Initially, I wasn’t exactly sure what to write about Cancun. Perhaps I should talk about meeting friendly people, and enjoying stunning beaches, outstanding food, gorgeous weather, beautiful hotels, and the extraordinary historic sites outside the city.
However, in truth, I didn’t really like the place. Confusing, right? Well, first of all, the city was packed, the hotel zone was chaotic, catching a taxi at the airport was exhausting, but mostly, I didn’t feel like I’d even left the United States. Sorry, but when I travel, I like to experience the local culture.
We visited Cancun during the New Year’s holiday. You must be thinking, ‘well duh!’ With the combination of a popular tropical destination and one of the most traveled times of the year, I should have known what to expect, right? Well, we surely had concerns about how it would roll out, but because it was winter break for our daughter and we wanted to go somewhere, we decided to take a risk. Additionally, it was the cheapest and warmest place that was close to home.
Sadly, Cancun was busier than what I had imagined, but in the spirit of a love-hate relationship, we tried to make the most of our visit. Follow us through this experience and I will let you know about the good and the bad, and how we adjusted our plans to finally enjoy this well-known destination on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.
What I hated about Cancun
Cancun International Airport
Before stepping outside, we noticed that several tourists were booking taxi rides through a customer service. We did the same. For 680 pesos ($35 US) we booked a private shuttle. Assuming we were doing the right thing, we thought the taxi would be outside waiting for us, and in the blink of an eye we would be on our way to the hotel. Wrong. The queue for the shuttle outside was chaotic. We didn’t know where it started or ended, nor did we know where to stand. In short, there was no difference between paying for a private or a shared shuttle. We ended up sharing a ride with other visitors after a long and disorganized wait.
Most of the hotels, restaurants, mini marts, and malls are located along the Kukulcan Boulevard. Although lively and festive with music and tourists surrounding us, the traffic was outrageous. There were two extreme conditions: sometimes cars were flying by; other times, there was a complete traffic jam.
Cancun is one, big, 15-mile long beach. However, tourists gathered in front of their own hotels, to take advantage of access to lounge chairs, drinks, food, and restrooms. Although extremely convenient, the beach was packed. Not a place for a relaxing vacation.
Lack of local culture
Cancun is a party land. Nothing wrong with that, but when looking into a truly Mexican experience, the city doesn’t have much to offer. With extraordinary hotels and tons of tourists from all over the world, we only interacted with locals when talking to someone at the front desk, ordering our drinks and food, or taking a taxi.
Between hate and love: Isla Mujeres
Attempting to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, we headed to Isla Mujeres.
Companies all over Kukulcan Boulevard were selling tours and boat rides to the island. Our plan was to take a ferry ride, but we soon found that it was sold out for the day. Going for plan B, at Puerto Juarez we spent $120 US on a small-boat trip which included snorkeling and a visit to the underwater museum.
Did I already say that the boat was small? Yep, small, and packed. We embarked, keeping our hopes up that we would at least have a good day. After a 20-minute, bumpy ride in the high-speed boat, we stopped at the busy North Beach filled with shops and restaurants. It was crowded. Walking as far as we could from the busiest spots, we sat on a beach chair, ordered drinks and fish tacos, and watched our daughter playing in the calm and bright turquoise water.
I really wanted to fall in love with this place. I knew it was promising, but I couldn’t see beyond the human wall. Literally. Were we on the wrong side of the island? Were we not seeing beauty due to the number of people surrounding us? Was my frustration blinding me? I tried. I took a deep breath, sipped my pina colada, and sat back.
After a few hours we left the beach on the small vessel towards the coral formations. The water had incredible visibility. Despite the rough current, we had a blast snorkeling in warm, crystal-clear waters of the Mayan Riviera surrounded by entire schools of tropical fish and other marine life. That was the highlight of our day!
Isla Mujeres is also known for the Underwater Museum (MUSA), which is made up of over 500 large, sunken sculptures. A unique museum. Created to protect the environment, the museum’s goal is for these statues to become a base for coral and other marine life to grow, and to pull some visitors away from the natural reefs. Apparently, it is working. While we were snorkeling above submerged sculptures, including a car, we saw quite a few snorkelers and scuba divers.
The day was over. Another bumpy boat ride took us back to Cancun. We passed the catamaran loaded with tourists and realized that our experience wouldn’t have been different if we had done that instead. The beaches would still be packed.
The next day, I found out through an employee at our hotel that heading south of the city we could find quieter beaches with small, family-run businesses. According to him, it was an alternative escape for crowded days. I wished I had known.
Coincidentally, while writing this post, I got a phone call from a dear friend who just came back from Isla Mujeres. Hearing her say that it was the trip of her life, I realized I must give this place another chance. I want to see the dreamy beaches and experience that laid-back island feeling that friends and bloggers talk about.
What I love about Cancun
Well, it didn’t happen at first sight, but Cancun conquered our hearts. Looking beyond our dislikes, we happily recognized all the qualities the city and surroundings areas have to offer.
We couldn’t wish for a better temperature. Escaping from the chilly American winter, we enjoyed the near perfect 75-degree weather conditions with blue skies and cool ocean breezes while exploring the Mexican coast and Mayan ruins. We walked everywhere in summer clothes and sandals. Yep, we had a tropical getaway at a time when back home—just on the other side of the Gulf—the days were cold and gray.
The flavors were simple, but the authentic Mexican food is so much different from what I have tried here in the U.S. Oh, and the fish and shrimp tacos! I can’t tell you how many I ate. From instant guacamole made right in front of us, fresh fruits, enchiladas, seafood, and chicken quesadilla, each meal was delicious. And please don’t skip the amazing margaritas.
We tried restaurants inside hotels, as well as local restaurants. One of our favorites was Mextreme. They not only had outstanding food, but the waitresses would entertain us by balancing three or four margarita glasses on their heads, and a tray in her hands, all while dancing to the rhythm of the live music. The place was alive and joyful.
And do you want to hear a funny story? One night, while dining at Mextreme, I made a painful mistake. With our molcajete mixto came two beautiful roasted green peppers along with other vegetables and meat. Thinking that they were the heat-free peppers, I took a bite. Oh gosh! They were serrano peppers! My mouth burned, completely on fire and nothing relieved my agony. I inhaled a full glass of cold water, my margarita, and ice. Despite laughing hard about the situation later, it was a terrifying moment.
The hotel infrastructure in Cancun is amazing. For those less adventurous, who enjoy rotating between beach and pool all day, the all-inclusive resorts can be their preference. Comfort and convenience are the key words when sitting on the beach, and guests will have access to beach chairs, umbrellas, food, drinks, and restrooms.
While all the beaches in Mexico are public, the availability of these services is linked to the hotel where guests, easily identified by wristbands, are staying.
The beaches near the hotels were pretty crowded during our visit. However, on New Year’s Day we were determined to beat the hassle of the tourist season. Assuming that people would be sleeping in, we woke up early, and strolled to the stunning turquoise water and sugar-white sand of Playa Marlin. It was serene and beautiful. Few people were out there, so the only noise we heard was the waves crashing on the shore.
Enjoying ourselves, we walked for about a mile along the soft sand while the cool early breeze from the Caribbean Sea brushed our skin. My wish came true. The Caribbean is known for its spectacular stretches of white sand, and Mexico’s eastern coastline was no exception. Cancun is beautiful and I could finally see it.
We found locals to be genuinely friendly, helpful, and often entertaining. Many of them depend solely on the tourist industry for their survival, and embrace their jobs with great passion, going above and beyond their minimum responsibilities. From the bus driver who would pick us up away from the bus stop when seeing us walking on Kukulcan Boulevard, to the hotel front desk guy who would tell us how much the taxi ride should cost us from point A to point B to make sure we wouldn’t over pay. At the end of our trip to Chichen Itza, we felt like close friends with our guide. He was hilarious and full of energy. We fell in love with Mexican people.
We couldn’t visit Cancun and not learn about the ancient Mayan civilization. The truth is that the Yucatan Peninsula goes well beyond Cancun and its magnificent beaches and parties. With an incredible range of day-trips to explore the historical site of Chichen Itza, the city of Valladolid, the beautiful beaches, and the ruins of Tulum, and more ruins in Coba, we were thrilled. Not only the Mayan architecture was impressive, but also their history, traditions, and beliefs.
There are over 6000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula, and we visited a couple of them. These hidden sinkholes filled with fresh water were the main source of water for the Mayan civilization. Nowadays, they are remarkable attractions for tourists from all over the world who jump in to cool off. Combining history and adrenaline, being in these thrilling caves felt like we were lost in another era.
Cancun offers an array of things for all kinds of travelers. Whether you are a party lover, beach fan, or passionate about archeological sites, you can find whatever suits you. Aside from disliking some aspects of the busy city, we enjoyed traveling through the beautiful Yucatan Peninsula. Exploring the Mayan ruins, swimming in the cenotes, snorkeling in the clear waters adjacent of Isla Mujeres, and savoring the delicious Mexican cuisine, changed our impression, and our visit went from uncomfortable to enjoyable. Fascinated by history and the multiple shades of blue water, we will definitely be back.