What first comes to mind when YOU think Cancun? I’d be interested to do a social experiment on that one. Cancun is most known for its crystal clear blue waters, white sandy beaches, and wild nightclubs. Does that about sum it up?
I have spent many, many months in Cancun. For 2 years, I was an on-site travel representative for travel companies (that’s a euphemism for I babysat drunk people). I spent 4-6 weeks at a time living in a hotel in Cancun, picking people up from the airport, giving them a run-down on what to expect and how to behave, meeting them at restaurants for dinner packages we sold, and then taking them to the clubs to make sure they got special VIP treatment. It was a wild ride and a bucket of fun and while I probably killed too many brain cells, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Since my days staffing in Cancun, I have visited three times.
There are SO many hotels and resorts in Cancun – how does one choose? Let’s break it down.
If you want to party and go out at night, you want to be in the nightclub area. You can easily walk to any nightclub, or stop back at the room for an outfit change and potty break halfway through the night. The nightclub zone is at the point of the strip, where it’s the widest. This is also where most of the markets and tourist shops are. Hotels in this area include the Hotel Krystal, Hotel Riu, and Ocean Dream BPR.
If you’re looking for an all-inclusive in a quieter area where you maybe can still walk to some nightlife or restaurants, look a little farther south, closer to La Isla peninsula. It’s a bus ride away from the bustling nightlife of the nightclub zone, but still has some action nearby. Hotels in this area include ME Cancun, Westin Lagunamar, Live Aqua, Beach Palace, and Hotel Flamingo. I’ll talk about what to do in La Isla a little later.
If you want a nice, relaxing, quiet family vacation with maybe some golf or swimming with the dolphins, go even further south. Most resorts on the southern end of the hotel zone have golf courses in their front yards. Most are all-inclusive with plenty of restaurant options (because there’s nothing else nearby). You won’t have a reason to leave your resort at one of these, although you can always take a bus or taxi up to the center of the strip.
Hotels in this area include the Ritz-Carlton, Marriott, Grand Oasis Cancun (make sure to specify which building you want – one of these is for spring break students only and is disgusting, but the other buildings are for families and much nicer), Omni Cancun, Grand Parnassus, Solymar, GR Solaris, and the Gran Melia. I can vouch for the classiness of these hotels because I visited the pools to hand out flyers for the nightclubs here. Especially the Gran Melia – the lobby hotel looks like you stepped into a rain forest. These resorts are beautiful!
I have stayed at the Casamagna Marriott Cancun (in the La Isla area), which was beautiful and comfortable, and in the Salvia and Girasol, both of which were hotel room apartments. Both the Salvia and Girasol were in an excellent location in the nightclub zone, but unfortunately have since closed. There are other budget hotels, hostels, and apartments you can rent as well.
Where To Eat
Leave your resort! It is a terrible idea to get an all-inclusive in Cancun. All-inclusives generally have generic, mass-produced food that gets stale when left out all day. There are so many wonderful places to eat in Cancun; save the money for the all-inclusive, get your booze at an Oxxo convenience store, and go explore the wonderful seafood restaurants of Mexico!
Watch a lagoon sunset in a private cabana at Fred’s House Seafood Market and Grill. The restaurant is across from the JW and Casamagna Marriotts on the lagoon. The seafood is fresh and delicious. Perfect for a romantic, classy date night!
A visit to Cancun isn’t complete without a trip to the popular chain, Senor Frog’s. It’s quirky decorations, fun-loving staff, practical jokes, and water slide (yes, you can climb up to the ceiling and water slide out into the lagoon, roped off, of course, to avoid any stray water animals) keep this one of the most fun places for partiers, groups, bachelor/bachelorette parties, or anyone looking for a good time. The food is basic, but you go to Senor Frog’s for the atmosphere. A little known fact: Senor Frog’s also sells authentic Mexican tacos outside the restaurant after 3am for the nightclubbers! So much better than pizza…
If you’re looking for a sports game or some fabulous wings, take a walk down to the nightclub zone and watch out for waitresses on roller skates at Hooters Cancun! It’s good old-fashioned family fun and fried food with a Mexican twist (actually, a lot of the girls are European). They have all the typical foods you would expect from a Hooters with great deals. And don’t forget the ever precious free Wifi!
A MUST-SEE while in Cancun is Xtabentun. It’s a typical, local, cheap taco restaurant. It’s small and located off the main street so it might be slightly hard to find, but it’s worth it for authentic tacos! If you have a weak stomach, this isn’t the place for you – try the Taco Factory instead(geared towards tourists). But if you can handle it like a local, Xtabentun is a must. I wouldn’t leave Cancun without a visit!
El Shrimp Bucket has wonderful seafood and shrimp. They offer a buffet of seafood with cooked to order dishes, or you can order specific dishes off the menu. It’s on the lagoon with an outside patio for amazing views. UPDATE: El Shrimp Bucket has unfortunately permanently closed.
Many resorts provide transportation and a VIP table for its guests to meet, regroup, hang out, and have drinks delivered to them. If you’re not part of one of these groups, you will probably be able to to buy a general ticket or an open bar ticket (it’s worth the open bar ticket if you plan to drink). You can buy a ticket at the door, but you will get harassed by ticket sellers just walking down the street – be wary of these people, some of them sell fake tickets. Your best bet is to contact an entertainment host, try After Dark Entertainment, for help skipping the line, getting table service, and getting drinks. It’s especially a good idea to contact a host if you have a big party, such as a bachelor/bachelorette/birthday party. If a celebrity is in town to perform at one of the clubs, buy your tickets well in advance to guarantee entry.
The City Nightclub is the biggest nightclub in Central America; it’s 3 levels high with plenty of dance floor, VIP tables, and bars. The City is one of the longest-running nightclubs in Cancun and one of the most well-known and popular. During Spring Break season, the City hosts many famous DJs, like Avicii, David Guetta, and Armin van Buuren; singers and rappers, like Akon, T-Pain, and Sean Paul; dancers and gymnast shows; and much, much more. There is a private lounge next to the stage at The City called the CT Lounge; it’s by invite only and is where you will find these performers when they’re off-stage.
Dady’O is across the street from The City and is another longstanding nightclub. As soon as you step foot inside, you think you’re inside a giant cave. The walls are stone and have no shape or pattern. There is a stage where contests, singers/DJs, and the infamous “devil” are known to perform. Dady’O’s bottom floor has a few VIP tables and a main dance floor; the second floor is VIP tables and bars; and the third floor is more VIP tables. It’s a big nightclub but it fills up fast! Dady’O has a sister club in Acapulco (on the west coast) called Baby’O, a smaller version of this massive cave-like nightclub.
Bulldog is a generic nightclub that hosts DJs, guitarists, and other musicians. They have bikini contests, wet t-shirt contests, and other contests between dance music sets. It’s a big, well-set up club with a VIP tables building off of a dance floor. Bulldog added an ice bar to its repertoire, which you enter from outside the club. They provide heavy Russian coats to enter the fully ice bar (with a bulldog mascot carved from ice, of course – quite a feat for hot, sunny Cancun!)
Coco Bongo is the most famous family friendly club in Cancun and has recently become a chain (there is now also a Coco Bongo in Playa del Carmen and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic). Coco Bongo sells out fast and is very popular because it’s more than just a nightclub; performers sing, dance, and put on shows to popular songs. For example, four girls don corsets and feather tails and lip synch Lady Marmalade (Moulin Rouge). In another act, Beetlejuice flies above the crowd lip synching Jump In The Line (Shake Senora). Madonna appears once or twice throughout the night lip synching her famous songs. And there are many other acts throughout the night. There’s no dance floor in Coco Bongo: tables cover every part of the club so it’s geared toward watching the shows. Coco Bongo does offer open bars and table service.
Basic Nightclub is a sphere built on the lagoon. It’s completely floating, and you can feel the dance floor move up and down from the water underneath as people dance. From the outside, it looks like a white igloo. From the inside, it’s a huge white dome. The dance floor is in the center with VIP tables going up around the sides. There is also a walkway around the outside to take a break from the heat inside. UDPATE: A storm destroyed Basic Nightclub and it’s permanently closed.
The last time I was in Cancun, another club had opened called Mandala. I haven’t been to Mandala yet, but I have walked by it: it’s a big, open-air club with great music blasting out into the night. It’s still going strong with a high attendance rate, so the next time I visit Cancun I will be sure to try Mandala and update this section!
Pool parties! In addition to nightclubs, Cancun is world-famous for its pool parties. The pool parties have previously been hosted by MTV and almost always include a celebrity or two. The crowds are thick and the drinks are flowing, but outside at the large pools and infinite beaches, it’s never too crowded.
The biggest pool party is at the Oasis Cancun during spring break time. The Oasis hotel is grimy, dirty, and constantly loud, but the hotel knows its clients so it reserves its worst rooms for the drunk partiers who don’t care. The pool party is free for hotel guests, but outsiders have to buy a daily ticket to enter. It’s well worth visiting this pool party at least once, if not every day! Loud dance music, pineapple drinks, open bars, splish-splashing in the pool, a stage for contests, and a DJ on the beach make this pool party legendary. You’ll find thousands and thousands of spring breakers at the Oasis in March!
Other hotels try to host their own pool parties, but none are quite as big as the Oasis. Most hotels and resorts will have a contest and/or water aerobics going on throughout the day, but if you’re really looking to party, go to the Oasis at least once. If you’re not looking to party, make sure to check your hotel for details about whether it’s a party hotel or a family/adults-only hotel.
Cancun is well-known for its party scene, but there’s plenty more to do than see a world-famous DJ at an open bar, dance inside a cave, or don a heavy coat to visit an ice bar.
Mexico is a Hispanic country, so of course there is a bull ring in downtown Cancun! I was lucky enough to attend a bullfight, although I left before the bull even came out. The event itself was entertaining! There was a talent show for horses, four girls from the audience tried to catch two pigs, and many other fun events to laugh and cheer. The show was cheap, family friendly, and something different if you’re not into the club scene. It’s also a great way to see the “real” Cancun, more than just the hotel zone.
There are plenty of daily excursion tours, for example, Xcaret and Xel-ha. You can take a jeep into the country to zipline, swim with dolphins, visit the cenotes (natural sinkholes you can swim in), eco-parks, jungle tours, or visit the Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza or Tulum (I talk more about Tulum in a separate post). Unfortunately I never wanted to leave Cancun for even a day, so I missed out on these tours; when I go back, I will absolutely take advantage of these offers!
You can swim with dolphins right in Cancun! The Dolphinaris hotel is close to the airport and allows guests and non-guests to swim with dolphins in their dolphin park. Unfortunately I can’t comment on this because I never did it, but I do have a friend who worked at the Dolphinaris for a while and told me all about it, so I would recommend it based on her!
Pirate ship cruises go out every evening and offer dinner and a pirate show. You can hear the “boom” from the cannon from Cancun! Every time I heard this “boom,” I wanted to go out on a pirate ship but unfortunately I never got the chance. I did get to take a picture in front of one though!
Shopping! I didn’t do much shopping in Cancun, but there is a 3 story mall with stores, restaurants, fast food, and an internet café. Also, the mall is across the street from the Cancun flea market, which sells souvenirs and touristy goods. Haggle with them!
How To Get Around
Depending on where you’re staying, you may be able to walk to everything.
If you’re not so lucky, there are plenty of alternatives. There’s a bus that runs up and down the hotel zone for very cheap – less than 10 pesos I believe. Some buses are air-conditioned, others have open windows. If you travel often and aren’t afraid to try public transportation (I loved the buses in Mexico!) this is your best bet.
You could also take taxis, which are a bit more expensive but get you from point A to point B much faster. There is always a taxi around waiting to make some money. Don’t forget to tip!
Finally, you could rent a scooter or car. A car is convenient and usually the resorts offer free parking, but it can be hard to park in the nightclub zone. A scooter is a bit more dangerous but much easier to park and maneuver in the nightclub zone rush hour (never fails, every day).
Don’t forget to look into what your resort offers transportation-wise! Many of the expensive all-inclusives will offer transportation to the nightclub zone or even to La Isla. They also may pick you up from the airport. If not, a taxi or bus is a great alternative.