A Few Days In

How to Live La Vida Local in Cancún, the Town You Only Think You Know

by Kerri Allen
Nizuc Photo courtesy of Nizuc Resort and Spa.

If your ideal winter-escape getaway includes a mix of sauna-to-beach days mixed with hole-in-the-wall local mezcal tasting nights, it's time to rediscover Cancún. 

CANCÚN, Mexico — Cancún may have a reputation as an overrun spring break spot, but the numbers don’t quite support that. Of the five million visitors to the Mexican coastal town each year, less than one percent go for spring break. In fact, Cancun is fast becoming a magnet for young Japanese travelers, thanks in part to the number of direct flights between Beijing and Mexico City on ANA and Aeroméxcio.

Beyond the neon-lit Hotel Zone, contemporary architects and local Mexican millennials are driving attention towards a new Cancún. A smattering of artisanal breweries, design hotels, and fresh seafood restaurants are washing up across town, hoping the Instagram set will journey away from the coast for a different — and more authentic — experience.

Lay of the Land

Cancún sits along Mexico’s northeastern coast on the aquamarine-blue Caribbean Sea. It’s a three-hour flight from NYC. The Zona Hotelera is where most of the large hotels are congregated; El Centro is where locals live.

What to Do

Explore the Maya
Cancún and the state of Quintana Roo (or just "QR") remain Mayan territory, rife with millennia of history. The eco-tourism company Alltournative leads small group and private expeditions into ancient temples, along jungle rivers, and more. The company partners with local Mayan villages to elevate cultural history and show travelers a different side of QR.

Snack at the Market
El Parque de las Palapas in el Centro is where to find local couples and families buzzing about. It’s nothing fancy, but it teems with color and life. Don’t miss the family-owned stand, La Receta del Papá (Dad’s Recipe) for a chamoyada, an icy/smoothie concoction made of shaved ice, mango, chili powder, and chamoy, a Mexican condiment made from pickled fruit and chili. Papá’s adds gummy worms and other candies on top.

Photo by Kerri Allen.
Chocolate in the making. Photo courtesy of Sueño Mexicano.

DIY Chocolate
What’s a trip to Mexico without chocolātl? Purchase, or better yet, make your own chocolate at Sueño Mexicano (Mexican Dream) located inside the larger Plaza la Fiesta. In between souvenir shopping, grab a seat at an individual wooden taller (work station) and get to rollin’. About $19 USD gets you a pre-packaged kit of cocoa beans, raw sugar, cinnamon, molcajete, and chocolatier/cashier to walk you through each step.

Gem Spa at the Grand Fiesta Americana.
Gem Spa. Photo courtesy of Grand Fiesta Americana.

Hit the Spa
After a day of exploring in the sun, a little luxury is in order. The sprawling 40,000-square-foot Coral Beach Gem Spa is the talk of the town — if not the entire state. A ten-step hydrotherapy circuit guides guests from a warm clay room to an igloo-like ice cave to a stone-strewn labyrinth and more, for singularly invigorating relaxation.

Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach. Photo by Kerri Allen.

Where to Stay

The Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach
Hurricane Wilma decimated many of Cancún’s beaches in 2005, and much of the sand now at the properties in the Hotel Zone was shipped in from elsewhere to replace destroyed shoreline. The Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach, however, avoided this fate and still has its original white sand that’s fine and porous. And while the property is nothing less than sprawling with 602 rooms, it curiously feels intimate, with each room a quiet, ocean-facing suite. More than anything, it’s a good choice for those a bit timid of the sea (especially around hurricane season), as the waters off its beach are protected by Isla Mujeres to the north, resulting in no undertow or large waves.

Nizuc Resort and Spa.
Photos courtesy of Nizuc Resort and Spa.

The ultra-luxe Nizuc opened long after the hurricane in 2013. Uniquely located inside a 29-acre natural preserve, the design includes open-air spaces, quiet reflecting pools, and organic elements that blend into the surrounding nature.

El Rey del Caribe.
Photo courtesy of El Rey del Caribe.

El Rey del Caribe
In the center of town is the quirky El Rey del Caribe (Caribbean King). With a Spanish colonial façade, this eco-hotel employs solar power for its hot water heaters and clothes dryer, captures rainwater, and composts as much as possible. All rooms open onto the lush courtyard, with a swimming pool and hot tub.

Royalton Suites Cancun
One of the newest niños on the block is Royalton Suites Cancun. Opened in January 2019, the reimagined all-inclusive sits on a private beach, with rooms overlooking the Caribbean or the Nichupte Lagoon. Fun extras including a free scuba lesson, bluetooth speakers in every room, and even Royalton's own brand of luxury bed. The hotel restaurant, Agave, mixes Mesoamerican cooking with old-world Spanish recipes.

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Local Cancunese Cuisine.
Left: Lonchería el Pocito. Right: Mezcal flight at Cervecería Salto del Agua. Photos by Kerri Allen.

Where to Eat

La Joya
Chefs Gerardo Corona and Sergio Zárate created The Table dining experience at La Joya restaurant. Guests are immersed in Mexico’s rich culinary history and indigenous ingredients through an interactive eight-course meal. Dinner is served on a custom-built, sixteen-person communal table that projects colorful video and audio depicting the era that each course represents. Two standout dishes are blue crab chilpachole, a broth with small masa pebbles of epazote, guajillo chili, and toasted tortilla, and venison tzi’ik, a blue corn tostada topped with traditional shredded venison salad with regional citrus dressing. Plan this one in advance — seating is only offered at 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Lonchería el Pocito
If you’re still looking for a place where Cancunese chow down, venture to Lonchería el Pocito. In a grittier part of downtown, the eatery of plastic tablecloths, buzzing flies, and women in traditional dresses is deeply local, serving plentiful, hearty meals at low cost to families. It’s safe (but be smart), somewhat friendly, but, most importantly, full of hearty and delectable Yucatecan delights. For about $6 USD per dish, don’t miss the queso relleno (stuffed cheese), pollo en escabeche (Yucatecan-style chicken and onion stew), lomitos (pork marinated in citrus juices), and papadzules, a quintessential Mayan dish that’s a kind of enchilada with egg and sauce made from pumpkin seed.

Cervecería Salto del Agua
Wash the local grub down at Cervecería Salto del Agua, a perky new bar that sits on busy Avenida Tankah. The young Cancún-born owners stock beers from the area brewery Pescadores Casa Cervecería. The mezcal on tap is Padiuz Mezcarabajo, served as a flight with cinnamon-dusted orange slices.

Plan Your Trip

How to Get There
Visitors land at the manageable Cancun International Airport, where taxi services are bountiful and safe. Private companies like Jeromi Tranfers, run by a husband-and-wife team, provide group or private transfers along with decades of knowledge about the history of Cancún. Depending on traffic, the trip from the airport to the Zona Hotelera is usually about 20 minutes.

When to Go
Cancun’s high season is mid-December to late April. June and July are becoming mid-season, with travelers coming during summer breaks. Prices decrease during low season, from May to early December, which essentially overlaps with the rainy season, from May through October. Hurricanes aren’t uncommon from August through November, making early December the ideal time to visit.

Good to Know
Cancunenses are familiar with the tourist population, but it will be noticed and appreciated if you’re able to slow down a bit. Mexicans are generally well mannered and friendly, so don’t just jump into a question. Take a breath, make eye contact, and say, “Buenos días. Cómo está?” Then actually wait for a response. Then ask where the hotel gym is.

What to Pack
When it comes to clothing, Cancún has seen it all and has it all. Naturally, match the ensemble to the experience: resort-chic for a high-end dinner, and comfy cottons for a stroll in the plaza. It’s generally safe in town, but the average worker earns only about $5 USD a day, so no need to parade around with diamond earrings or a thousand-dollar smartphone.

For Your Bedside Table
Cancun was, and is, the land of the Mayans. If you’re a history buff, grab a copy of El Corazón de Piedra Verde (The Heart of Jade) by Spanish author Salvador de Madariaga. Written in 1942, it is still considered a seminal story of the cultural clash between the Spanish and the Mesoamericans.

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