringiest, most unreasonably expensive dinner I’ve ever had. Sure, my $20 kids’ meal enchiladas were free, but trying to sip on your $30 tequila-in-a-tube while drunk middle-aged couples conga line wearing balloon hats is about as far as you can get from an authentic Mexican experience. Coco Bongo’s was fun, though.
Cancun is a dope city. It has trendy restaurants, exciting nightlife, and the passionate Mexican culture. All of this can be found outside of Zona Hotelera. Local markets, bustling plazas, and authentic (and cheap!!!) tacos can be found everywhere. I ate almost every meal at the Parque de las Palapas. It was shocking if I spent more than $2 for a meal in downtown Cancun. In other words, f*ck you, Senor Frogs.
The local transportation system in Cancun is easy to figure out and you can explore the different parts of the city cheaply and easily. That means you can get the crazy Cancun nightlife experience and all of the beach time that you want without having to shell out hundreds of dollars a night to stay at Zona Hotelera. For less than a buck, you can get to pretty much anywhere in Cancun.
Cancun is probably one of the most misunderstood cities I have ever been to. I didn’t expect to like Cancun at all. It was honestly just a stepping stone to Cuba for me, but I ended up spending a week there. You can still experience Cancun’s incredible beaches and ridiculous nightlife without staying at an expensive resort in a fake pop-up city for tourists.
Yes, there’s a reason Cancun is a popular tourist destination. It does have fantastic beaches with crystal clear blue waters and soft, white sand. Scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, snorkeling, and sailing are just some of the things you can do in Cancun. You can also check out a few Mayan ruins, cool museums, and catch a professional soccer match while in Cancun.
Cancun also makes a great home base for seeing the rest of what Yucatan has to offer. Within a few hours of Cancun, you can access places like Tulum, Chichen-Itza, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and my personal favorite, Isla Holbox.
There is a great city outside the boundaries of resort world to experience. Unfortunately, it gets lost underneath Cancun’s reputation as strictly a beach resort city. Bashing Cancun without even experiencing it is unfair to the city.