Last week we spent a few days enjoying Cancun, somewhere that I never thought I would go on purpose.
But when we were planning a trip to the Yucatan and I realized we were going to have to spend a night in the all-inclusive capital of Mexico, I wanted to make sure we saw a different side of it. Believe it or not, there are a ton of things to do in Cancun that don’t include sipping sugary cocktails on the beach (although I’m not entirely opposed to this activity either tbh).
This anti-all inclusive guide to Cancun is for those of you who want to do the same. If you’re looking for the beauty of the Caribbean Sea without the price tag, look no further.
Where to Stay
If you want to avoid the resorts, get yourself onto AirBnB. If you’re not already a member, use this link to get $35 off your first stay. We stayed in a great little apartment in the town of Cancun that had a full kitchen, air-conditioning in every room, and a perfect little pool to while away the afternoon in. You can see that listing here.
The main town of Cancun is a really short bus ride to the Zona Hotelera. Almost every bus that goes down the main road (Avenida Tulum) will turn down to the beach. Just tell the bus driver which beach you want to go to and he’ll tell you where to get off.
There are a few hostels in Cancun if you’re traveling solo or just want to meet some other travelers. I have a few friends who have stayed at Mayan Hostel and highly recommend it. It’s also in the town and right in the mix of all the local food stalls and cantinas.
What Beaches to Visit
We quickly realized that most of the beaches in Cancun are part of the resorts that abut them. There are, however, a few public beaches where you can enjoy the exact same sea and sand without having to buy a drink or pay for an umbrella.
*Top Tip* Pack your own picnic. All of the food and drinks in this area are much more expensive than in town.
The hotel area of Cancun is shaped like the number 7. The beaches to the top, or facing North, are sheltered by Isla Mujeres. The water is calmer, not quite as blue, and the beaches are slightly quieter. You’re away from the main hotels and often sit on the beaches with only a few locals and Mexican tourists and that’s it.
Playa Las Perlas – Pearl Beach
This is the first beach you reach as you come from town. It’s very small, probably only a few hundred meters long, and it’s usually always busy. There aren’t any amenities like drinks or food, but if you get here early enough it’s a nice place to relax.
Playa Langosta – Lobster Beach
This is one of my favorites of the Northern Beaches and where we spent most of our time. About a mile from Pearl Beach, the waters of Lobster beach are clear and calm. There are a few trees around to grab some shade and there’s a few people selling fruit and drinks (albeit at a very inflated price).
Playa Tortugas – Turtle Beach
This is a good beach to come to if you want to have plenty to do around you. There’s a pier here that will take you to Isla Mujeres, there’s a flea market just off of the beach to do some souvenir shopping, and the beach itself is quite nice. The water is a deep green (like a turtle) and is much deeper than the other beaches on the Northside. It sits right on the cusp of the main part of the Hotel Zone, so if you wanted to carry on exploring that area, this is a good place to start the day.
As you turn the corner to the Eastside beaches you enter the main hub of the Hotel Zone. This is where the big resorts are; this is where you’ll find Señor Frogs and Coco Bongo. It’s the best place to party if that’s your thing, but be prepared for hefty door prices ($80 entry).
It’s also where the beaches face the beautiful turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. The waves are big enough to do a bit of boogy-boarding and the view is exactly as you’ve seen it in the brochures.
Playa Chac Mool – Chac Mool Beach
Right next to Señor Frogs, this is well located for enjoying a bit of the Hotel Zone action while still having a nice quiet place to lay in the sand. The sea is gorgeous – so clear and blue. It’s rocky to one side, but face the South and it looks like the sand is endless.
Playa Punta Nizuc – Point Nizuc Beach
This is nearly at the end of the road. It’s one of the quietest beaches on the Eastside, mostly because it takes the longest to get to, but if you take the bus all the way, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful little spot. It’s not the best swimming beach, there’s a little bit of seaweed to battle with when you first get in, but being away from the crowds and surrounded by what feels like a jungle, is so nice. I imagine this area will be developed before too long, but for now, it’s a nice place to escape the crowds.
Where to Eat
I was really surprised by all the great food options in Cancun. Staying in town is definitely the cheapest option and where you’ll get the most authentic Mexican food.
Los De Pescado
We later discovered this is a chain in Quintana Roo, but it doesn’t matter, their fish and shrimp tacos are dynamite. We went to the restaurant on Avenida Tulum (see it on Google Maps here). The fish were freshly fried and the sauces were SO good. Wash it down with a chelada (beer with lime juice and a salt rimmed cup) for the full experience.
Taco ‘n Madre
Embarrassingly, my second favorite place that we ate is right next door to Los de Pescado (directions here). Their tacos de pastor were unbelievably good and their tortas were toasted to perfection. They have really cheap beers and the price of the food is really reasonable too. I could have eaten here everyday.
The best street food we saw was down all of the little side streets on Avenida Tulum. Walk down Avenida Tulum between Avenida Uxmal (the huge tacky fountain with giant seashells on it) and Avenida Coba (another weird water fountain that kind of looks like Lincoln Logs) and you’ll find carts on nearly every street. There were fried quesadillas, tacos, gorditas, and tortas all over the place.
From the Airport
Getting to and from the Cancun airport can be quite expensive. There are basically only three options: taxi, shared taxi, or ADO bus. Obviously taxis are the most expensive and can run upwards of 800 pesos ($40). Shared taxis are the white vans you see when you come out of the airport exit. Depending on how far you’re going it can cost anywhere between 300 and 500 pesos ($15-$25).
The cheapest way to get into the center is to take the ADO bus. Simply ask the information desk inside the airport where you can get the bus from. We paid 66 pesos ($3.50). The only problem with the ADO buses is that they leave you at the bus station on the corner of Avenida Uxmal and Avenida Tulum, while the others will take you directly to your accommodation.
Cancun to Playa del Carmen
Moving onto Playa del Carmen from Cancun is very easy and very cheap. Directly opposite the ADO bus station on Avenida Tulum is a Colectivo stand. Here you can grab a white van that will take you to the center of Playa del Carmen for 34 pesos ($1.80). They’ll drop you as close to your destination as they can, just tell them where in Playa that you’re staying.
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