Cancun is the racy Mexican city that sits on the Caribbean Sea, about a cigar puff away from Cuba.
It’s the hive of activity right now because the weather is not too hot, nor too cold, and it’s Spring Break. Americans from the mid west and beyond are holed up in the 5-star hotels lining “The Strip”, aka Boulevard Kukulkan, which is a narrow strip of roadway and beach affording the hotels premium sea views.
The Strip and nightlife
I stayed at the newly opened Secrets The Vine. It’s an all-inclusive property and really impressed me. Don’t expect long lines in a buffet hall here! Instead they have 8 different restaurants and cafes catering to various tastes from steaks to Japanese to Mexican and even a sports bar and a piano bar. An infinity pool is surrounded by sun loungers and cabanas, but the trick is to be up early to reserve your primo seat with a book. I’m talking about 6.30am!
Take a taxi down the Strip to the centre of its nightlife and shopping. Here you’ll find shopping malls with all the big names and labels, but also lots of local vendors selling souvenirs (I have a new found love of cushion covers to decorate my couch from around the world and got a cool one here). You’ll find local bars, American chain bars and the old favourites from the Caribbean like Senor Frogs for a night on the Mayan tiles.
No visit to Cancun should be concluded without a visit to the famous Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza.
In the state of Yucatan (which means “I don’t understand”), named by the Spanish when they met the Mayans, it’s a full day trip from Cancun (about 2 hours drive each way) and over 1 million visitors come to ogle every year.
This is the site of the largest Mayan city built about 700-900 AD and was just abandoned one day. No one knows why for sure, but it wasn’t invaded. It might have had something to do with food supplies as this state is largely limestone and very difficult to farm.
Today the entire site is surrounded by vendors selling souvenirs and haggling is expected. We met this 90 year old Mayan woman who embroiders handkerchiefs and sells them for a dollar.
I was fascinated by the stadium where two teams played with a rubber ball weighing about 4kg that they could touch only with knees, hips and forearms and had to try and get it through an impossibly high and small concrete hoop in a scene that would not look out of place on Harry Potter’s Quiditch field.
But get this, the losing captain was decapitated by the winning captain at the end of the game. Apparently it was an honour to be sacrificed, and because of that some say it was the winning captain who was beheaded. Carvings in the surrounding stone walls depict the scene.
If you’re here with your family, then a whole day at Xel Ha Water Park will be one of the best things you can do. (Cost about US$75 per adult, half price for kids under 12 and free under 5).
Dismiss all thoughts of any water park with plastic slides you’ve ever been to and think natural lagoons filled with tropical fish which you can snorkel with or grab an inflatable tube and bob around the nooks and crannies of natural inlets to explore the sealife.
Xel Ha is about an hour south of Cancun (very near the ruins of Tulum, so plan to visit there too) and is another all-inclusive attraction and that means all your food and drink (including alcohol) as well as access to all areas of the park including zip lines and cliff top jumps. For an extra charge you can try “snuba”, a cross between scuba diving and snorkelling as you have a hose attached to oxygen from your snorkel so can dive down wherever you like. Swimming with dolphins and manatees and riding the zip bike through the air are also extra costs.
There are lots of cenotes, natural water caves in the limestone terrain, bars are conveniently placed for that sudden daiquiri (bring US dollar bills or pesos for tipping). They are very protective of their marine environment and will swap your sunscreen for their own sachets of biodegradable stuff (you collect your bottle when you leave) so as not to affect the water – too much.
I flew Air New Zealand to Los Angeles then grabbed an onward ticket from Expedia.