Made for Fun Imagine water so deeply turquoise that the color simply does not look real. Pair it with an expanse of pearly white sand for contrast, and then phase in the soothing aural backdrop of gently breaking waves. Add coconut palms: gracefully curving trunks crowned with arching green fronds rustled by a constant breeze. Install an azure sky. Mix well. Voilà—you have Cancún.
If this sounds like a seaside recipe cooked up in a laboratory dedicated to creating the ideal vacation, the truth is not all that far off the mark. While Mayan settlement of the Yucatán is believed to date as far back as 2,500 B.C.—and the Maya had abandoned their city strongholds before Spanish conquistadores even set foot on Mexican soil—Cancún dates only from the late 1960s. It came into being when the Mexican government, as part of an ambitious tourism development program, chose an offshore sandbar lying just off the Yucatán Peninsula's northeastern tip as the site on which to develop a resort (another version of the story is that a computer program selected the location).
The rest, as they say, is history. Not even a category 4 tempest could slow the city down. Although Hurricane Wilma caused major damage in October 2005, the city bounced back dramatically—even the beach sand that battering waves washed away was replaced.
Cancún is decidedly not colonial Mexico, steeped in time and tradition; it's a place to swim, shop, eat and party. Themed shopping complexes and raucous nightspots rule. So get up early, have a hearty breakfast of huevos motuleños and then indulge in that unbeatable combination of sun, sand and incredible turquoise water. You'll have quite the good time.
By AirCancún International Airport (CUN) is on the mainland off Mex. 307, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) southwest of downtown Ciudad Cancún and about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the southern end of Cancún Island. It receives regular flights from major cities in the United States and Mexico; many are daily.
Aeroméxico, 01 (800) 021-4000 (toll-free long distance within Mexico), offers nonstop flights from New York-JFK. Other airlines serving the airport include American, 01 (800) 904-6000 (toll-free long distance within Mexico); JetBlue, 01 (800) 861-3372 (toll-free long distance within Mexico; landline only); and United, 01 (555) 283-5500 (toll-free long distance within Mexico). Air Canada, 01 (800) 719-2827 (toll-free long distance within Mexico), flies nonstop from Calgary and Ottawa. A number of charter companies fly to Cancún as well.
To confirm schedules, contact the appropriate airline, check travel sites or get in touch with your local AAA travel advisor.
Bilingual signs indicate arrivals, departures, gates and restrooms. Arriving passengers first proceed to Immigration to have their tourist permit validated (there's often a wait in long lines). After retrieving your belongings from the baggage claim area, head to Mexican customs. Hand over your completed declaration form while your luggage passes through the random green light/red light system; if the red light flashes your bags will be briefly searched.
Rental car counters are in a consolidated location as you exit the baggage claim/customs area; a crowd of sign-bearing van drivers and shuttle bus operators congregate outside the airport. Shuttle service via passenger van (colectivo) is available to Ciudad Cancún and the Hotel Zone for a fixed rate of about $12-$16 per person (U.S.). These vehicles usually take a maximum of 10 passengers.
More expensive is a pickup by a hotel-associated van or a private transfer, either of which will cost about $60-$65 (U.S.) to the Hotel Zone, plus tip. Arrange for a private transfer online or by phone prior to your trip. USA Transfers is a reputable company; phone (998) 914-0290 or 01 (800) 212-8931 (toll-free long distance within Mexico). A cheaper option is Happy Shuttle Cancun; phone (800) 818-9821.
You can purchase a ticket for a colectivo or a chartered airport taxi at the taxi/transfers counter, located to your immediate left after exiting the airport doors. Colectivos do not provide travel back to the airport, making a private transfer or hotel-associated fleet ride necessary when you depart. You can also take a regular city taxi back to the airport; from the Hotel Zone, expect a $40-$45 (U.S.) fare.
Confirm your reservation and departure time with your airline at least 24 hours prior to departing Cancún. For international flights, plan on arriving at least 2 hours before your scheduled departure time. Terminal 3 has plenty of fast-food restaurants, gift shops and duty-free stores on the upper departure level.
By CarMexico's easternmost city is located at the Yucatán Peninsula's northeastern tip. From the west, the main route is Mex. 180 via Veracruz, Villahermosa, Campeche and Mérida. From Mérida east to the small town of Hoctún the highway is two lanes. At Hoctún four-lane toll (cuota) highway Mex. 180-D begins and roughly parallels Mex. 180 for a distance of about 240 kilometers (144 miles). The highway is in very good condition and is much quicker than Mex. 180, which passes through small towns equipped with numerous speed bumps (topes). It is, however, isolated if you have the misfortune to break down.
Kilometer markers are along the right side of the highway, and there are regular intervals, indicated by signs, to make a U-turn (retorno). Speed limit and mileage signs are clearly marked, and international blue highway signs designate available services.
Toll plazas are located at the Yucatán/Quintana Roo state line (Plaza de Cobro X-Can), which also is a customs checkpoint, and at the Chichén Itzá exit (Pisté). Fees are designated and paid in pesos. Expect to pay a total of around $40 (U.S.) in combined charges, which is the major reason this highway is lightly traveled. There are only a few gas stations along the length of the route, so make sure your tank is always at least half full.
Mex. 180-D ends about 16 kilometers (10 miles) west of the airport; follow the sign that says “Cancún/Puerto Juárez” to stay on the mainland, or the sign “Tulum/Aeropuerto” to get to the Hotel Zone.
An access route to Cancún from the south is Mex. 307, which begins about 19 kilometers (12 miles) west of Chetumal off Mex. 186 in southern Quintana Roo and proceeds north, staying roughly parallel to the coast once north of Tulum. This stretch also provides easy access to attractions, beach resorts and hotels along the Riviera Maya coast.
Mex. 109, branching northwest off Mex. 307 at Tulum, provides direct access to the Cobá archeological zone and joins Mex. 180 at the town of Xcan. The distance between Tulum and Xcan is about 85 kilometers (53 miles). This route saves time and mileage if you're heading to Mérida from Tulum.
By BusThe ADO bus terminal is in downtown Ciudad Cancún across from the Plaza Caribe Hotel, just past the Avenida Uxmal traffic circle (just west of Mex. 307/Avenida Tulum and just north of Avenida Uxmal). This bus line offers first-class service to and from various points on the Yucatán Peninsula, including Chetumal, Chichén Itzá, Mérida, Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Valladolid. Frequent first-class service is available from Mérida to Cancún, with stops en route at Chichén Itzá and Valladolid.
By Cruise ShipCancún has no docking facilities for cruise ships. If you're on a ship that docks at Cozumel and want to spend some time in Cancún, you can take a ferry from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen, about a 45-minute drive south of Cancún (or check with your ship's shore excursion desk to see if they offer a Cancún package). Depending on the length of shore leave, you could squeeze in a shopping trip or a visit to one of the beaches.
Note: If a shore excursion is arranged through the cruise line the ship will wait if you aren't back at the scheduled departure time. This is not the case, however, if you arrange the excursion yourself, so keep timing in mind.
City LayoutThe main streets in downtown Ciudad Cancún, or “El Centro,” are east-west Avenida López Portillo, the in-town section of Mex. 180, which extends from the western city limits northeast to Puerto Juárez and Punta Sam; and north-south Avenida Tulum, the in-town section of Mex. 307, which runs south toward the airport and on down the coast. Many souvenir shops and restaurants are along or near avenidas Tulum and Cobá; the latter street becomes Boulevard Kukulcán as it heads east and enters the Hotel Zone.
Ciudad Cancún is divided into districts called super manzanas (shortened to SM), each containing several blocks surrounding a central square or park. Driving can be daunting even if you know where you're going, however. There are numerous one-way streets and traffic circles (glorietas), as well as crowds of pedestrians and unfamiliar traffic signals. For an excursion into El Centro for dinner or shopping, take a bus or taxi.
Parque las Palapas is centrally located a block west of Avenida Tulum, bordered by calles Gladiolas, Margaritas and Alcatraces. This is a family-oriented park where craft sellers set up their wares and food vendors offer popcorn, fried bananas and the doughnut-like snacks called churros. Casual restaurants line Calle Tulipanes, a pedestrian alleyway, and popular local eateries are within walking distance of the park.
Boulevard Kukulcán (also referred to as Paseo Kukulcán but usually just called “Kukulcán”) is a four-lane divided thoroughfare running the length of narrow Cancún Island and is the Hotel Zone's only main traffic artery. It actually begins at the junction with Avenida Bonampak, on the eastern edge of Ciudad Cancún. Past Punta Nizuc (Nizuc Point), the island's southern tip, Kukulcán ends at Mex. 307, near the overpass leading to the airport.
Kukulcán's four lanes divide briefly to encompass Cancún Point, the elbow of the island's “seven” configuration. Where U-turns are permitted, signs in the median say retorno. The speed limit along most of Kukulcán is 40 km/h (25 mph); the limit increases to 60 km/h (37 mph) at the southern end of the island.
Lying between the Hotel Zone and the mainland is Nichupté Lagoon, a combination of fresh and salt water. Two smaller lagoons are connected to Nichupté by narrow waterways: Laguna Bojórquez, at the northeastern end, and Laguna Río Inglés, at the southwestern end. The lagoons are a habitat for many different bird species.
Numbered addresses are rarely given for places in the Hotel Zone. Kilometer markers installed in the median (from Km 1, just past the mainland, east and south to Km 25 beyond Nizuc Point) are used to designate locations. Directions also are given in reference to well-known landmarks or hotels. Because there is only one main road, it's almost impossible to get lost.
Rental CarsIt's not really necessary to rent a car if you're limiting your vacation to Cancún and vicinity; bus and taxi service is frequent. But you'll need one if you plan a day or overnight trip down the coast toward Tulum or inland to the ruins of Chichén Itzá or Cobá and don't want to be part of an organized tour. The quality of most regional roads is good. Do not underestimate the amount of time it will take to arrive at your destination, however, and in general avoid driving after dark.
Rates are expensive if you rent on the spot; make reservations in advance through a U.S. toll-free number or with AAA travel packages to get the best deal. Arranging for pickup and drop-off at the airport will eliminate taxi fares. Make certain you fully understand the terms of any rental contract. If the car only has half a tank of gas when you pick it up, you should be able to return it with half a tank, but double check this before you drive off.
Inspect the vehicle carefully inside and out for nicks and dents, and check for the required in-car fire extinguisher. Keep in mind that license plates on rental vehicles say renta, marking you as a visitor. Major rental car agencies often will provide (for an added charge) a driver; inquire about this option if you don't feel comfortable driving in unfamiliar surroundings. In the event of damages caused by a hurricane, all insurance claims are void.
Hertz is one of several rental car agencies available, with offices at the airport, at two locations in downtown Ciudad Cancún, and in the Hotel Zone at La Isla Shopping Village and Flamingo Plaza. AAA members receive discounts through Hertz for vehicles booked in the United States; phone (800) 654-3080.
BusesRuta 1 and Ruta 2 buses (marked R-1, Hoteles or Zona Hotelera on the windshield) run regularly from the mainland along Boulevard Kukulcán to the southern end of the Hotel Zone (around the Km 20 marker) and back. They operate daily 24 hours but are more frequent from 6 a.m.-10 p.m. The one-way fare is inexpensive—8.5 pesos in the Hotel Zone, 7 pesos in Ciudad Cancún. The Ruta 8 bus goes to Puerto Juárez and Punta Sam for the ferries to Isla Mujeres.
The fare can be paid with pesos or U.S. dollars; drivers will make change if you pay with pesos. There are frequent designated stops along the length of Boulevard Kukulcán (or you can tell the driver where you want to get off), and buses can be flagged from hotel driveway entrances. Using the bus is much cheaper than taking a cab, especially if you're staying at the southern end of the Hotel Zone.
Buses are likely to be crowded mornings and evenings, when mainland locals use them to get to and from work. They jolt along and can stop suddenly, so watch your footing. There also can be impromptu entertainment in the form of a guitar player who will board the bus, sing a song or two and then pass the hat for spare change.
TaxisTaxis within the Hotel Zone are very expensive, costing as much as $7-$10 (U.S.) per ride, even if it's just from one hotel to the next. They also are not metered; fares are based on a zone system. Arranging for a cab directly at your hotel is convenient and safer than hailing one on the street, but these cabs also tend to have the highest rates. Some hotels list fares to various destinations at the front entrance; if not, ask the doorman. Always confirm the rate with the driver before setting out. Better hotels will arrange “payouts,” putting cab fares on the bill so they show up on your credit card receipt as a recorded expense.
If you're going from the Hotel Zone to Ciudad Cancún, Puerto Juárez or Punta Sam, take the Kukulcán bus to the mainland, then a taxi to your destination, since the city taxis have a cheaper rate structure (also based on a zone system) than the Hotel Zone taxis. A taxi also can be hired to Chichén Itzá or for a drive south along the Riviera Maya, although you'll pay a steep hourly rate for this convenience.
FerriesEnclosed, air-conditioned UltraMar passenger ferries run between Puerto Juárez, about 3 kilometers (2 miles) north of Cancún via Avenida López Portillo (Mex. 180), and Isla Mujeres. The UltraMar ferry departs from the Gran Puerto dock on Avenida López Portillo every half-hour daily from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., then hourly at 10:30 and 11:30 p.m. The final departure from Isla Mujeres back to Gran Puerto is at midnight. The trip takes about 15-20 minutes. Double check the final departure time back to Cancún when you arrive. Note: The ride can be choppy even in good weather, so it's a good idea to take the proper precautions if you're prone to seasickness.
UltraMar ferries also depart from the El Embarcadero dock at Playa Linda (Km marker 4 on Boulevard Kukulcán), the dock at Playa Tortugas (Km marker 6.5 on Boulevard Kukulcán) and the dock at Playa Caracol (Km marker 8.5 on Boulevard Kukulcán). These are more convenient locations if you're staying in the Hotel Zone.
Ferries depart from El Embarcadero daily at 9:15, 10:30 and 11:45 a.m., and at 1, 2:15, 4:30, 6:15, 7:30 and 8:45 p.m. The final departure from Isla Mujeres back to El Embarcadero is at 9:15 p.m. They depart from Playa Tortugas daily on the hour 9-6 and at 7:15 and 8:30 p.m. The final departure from Isla Mujeres back to Playa Tortugas is at 9:15 p.m. Ferries from Playa Caracol depart daily at 9, 10:15, 11:30, 12:45, 2 and 4:45. The final departure from Isla Mujeres back to Playa Caracol is at 5:15 p.m.
ParkingStreet parking is limited in Ciudad Cancún and the Hotel Zone. Park on city streets at your own discretion. If you've rented a car or are driving your own vehicle, keep it in the hotel lot—most of them are guarded—and use buses or cabs for local excursions. Many hotels, shopping centers and restaurants do offer complimentary valet; a tip of 40 pesos is customary for an hour of parking.
Guides/ToursThe most popular day trip excursions from Cancún are to Isla Mujeres , the Tulum Ruins , Xcaret and Xel-Ha . A guided tour of the Chichén Itzá archeological ruins is another popular option.
Many hotels have a travel agency representative on site or a concierge who can assist with making tour arrangements, and numerous Cancún-based tour operators offer excursions and vacation packages that include transportation and hotel pickup.
Gray Line Cancún offers motorcoach tours from Cancún to Chichén Itzá and Tulum, with pickup transportation provided for most major Hotel Zone hotels. The office is in Ciudad Cancún at Calle Robalo #30, just west of Avenida Bonampak and just north of Avenida Coba. For additional information phone 01 (800) 719-5465 (toll-free long distance within Mexico) or (800) 235-4079 (from the United States).
Organized bus excursions to Xcaret depart from a number of hotels in Cancún, Playa del Carmen and elsewhere along the Riviera Maya coast. This is the most convenient way to visit the park if you don't have a rental car.
Tour packages include round-trip transportation and park admission. Pickups in the Cancún Hotel Zone are daily between 7 and 9 a.m. Morning pickup times at Playa de Carmen and Riviera Maya hotels vary; check with your hotel about the schedule.
From Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Riviera Maya hotels the total cost will be around $125.99 (U.S.); around $76.50 (children 40 to 55 inches tall). Note that these rates may vary depending on your booking method (online, phone or in person). For reservation information phone (855) 326-0682. For additional information contact the Xcaret information center in Cancún, phone (998) 251-6560, or in Playa del Carmen, phone (984) 147-6560.
Xichen Tours offers a full-day package excursion to Chichén Itzá and the town of Valladolid that includes a guided tour of the ruins followed by a visit to Cenote Zací and a buffet lunch at a restored colonial mansion. Round-trip transportation from hotels in Cancún, Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya is included. The cost is $110 (U.S.); $55 (children 40 to 55 inches tall). Discounted tickets can be purchased online. For reservation information, phone (998) 883-3143 (in Cancún), (984) 206-0038 (in Playa del Carmen) or (855) 326-0682 (from the United States and Canada).
AAA’s in-person hotel evaluations are unscheduled to ensure the inspector has an experience similar to that of members. To pass inspection, all hotels must meet the same rigorous standards for cleanliness, comfort and hospitality. These hotels receive a AAA Diamond designation that tells members what type of experience to expect.
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To contact the local police, dial 911.
Most major local hotels have their own in-house or on-call doctor. A list of physicians can also be obtained from the U.S. Consular Agency, in the Torre la Europea building, Boulevard Kukulcán Km marker 13; phone (999) 316-7168 in Mexico or (844) 528-6611 in the U.S. Local clinics do not accept U.S. health insurance, often charge fees well above U.S. rates and have been known to charge for services not rendered. The Red Cross (Cruz Roja) is in Ciudad Cancún on Avenida Yaxchilán, between avenidas Xcaret and Labná. It is open 24 hours; phone (998) 884-1616. In an emergency, dial 911 and request an English-speaking operator.
The Miami Herald and USA Today are available in the bigger local hotels.
Cancún Tips magazine has easy-to-read maps and information about local restaurants, shopping, entertainment and other things to do in Cancún. Pick up free tourist-oriented brochures at the airport, hotel lobbies, shopping centers and sidewalk booths.
Casas de cambio (currency exchange houses) and banks are along Avenida Tulum in downtown Ciudad Cancún. Most banks are open Mon.-Fri. 9-5; currency exchange normally is confined to the morning hours. Currency exchange houses also are at the airport and in the Hotel Zone shopping areas around Cancún Point.
Crime directed at tourists is not prevalent, but do use common sense. Keep jewelry and other valuables in the hotel safe, or don't bring them at all. Guard against petty theft or purse-snatching incidents in crowded public places or when using public transportation. If leaving a vehicle in Hotel Zone shopping areas, don't invite a break-in by leaving valuables in plain view.