The first thing that comes to mind when most people hear the name "Cancun" is Spring Break. Which in turn brings to mind images of drunken frat kids spinning wildly out of control on the beach, wet T-shirt contests, wild orgies and drug-induced incidents that go straight to YouTube. And while it's certainly true that the tourist strip of the city known as the Hotel Zone caters to that type of crowd, there's much more than meets the eye in this tropical destination.
The city is split into two separate sections. The Hotel Zone is loaded with more all-inclusive resorts than Las Vegas, Nevada, and if you are looking for a weekend-for-two with all-you-can-eat-buffets, pristine beaches, turquoise waters, infinity pools and spa therapy, there's plenty to go around. But, there's also the almost unknown part of Cancun on the mainland, the residential areas where the vast majority of workers in the Hotel Zone live, and where the real Mexico exists.
The primary difference between the Hotel Zone and the mainland is price. Everything on the mainland is literally three to four times cheaper than what it is in the tourist section of the city, and yet it's only a ten minute drive across the bridge and the lagoon from the coast. The mainland is also where all of the primary grocery stores are located, not to mention some familiar American stores such as The Home Depot.
The second difference, and the more important one, is the cultural aspect. Mainland Cancun is Mexico proper, and while there is a smattering of English spoken by the residents along the main avenues closest to the lagoon and the Hotel Zone, the further west and north you go the deeper into true Mexico you get. Everything towards the airport is modern Cancun; the city itself is only forty years old, and from Plaza Las Americas south towards Playa Del Carmen the 21st century expansion continues on.
Centro is packed full of parks and plazas where you can find local events throughout the week, especially at the Zocalo known as Parque Las Palapas. Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights the streets are packed with locals as well as Mexicans coming in from the outlying districts to take in the carnival-like atmosphere and give their families a night out on the town.
There are live bands, hand-made clothes, street food, games, artists and beyond, plenty to keep every member of the family entertained.
Cancun is also an excellent base of operations for exploring the surrounding Maya Riviera. With an international airport as well as a bus stop and plenty of car rental agencies, you can easily plan your trip out into the surrounding regions at your leisure. Or, if you prefer the all-inclusive route, there's plenty of tour agencies who work independently as well as with the hotel chains to take tourists out to the major ruins such as Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba and beyond.
Time of year definitely makes a difference due to the high and low season. If you don't like rubbing shoulders with a lot of other tourists and travelers, December to May isn't a good time to visit. June through September is the hurricane season as well as main heat of summer and heads into the early fall, which means plenty of rain. However, October and November are cool and tranquil, with few visitors and mild temperatures.
If you are looking for a city where you are surrounded by modern amenities and a gradual easement into Mexican culture, Cancun is the best place for you to start. It's not as hardcore as Mexico City in terms of culture shock, and there's plenty of English-speaking residents in the primary sections to make any traveler from around the world feel welcome.
Depending on if you enjoy all-inclusive resorts or the more homey style of colonial Mexico, there's something for everyone in the heart of the Riviera May's tropical center.
The author of this article, Tim Anderson, lives in Cancun. His book offers valuable insights not only for expats, but also for those of you that would like to vacation there...short stays or for a longer duration.
For more information about Tim Anderson and his travels, visit Marginal Boundaries
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