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Cancún - What to See and What to Skip


In spite of its reputation among American college students, Mexican nationals, particularly from Mexico City, gobbled up a good bit of Cancún decades ago. Maybe they know something we don’t? Guest blogger and digital native Gloria Garcia fills us in. Gloria is now traveling across Central and South America while doing freelance writing, deck designs and events planning.

When considering a permanent move to Mexico, or at least a long stay as an expat, you might not count Cancún among the list of places to look into closely. Famously a destination for travelers (and more specifically American students on spring break), Cancún has a distinctly touristy reputation. When one hears the name, it’s easy to picture commercial resorts, beaches packed with people, and kitschy beachside restaurants.

To be sure, places that fit this general image can definitely be found around Cancún. With that said though, it’s not necessarily accurate to think of it solely as a spring break hot spot. Cancún is also a beautiful area, home to gorgeous natural attractions and incredible remnants of Mexico’s history. Much of the year, it’s more or less devoid of loud groups of college students, and living nearby or using it as an occasional getaway while you live in Mexico may be appealing.

To help you get a better feel for the area beyond its popular reputation, here’s a look at some of the things you may want to see and skip in and around Cancun, according to Ms. Garcia.

See: Playa Tortugas

cancun.tortugas photo

As you might expect there are many beaches in the Cancún area. Many of them, as mentioned above, are crowded with tourists for portions of the year. Playa Tortugas, however is widely considered a beach spot for locals. Pristine sands, a calm atmosphere, and open-air restaurants that don’t look or feel like tourist traps make the whole area delightful to visit.

Skip: Nightlife

There are small, authentic bars you can find in Cancún, and they can be lovely for a beer or a cocktail as the sunsets and thereafter. By and large, what would typically be referred to as the nightlife scene in the area is made for the tourists.

Popular establishments like the Congo Bar and The City Nightclub set the pace for what’s ultimately a fun, brightly lit, but relatively unremarkable late night atmosphere. It’s not really a scene for locals. Save those for the occasional night if you need to dive into a little excitement.

See: Chichen Itza

Cancun.ChichenItza picture

Chichen Itza may be a destination for people from all over the world, but that doesn’t make it “touristy” in the conventional sense. Some, in fact, will likely be surprised to learn of its close proximity to Cancún, given the area’s aforementioned partying tourist reputation. Chichen Itza stands in stark contrast to crowded beaches and overblown resorts. It is basically the full layout of an ancient Mayan city, complete with what are sometimes referred to as North America’s only pyramids. It’s absolutely worth visiting. Skip the 80 USD tour and take the bus to Valladolid for $10 dollars, after which you’ll take a shared van for two dollars.

Skip: Casinos

The city’s casinos are really not worth your time for a few reasons. First, if you’re in Mexico for the long term you’ll probably be tired of this type of crowd. Second, casino gaming in person just isn’t as remarkable as it used to be. International gaming and betting markets online have gotten so sophisticated, and offer so many possibilities for free-to-play games that those who are interested in casino offerings can get them at home.

See: Tulum


Tulum, near Cancún, is by no means immune to the tourist crowds. It is, however, a more authentic vision of Mexico’s coast, in some senses. Tulum actually refers to another ancient city left over from the Mayan days, situated on what are essentially small, oceanside cliffs. The ruins are incredible to see, as with Chichen Itza, and the surrounding area comprises postcard-perfect paradise.

Skip: Downtown

A lot of destinations in the Caribbean - of which Cancún is practically a part - are known for having charming downtown areas, and quaint “Old Town” centers in particular. There’s a little taste of this kind of atmosphere to be had in the downtown area of Cancún, but it also functions as an extension of the more touristy side of the area.

See: Cenotes

cancun cenotes photo

The word cenote actually refers to what’s essentially a form of sinkhole. More specifically, they’re naturally occurring pits, but ones that give way to cave-like areas that house natural groundwater.

To describe them as they appear to people all over the Yucatan Peninsula though, they’re basically gorgeous underground pools of freshwater. Yes, they’re commonly recommended as places to explore for travelers, or even on exhibitions from cruise ships. But they’re also stunningly beautiful. There are thousands of them around the peninsula and they’re part of the fabric of the land, in some sense. Seeing them and exploring them can be a wonderful experience.

Skip: Playa Marlin

Playa Marlin may come up as one of the most recommended beaches in the Cancún area. Yet for your purposes, you should consider it somewhat opposite to Playa Tortugas. While Playa Tortugas is more of a haven for locals, Playa Marlin tends to be packed with visitors. There’s nothing with it, but its situation in what’s known as the “Hotel Zone” leaves it feeling like less than an ideal spot for relaxation.

All of the above should help anyone considering a long-term stay in or permanent move to Cancún make sense of the touristy reputation the area tends to project. These locations comprise much of the Cancún experience, not just for visitors but for those who live there as well.

Great opportunities for long-term rentals for potential expats

Cancún does have expat communities from around the world - primarily from the United States and Canada, but also from Western Europe and Argentina. Aside from these foreign residents, the area has become a part-time home for many Mexican nationals. There is, as a result, some more authenticity to Cancún than some might expect and opportunities for a good rate on longer term rentals on homes owned by Mexicans who have second homes there.

All in all it's a fun, interesting, beautiful and dynamic area to move to. It has its commercial components, to be sure, but they can be overlooked and you may well find the composite of features charming.

Related Links:

Expats muse over their perfect day - Ventantas Mexico

Airports and your new life as a part-time expat. - Ventanas Mexico

How to dress in Mexico so you don’t look like a rube. - Ventanas Mexico

The Playa Times seems to be the best English-language newspaper in the area.

Most recent: The website italki offers an easy way to hire teachers or conversational tutors for Skype practice. Here I provide the best way to utilize the site.

Ventanas Mexico blogger, Kerry Baker

Kerry Baker is partner with Ventanas Mexico, which provides insights and resources to people considering full or part-time life in Mexico. She has written two books, the Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online, a curation of the best learning sites on the web, and If I Only Had a Place, a guide to renting in Mexico.