Although the Hotel Zone lacks authenticity, a good dose of local culture can be found in downtown Cancun and in nearby spots suitable for day trips. For colorful handicrafts (silver jewelry, ceramic bowls, and embroidered dresses, to name a few), head to downtown’s Mercado 28 or Mercado 23, both excellent flea markets with local vendors. Additionally, numerous day trips from Cancun are available for travelers who want to explore Mayan ruins, refreshing swimming holes or “cenotes,” and eco parks such as Xcaret in Playa del Carmen. Chichen Itza ruins are very popular (read: commercialized) and located a two-and-a-half-hour drive inland, while the smaller ruins of Tulum are seaside. Several “cenotes” fill the area, and frequented options include Ik Kil (close to Chichen Itza) and Selvatica, located within an hour’s drive of Cancun.
Cancun and Mexico’s hurricane season runs from June through November, with the highest risk of strong storms occurring from August through October. For example, Category-4 Hurricane Odile hit Los Cabos in late September 2014, while Hurricane Patricia caused similar destruction in Puerto Vallarta in October 2015. Because these months often mean fewer travelers and lower rates, tourists may be tempted to visit during this time. Most weather experts recommend purchasing travel insurance if you plan on visiting during hurricane season. The last two hurricanes Cancun experienced were Gilbert in September 1988 and Wilma in October 2005.
Most tourists know this rule, but it’s a big one: Do not drink the tap water. Tap water is not safe to drink in Cancun, as it’s rampant with parasites and potentially deadly bacteria, and non-locals are extremely susceptible to getting sick from non-filtered water. To avoid getting sick on vacation, stick to filtered bottled water — free at most resorts — and decline drinks with ice if you’re unable to confirm whether it has been filtered. Tip: Ice that’s in the shape of a cylinder with a hole in the center is purchased from a purified ice factory. For extra precaution, use bottled water for brushing teeth. Also be wary of raw food such as salads and fruit, as these are more likely to contain bacteria.
Cancun has some of the most breathtaking beaches around — large expanses of powdery white sand abutting turquoise waters. After bathing in the hot Mexican sun for a bit, visitors will likely want to cool off with a dip in the ocean, but caution is needed due to the strong undertow and rough surf. Mexico has a flag system to alert swimmers on water conditions: green signifies the water is safe for swimming; yellow means use caution; red conveys dangerous conditions; and black means do not swim. Flags were red during our visit in May, and people stuck fairly close to the shore, especially as there are generally no lifeguards on the beach.
The chain outlets and large English-speaking resorts in the Hotel Zone do such a good job of making travelers feel at home that the area is largely absent of local culture. Colorful signage, Caribbean views, and some local eateries serving regional and seafood dishes provide enough Mexican charm for some travelers, but those wanting a more authentic experience should stick to downtown Cancun or less-developed destinations in the Riviera Maya such as Akumal or Puerto Morelos.
Cancun has an image of rowdy spring breakers and bachelor/bachelorette groups indulging in all-inclusive drinks at the swim-up bar before heading to nightlife spots such as Senor Frog’s or Coco Bongo. Sure, there are certainly booze-loving travelers looking to party it up in Cancun, but there are also honeymooners, families with young children, and wedding parties who are more interested in low-key beach time than having a margarita at all times. Fortunately, there are dozens of hotels geared toward each type of traveler, so tourists can create a vacation suited to their taste.
Is Cancun safe? Certain areas of Mexico have long held a reputation for being unsafe, and while resort areas have largely avoided violence, Cancun had a rise in murders in 2017. Although these were gang-related occurrences, the U.S. Department of State still issued a Level 2 travel warning, meaning travelers should exercise increased caution. The warning states that “While most of these homicides appeared to be targeted, criminal organization assassinations, turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens.” So long as tourists stick to popular areas and keep their wits about them, as with any location, Cancun feels extremely safe. On a recent trip to Cancun in May, we walked along the main Hotel Zone avenue and took a cab to Playa del Carmen and never felt unsafe. Other travelers we spoke with reiterated how they felt completely safe, particularly while at secure resorts. It should be noted that other countries with a Level 2 warning include Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
International visitors need not worry about conversing with locals in Cancun, having access to their home comforts such as specific snacks or medicines, and overall ease of travel. The city saw nearly six million international travelers in 2016, and that number is expected to rise, so it’s no surprise that Cancun largely caters to English-speaking visitors. English is spoken by most locals and all hotel staff. Plus, chain restaurants and shops, like Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Gucci, line the Hotel Zone. It’s a downside for many, but some travelers love the easiness of Cancun.
Whenever you're in a new place and seeing exciting new things, it's easy to overlook the background. But before hitting the shutter button, look around first. Watch out for clutter that may ruin the picture. Always keep in mind that the smallest detail can affect the overall look of your photo.
If you can afford to travel, you’re luckier than an enormous chunk of the world’s population. Be grateful that you were born in a country that’s safe and stable. Be grateful you have a passport that allows you to easily travel. Be grateful that you have your health. Be grateful you were able to get a job; that you had the ability to save up enough money to travel. Yes, you worked goddamn hard to get to this point, but you’re still unbelievably privileged. Never forget it.