Cancun is one of the most popular and celebrated beach destinations in Mexico. People absolutely love the white-sand beaches, balmy weather, tequila-infused nightlife, and budget-friendly all-inclusive resorts. They return year-after-year for spring breaks, and then their honeymoons and finally family beach vacations and couples getaways. I, however, am not one of those people. Here's an unpopular opinion: Cancun is awful.
Cancun’s All-Inclusive Hotels and Resorts
I understand that Cancun does have a handful of intimate boutique hotels and some fantastic luxury resorts. But, if you’re looking for a deal in Cancun, you’re likely going to end up at a massive all-inclusive resort on (or across the street from) the beach. Let me tell you my experiences with Cancun’s all-inclusive resorts. First of all: lines. Unless you upgrade to a suite with private check-in, you’re going to encounter massively long lines of tired and crabby tourists who also want to early access to their room.
Room keys in hand, which can come hours after you arrive if the room isn’t turned over and cleaned, the room itself is usually pretty meh. Musty smells and rusty balconies come with the ocean location. Water pressure is bleak, and the bottled water next to the sinks needs to be used to safely brush your teeth. Whether that water gets replenished during your stay is anyone’s guess. Wi-Fi? At many Cancun all-inclusives, it’ll cost you extra to connect from the comfort of your room.
Okay, so maybe your argument is that you’re not in Cancun to enjoy the room anyway. Fair point. But guess what? The swim-up bar closes at 5, there’s seaweed on the beach, and all of the pool chairs have been claimed since dawn. Want to relax? The activities team has been blaring Pitbull since 10 and they’re gearing up for a foam party that will close down the pool entirely to anyone who doesn’t want to be doused. I’ll pass.
Cancun’s Restaurants, Bars, and Nightlife
Did you make a dinner reservation? I hope you did. Many all-inclusive resorts boast access to a dozen restaurants, but they neglect to tell you that the Mexican restaurant is only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the Japanese Teppanyaki counter seats six and has been booked for a month, and that your room level only grants access to one specialty dining experience every five days. Oh, and all the reservations are already booked solid. What does that leave you with for dining? The buffet restaurant with the same quasi-international spread for your entire vacation, and the snack bar by the pool which is mostly hot dogs, nachos, and a broken ice cream machine.
But who cares about the food. You’re in Cancun for the unlimited free drinks? With some exceptions, the fine print on the drink package includes Mexican-brand soda (you’ll pay extra for Coke), juices, beers, and low-tier vodka, rum, and tequila. House red and house white make up the wine list. It’s fine for college kids who want to get blitzed fast and free, but say goodbye to the dream of specialty cocktails made with freshly squeezed juices, and hello to a cheap tequila hangover.
Getting away from the resort and exploring the local nightlife and food scene is one of my favorite aspects of any trip. But in Cancun, I’m at a loss. Mexico is such a dynamic and culturally rich country, with some of the most incredible food and drinks on the planet. Hello, Mexico gave us tacos and tequila. Which is why I struggle to enjoy Cancun’s restaurants, bars, and nightlife. The scene caters to cruisers and tourists who want a watered down version of Mexico, found in popular cerveza-soaked hangs like Senor Frogs and Coco Bongo. Food tends to be bland and quantity is favored over quality. I love to dance and have fun, but I’d rather sip a mezcal in peace than have a margarita shaken in my mouth by a woman in a Corona bikini top, blaring on a whistle.
Cancun’s Flights and Airport
For the uninitiated, exiting out of Cancun International Airport and into the external arrivals area is stepping into chaos. The area is teeming with taxi drivers, time-share touts, and tour operators who all have one thing in common: they want to sell you something. Be prepared to give multiple polite, no thank-you’s, and focus on finding where you actually need to go. Hopefully, you set up resort shuttle service through your hotel so you have safe and price-fixed transportation in an air-conditioned vehicle. Note that you might not be the only passenger booked, so you may have to wait in the car for the rest of your crew to wander in.
On the flight home, there are two Cancun International Airport hurdles to jump over. 1. Winding through the extensive shopping mall that’s designed to make you buy everything from souvenir tequila bottles to sugar skulls. Seriously, it’s like an Ikea in its maze-like intensity, and don’t you have a flight to catch? 2. Remembering to keep the immigration departure form you were given on arrival. Forget or lose this little slip of paper and you can get charged up to $50. You’ve been warned.
Cancun’s Beaches and Seaweed
I’ll admit it: Cancun’s beaches are beautiful. The water is clear, warm, and generally safe for swimming. But — you knew there’d be a but, and it’s technical name is sargassum tide. What’s that? An influx of smelly brown seaweed that washed up on Cancun’s beaches in record numbers in 2019. Projections for 2020 show that sargassum won’t be as prevalent, but climate change makes it difficult to accurately assess when and where it will strike.
Other #CancunBeachProblems? Vendors. Expect a constant stream of people selling handicrafts, fake silver, hats, t-shirts, tamales, and photo-ops with parrots and monkeys. People are trying to make a living, and I respect that completely — but it’s a constant to deal with. Crowds are also real, and there’s a mad rush for beach chairs and water sports activities. Loud music, airplanes with banner ads, and roaring Jet Skis add to the hectic ambience of otherwise beautiful beach in Cancun.
Cancun’s Activities and Excursions
Popular Cancun activities and excursions are mostly water based and they’re paired with alcohol whenever possible. You know: parasailing, Jet Ski rentals, sunset catamaran booze cruises, and off-shore snorkeling (with a stop for rum punch). These are fine for spring breakers and kids, but I prefer slower and more meaningful activities where I’m not treated like a cow that needs to be kept with the herd and plied with booze. Chichen Itza is the most popular day trip, but it’s crowded and offers little shade from the intense sun. Did you know the Mayan site has been restored to the point that it looks well, fake? And it’s crawling with vendors. For my money, I’d rather admire Frida Kahlo’s Blue House in Mexico City or take a fisherman’s boat out to Lover’s Beach to swim between giant rock formations in Cabos.
You either love hot and humid weather, or the very thought of it gives you a sunburn and frizzy hair. I bet you can guess which person I am. Cancun basically has two seasons: hot weather and hurricane. Okay, so I’m exaggerating a bit about hurricane season (it runs from June through October) since Cancun is rarely directly hit. But, aside from the pleasant 70 and 80 degree days in December through March (also, the most expensive time to book flights and hotels), Cancun is hot. Or, hot and rainy — which also means hot and humid.
Most of Mexico, including Cancun, is currently under a Level 2 travel advisory from the U.S. State Department. That’s on par with other tourist-friendly countries like France and the Bahamas, and the average tourist has a safe and hassle-free trip to Cancun. But. I can’t quite shake the tourist deaths related to tainted alcohol in 2017. Or, the 14 reported murders in 36 hours in 2018. Sexual assault, petty theft, and ATM robberies are additional security threats that make it hard to relax completely in Cancun.
The Thing I Hate Most About Cancun
I absolutely abhor the wristband requirement at many all-inclusive resorts. It’s ugly, it’s uncomfortable, and it makes me feel like a color-coded credit card — not a hotel guest. I get that a wristband is the easiest way for staff to ensure I’m a paying customer (and not sneaking in to the lobby bar), but how about I just provide my name and room number instead of wearing a piece of plastic for a week? To add insult to injury, the resort charges you a stiff fine if you
throw it in the garbage lose it.