As I was hauling my suitcase from the humid elevator, my mom crosses the lobby and murmurs, “you better hurry up, the sunrise is incredible,” without stopping. By the time I threw my brick of a suitcase into the back of the car and made my way back up the stairs in the dark, I was greeted by a warm glow from the beach.

At this point, the only other person around was a girl softly dozing in a chair, lulled asleep by the sound of the waves. I quietly clicked away on my camera, making sure not to disturb her. Soon, we were joined by three workers who perched on-top of the rock jutting out into the water, all just watching the colors change and intensify. Slowly, the rest of my family joined me outside. A feeling of peace had washed over all of their faces as we bathed in the warmth of the morning and pushed our departure time back just a little more.

This is what we came here for.

Sunrise over Cancun beach

My experience with Mexico started and ended in Cancun this year, and while it wasn’t necessarily my favorite place, I could see the appeal. Things were built-up. You could go shopping at Chanel for sunglasses while drinking cheap margaritas, by the ocean, on a bar swing, in the same afternoon. You could dine at an upscale Italian restaurant at 8pm, and be at Coco Bongo’s all you can drink & dance for $20 by 9pm. It was easy, flashy, and warm. Those are typically not the types of vacations I crave, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t right for everyone!

Regardless, if you plan on visiting Mexico any time soon, I’m putting together a bit of a Cancun travel guide, some of which I knew beforehand and others we stumbled upon as soon as we left the airport.

Best Places To:

Eat Cheap: Surfin’ Burrito

Eat Like a King: Puerto Madero (Best. Lobster. Ever.)

Have a Fun Mid-Day Drink & (surprisingly) Great Food: Senor Frogs (gets extremely loud at night)

  • Restaurants or drinks aren’t really cheaper than they are at home, everything for the most part is priced according to American standards. It isn’t until you venture elsewhere prices drop significantly. Check out the local supermarket for cheap eats and quick supplies as well.

Get An Alcoholic Slushie: Fat Tuesdays

Grab A Souvenir: Get your butt on over to Isla Mujeres for that!

No Frills Place To Sleep w/ a Private Beach: Check out Carisa Y Palma on Airbnb (and hit up my boy Gianmarco when you see his listing!)

Dining & drinking at Cancun's Senor Frogs

Customs will be rough.

This was probably the most stressful part. It can take quite awhile to go through all the check points for customs, so making sure you have all your paperwork, hotel address, and other information in order will make the process a lot easier. Be patient, you’ll be out in the sun in no time!

English is widely spoken.

We didn’t encounter too much of a language barrier right in Cancun, but some of our waiters did have a hard time understanding what exactly we wanted at times. It’s always a good idea to learn a few key phrases, especially when you venture outside of Zona Hotelera (the main strip of hotels by the water.) It’s better to fumble through a few Spanish words than it is to just blurt out, “uh, English please?”

Don’t drink the water.

Ask your hotel or look up online to see if the water is okay to drink wherever you’re staying. This one surprised me as Cancun is so built-up. Stock up on plenty of bottled water while you stay, or grab a large jug and refillable smaller bottles. Typically, restaurants bring in ice from purified places, but sometimes washed fruits without a skin can be an issue. We played it safe and just tried to order drinks without ice, and stayed away from most smoothies/fruit.

Cancun Travel Guide: Top Things To Expect & Avoid

You 100% do not need a car in Cancun.

Unless you’re driving to different parts of the Yucatán Peninsula, it’s kind of like driving in rush hour traffic, except at all hours of the day. The main strip is congested with cars, taxis, and motorbikes. Avoid the hefty Mexican insurance (which you absolutely need and will definitely double your initial quoted price, trust me..) and just take taxis or buses if need be. Driving to & from attractions and ruins can get pricey. Tolls are aplenty (usually $5-12 each way) and you usually have to pay to park on top of the attraction’s entrance fee when you have your own car.

Avoid ATM’s & Airport Money Exchanges.

ATM’s around Cancun charge wild fees on top of any other foreign transaction fee you may find, and the airports will not give you a great rate. Walk over to one of the many money exchange places (typically Casa de Cambio) and do all your business there as you’ll always find the best rates with no fee. It’s better to pay for things in Pesos versus American dollars (at least at the time of writing this.)

Throw all toilet paper in the garbage.

This takes a little while to get used to. The plumbing in Mexico isn’t all that great, so it helps to just toss everything into the garbage. If you’re staying in an upscale place, this may not be an issue, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Checking out the main strip of attractions in Cancun

You can bargain for most goods.

If it’s in a stand, there’s a good chance you can get a better deal on it. Vendors are constantly trying to make a buck, so don’t be afraid to test out your negotiation skills. However, this can get addicting and once you realize you’re sometimes going back and forth over cents on the dollar, it may be time to take a break.

The people are incredibly helpful.

Apparently it’s a very common trait throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. Everyone we encountered was for the most part, excited to help out, sometimes a little too over-eager and can potentially steer you in the wrong direction versus just saying they don’t know. This can be a bit frustrating, though sometimes it helps to ask a few people if you’re unsure.

Snag a hotel or rental with a private beach.

Listen, this is important. If you plan on laying out on the beach all day without having to deal with a ton of people crowding around you, this is the ticket. You can opt for the places with access to public beaches, but it’s a bit more difficult to sneak onto the more serene, private ones as guests are given a special wristband. As far as all-inclusives go, when we looked they were expensive and not really worth it as the price tag for one person was way more than all four of us combined could eat/drink in a day. Choose wisely.

A private view from our Airbnb right on Cancun's Zona Hotelera hot spot

Things to Avoid:

  • Costumed performers. Located mainly near Coco Bongo, they are extremely aggressive and demand money once you’re forced to take a photo with them.
  • Flea Market. It’s right near all the action in the main part of Zona Hotelera and unless you’re looking to experience a minimum of 4 vendors shouting at you to check out their shop all at once, you’ll probably get just as good of a deal elsewhere. Better yet? Make a day trip to Isla Mujeres to shop uninterrupted (for the most part.)
  • Anyone offering free stuff in exchange for giving you a presentation. We had a guy offer us this at Hertz rental, promising the moon and back as long as we went to a 90 minute presentation on the benefits of joining an “exclusive” vacation timeshare type of program. They pester you throughout the free breakfast, show you around a hotel you may never be able to afford, and stick you in a too-air conditioned room as they try to talk you out of several thousands of dollars to join their club. It all sounds incredibly enticing at first, until they refuse to give you their business card or let you consult your financial advisor first. When you’re about to drop the same amount of money as you would on a down payment for a house, you have the right to think things over and realize this may not be a legitimate business.

Cancun Travel Guide: Top Things To Expect & Avoid

Overall, would I return to Cancun?

I’m definitely not jumping to return. Would I necessarily say it’s a great family oriented spot? If you have kids 18 and older, I’d say yes. It’s hard for me to think of anyone bringing small children into the mini-Vegas-like jungle of Cancun’s main area. There’s a ton of lights and sounds that can easily get overwhelming, but are perfect for college-aged kids.

What did you think of this Cancun travel guide? Would you go to Cancun? Have you been before and want to add something I may have missed? Let me know in the comments below!

Lounging on beach chairs in front of Cancun's private beach

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