One of the world’s leading travel destinations, Cancun offers an endless array of attractions with something for everyone, for the young and young at heart. Its pearly white beaches and turquoise waters are legendary and offshore reefs are a haven for colorful marine life. Water sports fans have a choice of aquatic playgrounds: the Caribbean for fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling and windsurfing and a huge lagoon for sail boating, water skiing and jungle tours. There are several championship golf courses in the local area, upscale shopping centers, fine restaurants and glittering nightlife.
Selected in the late 1960s to be the site of Mexico’s first master-planned resort, from the inauguration of its first hotels in 1974, Cancun has never looked back. It has been the powerhouse of Mexican tourism for over 30 years and it is still going strong.
Cancun is the gateway to a world of natural and historical attractions in the Riviera Maya, the neighboring state of Yucatán and the Mundo Maya or Maya World, and offers you three vacations in one. You can relax on its Caribbean beaches and explore the Mesoamerican Reef, the second longest in the world, or venture inland to discover the wonders of the ancient Mayan civilization. Finally, wherever you go, you’ll get a taste of Mexico’s rich and colorful culture.
About Cancun Island
Linked to the mainland by two bridges, Cancun Island where the Hotel Zone or Zona Hotelera is located is a long narrow strip of land shaped like a “7.” To the north is Bahía Mujeres or Mujeres Bay with Isla Mujeres visible in the distance; to the east is the Caribbean Sea and to the west, separating the island from the mainland and Downtown Cancun, is the Nichupte Lagoon, a 28.8 square kilometer system of lagoons, canals and mangroves that is a protected area.
The Hotel Zone is home to more than 100 hotels and resorts, residential communities, shopping malls, nightclubs, restaurants, marinas and three golf courses. The road through the Hotel Zone is called Kukulcán Boulevard, which is linked to the mainland by two bridges. The northernmost bridge spans the Nichupte Canal, just four kilometers from Downtown Cancun and the southern bridge crosses Nizuc Canal, connecting Kukulcan Boulevard with the road to the airport.
The majority of Cancun’s 700,000+ inhabitants live in the bustling city on the mainland. Downtown Cancun has several universities, hospitals, shopping malls, movie theaters, supermarkets and many more restaurants and bars. It is also home to a First Division soccer team called Atlantes and the Tigres Baseball team.
A small museum with exhibits on the birth of Cancun and the massive development project that took place in the Hotel Zone in the 1970s is located in Parque Kabah, a nature park on Avenida Kabah.
Ferries to Isla Mujeres
Passenger ferries make the crossing to Isla Mujeres throughout the day from Puerto Juarez, 10 minutes to the north of Downtown Cancun. Boats are also available from El Embarcadero, Playa Tortugas and Playa Caracol in the Hotel Zone. A car ferry departs from Punta Sam, 10 minutes north of Puerto Juarez.
Cancun’s playas are world famous; 22 kilometers of pearly white sand with evocative names like Perlas, Langosta, Tortugas, Gaviota Azul, Chac Mool, Marlin, Ballenas and Delfines await visitors. Bayside beaches are sheltered and gently shelving with little wave action, while those along the shoreline facing the open ocean from Punta Cancun to Punta Nizuc are more exposed and breezier. Accordingly, the waves are larger, with undertow, and there are offshore currents.
As a Cancun beach tip, you should always check the flags posted on the beach in front of your resort before venturing into the sea: a green flag means calm conditions perfect for bathing, a yellow flag means moderate wave action, some care needed and a red flag means strong wave action and currents and that it is dangerous to venture into the sea.
Cancun’s Mayan Heritage
As you look up at the concrete towers and glittering glass pyramids of resorts in the Cancun Hotel Zone, it is difficult to imagine what the island must have looked like in the times of the ancient Maya. Yet incongruous as it may seem, Cancun has a Mayan heritage –archaeologists have discovered that it was first inhabited in the Late Pre-Classic period, 300 B.C. to A.D. 100– and archaeological sites lie hidden among 21st century temples. Even the name “Cancun” has its roots in the Mayan language and there are different interpretations of its meaning, the most widely accepted is that it means “nest of serpents.”
The largest of the island’s archaeological sites is El Rey, located on the shores of the lagoon next to the Hilton Golf Club. It was the ceremonial center for a chain of smaller settlements that earned their livelihood from fishing, agriculture, bee keeping and trade and it reached its peak during AD 1200 and 1350.
There are 16 buildings of which Structure 38 is the best preserved, two plazas and two sacbes at the site. The name “El Rey” refers to a stone and stucco head found in a tomb at the site, which is thought to be that of an ancient leader or priest.
Start your Mayan discoveries at El Rey and keep a look out for orioles, hummingbirds and the colonies of iguanas invariably spotted sunbathing on the rocks.
Other Mayan sites in the Hotel Zone are on the Cancun Golf Course, also known as Pok-Ta-Pok (ball game in Maya), Yamil Lu’um and San Miguelito in the forest in front of The Royal Mayan. The Mexican Institute of Anthropology and History is building a Mayan Museum at the latter site.
The largest archaeological site in the Cancun area is El Meco, located to the north of Downtown Cancun, between Puerto Juarez and Punta Sam. To date, 14 buildings have been restored at this Post-Classic site. The principal temple has views of the Caribbean and the Chachmochchuc lagoon.
Cancun’s Underwater World
A national marine park, the chain of shallow water reefs such as Manchones, Chitales and El Tunel in the bay between Isla Mujeres and Cancún and south to Punta Nizuc, is an excellent place to start exploring the Mesoamerican Reef. The reefs are so accessible that divers can literally board the boat at 10 o’clock in the morning for the trip out to the site and still be back in time for lunch after having done a two-tank dive. Marine life ranges from elk horn and brain coral and gardens of sea fans to shoals of reef fish such as blue tangs, jacks and pork fish, sea turtles and moray eels.
Underwater Sculpture Museum
Cancun now has another attraction to offer snorkelers and divers, the world’s largest underwater sculpture museum. More than 400 statues by British sculptor Jason deCaires-Taylor have already been submerged in different locations in the Cancun-Isla Mujeres Reef Park, including Punta Nizuc and Manchones Reef.
The life-size statues depict real people in the Cancun community. Plaster casts were made of their features and they served as inspiration for the artist. “Man on Fire,” one of the first statues to be submerged, is a local fisherman and “Silent Evolution” comprises 100 life size figures.
Apart from their artistic merit, the figures will provide an artificial habitat for reef dwellers such as corals, sponges and algae to colonize, in time attracting other creatures such as small fish and crustaceans, something divers report is already occurring. It is hoped this new attraction for snorkelers and divers will alleviate some of the visitor pressure on some of the most popular local reefs, giving coral communities a chance to recover.
In 2006, Jason deCaires Taylor created the world’s first underwater sculpture park in Grenada, the West Indies.