Sitting on northeast coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo is Cancun. Known for breath-taking ocean waters, soft sand beaches, and a hell of a good time, Cancun is an unsurprisingly popular tourist destination. Direct flights are easy to come by, so it’s definitely worth taking a trip! I recently had a chance to visit a friend for a dive trip, and got to spend 2 weeks in the city (separate blog post coming!). So I’ve come up with a few things below that might help you on your own exploration into this beautiful city.
1. Cancun is super touristy – and tourist friendly!
Make no mistake, Cancun effectively feels like an American city in Mexico–so if you have concerns about exploring around, don’t fear. You’ll be able to get by with little or no Spanish. Cancun is built around its tourist industry so it’s in their best interests to make sure international visitors traveling in Cancun can enjoy nearly every aspect of it.
English is spoken by a large amount of people, particularly those catering to the visitors from abroad. That’s not to say everyone is fluent and you don’t need to as least TRY to integrate a bit, but you should be able to make due. Avoid the chain restaurants and enjoy the culture!
Checking out the famous Coco Bongo can be a great time, but there are plenty of things you can avoid–like a plethora of American chain restaurants. You’re in Mexico, eat authentically ❤ Get your but out of the hotel and check out some random backalley taco stands, or go get some fresh carne asada, al pastor, ceviche, or chilaquiles.
2. Avoid the all-inclusive hotels
Surprised? I’m not here to peddle hotel packages. And frankly, it’s very easy to get caught up in your own little world and almost never leave the resort ecosystem. If you’re traveling, generally the whole point is to actually EXPLORE and dive into culture. If you let yourself sit in the resort zone, you’ll rarely get outside of that comfort zone. Not to mention they’re just ridiculously crowded…
Give AirBnB a try, or find a smaller hotel that might give a more relaxed atmosphere. There are hotels for every budget, and I guarantee you can find something that fits your desired price range.
Scenic, quiet view from the apartment
3. Avoid taxis like the plague
Seriously. They’re super expensive, and not nearly as fun as the bus. You can expect to pay a minimum of $20+ USD just to get anywhere, even if it’s close. The buses run 24/7 and only cost 12 pesos (that’s only about $0.75 depending on your exchange rate!). The buses are generally pretty nice, and well taken care of.
Also make sure you book a super shuttle for airport pickup to your hotel/lodging. They’re only about $11 USD per person… opposed to the nearly $50 we had to pay since our flight plans changed last minute so we had to take the taxi. And the drive was not that long.
4. Mexico is a cash based society – Bring cash!
You CAN use your card at some places, but be ready for an exchange fee if your bank doesn’t cover that. And honestly, the credit card system at most places is less-than-stellar. As in they generally have one small handheld machine that will be shared among the restaurant, and often there is a small fee to use card. If the machine is currently working. Save yourself the trouble, and bring cash. Cash is still very much king in Mexico, even in Cancun.
Generally only the larger or well-established places will take card easily. Think grocery stores, (most) restaurants, and main-strip shops. But that taco stand hidden around the corner where everybody is getting kickass breakfast tacos? It’s not gonna take your card.
5. Do ALL your currency exchange before you get there, or bring cash
You can easily exchange currency, and can get anywhere from 17-23 pesos per USD depending on timing and which exchange stand you go there–there are a lot of them around. But often you can get a slightly better rate with your home bank and be prepared. Push come to shove, at least grab some cash at the airport in USD before you get there, or even exchange at the airport.
You will also find it impossible to locate an ATM to give you money (pesos or USD) that doesn’t have at LEAST a $20 ATM fee… and that will be on top of your bank fee for using a debit card abroad and out-of-network ATM. Think I’m kidding? Good luck. We got lucky and managed to be able to PayPal some money to our friend in exchange for a bit of additional cash when we ran out (he has a Mexican bank account so can deposit and withdraw it), but if you get stuck paying a ludicrous ATM fee it’ll be a bad day.
Some places will actually accept USD in cash, but honestly it’s just rude and you’re certainly not going to get your change in dollars! Not to mention you’re at their mercy for the exchange rate.
6. Cancun IS a safe city… as long as you’re not looking for trouble
Is Cancun safe? No doubt you’ve heard some negative stuff about Mexico, and at times Cancun specifically. I’m not here to deny that there are problems, but Cancun IS a safe city. The whole purpose of the city centers around tourism. So it is in their best interest to ensure that people feel safe visiting. But that being said, there is a darker side to the city, and if you go looking for it then chances are you’ll find it. Frankly that can be said about ANY city in the USA as well. This area of Mexico has a level 2 advisory… which guess what? The UK and Germany have a level 2 travel advisory as well. Don’t let the fear mongering ruin what can be an amazing trip.
Pretty much all incidents you’ve heard of in the city and surrounding area stem from tourists partaking in… less than palatable (and less than legal) activities. There are drugs if you’re looking for them, there are “ladies of the night” if you’re looking for them too. I did actually lose count of the number of times we were offered marijuana–in the middle of the street in broad daylight. There is an undercurrent of that, and as it’s a party city some people look to take advantage of it. Don’t be surprised if you get offered something, but just politely say no thanks and keep on walking along.
7. It’s true… don’t drink the tap water
Just don’t do it. You are totally fine to shower, brush your teeth, wash dishes, and cook with small amounts of it, but you’re gonna have a bad time if you drink a lot of it. It’s probably not as bad as it’s made out to be, but still definitely not something you want to chance.
Bottled water is cheap and easy to come by. You can even buy the 5 gallon style bottles for mere dollars. My suggestion would be to bring a refillable water bottle and fill that up to take along with you as you explore.
8. Souvenir prices are often negotiable
As a tourist city, the goal is to get a lot of tourist money injected into the local economy. Many of us are conditioned to expect to pay out the butt for souvenirs; things like a $20 travel t-shirt aren’t unexpected for many of us, and the local shops expect that.
The shops right on the main strips often take advantage of this, too. Be clear and direct if you don’t want to pay the price they’re asking. Many times they’ll start to negotiate with you as well, as they’d often rather have the sale. I’m not saying to devalue the items by any means, but in these main tourist trap shops the items are not made in Mexico (even if they tell you they are) and are mass produced (even if they say they’re not). Some of the owners can be pretty forceful and continue to push–if you don’t want to buy then just say “no thanks” or make up an excuse and then continue walking along. If you stop and keep chatting, they’ll keep offering.
The general rule of thumb (as explained to me by my Mexican friend) is that if the shop person is being pushy (think “hey hey come here look at this, I have great stuff!” repeatedly trying to get your attention) then you can negotiate the price with them. If it’s a static shop with set price stickers more like a big-box kind of shop, then usually those prices are firm. Often they’re better prices too!
Right near Fat Tuesday just down an alleyway there are a few great shops as well that aren’t nearly as forceful in their sell tactics. The prices are super reasonable, and if you just need that commemorative shirt/bag/blanket, they’re a good bet.
A better bet can be the women you see with mats spread out and items on then. Often they’re actually displaced indigenous people who have actually handmade the items they’ve traveled there to sell.
9. Cultural excursions are just a quick jump away
There is a ton to see and do that only a couple hours drive away at most, and this where the tourism industry there really shines. You can find a ridiculous amount of bus and excursion trips to Chichen Itza, various Cenotes (freshwater cave and lake systems), archaeological ruins, and Isla Mujeres.
If you’re at a hotel, check with the front desk. Often they can set up an excursion–and have partnered rates with them so you might be lucky with pricing. Plus the bus will typically pick you up at your hotel or nearby.
If you’re not at a hotel (or they don’t book for you) there are a ton of tour companies, like Xcaret, where you can book things through them. They also happen to be online, so you could buy the ticket that way as well. Xcaret is the most well known one there, and reputable. You can find their little booths along the road too as you explore, so you can book things while out and about and feel secure about it.
A must-see is Chichen Itza!