Cancún is a great place to experience 21st-century Mexico, because it has everything you’d want in a vacation: shopping, sports, spas, and beaches. Here you’ll find five-star resorts, exceptional food, Mexican culture, and natural beauty, all within day-trip distance of the world-famous Mayan ruins. That said, there isn’t much that’s quaint or historic in this distinctively modern city.
The locals—most of whom have embraced the accoutrements of urban middle-class life—typically live on the mainland in a part of the city called El Centro, but they work in the Zona Hotelera’s tourist hub. The zone’s main drag is Boulevard Kukulcán, and kilometer markers along it indicate where you are, from Km 1 near El Centro to Km 25 at the southern tip of Punta Nizuc. The area in between consists entirely of hotels, restaurants, shopping complexes, marinas, and time-share condominiums. Most travelers base themselves in this 25-km (15½-mile) stretch of paradise.
The party atmosphere of Zona Hotelera has inevitably earned it the title "Spring Break Capital of the World." Dozens of bars and nightclubs cater to college students just south of Punta Cancún at Km 9. Fortunately, this late-night/early-morning scene is contained within a small area, far from the larger resorts. Cancún, though, isn’t just a magnet for youth on the loose. Adults with more sophisticated tastes appreciate its posh restaurants and world-class spas, while families are drawn to the limitless water sports and a plethora of children’s activities.
If you believe that local flavor trumps the Zona Hotelera’s pristine beaches, El Centro beckons. Although it is less visited by vacationers, the downtown area holds cultural gems that will remind you that you really are in Mexico. Hole-in-the-wall cantinas promise authentic regional food; evocative markets offer bargain-priced goods; and the hotels, while much more modest in terms of scale and amenities, provide true Mexican ambience.