In 2017 there were over 6 million tourists that traveled to Cancun. It's been projected that that number will just increase. There's likely to be 9 million+ visitors each year by 2025. Yikes!
With so many places to experience in Mexico, get an idea of where you want to travel to with this Mexico Destination Guide
Cancun is beautiful. I mean there's a reason that it's such a popular destination. But there's some downsides to things, so let's talk about it before you plan your trip.
Pros + Cons To A Vacay In Cancun
Crowds and prices — because so many tourists come, Cancun has adjusted to fit their needs. The tip of Mexico is now covered with modern resorts to house those vacationers, plus they're able to jack up the prices making Cancun one of the most expensive vacations that you can take in the country.
If you're looking for a resort type of vacation, Cancun is a great spot for you. Resorts tend be a great spot for families who want the all-inclusive package, who want to hang out by the pool, and who want a tour or guided excursion while they explore this part of Mexico. If you want an easy vacation where you don't really have to plan anything in advance, flying into Cancun and getting picked up by your resort or hotel staff makes for a stress-free vacation for sure.
However if you're more of a budget, backpack traveler (like most of our ILP volunteers are), resorts are going to cost much more than an Airbnb or hostel would. You'll pay a lot less if all you really want is a safe place to stay the night and want the freedom to go out to eat and travel around DIY style.
I've also found that the more I stray from the spots tourists go, the more I personally enjoy the experience. You'll tend to find hidden gems, less crowds, and cheaper prices that way, but the best part? You'Il get a more authentic cultural experience. Yes, I've been on plenty of guided tours that were so fun and I'd absolutely recommend them, but I've also had some of my favorite memories by getting out and exploring the country on my own — getting off the beaten path (to be totally cliche, but it's true). The truth is after spending a semester living in Mexico, Cancun was actually my least favorite part of the trip, but that's because I really love the unexpected adventures.
What other ILP volunteers have said about Cancun
I'm not the only one that has said Cancun definitely wasn't my favorite trip. ILP volunteers have said things like ...
"We wish we stayed longer on our vacation in Puerto Escondido instead of going to Cancun."
"... it is a really cool experience but don’t build it up into something it is not. It's very important to remember that while Mexico is cheap, Cancun and Playa del Carmen are not."
So Cancun isn't getting rave reviews from ILP volunteers. But like I said, that's probably because they're usually looking for a budget experience that still provide amazing adventures that they'll always remember. Mexico serves up plenty of those opportunities, but Cancun hasn't always been a 10/10 (or even close to it).
We Love The Nearby Adventures Though
I may be talking you out of Cancun altogether, but don't completely dismiss it. The southern tip of Mexico is absolutely gorgeous and if you're willing to venture outside of Cancun you'll find some awesome spots. My recommendation: if you want to head down to this area, fly into Cancun and instead of staying, head out to nearby destinations that we really love.
Disclaimer: Some of these spots are still pretty popular, but we think they're worth seeing while you're in Mexico. Here's a few —
- Tour The Cenotes Of Tulum (Also home to one of our favorite beaches!)
- See A World Wonder: Chichen Itza
- Hang Out On The Gorgeous Isla Contoy
- Spend Time In Valladolid Mexico
- Experience The Sleepy Island Of Isla Holbox
- Our favorite: Isla Mujeres
- The "Little Maldives", AKA Lake Bacalar
Each of these destinations is just a couple hours (or a few hours) away via bus or taxi, so perfect for a day trip or a short 1-3 day getaway.
We've had ILP volunteers who spent their longest vacation of the semester (typically about 9 days) down in this area, and just bussed around to all of these nearby adventures without spending any real time in Cancun. That makes for a really fun vacay!
Tips For Your Trip To Cancun
If you've decided that Cancun still sounds like a dreamy spot to come vacation, I get it. And the other 6+ million yearly visitors agree with you too! Here's some tips to help you plan a trip to Cancun.
By plane —
Unless you’re already close to Cancun and can take a bus, a flight is going to be your best bet. There are multiple, daily flights to the Cancun International Airport (CUN). From Mexico city, the flight to Cancun is just over two hours.
From Mexico City, you can find daily flights to Cancun from anywhere from $85 - $180 (and up). Booking in advance is your best bet, volunteers report paying around $150 or a bit lower to get over to Cancun if you book a couple of months before you want to leave. Check out these airlines for cheap flights to Cancun to help you snag a good fare.
Once You Land —
You’ll need to get into the city center, which is about nine miles away. That’s easily done by taking a taxi or riding a bus to where you’re headed.
If you hail a taxi, make sure you catch an official taxi on the outside of the airport. People inside with a cardboard sign will try and get you into an unmarked car which means you’ll probably end up paying lots more than if you paid for an official cab. Legitimate taxis and drivers (along with shuttles) will be outside of the airport. Taxis will be expensive, around $25 to the hotel zone. Private shuttles can be as much as $60.
You might want to download the Easy Taxi app; it’s like the Uber of Mexico and can help you avoid overcharging. Get it here on iOS and here on Android.
Or, take a bus. ADO or Riviera buses can take you from Terminal 2 to the downtown bus station (where you can just get a cheap taxi to your hotel). You can buy tickets there: there should be an ADO podium with an attendant or you can pay the driver directly. Tickets are inexpensive, about $4-$6.
To get around the city, taxis (or an Easy Taxi) is probably your best bet if it’s too far to walk, though you’ll be doing your fair share of walking.
Top Things To Do
Probably why you’re in Cancun in the first, place, right? In the past, ILP volunteers have recommended Playa Delfines as well as a beach called Playa Chac-mool.
Very popular in Cancun, dolphin tours are some people’s highlight (though they are a bit expensive). Most of the pricier tour packages will include a swim with dolphins and maybe a few other animals (like sea lions or manatees) plus lunch, and some snorkeling. You can save by just getting a package that includes a dolphin interaction, and nothing else.
A few groups had very good luck with a tour company called Dolphin Discovery. They have several tour options ranging from $110 - $254, with VIP options as the most expensive.
Other groups also had good experiences with a tour through Xcaret who have a dolphin package just over $100.
Unlimited Snorkeling At Xel-Ha
Easily reached by taxi, Xel-Ha is an aquatic theme park with a few different adventures we love: think multiple places for snorkeling, zip lining, cliff jumping and more. Most packages also include unlimited food so that’s a huge plus. It's a fun, resort-type feel with loads to do. Get more info here.
If you’re into cool and unusual museums, this one in Cancun might take the cake. A bit different from any other museum you’ve experienced before, you’ll grab the snorkel gear provided and dive deep in the ocean to take a peek at 500+ statues and some other exhibits, all under the waves. A "must do!" according to some ILP volunteers!
Keep an eye out for others who join your tour like schools of colorful fish or the odd sting ray. We have more information about prices and other details here.
Places To Stay In Cancun
There is an enormous range of things to do and places to stay in Cancun, more so than other locations in Mexico. However, a word to the wise: like we've mentioned, Cancun is home to luxury resorts and some less-than-desirable hostels that aren’t in the safest areas or aren’t worth staying in. We have a couple of suggestions to help you navigate a more-budget friendly place to stay if you don't want a splurge on an all-inclusive resort:
Caribe International Hotel has good reviews from past ILP groups, with rooms that have AC (which you will really come to appreciate after a few weeks in Mexico!).
Check out Airbnb’s. You’ll want to hang around the Hotel Zone and make sure the place you book is near a bus station or stop which is how you’ll get to the beaches and such, unless you are walking. One group decided to stay at an Airbnb and bused to Playa Delfines.
We think there's much more to Mexico than the tourist spots
There are just too many gems to see in Mexico to think that Cancun has it all. Good thing ILP volunteers call this country home for a semester and get the chance to see which beach they love the most! Come learn more about how volunteering works to see if it's a good match for you.