Cancun is the most popular destination in Mexico by far, seeing close to 5 million tourists pass through its airport doors last year. This region fights it out with the Dominican Republic—the whole country—as the #1 destination on the Caribbean Sea.
For many tourists it’s the gateway to Mexico, where they arrive for the very first time on Mexican soil. As such it has some of the less savory aspects of huge resort areas everywhere: over-development and a lack of culture, for a start. Cancun itself is an unapologetic “fun in the sun” destination, with lots of all-inclusive resorts, nightclubs, shopping, and restaurants.
The best Cancun hotels are on a strip of barrier islands that extend out and around from the mainland, looking like the top of a rectangle. None are very far from the airport. The luxury options start at Nizuc on the southern corner and extend up through the Ritz-Carlton toward the other end, with the Fiesta Americana Grand Coral being the best option on the far corner.
Heading south from the airport though, there is a long string of more spread-out resorts from Puerto Morelos down to Tulum. Most of these are stand-alone, sprawling complexes where visitors arrive from the airport and don’t leave until it’s time to go home unless there’s a bus excursion. For those who don’t want to be so isolated, Playa del Carmen is a better bet with its long pedestrian-only main drag and a wide choice of places to eat and drink.
There’s no shortage of things to do in the Riviera Maya and beyond, but there’s a wide range of prices and also a wide range of authenticity. You can be dazzled at a night show at Xcaret or the Cirque du Soliel show in its custom theater, or take a journey to Chichen Itza or Tulum to see Mayan ruins. Of course there are plenty of good fishing, snorkeling, and scuba diving options, including an underwater sculpture garden off the coast of Cancun for diving.
Fortunately this is one of the easiest parts of North America to explore by car. Wide roads are well-maintained, everything is flat, and signage is good. Car rentals in Cancun are reasonably priced, but allow plenty of time for check-out and check-in since things never move very quickly. Note that leaving the car in another destination will likely result in a sizeable drop-off charge and you need to add approximately $15 a day to the rates you see online for required liability insurance.
Choosing where to stay and what to do in the Cancun area can be overwhelming, so see our Cancun & Riviera Maya hotel reviews on Luxury Latin America for the best options and consider booking at package with a bilingual travel agency to save some time and money.