My bucket list for Cancun, Mexico was very short – to do absolutely nothing. I was touching down in Mexico for the first ever time and, whilst usually my first few days in a new destination will see me galivanting about like an excited puppy, this time things were different.
I flew in from Havana in Cuba and, after three weeks in Cuba, I knew Mexico was going to be a shock to the system: a kind of return to reality. As a result Cancun was the perfect place to embrace this. Going to a supermarket wasn’t a hassle anymore; I could get a phone charger; I had Wi-Fi; there was a Subway! I’m sure embracing commercialism whilst backpacking is forbidden in the Backpacker’s Charter or something but I just didn’t care. I loved Cuba and how cut off I felt from the rest of the world but sometimes you just want a meatball sub (actually I had several). To be honest, Subway was the only international takeaway food I had because Mexican food is so damn good, I ended up eating local 99% of the time.
Cancun in many ways isn’t a backpacker destination. It’s crammed full of resorts and flash hotels and beyond the (admittedly impressive) beach there aren’t much in the way of sights. But that’s also kind of the point. Especially on a long travelling trip, I sometimes feel like I’m pushing myself to see or do as much as possible when I reach a new destination. You almost start to feel like a ‘do nothing’ day is a wasted day. In reality, I think the opposite is true. It’s the ‘do nothing’ days which give you the stamina to keep travelling during a long trip. Living out of a backpack isn’t always easy so just bumming around for a while is fine. Cancun’s a pretty good place to do this (I preferred it to Playa del Carmen at any rate).
Transport from Cancun airport to the city is very easy. In fact, transport to anywhere in this region is really easy thanks to the brilliant and ubiquitous ADO buses. If you’re taking a lot of bus journeys in Quintana Roo or Yucatan, be prepared for comfy seats and some of your favourite (and not-so favourite) films dubbed in Spanish for the entire journey. It’s a great way to brush up on your language skills. The airport-city buses leave the airport about every half an hour and you can buy a ticket at the stand in the terminal or outside at the bus station. It was a little bit of a walk from the terminal to the bus station so don’t buy the ticket super last minute. From the airport you can go to downtown Cancun (82 MXN) or even Playa del Carmen (198 MXN).
The Cancun bus dropped me off in a bus terminal right in the centre and just a 7 minute walk from my hostel. Be aware that, in Cancun, the centre doesn’t mean the beach. The beach area is quite far out of town (though easily accessible by bus). The cheaper accommodation and most of the hostels are located downtown. Even though you’re further from the beach, I’d still recommend staying downtown. It makes transport much easier, the food is way better and the beach is still really easy to get to. I stayed at Mezcal Hostel which was really fantastic (though it’s since rebranded as Nomads – the reviews are still really good though). It had a great bar and it was easy to meet other people, there was always something going on in the evenings.
Cancun’s beach itself actually exceeded my expectations. I don’t usually like beaches which have been appropriated by loads of resorts and I thought it would be a fight for space, but actually the beach is so huge that there is plenty of room. Buses travel frequently from around the ADO terminal to the huge stretch of road known as the ‘Hotel Zone’. Look out for R1 and hop on, they pass by really frequently and cost around 12 MXN. They’re often cramped and packed but it’s all part of the fun. The trick is also to make sure you try and hop off the bus at a point where the beach is publicly accessible and not blocked by a resort, so check with Google Maps beforehand to decide where you want to get off. It’s also worthwhile grabbing some food and drinks before going on to the beach as, if you walk along the beach like I did, it may be a while before you find an exit point. The Hotel Zone road is one long road so getting the bus back is easy – just flag it down in the opposite direction. There’s an R2 bus as well but it doesn’t go as central so R1 is better.
Other than the beach, the best thing you can do in Cancun is eat. I absolutely love Mexican food and I was so excited to try it ‘for real’. Mexico didn’t disappoint at all when it came to food. My stomach’s rumbling as I type this. Obviously downtown Cancun has much more food options than at the beach. I’ve got one Hotel Zone shout-out though, which would be Surfin Burritos, an open-air burrito joint which was delicious. Back in the town centre, there are a series of pedestrianised streets and a large square (Parque de las Palapas) which turns into a market at night. There are some great cheap food options round here, including Las Pescadillas for yummy seafood tacos and Gory Tacos, where the tasty food is served by insatiable staff. But, honestly, there are very few places where you can go wrong if you’re a fan of Mexican food.
Cancun probably isn’t ever going to top my list of greatest destinations in Mexico but it’s not worthy of the outright dismissal some travellers give it. Sometimes on the road, you just want to lie on a beach, pig out on food and catch up on Netflix – Cancun isn’t a bad place at all in which to do that.