Living in Cancún: The Vacation Destination of a Lifetime
Table of Contents
Dreaming of an azure sea, all-inclusive luxury and soft, powdery sand between your toes? Cancún is the destination of your dreams. Welcome to the original Caribbean luxury vacation, and where the tourist scene in the Mexican Riviera all began.
Where is Cancún?
We’re in Cancún, baby!
Situated in Quintana Roo, the southeastern state of Mexico, Cancún is the jewel in the crown of the Yucatán Peninsula.
A town of just 100 people before the investment boom of the 1970s and 1980s, Cancún is the glittering beach town that attracts visitors from all over the world. And with those visitors comes a lot of tourist dollars, making Cancún today one of the wealthiest and most dynamic cities in Mexico.
Made up of Cancún the city, and Isla Cancún, the city is split into the local side and the luxury resorts. The beach is lined with glitzy hotels and developments, whereas areas like downtown provide an urban edge to Cancún. You can find expensive malls and cheap local bazaars, chilled island life and luxury condos, Cancún is truly a city with it all.
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The best neighborhoods in Cancún
With all that diversity, choosing the right neighborhood for your stay in Cancún can make or break your experience.
At the top of everyone’s list is the exclusive hotels and properties in Puerto Cancún, or the Zona Hotelera. This is where the pricey pads are with beach access and beautiful vistas of the marina. The hotels here are expensive and luxury destinations and resorts abound. It’s what Cancún is famous for. Check out the luxury houses that line the streets with their tennis courts and swimming pools glistening under the Caribbean sun.
Around the Hotel Zone and throughout Puerto Cancún there are exclusive restaurants, gyms, bars and cafes all catering to the thick wallets of the tourists, so if you’re looking for a bargain, you may be better off going elsewhere! But If you’re seeking tranquility, outstanding restaurants and luxurious beach days for every day of your stay, the Zona Hotelera is the place for you.
Just south of the hotel zone is the fabulous Punta Nizuc. Famous all over the world for its magical coral reef, this peaceful and popular beach and marine park is a great place to explore the beautiful marine life. Go snorkeling and see if you can spot turtles, manatees and the brightly colored fish as they dance past and visit the underwater museum to see some fantastic sights on the sea bed. Nearby Punta Nizuc is Alfredo V. Bonfil, a local community just outside of Cancún where the houses are cheap and the vibe is friendly and relaxed.
Want to go where the people are? That’s downtown, the lively hubbub of this busy touristy town where the locals meet in street taco bars and there’s always a bargain if you look close enough (and can negotiate in your Spanish!). Spend a night wandering along the three main avenues – Nader, Yaxchilan and Tulum – and discover something delicious to eat and a great place to dance the night away.
Seeking some sun and some chilled island vibes? Head across on the ferry to Isla Mujeres. Getting there is easy – just hop on a ferry from one of the three piers in the Zona Hotelera: El Embarcadero, Playa Tortugas and Playa Caracol. Make sure you’re on the last ferry back to the mainland which leaves around 9pm, or stay overnight to turn your trip into a longer stay. Isla Mujeres is a beautiful, quiet island with a rugged shoreline and a fleet of tourists speeding around on golf buggies exploring the area. Rent a golf buggy, pick up some cool sodas and make your own tour, whizzing around and stopping off at the picturesque spots for some photo opportunities. Once you’ve returned your buggy, stop off for some jungle beats and a frozen margarita and watch the sunset for another evening in paradise.
Is Cancún safe?
As with all cities around the world, Cancún does experience crime. There have been some high profile cases recently which have stolen headlines around the world. In summary, Cancún is mostly safe. There were a huge 7 million arrivals into Cancún airport in the first quarter of 2022, and the vast majority of those visitors had an event-free vacation.
Having said this, Cancún is a large city and, like other places in the world, there is a disparity of wealth among its residents and visitors: a recipe for petty theft and crime. The government of Mexico, and criminal organizations, have an interest in keeping Cancún safe and out of any negative media spotlight. Tourism is a huge source of revenue in Cancún, and everyone understands the value of a dollar. For this reason, Cancún is one of the safest cities in Mexico and enjoys a low crime rate and an attentive police force.
That doesn’t mean that you can ignore the basic safety precautions that you would take in any other city around the world. Keep valuables hidden, and take care with your wallet and your handbag as you are out and about. Never carry large amounts of cash and keep small bills available to pay for things as you need, without flashing your wallet. Lock your doors and windows at home and ensure that your condo has safety features.
By taking these precautions you can ensure that every trip to Cancún is only filled with glorious sandy beaches, stunning sunsets and happy memories.
Getting around in Cancún
Unlike some of the smaller touristy spots on the Mexican Riviera, Cancún is a city and enjoys the benefits of a robust public transport system with a network of bus and coach routes that wind through the city and stretch into the wider peninsula. At $12MXN a ride for a trip in Cancún (about $0.60 USD), the bus is a wallet-friendly option too. Buses drive down all the touristy spots in Cancún and ferry people all day and night to the Hotel Zone, beaches and back into downtown. Be sure to keep the exact change on you! For trips further afield, ADO buses run from the downtown area at the intersection of Avenida Tulum and Uxmal to Tulum, Playa del Carmen and touristy hotspots like Merida and Chitchen Itza.
Taxis are a lot steeper than the bus, and those taxis around the Mexican Riviera are well known for ripping off unsuspecting tourists, so for shorter journeys during the day then a bus is recommended. But for later at night or for trips when you have a lot of luggage, splurging on a taxi is the best option. Uber operates in Cancún, unlike in the other tourist destinations in the Mexican Riviera, which is a safer option. The private cabs are also available to hire, but when you enter a private taxi make sure to agree on the price you will pay before your journey begins to avoid any unexpectedly large charges.
Travel from the airport to your accommodation is easy by taxi, but a little expensive. Alternatively, buy an ADO bus ticket from the airport kiosk outside to take you into the downtown area, then a cheaper taxi to your exact location. Try your Spanish at one of the smaller colectivos – a private minibus that sells individual tickets from the airport to Cancún, Tulum or Playa del Carmen. With cheaper tickets than ADO and a flexible departure time that’s just whenever the bus is full, you can find some speedy transport that way.
Can I bike or walk around Cancún?
While a bike is a sure hit if you’re planning on being in Playa del Carmen or Tulum for a long period of time, Cancún is not as bike friendly. With huge highways and areas of interest spread out up the coast, getting around easily you need a motor behind you. While your place of residence is likely to be close to the beach, it won’t be a struggle to walk for a beach day, but going anywhere further afield might mean hopping in a taxi.
Do you need a car in Cancún?
With car rental offices lining the streets in Cancún and shouting at you from every angle in the airport, if you did want to rent a car it’s a very inexpensive way of getting around. Our recommendation is to book and browse online – there you’ll find much cheaper rates compared to a walk-in. While you may be asked to purchase expensive insurance add-ons, they aren’t compulsory and our suggestion is that if you do run into a problem, getting superficial scratches and problems repaired by a local mechanic is much cheaper than an expensive insurance option.
If you’re not planning on venturing further afield than Cancún, though, we recommend not renting a car and relying on taxis and the local buses to get around. It’s less hassle and parking in Cancún can be a nightmare.
Everyday life in Cancún
Famous for all inclusive resorts and luxury vacations, this little piece of paradise is also home to a lot of expats too. Not just retirees, but a growing number of young people and young families are moving to the Mexican Riviera with their remote working salaries and online businesses. Cancún is the perfect city for living abroad, with a thriving, friendly expat scene and many amenities that make everyday life here easy.
In Cancún you will find anything from big, American malls to small secluded beaches, underwater art galleries to luxury yacht rentals, high-end condos to sweet downtown houses. There’s something for everyone.
What’s the currency in Cancún? Can I pay with my credit card?
Although Cancún is in Mexico, you’d be forgiven for forgetting about the Mexican peso. Prices for tourists are often listed in dollars, then in pesos, and it can be confusing as the Mexican peso uses the same symbol as the US dollar. If something looks like a crazy bargain, or looks unbelievably expensive, double check you’re seeing the price in the correct currency! Paying cash in US dollars is completely acceptable, but if you do ask for the peso rate, you will be offered a better price based on the exchange rate.
Most places do accept credit cards or debit cards from the US, Europe, or Mexico, but some places don’t. Don’t get caught out by not having cash on you, especially for things like taxis or buying from vendors on the street or on the playa. Mexico is a cash based economy and cash is certainly king here.
Can I get good medical care in Cancún?
Mexico is becoming well known for tourists around the world for their optimal medical care and low prices comparatively to medical procedures in the US. Cancún is a great spot to get cosmetic or dental procedures done and avoid the high costs at home.
Mexico does have a state medical system but for tourists you will likely need medical insurance and be required to pay for treatment if you had an accident or came down with an illness. Even without insurance, though, the prices of treatment here are very small compared to the costs across the border. Looking for a cosmetic surgeon? Take the short flight up to Mexico City and talk to one of the famous surgeons there. The prices are cheaper than in Cancún.
In Cancún, you will see streets lined with drug stores and farmacias selling prescription and nonprescription drugs. This is another way that medical tourism has changed the face of Mexico, where you are likely to find your drugs here much cheaper. It’s not uncommon to see tourists stocking up with what they need before they return home.
Overall, the medical care in Cancún is excellent and you will be very well-looked after here. Mexico has a great private dental and health-care system and many of the doctors around the Mexican Riviera speak excellent English. You certainly won’t have a problem navigating medical care here.
Are there good English speaking schools in Cancún?
Due to the thriving expat scene, there are many public, private and international schools in Cancún that offer English speaking classes and a good quality of education. While most expats choose to put their children in private or international schools for bilingual education, it is possible to enroll students into a public school. Homeschooling is also allowed in Mexico.
Worried about your child speaking Spanish? This is common, but children are more capable of picking up languages than adults! Many of the schools facilitate language acquisition with specifically prepared curricula in English and Spanish to make your child feel at home in their new language.
International American School of Cancún
An international school with an excellent reputation, the International American School takes children from kinder level right through to high school. Offering a full dual program, the students at this Cancún international school receive both a U.S. diploma and a Mexican preparatory (high school) certificate, securing their students’ entry into college or higher education worldwide. With a diverse extra-curricula syllabus, and links to many colleges abroad, this school is a great place for expat kids. Tuition is offered in Spanish and English, and most of the students and staff are fully bilingual.
Another international school offering bilingual education, and education from elementary school through to high school graduation. The Colegio Alexandre provides SAT, ACT and AP and/or British GSCE and A-level examinations as well as the SEP Mexican high school diploma.
Do I have to speak Spanish to live in Cancún?
While it is not impossible to get around Cancún in English, it is advisable to have some Spanish up your sleeve. Many of the people you will interact with on a daily basis will be able to speak English, such as realtors, taxi drivers, waiters and cleaning staff. Taking a trip to the supermarket, however, may involve some Spanish numbers, and getting the basics right to ask for directions, or ask a specific question, will make your time in Cancún go much smoother.
Generally, Cancún is an area with a large tourist population, and English is the lingua franca. For the tricky stuff like buying a house or renting a car, there will be someone around with enough English skills to help!
Are there good gyms in Cancún?
Getting a bikini-body for the beaches of Cancún is crucial, and Cancún is full of people working out and getting active. To this end, there are lots of gyms and sports classes to choose from. We love Evolve Gym for a local feel. Smart Gym is a high end gym across Mexico with the latest equipment and easy entry. There are others to choose from too, such as California Gym and many Yoga and Pilates studios.
If you’re considering a gym membership, though, you may want to consider a condo with a gym in the building. Many high end condos have gym and yoga studios available for residents which makes working out a breeze. Some condos even run classes for residents which works out much more economical (and convenient) than joining the gym.
The best beaches in Cancún
¡Vamos a la playa!
That’s what we’re here for, right? The powdery soft sand and the calm waters lapping the shoreline…
And Cancún offers the best of the best. Most beaches in Mexico are public and require access be made for members of the public. Hotels and condos can apply for a concession to this rule, and Cancún is a common place for this to occur. Still, it’s common to see locals and tourists mixing and mingling on the beaches of Mexico, which means that some beaches have a real party atmosphere. With street vendors selling their wares, children playing in the waves and many speakers on the beach (especially in the afternoon) the beach is where the party is.
Looking for something a little more tranquil? Head to some of the lesser known beaches for a bit of peace and quiet. Make sure you bring your own towel and stock up on sunscreen!
First on the list is Playa Delfines, Cancún’s largest and most popular beach. It is here where you’ll find the heart and soul of Cancún – the stunning white sand and the soft dapple of the waves, plus that vacation atmosphere, including sunbeds, thatched palapas, umbrellas and vendors selling fresh mango and micheladas.
Get your shots for the gram on the colorful Cancún sign – a Mexican vacation necessity! Make some friends with the holiday-makers and watch as children from locals and expats build sandcastles and play with each other – no matter the language barrier. Be careful though, the water here can be choppy. Strong swimmers be careful and definitely keep an eye on children in the water.
Playa Delfines is in the Hotel Zone, so it’s a central favorite. But if you’re looking for tranquility, Delfines is perhaps best left for another day…
Playa Chac Mool
Searching for a little bit of peace and quiet? The Mexican party crowd is great but can be a bit much for those who live here! Head to Playa Chac Mool instead. It’s on the same stretch of gorgeous, powdery sand as some of the other popular beaches, but it’s a little less populated.
With disabled access and easy parking, this is a beach for all the family. There is a gentle ramp onto the beach and the palapas are free to use, with some reserved for wheelchair users. Be mindful of the current, which can be strong here, but for the most part the water is accessible and shallow. Perfect for everyone.
Playa Gaviota Azul & Playa Forum
For 10 kilometers of sand to explore, head to Playa Gaviota Azul and Playa Forum – two beaches which seamlessly flow into one another. With the bar end pumping out reggaeton all day, to the families on the hunt for shells on the shore, this is the beach that everyone in Cancún loves.
Street vendors abound, offering delicious snacks, chilled alcoholic drinks and fruit juices or cute souvenirs. Plus the beach is easily accessible with buses traveling on Avenida Kukulkan to the Playa from downtown. Easy parking can be found at the car park at Forum by the Sea shopping and entertainment center.
These beaches are for the parties – grab a sun lounger at the bar and get the drinks in to spend an afternoon with your feet in the sand.
Heading across to Isla Mujeres? The ferry leaves from this smaller beach, and so it can get packed out. But this beach is a nice place to come in its own right, if you don’t mind the crowds. With sheltered waters, Playa Tortuga is safer to swim in than other spots, so you can enjoy a relaxing dip in the waters here. Plus with bars and restaurants offering slightly lower prices than on the main beaches, an afternoon here is a pleasant experience.
What about the best beach clubs in Cancún?
While it’s great to go to the beach armed with a good book and a towel, the party happens at the beach clubs. If you’re visiting with friends or have an occasion to celebrate, the beach club is the place to be.
Mandala Beach Club
Ready to party? Mandala is a great night (and day!) out, with a pool heaving with party goers and drinks flowing. As well as the beach, you have pools, jacuzzis and poolside bars to choose from, making a night out in Mandala’s a fantastic party experience.
Looking for something more family friendly and relaxed?
Try the Coco’s Beach Club situated in the Paradisus by Meliá. We love the courteous and helpful staff here who serve up cocktails with a fantastic view over the sea. Plus, with a Kid’s Zone and pool, it’s suitable for everyone.
Coco Bongo Beach Party
Okay, now it’s back to the party at Coco Bongo.
Coco Bongo is a world-famous clubbing experience with nightclubs in Cancún and Playa Del Carmen. With performers, stunts, fireworks, pyrotechnics and Latin rhythms, Coco Bongo is a firm Cancún favorite!
Our tip – book your tickets in advance from a rep or from their ticket office, and try a bit to negotiate – tickets sold by individuals often have their prices inflated, so there’s room for maneuver.
The Best Restaurants in Cancún
After the beach, you’re going to be hungry. Fortunately, Cancún is packed with delicious restaurants offering up something for everyone’s tastes. From traditional Mexican dishes (have you tried mole?) to scrummy Italian or Thai, Cancún is a collection of exquisite culinary delights.
Looking for something on a budget that’s quick and easy? Head into Downtown or the Centro where you will find more of the traditional Mexican restaurants at a low price. Sample the street tacos or shop at a local taqueria for something special. For something small while you’re looking for a restaurant, why not try an esquite or snack on chapulines, sold by street vendors all over Downtown, for an authentic Mexican taste.
Searching for the auténtico? Make El Rinconcito de Puebla top of your ‘to visit’ list.
With a wide variety of Mexican dishes from all across the Mexican States, you’ll be able to sample whatever takes your fancy. Served in a traditional Mexican style, on earthenware plates, eat your fill of tacos, nachos, sopas y tortas. Thirsty? Grab a 2 for 1 beer special – the perfect post-beach refreshment!
Heading onto the Hotel Zone means you’ll find more up-market restaurants, plus chain restaurants from across the world. Head down to the beach before sunset for a view of the ocean and delicious seafood. Looking for a late night snack? Head to Punta Cancún for round the clock entertainment and street vendors looking to satisfy those post-nightclub munchies.
For breakfast or brunch, check out Marakame Café – a traditional Mexican restaurant with a chilled, laidback air. Enjoy a brunch buffet from 8 am to noon (Monday-Friday) – our favorite way to sample Mexican dishes we haven’t tried. Come back in the evening for live music and a new menu.
For an added taste of Mexican luxury, try Sacbé Beach Shack, and discover the wonders of Mezcal with their dinner pairing option. Right on the beach, Sacbé is located in front of the Marriott Cancún Resort – a central location with easy parking access. Enjoy mezcal, Yucatan cuisine (try the smoked habanero sauce if you like it spicy – delicious!) and lay back on the hammocks, beach pillows or swing seats to watch the sunset.
Bored of Mexican food? Head to Thai Cancún, located in La Isla Shopping Village. As well as serving up delicious asian food, including our Thai and Indian favorites, it also serves up the views. Overlooking the gorgeous Nichupte Lagoon, Thai Cancún can get busy at sunset – so make sure you get in a reservation to sample the satay with a view!
Our two more pricey recommendations are Lorenzillo’s and Porfirio’s, both also located in the Hotel Zone. Try Lorenzillo’s for exquisite seafood, fresh from their specialist lobster farm (complete with on site marine biologists!). Porfirio’s is a popular choice Mexico-wide, and we love how Porfirio’s serves up traditional Mexican dishes with a modern twist. With an extensive wine list and some expert recommendations on mezcal and tequila pairings, Porfirio’s is an upmarket Mexican experience that is sure to satisfy your palate.
With new restaurants opening all the time, and hidden favorites waiting to be discovered, Cancún’s restaurant scene is bustling. Looking for vegan food? Chinese? Italian? No matter what you’re searching for, Cancún has it and that’s one of our favorite reasons to call this little slice of paradise home.
Things to do in Cancún
In Cancún, you can never be bored.
With a thriving expat scene and tourists pouring in by the plane-load, there is always something fun to do. From snorkeling with whale-sharks, learning to scuba dive, brushing up on your history at the Coba Ruins or at Chichen Itza or diving into learning Spanish, the list of things to do in Cancún is endless.
And if excitement is what you’re after, theme parks and water parks are in abundance in this slice of the Mexican Riviera, so you’ll definitely find something for the thrill-seekers in your family. Xplore and Xcaret are firm favorites for the adventure seekers and for budding naturalists. With wild animals, hidden rivers, zip-lines through the jungle and the chance to get up close and personal with the protected wildlife, it’s a great and educational day out. Our tip – if you’re looking to buy tickets check online – you’ll find family deals available and discounts for elderly and for Mexican citizens.
For an unusual taste of Mexico City, head to the famous Xoximilco Party Park. Grab a colorful gondola and be transported on a fantastic journey, plus enjoy the tastes of tequila, Mexican food and beer – as is traditional! Enjoy the folk dancing, performers and folklore, and hear about the spooky tales from around Mexico.
Visiting in November? Xcaret and Xochimilco offer exceptional entertainment around the Day of the Dead, with spooky themed dress ups, catrinas and face-painting, plus a real party atmosphere. Enjoy the sites and sounds of the traditional Mexican holiday at these parks for an unusual twist on a theme park. Our tip? Book tickets early – it’s a popular choice for the tourists!
Looking for a family friendly adventure? Ventura Park has all the wild activities your kids could ever want – and it’s fun for adults too! Cool off in the Wet ‘n Wild water slide park, get the adrenaline pumping on the rides and discover Aaa, with zip-lines and bungee swings for everyone. Bringing the kids? Don’t miss the Fun World, with kid-friendly Grand Prix kart track and VR games.
Get out of Cancún and spend some time on Isla Mujeres. Our favorite way to travel there is not by the ferry (although that’s a quicker and cheaper option!) but by catamaran. Ask around at the beach to buy the tickets for this experience – and don’t forget to haggle! Then meet your catamaran on the beach for an all day excursion plus all inclusive drinks and food. Enjoy the party atmosphere as you sip a margarita and feel the salt spray on your face. Make sure you pack your swimsuit and sunscreen – we’re going snorkeling, jumping off the catamaran into the warm waters. Looking to stay longer than a day? Better get the ferry – the catamaran will leave you stranded!
Isla Mujeres is a magical destination in its own right, and is becoming an increasingly popular place to live, with a thriving expat community of its own. With boats bobbing on the sea and stunning cliffs and coastline, Isla Mujeres is a great place to explore over a long weekend. Discover Punta Sur Park for Mayan ruins, epic views, trails, cliffs, iguanas and more and immerse yourself in nature.
Go diving or snorkel around the MUSA Underwater Sculpture Park, home to over 500 fun sculptures. Built as an artificial reef, the sculptures are now home to many native types of coral and plants, adding a real otherworldly feel and making this place extra special.
Back on the mainland, our final top tip is to spend a few days cenote hopping. A cenote is a natural formation of a freshwater pool, and they are abundant around the whole of the Yucatan Peninsula. Visit some of the most famous around Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum for some of those insta-worthy shots, or head off the beaten track to discover a cenote a little more hidden, where the locals go and where the entry fee is much more affordable.
The Future of Cancún
Since the pandemic, and even during, Cancún’s tourism boom shows no sign of slowing down. In 2021, there was an 8.3% increase in the number of visitors from the US compared to 2019, and Cancún is fast becoming home to digital nomads from all over the world.
Rightly or wrongly, Cancún didn’t close its borders during the Covid-19 crisis, and that means that recovery is strong in this part of the world. In 2022, house prices here are up and investment is flooding in from all over the globe. Last year, almost all of the rentals for the Christmas period were full, and the average yearly income on a vacation rental property in Cancún is very attractive. Plus, with close proximity to Cancún’s airport – one of the most connected airports on the planet – and very few visa requirements for entry into Mexico, the tourism boom is in full swing.
The future of Cancún is bright and there are exciting projects on the horizon. Construction is underway on the promised high-speed Maya Tren to unite Cancún with other tourist hotspots on the Mexican Riviera, and the tourism industry here in Cancún is likely to see the benefits. With new malls, resorts and luxury condos popping up everywhere you look, Cancún and its neighboring towns attract visitors with deep pockets, looking to invest.
More than the finances, there’s something special about life here. With a relaxed, party atmosphere and luxury around every corner, Cancún doesn’t feel like just another tourist hotspot. Amongst the resorts and the malls there is a sense of adventure here, a sense of discovering something new. Cancún is a great place to call your home away from home.