Cancún Vacations: From Budget to Luxury
Sun stroke, nightclubbing, parasailing, tequila shots…Cancún has earned a well deserved reputation as a party vacation destination. It’s not all about spring break blackouts anymore, though. Situated on what used to be a sprawling coconut plantation on the coast of the Yucatan peninsula, Cancún is also home to some of Mexico’s finest hotels, beautiful sandy white beaches with turquoise Caribbean waters, historical Mayan temples, and a host of other amenities that make it one of the best beach vacation spots in North America. Most hotels are located in the city’s Hotel Zone on Cancún Island, but we’ve also ventured a little farther afield to bring you a few of our picks of top hotels and resorts to make the most out of your next trip there.
Sleeping, Eating and Drinking
Though there is a bustling town center with restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs, many of the resorts around Cancún tend to have all-inclusive options.
The Aqua Hotel was actually one of the properties severely damaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005, but now the ultra-mod luxury hotel is back and better than ever. Every one of the 371 guest rooms faces the ocean and has Egyptian cotton sheets on the beds, i-Home sound systems, in-room WiFi (for a charge), high-end Moulton Brown products in the bathrooms, and aromatherapy menus. The hotel also has eight pools with luxury cabanas for rent, a spa offering indoor and outdoor treatments, a fitness center, and three bars and restaurants. Siete, from one of Mexico’s most celebrated chefs of the moment Martha Ortiz, offers culinary creations based on classical Mexican cuisine. Rates here can start as low as $150, though they skyrocket up to $350 or so during the holidays.
The Fairmont Mayakoba is part of a new luxury resort development about an hour south of Cancún, near Playa del Carmen and Quintana Roo. It sits on a nature preserve of picturesque lagoons, canals, mangrove swamps (which the hotel has a huge hand in conserving), and a stretch of sandy white beach along the Caribbean coast. Some of the hotel’s eco-initiatives include constructing raised wooden walkways to protect the natural landscape, not allowing cars on the property (guest ride bikes or are chauffered around in electric carts and small boats along the canals), and a sea turtle release program. The 397 rooms and casitas are built and decorated with a classic Mexican beach getaway aesthetic that hearkens to simpler times, its white villas covered by thatched palapa roofs, bright wooden doors and shutters, and private plunge pools in some of the villas, as well as more sophisticated touches like all marble floors. The hotel has five pools to choose from, four gourmet restaurants, and in keeping with its ecological dedication to protecting the local environment, an award-winning Greg Norman-designed golf course that was even certified by Audubon International (and a high-tech golf simulator in the pro center where guests can play a virtual round and practice their technique). Best of all, rates here this winter start as low as $159 a night—an unbelievably low rate for a resort of this caliber.
Travelers wanting the individual touches of a tropical resort along with the standard amenities of an upscale chain can ask for no better option than the Hilton Cancún, which is right in the heart of the beach area, with 426 rooms, villas, and suites starting at a low $159 a night ($199 villas, $279 suites). The spacious, minimalist rooms here come with all the usual perks like large flat-screen TVs, well stocked minibars and Wi-Fi connectivity. Plus, thanks the resort’s location on 250 acres of beachside property, each room has ocean views – some hotel rooms even have water views on both sides of the sea and the lagoon. It also has a meandering network of ten outdoor pools, two whirlpool spas, and a swim-up bar. If you want to get out of the water, head to the golf course or the Wellness spa with oceanfront massage cabanas. For parents in need of some private R&R, drop the kids off with available babysitting and kid’s activity program services.
Like many of the other hotels in this ultra-premium luxury hotel family, the Ritz-Carlton Cancún boasts upscale amenities that set it apart from its competitors in the area. It sits on a private beach that spans nearly a quarter mile, and all the guest rooms and public areas overlook the sea and the property’s two pools. The ambiance here, as is typical of Ritz-Carlton, is laidback but a little more staid than some of the beachier hotels nearby, with huge chandeliers, plush beds, and thick carpeting. Take a cooking class or attend tequila tastings at the Mexican and Mayan culinary center. Families with children can rest assured that the little ones will have full schedules (and the adults will have time to relax!) thanks to the hotel’s daily Kids’ Camp activity center or Kids’ Night Out so parents can enjoy a quiet dinner on their own. The property’s Kayantà Spa has treatments based on ancient Mayan rituals, and the candlelit cabanas of the beachside Casitas steakhouse restaurant is one of the most romantic places to dine in Cancún. The resort has five other restaurants, a sushi bar-lounge, and a fitness center, as well as club floors with access to business amenities and a lounge. Rates here start at around $300.
One of the best budget options in town, the Sol Y Luna is near the central Parque Las Palapas, and has just 11 rooms with small balconies, each decorated individually. The bathrooms have mosaic tiling, but only feature showers, not full baths. Rates here start at $50-70, so you won’t find too many amenities, but service is friendly and the rooms are neat and clean. Plus they have air conditioning, televisions and refrigerators, and there’s an outdoor pool for guests to use when they don’t want to trek to the beach nearby. Parque Las Palapas is also home to slew of new restaurants serving everything from gourmet Mexican food to simple tapas. Try Restaurante Labná for a huge, inexpensive meal of fresh, delicious local cuisine.
This little resort won’t win any hospitality awards, but it is a fantastic place to stay if you come to Cancún on a tight budget, since rates for the 89 rooms and 10 junior suites here start at $75 for a double and $85 for a suite. The hotel is right in the heart of downtown, so it is well suited for those looking for some raucous days and nights, though not travelers seeking solitary beach time. If you’d like a quieter room, ask for one on the inner courtyard. The building is whimsically designed like a Mayan temple, and does have the usual (and some more unique) amenities like a private pool, a spa whose low rates match that of the hotel, and even yoga classes. The rooms here take Mexican heritage as their inspiration, featuring charmingly rustic furniture and shower-only bathrooms. There is also a small tamale restaurant right next to the hotel that is perfect for a bite on the go, as well as an internet café for keeping in touch with those back home.
If the Fairmont Mayakoba interested you, there are three other hotels in Mayakoba, including a the gorgeous Banyan Tree-branded Maroma and a Rosewood resort. Travelers who prefer the Ritz-Carlton should think about the nearby Le Méridien, while Hilton fans should also check out the well reviewed J.W. Marriott resort or the hip Sol Meliá, which has a trendy cocktail bar from nightlife impresario Rande Gerber and a Maxim magazine pool bar.
Much of the activity in and around Cancún centers on the beach and the sea. Most resorts offer snorkeling, scuba, kayak and sailing rentals, or can arrange them for you with partner outfitters.
Beyond the Beach
The lush Yucatan Peninsula in eastern Mexico boasts magnificent overgrown jungles with plenty of activities for the sedate to the thrilling, such as jungle hiking, mountain biking, ATV-ing and ziplining. For a combination activity day, try booking with the Selvatica tour company.
The Yucatan is also the site of some of the world’s most famous ruins, including the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. Though there are only a few, small-scale ruins near Cancún itself, to see the really impressive city and religious complexes, travelers have to venture a couple hours away from the city. There are daytrips to the city of Tulum, about 80 miles from Cancún, as well as daytrips and overnights to the ancient administrative hub and towering stone pyramids of Chichen Itza, just over 100 miles away.