Cancun Beyond the Hotel Zone
Cancun takes a lot of flack from travel ‘purists.’ In an attempt to chase the ‘local’ and ‘authentic,’ many backpackers and travel aficionados have steered clear of Cancun, dubbing it “Miami South” and opting for other more exotic locations Mahahual, Bacalar, and Merida. (Guilty. But also not guilty because those places are unbelievably cool.) And while there is a grain of truth (or a whole stalk, maybe) to this perception of Cancun, there are a lot of discoveries to be had when one takes the time to actually look.
If you think Cancun is just a sandy strip of mega all-inclusive hotels, well, you’d be right. (But lately I’ve come to see that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing - but more on that later.) Still, all around Cancun is a wealth of discoveries that, in the 50-or-so times that I’ve been to Cancun, I’ve had the pleasure to uncover and, thus, have fallen in love with one of the biggest tourist destinations in the entire world completely in spite of myself.
Playa del Carmen
This might not be the best-kept secret (it’s actually the worst-kept one), but still I have to admit I love Playa del Carmen. It’s just a fun town. About 45 minutes south of Cancun you’ll find this once-fishing village turned 24-hour hotspot. Even among the H&Ms, FOREVER 21s, and big brand hotels, there are still hidden hotspots that I have come to adore. Take, for example, Lido Beach Club. This out-of-the-way barefoot beach bar is one of my all-time favorites. Reggae music, swings in the sand, and lime-green daybeds smack up against the Caribbean water, plus a menu of incredibly cheap-and-fresh seafood, tacos, and ceviche. If you’re in Playa, you’d do well to make a stop here.
Right off the coast of the northernmost point of the Hotel Zone is this small, Mexican Caribbean island. A quick, 30-minute ferry ride from Puerto Juarez puts you right in the heart of the downtown of this island escape. The south side of the island is built for tranquility and unparalleled views, while the northern beaches are where exclusive sailboats dock in the shallow waters, and young people party-hop from day club to day club. Rent a golf cart (the preferred mode of transportation) and explore the various vistas out over the Caribbean Sea, with Cancun to the west and faaaaar of to the east, Cuba.
On the south side visit Garrafon Aquatic Park, a natural park with popping, colorful coral reefs, a Mayan temple, and one of the best sunrises in Mexico. On the north, visit Playa Norte for its party atmosphere, specifically the Green Demon for its health-friendly menu, great soundtrack, and front-row seat for the crystal-clear water. And since it’s less than a half hour from Cancun, it makes a great day trip for anyone looking to get out of the hotel zone of Cancun for a few hours.
I make it a habit to avoid anything on a billboard. So for years I’ve completely written off this natural park deep in the Mayan jungles of Cancun. But a few months ago I was lucky enough to be proven entirely wrong. On a spelunking adventure through one of the largest underground cave systems IN THE WORLD I discovered this absolutely stunning secret underneath the mangroves of Cancun. On a 90-minute underground adventure, armed with nothing but a life vest and a headlamp, wind your way through a spectacular cave system that is literally millions of years old.
The Mayans thought this cave system was the entrance to Xibalba, which is the underworld, and that the many underground rivers that snake through the caves were magic. Slithering your way between the stalactites and stalagmites as the translucent water glitters aquamarine all around you, you may start to believe it yourself.
The bottom line:
Over the years I’ve come to realize that there is nothing wrong with an all-inclusive beach vacation. Though it might not be one that I pick for myself, there is nothing anti-travel about parking yourself on a beach for a week, forgetting about the outside world, and letting yourself be pampered. Somehow this designation between “tourist’ and “traveler” has come to have negative and positive connotations, respectively, and that’s very closed minded. Mexico has stunningly beautiful beaches and a wonderful tourism infrastructure that is providing jobs, giving back to local communities, and reshaping the way they operate to become more eco-friendly. So have it. That said, if you want to experience something beyond the confines of the pool deck, Cancun is so much more than just the Hotel Zone.