On the road... One night in Cancun

Sunday, November 01, 2015

One night in Cancun, well two actually, if you include the extra night taken to get over my stinking hangover. Cancun is very much a tale of two cities. I'd heard this a lot prior to my visit and after seeing the contrasting Zona Hotelera and Downtown Cancun I now fully understand the meaning. We stayed in Downtown Cancun through Airbnb which meant we got to experience Cancun without the usual associated price tag and as budget backpackers heading to Cancun for one night that was always our intention.

Cancun at a glance

  Language: Spanish

✓ Currency: Mexican pesos but US Dollars are accepted - As an ethical traveller I feel its only right to use the country's currency within that country

✓ Street food: $1-$5 - Taco heaven 

  Restaurant food: $5 - $10 in Downtown Cancun $10 - $50 in the Zona Hoteleria

  Drinks: From Oxxo $0.60 in the Zona Hoteleria $30 - Open bar wrist bands

 ✓ Taxis: $8 maximum - Take the bus from Downtown Cancun to the Zona Hoteleria $0.50

  Where to stay: Downtown Cancun

All prices in US Dollar

How to spend one night in Cancun, Mexico as a budget backpacker (plus a second night to get over your hangover)

Spending one night in Cancun on a budget

Cancun if you don't already know is situated on Mexico's Caribbean Yucatán Peninsula. Cancun's Caribbean appearance and Mexican spirit have been attracting North American and European tourists for decades. Cancun is usually considered a luxury holiday destination, so I was unsure how our budget backpacking approach would work out. But after booking our Airbnb and getting to know our local hosts we realised you can in fact visit one of the world's premier resorts on a budget.

Getting to know Cancun

If you know someone who's been to Cancun then you have probably heard of The Zona Hotelera. The Zona Hotelera is a thin strip of jam packed sand with the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Laguna de Nichupte on the other. The Zona Hotelera was created on this picturesque strip of Mexican Caribbean solely for tourism. As The Zona Hotelera and the resort of Cancun is Mexico's oldest and most successful tourism project and easily one of Mexico's biggest economic triumphs.

Downtown Cancun, on the other hand is where we stayed. Where the locals live and the real Mexico exists. It's a short inexpensive bus ride to The Zona Hotelera but it worked out perfect for us spending one night in Cancun on a budget.

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The Zona Hotelera, Cancun

Anything you feel a holiday resort could need or should have lives The Zona Hotelera, which is often referred to as America's playground. There's bras, shops, many hotels and every other possible convenience you would require whilst staying on the pristine 21km beach strip. Almost everything in Cancun is open 24 hours even the fast food outlets that are ready to feed the tourists leaving the bars at 5am.

Perhaps it's my Tourism Management degree speaking but I couldn't help but notice how everything in Cancun worked like clockwork as the restaurants and bars churned out a profit one holidaymaker at a time. In my head I kept thinking surely this is exploitative tourism at its absolute best. The world wind romance between Cancun and its tourists is like no other, a mutually exploitative and mutually beneficial tourism relationship. 

The amount of money I saw being spent during my 48 hours in the city of Cancun was beyond anything I had seen. The Zona Hotelera is possibly the most commercialised place I have ever been to. Tourism for Cancun is the very purpose of its existence. The Mexican economy wins, the tourist wins. In terms of Mexico making money what's not to love about Cancun? Its an economic marvel, tourist after tourist after tourist. 

Every morning the hotels send someone out to scrape the seaweed into piles to make the beach more attractive

One night in The Zona Hotelera and Cancun

It's hard to picture Cancun if you haven't experienced it first hand, we had fresh eyes arriving from a country like Cuba that's everything Cancun is not. Let me try and explain Cancun and more specifically the over commercialised The Zona Hotelera. Think of Las Vegas and Ibiza having a child together, Cancun is that child. That's the most controversial of the Spanish holiday destinations plus the bright lights and hustle of Las Vegas. Spanish speaking with an American accent, Bienvenido guys is what all the wait staff greet you with at your table.

The Zona Hotelera is a picture of row upon row of luxury hotels with fountains bigger than your average house. Bars and more bars, 24 hour shops, 24 hour restaurants, 24 hour bus service, 24 hour everything and then some.

Tourism in Cancun

I will admit it's hard not to be sucked into the Cancun experience even if you only spend one  night there, you fall deeply in love with the atmosphere. The endless food and drink promotions, the 24-hour-everything's, the skinny dancers wearing leopard print catsuits handing out balloons it's all for you the tourist. You feel very special, just like all the other tourists, funny really. 

To me it's very fascinating and after one night I couldn't help analysing Cancun, but like I say that's probably my degree speaking I'm a sucker for anything I can analyse. Honestly, Cancun isn't somewhere I'd spend a prolonged period of time maybe more than one night in future, but love the Cancun model of tourism or hate it who really cares? 

Cancun is exactly what it is supposed to be and I can't argue with that. A tourism destination, entirely purpose built and boy does it serve its purpose. It isn't a culturally satisfying experience but it's an experience nonetheless and isn't that what travels about? After one night (or two) in Cancun I left with some fond memories and I can't say I wouldn't return. Plus, most bars are $30 for all you can drink and that's alright with me.

One night in Cancun
Sand so perfect it's probably artificial - A photo from flying into Cancun
One night in Cancun
One night in Cancun with our Airbnb hosts - Thanks!

Cancun basics - One night in Cancun survival guide

Getting to and from Cancun

Busses leave the airport regularly. Many heading to the main bus terminal in Downtown Cancun if you don't have a transfer. Tickets are easily bought from any of the retailers in the airport. You can also grab currency and other travel essentials here. Busses in the Downtown Cancun area run all night to the Zona Hotelera but if you don't fancy that taxis are also cheap in Mexico generally and Cancun is no different.

Sleeping in Cancun

Airbnb was our best choice for Cancun especially considering we were only spending one night. We didn't have the budget to stay at a 5 star in the Zona Hotelera, check on Airbnb for a Cancun steal. If you plan on staying for one or two nights an Airbnb is probably the most budget friendly option.

Things to avoid in Cancun

'Book now, we only have one seat left' type scams. Everybody is going to Chichen Itza or Playa del Carmen. Everyone is going to try and get you to buy a ticket. Be smart and be savvy if it seems overpriced that's because it is. Most things are in Cancun. Save Chichen Itza for Merida.

Must dos for spending one night in Cancun

Eat Tex-Mex fast food, its cheap and it's tasty. If you head to the Zona Hotelera for a meal you're going to be paying over the odds for a meal. Head to downtown Cancun for a Mexican Taco or Quesadilla for pennies. Oxo is also your friend. Stock up on cheap drinks and snacks at the 24hour store and get used to seeing them in Mexico.

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  1. The sand isn't artificial but earlier this year it was manually cleaned when an unprecdented raft of muck came ashore and covered the beach, so perhaps it is cleaner than in previous years.


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