My friend and I required a break from life and didn’t have much time or money. We needed sun, exquisite beaches and crystal clear water – no honking horns à la our hometown of New York City. After much research, we found that Cancun, Mexico – at the tip of the Yucatan peninsula – was our most inexpensive option. We were nervous, though, at thirty, would it have been more suitable ten years ago as a Spring Break vacation?
Cancun was a short flight, had pristine beaches, inexpensive accommodations for a June travel date. Four hours from the bustle of New York found us in Cancun’s small, friendly airport. A quick shuttle brought us to the “Hotel Zone”, a fourteen-mile long strip shaped like the number seven – magnificent hotels competing with one another – like Las Vegas minus the casinos, plus the beaches.
Our hotel, the Gran Melia, was nestled in the middle of the zone on Kukulcan Boulevard, with architecture inspired by the Chichen Itza pyramids, giving you a sense of a full-time resort. The Gran Melia has a tropical feel the instant you see the lobby’s indoor rainforest. The hotel was overbooked, resulting in an upgrade to the VIP portion of the hotel, the Royal Service section. The difference between the two sections is tangible; the common part of the hotel is humid and busy, the Royal Service section is air-conditioned, fragrant with incense and quiet.
There are multiple daily excursions, including trips to the Mayan Ruins or the natural water park Xelha. We lounged on the beach, occasionally ate or drank one of the enormous pina coladas served in a real coconut. It’s hard to do much else. The weather was delightfully hot (ninety degrees daily), clouds on the last day, in the afternoon. The daily evening thunderstorms don’t last long nor do they reduce the nighttime humidity.
While the Gran Melia offers fine food, we chose the city center or downtown area for our meals and a change of scenery. The city center is completely westernized – chains of American eateries or bars line the area with lots of underage drinkers. We avoided that, enjoyed the downtown area, a true Mexicana housing with multiple outdoor flea markets selling Mexican jewelry, vases, tiles, etc. It's a thirty-minute bus ride from most hotels in the zone (exit at Tulum Avenue). The atmosphere was wonderful on Yaxchilan Avenue – less tourists, more locals. There were multiple seafood and Mexican restaurants to choose from where the food and margaritas were both authentic and delicious.
When returning to the hotel zone, take a cab, not a bus at night. This isn't because Mexicans are dangerous, rather it’s the Americans who board the bus at Hard Rock Café, Senor Frogs, Mango Tango and other bars – drunk, belligerent, ill-mannered kids, often turn the ride into an out-of-control frat party.
Cancun caters to the high school/college party crowd. You can avoid that entire atmosphere and have a more sophisticated, cultured experience, if you choose. Hotels like Le Meridien, the Ritz Carlton or Gran Melia (and many others) are more concerned with providing first-class service than a party atmosphere for teens. I did not see one college student at our hotel – mostly adults, vacationing. People are surprised when I tell them that I holidayed in Cancun, didn’t party every night, soaked up some of Mexico’s downtown culture. It’s a shame Cancun is stuck with the "spring break" label when that is only one small part of what it offers.