How to spend a day or more in Cancun and immerse in the culture

Hey, hola! Our very first stop of the Central America Grande journey is Cancún! Until very very soon, we knew almost nothing about it. Well, except that it is the mecca of beach tourism in the Yucatan peninsula with plenty of options to hang out on the beach and around your resort/hotel. But we had to spend a day in Cancun Ciudad to actually feel the place and immerse in the culture.

Cancún has so much going on in terms of mass tourism, that it actually helped us get to Central America quite cheaply – there are regular charter flights from Europe to here. So, we set off to Cancún with few expectations and a rough plan to spend not too much time around, maybe use the city as a base for day trips.

Here’s what happened: after 24 hours or so we had experienced so much and done so many things, that it felt like we’ve been around for much much longer. And here’s what we mean. (Well, we did spend a couple of days in Cancun, but that also includes day trips to other places and stuff.)

Cancun sign, Mexico

Cancún Ciudad

Cancun Ciudad or Downtown is the city itself, the place where locals live. It has its own little touristy areas like Mercado 28, a couple of shopping malls, and plenty of residential buildings. So even if you’re spending just a day in Cancun or if you want to stay somewhere affordable, notice how locals live and get some taste of Mexico – make sure you go for at least a walk.

A day in Cancun, Mexico

Zona Hotelera

There is a big lagoon – Nichupte, which separates Ciudad Cancun from a stretch of sand facing the Caribbean Sea. That stretch goes for more than 20 kilometers and is full of, guessed it – hotels. Every self-respecting hotel/resort chain has its spot on Zona Hotelera. It’s like an endless line of huge hotels and their massive gardens and golf courses.

Light rain at Laguna Nichupte, Cancun, Mexico
A day in Cancun, Mexico

The beaches

To be honest, there are at least ten public access points to the gorgeous stretch of sand that goes along Zona Hotelera. So don’t worry, you don’t need to stay at a fancy hotel to get to the beach. On the other hand, you might need to walk a bit to find the right public entrance to the beach, so prepare for some adventure.

It was very easy reaching Playa Delfines because it’s not associated with a hotel (was not, by the time we visited). Finding the access to Playa Marlin was a bit tricky but once we set foot on the sand, nothing could beat the feeling of sipping golden Sol beer just at the golden sunset!

Travel couple on the beach in Mexico, Playa Marlin, Cancun

Public transport

Moving around between the city of Cancun and Zona Hotelera can happen by public buses. We usually take R2 or R1 and sometimes, if the driver is in the right mood, you can enjoy a mini-disco on the bus. Fare is 12 pesos, drinks not included.

Public transport in Cancun, Mexico

Colectivos

If you stay in Cancun for even just a day, you may have to use collective transport – a small shuttle bus that serves other than the basic routes. It is hard to imagine the amount of experience you’ll have on the colectivo – from an angry driver dealing with traffic jams through families reuniting after a long day at work to the fear in gringos’ eyes (well, ours) that they did get lost again!

Taxis

We tried to avoid taxis, operating from the perspective that they will be so expensive for us, but we had to get one or two to get from/to the bus station and it wasn’t the worst experience. It’s crucial to educate yourself about the price of the distance you plan to cover. You can ask your host, a friend, or even a stranger, and don’t forget to bargain as there’s always room for reducing the price!

Inovative retro cargo car in Cancun Mexico

Is Cancun dangerous?

We didn’t have the goal to walk around in Cancun Ciudad after dark on purpose, but we strolled too much in different directions so eventually, the sun had set and we had to get to our apartment by dark. The streets were a bit dark and empty, so we tried to follow bigger streets with many settlements just in case. It felt both safe and unsafe for the same reason – dark streets with no people can give your imagination space for all sorts of possible stories.

So is Cancun dangerous? We didn’t feel it that way, for sure.

A day in Cancun, Mexico

The 24-hour-shop

A local chain of convenience stores named OXXO was our main spot to get everything we needed from groceries and water to flip-flops and beer. They were everywhere which was why we visited so often. Sometimes we would enter and say – nothing really useful or healthy here, but still, a good place to get some basics (and flip-flops) at whatever time of the day you want.

Cancun souvenirs, Mexico

The mercado and the mall

There is no shortage of shopping centers in Cancun – from the long-running flea market with food stalls and lots of shops offering souvenirs, apparel, and other goods Mercado 28 to super fancy shiny mall Plaza las Americas (which we thought is a square of historical significance, don’t ask why).

So even if you’re on a massive shopping quest or just want to absorb the market and haggling atmosphere, Cancun has you covered!

Cancun souvenirs, Mexico

Local diners and healthy food

While walking in the neighborhood we found this little local diner that immediately drew our attention. The food was delicious and the drinks – refreshing. The good news is that Cancun Ciudad is full of those small local restaurants and diners so you’ll be spoiled for choice (well, some Spanish would definitely help you).

Cancun has its fair share of bigger restaurants, international chains for fast food (which we had no choice but to try in Zona Hotelera), gourmet places, even places catering for those seeking healthy food.

Travelers having lunch at the Mercado 28 in Mexico Cancun

Booking trips

If you want to book some trips in Cancun and out of Cancun, you can take a few different approaches.

  • For our trip to Chichen Itza, we visited the ADO bus station as it was just the bus tickets to Valladolid and return.
  • We talked to our host Alexandro about renting a car, which tours we can book at what places, etc.
  • Water activities around Cancun, trips to nearby islands, etc. can be book at the huge shopping center called La Isla (in Zona Hotelera) but be mindful of the slightly higher prices (it’s the higher-end place after all).
  • You can buy ferry tickets to Isla Mujeres on the Maritima Isla Mujeres – Termina Ferry Punta Sam. We used the Ultramar ferry.

Place of the golden snake for the Mayan

Although the name “Cancun” comes from the Mayan words for “nest of snakes” or “throne of the snake”, it is not sure if the name comes from the Mayan language at all although Cancun had Mayan inhabitants. The modern city of Cancun was formed by all the developments and the transformation into one of the most popular resorts in the world. Cancun as we know it was founded in 1970, so it’s quite a young city after all!

Walking on the georgeous Delfines beach in Cancun Mexico

So you don’t need to stay a week in Cancun to enjoy its atmosphere, although we recommend staying there and just absorbing the everyday life beyond Zona Hotelera. Spending a day in Ciudad Cancun can help you immerse in the atmosphere and enjoy the Yucatan jewel!

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