Cancun – The Jewel of the Mexican Caribbean

by Lisa Coleman

For decades vacationers have been drawn to the Pacific Coast of Mexico. From Mazatlan to Acapulco, the “Mexican Riviera” was the most famous stretch of beach in the country. However, in the late 1960’s things on the Mexican tourist scene began to change. The government began to take interest in a remote sandbar on the Eastern Shore of the Yucatan Peninsula. As a result, the resort of Cancun was born and the Pacific Coast destinations were in for some big competition.

Even though the prospects of Cancun as a major player in the tourist business were considered in the 60’s, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that things began to really take off. Then a string of hotels and promotions made Cancun the “hot spot” of Latin America in the 1990’s. As a matter of fact, the state of Quintana Roo (where Cancun is located) now garners 35% of all Mexico’s tourism revenue.

I think that for most “beginner” travelers to Mexico, Cancun is a great destination choice. The American restaurants, shopping malls and the widely spoken English keep things easy for the gringos who might not be interested in delving too deep into the authenticity of Mexico. Built specifically as a tourist destination, Cancun is designed to cater to a predominantly American clientele. If you aren’t hip on big crowds you may want to stay outside the city, but either way, there is an astounding amount of things to do and see.

Cancun is ruins and riches, beaches and shopping, fishing and snorkeling, and has all the exotic flavor of a tropical paradise. It is a perfectly melded mixture of natural, cultural and man-made attractions. Technically an island, Cancun’s resort zone is approximately 14 miles of sugar-white sand shaped like the number seven. Framed by the turquoise and emerald waters of the Caribbean, Cancun is without question one of the most stunning resorts not only in Mexico, but all of North America.

The lay of the land is very easy to follow as it is divided into three distinct yet integrated areas. The “city of Cancun” is a booming town of 300,000 and popular for dining, shopping and less expensive accommodations. The “ecological reserve” is a haven for nature and a collection of lovely lagoons and mangroves. And, as mentioned, the “resort zone” is an island. Though growing at a rapid rate, development is designed to be ecologically sensitive therefore always maintaining the integrity of the land and natural surroundings.

In addition to accommodating the constant influx of tourism, Cancun works hard to remain focused on its most fascinating treasure – history. For centuries, prior to the Spanish arriving to the Yucatan Peninsula in 1519, the Maya Indians and their culture flourished here. Over 1200 archaeological sites are scattered within a few hour’s drive from Cancun. Some of the sites have been beautifully restored while others remain undisturbed in the jungle vegetation. Even the modern resort zone is home to ruins dating back to the 12th century. The Mayan society was one of the most highly advanced of the ancient cultures and day tours to sites like Tulum, Cobá and Chichén Itzá will demonstrate the magnificence of a lost civilization.

If you prefer to step away from the fast pace of Cancun, be sure to travel about an hour south to Playa del Carmen. This is a “real” Mexican experience. Though this town is growing as well, Playa del Carmen maintains its rustic charm and laid back lifestyle. Cozy restaurants and an active nightlife keep the town colorful and a lot of fun. The beaches can get crowed but the energy is relaxed. I would most certainly recommend including a stay here in your Cancun itinerary.

Cancun has achieved a unique goal. It has successfully combined the best of Mexico with the best of the Caribbean, and that makes for quite a combination. And though commercial tourism has boomed, there is no denying the seductive appeal of Cancun’s history, culture, beaches and resorts.