Cancun & Riviera Maya
Cancun, Mexico, is wrapped in crystal clear water and brilliant sunshine, so it's no wonder its shoreline gets top billing. Government developers, looking for a way to eradicate the poverty of the region, created this comfortable resort area on the Mexican Caribbean from the sand up to take advantage of the gorgeous aquamarine water and tropical temperate climate. Cancun is the top resort area in Mexico.
Travelers who enjoy the feel of Old Mexico will never find Cancun to be as traditional, colorful or as spontaneous. With more than 32,000 hotel rooms, it's not necessarily the place for isolated sun worship, either. But those hankering for a no-hassle beach vacation can fly in and soak up the sun without speaking a word of Spanish (or exchanging U.S. dollars). And those interested in learning about the ancient Maya civilization can visit several exceptional archaeological sites on day trips.
Also within reach is the island of Cozumel, a haven for divers and snorkelers. And Playa del Carmen—once an oasis of rustic, laid-back charm—is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, with a great variety of restaurants, bars, shops and entertainment. It is also the hub of a growing ecotourism movement. Isla Mujeres, the closest island to Cancun, is still famous for snorkeling and hasn't lost its friendly fishing-village allure. For a small-town experience on the mainland, Puerto Morelos, once just home to local fishermen, is just 20 minutes south of Cancun.
Mere decades ago, the Riviera Maya was a sparsely populated stretch of Mexico's Caribbean coastline dotted with fishing villages and little-visited Mayan ruins. These days it's Mexico's fastest-growing tourist destination.
Stretching from Puerto Morelos, 22 mi/36 km south of Cancun, through the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve to Punta Allen, almost 100 mi/150 km to the south, the Riviera Maya is one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the western Caribbean. It's famous for white-sand beaches and crystal clear water. The area also offers ancient Mayan ruins and pristine ecological wonders to explore, as well as nature parks and resorts with all the amenities.
Playa del Carmen is the main town and soul of the Riviera Maya. It used to be where drop-outs from society would go to live the life of happy beach bums. There are still a few around, but the population explosion has brought in paved roads and many small inns, large-scale all-inclusive resorts and dozens of restaurants, while retaining touches of the charming ambience that made it popular in the first place—including a pedestrian-only main thoroughfare.
Those looking to immerse themselves in Mexican culture and history may be disappointed in the Riviera Maya. The region was never a major population center, and mass tourism has stripped much of the Mexican flavor that it may have once had. As a counter measure, many resorts have added ancient Mayan rituals—such as the temazcal sweat-lodge-like steam baths, massage, beauty and healing techniques and even wedding ceremonies blessed by authentic village shaman—to their amenities.
Despite its increasing commercialism, the area has a vitality and multicultural ambience that many find irresistible.
There are actually two Cancuns: the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) on the island and "Ciudad" Cancun (better known simply as "downtown"), a district on the mainland that is more of a residential and business enclave. You can get from one to the other via a short bus or taxi ride.
The island, which is where most visitors spend their time, is 14 mi/22 km long, less than 0.5 mi/1 km wide and shaped rather like the number seven. It is connected to the mainland by bridges at each end, which were built after a landfill linked the island to the peninsula. It has calm, shallow waters off its northern side, wilder Caribbean seas to the east, and the vast, brackish Nichupte Lagoon between the island and the mainland.
There are no street addresses on Cancun island because there's really only one road—Boulevard Kukulcan. Places on the island are located by their distance (in kilometers) from the northern end of the boulevard, which begins at the edge of downtown Cancun. Markers indicate every kilometer along the side of the road.
The bridge that connects the northern tip of the island to the mainland is just past the Kilometer 4 marker; the southern bridge to the mainland is at Kilometer 25. Thus, a hotel whose address is "Km. 12" is about 7.5 mi/12 km from the north end of Boulevard Kukulcan. Downtown Cancun, on the other hand, does indeed have streets with names and regular-sized city blocks.
Extensive white-sand beaches, limestone caverns, underground rivers and freshwater pools known as cenotes form the Riviera Maya's main geographical features. Parts of its coastline are covered in mangrove swamps, and other areas lie under low, scrubby forest. Offshore, a barrier reef that stretches all the way to southern Belize attracts scuba divers.
From north to south, notable towns along the Riviera Maya include Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Puerto Aventuras, Akumal, Tulum, the Mayan ruins at Muyil, Felipe Carrillo Puerto and Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve.
Do's and Dont's
Do feel free to bargain when it's appropriate. In fact, it's expected in most markets and street stalls (though never in Cancun's ritzy shopping malls and small boutiques). A good way to start is to offer half of what is asked, then work toward the middle. But don't bargain for something unless you really want it: It's considered rude not to buy once your price has been accepted.
Do be aware that high season begins around 15 December and continues through Easter. Cancun is very popular with Mexican vacationers during the Christmas and Easter holidays and in July and August during school vacations—reservations are suggested at least a few months in advance.
Do take time to explore the Riviera Maya south of Cancun as well as inland destinations; the Yucatan Peninsula is one of Mexico's most fascinating regions.
Don't buy souvenirs made from endangered species such as turtles, crocodiles, coral and jaguars.
Don't enter churches wearing shorts or other skimpy attire.
Don't cart away anything—not even a pebble—from archaeological sites. It's illegal to do so in Mexico.
Passport/Visa Requirements: All U.S. citizens must have a passport when traveling by air to or from Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Mexico. Citizens of Canada, Mexico and Bermuda also must have a passport or other designated secure document to enter the U.S.
Passports are required for land crossings at the Canadian and Mexican borders with the U.S. and for cruise passengers returning to the U.S. from Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada or Bermuda.
Canadian citizens need proof of citizenship—either a passport (recommended) or a certified copy of a birth certificate accompanied by photo ID. All visitors must fill out a tourist card. The Mexican government charges a tourism tax of US$39 for all visitors except cruise-ship passengers and a departure tax of about US$22, although both are usually included in airline-ticket prices. Reconfirm travel document requirements with your carrier before departure.
Languages: Spanish, English.
Predominant Religions: Christian (Roman Catholic).
Time Zone: 5 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (-5 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is observed from the first Sunday in April until the last Sunday in October.
Voltage Requirements: 110 volts.
Telephone Codes: 52, country code; 998, city code;
Any time is great for a visit to Cancun. The summer months are more humid and warmer, with highs in the upper 80s F/20s C, but the sea breeze keeps you cool. It seldom rains in the winter. Hurricane season runs June-November, and that's when rain is most likely.
Cancun is especially popular in March and April as a spring-break destination for college students from the U.S. Mexican tourists flock to Cancun a week before and after Christmas, the week of Easter and in July and August. Make reservations early for those times.
Major airlines serve Cancun International Airport (CUN), which is on the mainland, 10 mi/16 km southwest of the island. The airport has three terminals. Terminal 3 is considered to be the international terminal, but there are a few airlines that fly internationally that are based in Terminal 2, so it's important to confirm your terminal ahead of time. There is a free shuttle that runs between terminals 2 and 3 every 15-30 minutes. Basically, all security regulations that apply in U.S. airports also apply in the Cancun airport (regarding liquids and so forth). It is important to remember that if you buy liquid duty-free items in the Cancun airport, you will be able to carry them on to your flight, but if you have a layover during which you will have to pass through customs in the U.S., you will have to put the items in your bags when you pick up and recheck them. Phone 886-0183. http://www.cancun-airport.com.