Secrets to a great Cancun vacation
My firsthand tips to save money, stay safe, and have fun
For our last college spring break, my girlfriend and I decided to get out of the snowy Northeast and visit the famous resort town of Cancun, Mexico. While getting an all-inclusive resort and lying on the beach all day sounded relaxing, we wanted more adventure and authentic experiences (and food). Plus, we’re broke college students.
So we set off on our 9-day adventure in Cancun, doing everything from snorkeling to seeing Chichen Itza. It was a blast. But while we had an easy time deciding what to do, we were pretty clueless about how to do everything.
Resort or Airbnb? How do you get home from the airport? Should you pay with cash or card, dollars or pesos? How can you avoid getting scammed at nightclubs? What food is safe and what’s risky? And how can you see Chichen Itza without spending hundreds of dollars?
I couldn’t find any books or websites that gave answers to nuts-and-bolts questions like these. We learned the answers to all these questions — but many the hard way.
In this article, I want to share the secrets I learned about food, packing, sightseeing, getting around, and more during my Cancun trip. I’ll answer questions like the ones above and step you through planning and enjoying your trip.
I hope these tips help you save money, stay safe, and have fun on your next vacation in Cancun!
And if you’re looking for ideas for future vacations, I hope this article will convince you check out Cancun!
A quick intro to Cancun
Cancun was a sleepy Maya fishing village until the 1970s, when the Mexican government decided to chop through the jungle and build a resort town.
Cancun is split into two big regions: the hyper-touristy Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone), shaped like a giant 7 in the water, and downtown on the mainland. The Hotel Zone has most of the beaches, nightlife, and malls, but downtown is cheaper, more authentic, and closer to out-of-town travel. Definitely go to both while you’re in Cancun.
Check out this map:
(What’s with all the numbers? Downtown is organized into numbered “Supermanzanas,” similar to neighborhoods in American cities.)
First, the boring part: planning your trip.
Where to stay: Resort or Airbnb?
Most spring breakers stay at an all-inclusive resort in the Hotel Zone, which gives you a 30-second commute to the beach and nightlife right outside your door. Many resorts include food and tours. Our problem was that most resorts were $160–400 a night.
Instead, we got an Airbnb in downtown Cancun for about $40 a night. Restaurants and shopping nearby were cheaper and more authentic, too. Plus, public buses to and from the Hotel Zone ran right in front of our house every 5 minutes for almost the whole day. The only downside was location. Downtown is really dark and quiet at night, so we were scared to walk around much. I think the city is safe, but we still got spooked. Also, we felt we could have met more college students at a resort.
So, where should you stay? It depends. A resort is a lot of fun and in prime location, but an Airbnb is far cheaper and thus lets you spend more days in Cancun. We spent just under $400 for 9 nights in our Airbnb — about as much as we’d have spent in a single night at a nice resort.
If you stay in an Airbnb downtown, I suggest living near the R-1 or R-2 bus lines (map here). These are the buses get you to and from the hotel zone almost all day — it’s a 20-minute trip, and a ticket costs about $0.75. The R-1 bus runs more, especially late at night, so stay closer to the R-1 if you can. Also, try living near the ADO bus station because buses to and from the airport, Chichen Itza, and other inland cities leave from there. We lived right on the R-2 line southwest of the ADO bus station, and the region was great — close to buses and full of good food and parks.
Stuff to get before your trip
First, I recommend getting the Lonely Planet Cancun book — the Kindle version is free for Amazon Prime members. It’s got useful maps, sightseeing tips, restaurant recommendations, history, and key Spanish terms. Don’t get the paperback because it’s extra weight and only a small portion will be useful at any given time; you can read the free Kindle version on any phone. Be sure to read the “Plan Your Trip,” “Cancun and Around,” “Understand,” and “Survive” Lonely Planet sections.
As far as tech goes, I suggest getting the Google Translate app and downloading Spanish offline. Also download the offline map of Cancun on your Google Maps app. These offline tools saved my rear several times.
US citizens don’t need visas to go to Mexico, but make sure you have a passport. Also, tell your bank and credit card company that you’ll be traveling to Mexico. I’d also recommend getting a cheap mobile data plan for Mexico; Verizon let me get data and text for $5 a day, and T-Mobile gave my girlfriend free (but very slow) data in Mexico.
Things to pack for Cancun
Besides your usual travel gear, here are a few things I found useful:
- Tons of sunscreen, and hats.
- An under-the-clothes money pouch. It’s especially handy at the airport, since you’ll have a lot of papers: passports, customs forms, boarding passes, etc.
- A power strip (aka extension cord or surge protector). Cancun rooms often have few outlets, though our modern Airbnb room had plenty.
- 3-prong to 2-prong adapters. American devices will work just fine plugged into Mexican outlets (they’re the same shape and use the same voltage), but many Mexican outlets only have 2 prongs instead of 3. Your power strips and laptop charging cables may have 3 prongs. If so, you’ll need the 3-to-2-prong adapters. (Our Airbnb had 3-prong outlets, but many restaurants, cafes, etc. only had 2.)
Mexico uses the peso, which confusingly uses the $ sign. (In this article, I’ll write “pesos” for pesos and reserve the “$” for US dollars.) One US dollar was 18.7 pesos during my trip (see the current exchange rate here).
To convert prices, you can use a calculator or currency exchange app on your phone. For a quick-and-dirty approximation, I just divided peso prices by 20.
Pay in pesos
Most places accept US dollars, but pay in pesos whenever possible. That’s because shops usually give you bad exchange rates; many stores offered us 17 pesos per dollar when the actual exchange rate was 18.7. That’s the difference between paying $26.70 and $29.40 for a 500-peso lunch… taking the 17 exchange rate means you’re throwing away $2.70!
If you’re paying with credit card (see below for caveats), be very explicit that you want to pay in pesos (quiero pagar en pesos) because they may charge you in dollars if you don’t specify otherwise.
Cash and cards
Generally, avoid using your credit card unless you have a travel rewards card. (I have one from Bank of America and it literally says “Travel Rewards.”) Non-travel rewards cards will hit you with fees every time you use them abroad. If you have a travel card, pay with it when possible (since it’s so convenient), but in our experience, many shops and restaurants outside the Hotel Zone were cash-only.
So, no matter what, you’ll need a lot of cash. There are a ton of ATMs in the Hotel Zone and a few downtown, and they’re usually usable all day. But most ATMs will charge you a few dollars’ fee every time you withdraw money. Fortunately, many American banks partner with Mexican banks to provide fee-free withdrawals. Bank of America, for instance, gave me free withdrawals from Scotiabank ATMs. Just Google “[your bank] no fee ATMs Mexico” to see if your bank offers this. However, I found that bank ATMs are only open during work hours (often 8–4 Mon-Sat) and are frustratingly rare in Cancun.
So try to minimize your trips to the ATM to save time and reduce fees. I withdrew 1000–5000 pesos at a time. Go to a fee-free bank ATM if possible, but in a pinch you can use the non-bank ATMs in the Hotel Zone and just pay the small fee.
I didn’t find any need to buy pesos in the US before I left. There’s a Santander ATM at the airport (it charges a $2 fee to withdraw money, which isn’t horrible) so you can withdraw just enough cash to get started.
In short, only use your credit card if you have a travel rewards card. Pay in pesos, not dollars. Make a few big withdrawals from ATMs to minimize fees. In an emergency, of course, you can totally use cards or pay in dollars — it’s possible, just more expensive.
OK, now the fun part: making the most of your Cancun adventure!
Arriving in Cancun
Your flight into Cancun should give you a customs form (FMM) to fill out. Hold on to the small slip of paper that comes with the form — it’s your ticket to leave Mexico!
Once you reach, withdraw some cash from the sole Santander ATM right outside the baggage claim. To get to Cancun proper, walk outside and buy a ticket for the ADO bus to Cancun (ADO is Mexico’s version of Megabus). There’s a little red stand in the covered area where they sell tickets. Buses come about every half hour, though ours was late by 30 minutes. Tickets to downtown Cancun were 78 pesos (about $4) each.
Food + drink
The #1 rule: don’t drink the tap water! Get bottled water; ask for agua purificada in restaurants or bring a plastic bottle everywhere you go. Fortunately, it seems like Cancun locals don’t drink tap water either, so cold drinks at restaurants should be made with bottled water. We drank lots of horchata and fruity agua frescas and were fine. If a restaurant seems sketchy, play it safe and get a bottled water or refresco (soda; usually bottled), or get a hot drink.
Freshly cooked food is always good. Going in, I was hesitant to eat any uncooked food, so we avoided salads entirely. We had a few raw limes and lettuce and were fine, though. I can’t say for sure, but my advice is to stick to cooked food outside fancy or touristy restaurants.
How about sauce? Bottled hot sauce is OK. But many restaurants served us hot sauce in open containers instead of bottles, and despite my love of hot sauce I tended to pass.
The #2 rule: avoid empty restaurants. They’re usually empty for a reason. Also research restaurants on Google Maps or Yelp before you go.
Top dishes to try
Cancun has tons of food options for anyone — even I, as a vegetarian, had a great time.
My advice: avoid eating anything you could get in the US. So go easy on the tacos, quesadillas, and burritos, and instead dig into Mexican street food.
I tried to avoid anything I could find at Chipotle and instead went for a lot of local dishes. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Huaraches and sopas. Indigenous people have enjoyed these for thousands of years. They’re fried corn tortillas with all kinds of toppings (including beans, salsa, and cheese) on top.
- Huitlacoche. It’s a fungus that grows on corn (hey, mushrooms are also fungus… get over it!) It’s hard to explain the taste, but it is indeed a bit like mushrooms. The Aztecs loved this stuff, and I did too.
- Nopales. These are the leaves of the prickly pear cactus. They taste a bit like bell peppers.
- Horchata, tamarind, and Jamaica (hibiscus) agua frescas. These are sweet, fruity drinks, great for a hot day.
- Marquesitas. These delicious desserts are made of a crepe wrapped around caramel, Nutella, and cheese.
The best restaurants
Paradoxically, I avoided fancy restaurants. I had way more fun — and authentic, local food — at fast food joints.
By fast food, I don’t mean McDonald’s. I mean local shacks that serve quick, cheap, no-frills local food. They give you a much better taste (pun intended) of Mexico. Get out of the Hotel Zone and try eating downtown. I found these awesome restaurants downtown:
- Quesadillas Tierra del Sol was the best. I got 3 delicious sopas and huaraches plus a Mexican Coke — all for under $5. It was the only place where I found huitlacoche, too.
- Los Alcatraces had awesome huaraches with nopales.
- Tacos Oishi had fresh-grilled tortillas with veggies and melted cheese (queso fundido). They’re about $1 each. The waiters were really nice too.
Outside the Hotel Zone and nicer restaurants, most people don’t speak English. To talk to the authentic restaurant owners, taxi drivers, Walmart cashiers, flea market vendors, etc., we had to speak some basic Spanish. So it’ll be worth your while to learn some Spanish before you go.
I’d recommend getting Duolingo a few weeks before your trip and doing a few exercises so you know basic words and sentence structure. The Lonely Planet book also has some useful Spanish phrases.
The most important things I had to know were numbers (you need to know how much things cost), basic greetings (I just said hola for hi and hasta luego for bye), and some restaurant and payment phrases. This guide was super useful.
Getting around Cancun
The R-1 and R-2 buses will be your best friends. They’ll get you between the hotel zone and downtown in about 20 minutes for just 12 pesos ($0.75) each way. Plus, they’re safe and come about every 5 minutes for most of the day. Check the routes online here.
The buses will also get you anywhere on the Hotel Zone — they run constantly on both sides of the main boulevard.
To get a bus, stick your hand out on the sidewalk anywhere along the bus routes (downtown) or at a bus stop (hotel zone) when you see a bus coming. Just hand the driver cash; they made change for my 20- and 50-peso notes.
To get off the bus, hit the red button and the bus will stop within 15 seconds. Downtown Cancun can get a bit dark and scary at night, so time your button press so the bus stops right in front of your house. Having Google Maps and GPS open was helpful for this. I found that the R-2 stops running after 1am or so, while the R-1 seems to run till late at night.
Surprisingly, there’s no Uber or Lyft in Cancun. Instead, there’s a mediocre taxi-hailing app called Easy. I call it mediocre because the app flat-out fails on iPhones, it’s impossible to get a taxi at night in the Hotel Zone, and it takes several tries to actually get a cab. Easy did work when we most needed it, though. After much prayer, we managed to get a taxi from our Airbnb to the airport at 4am for 250 pesos. So avoid Easy and take the buses when possible, but download the app just in case.
We never took a random taxi off the street (we are the ridesharing generation, I guess), but our friends who did told us that their driver scammed them by making them pay more than the agreed price and threatening to call the cops. Hopefully not all taxis are like that, but I’d suggest steering clear.
Things to do in the Hotel Zone
The heart of the Hotel Zone is a good place to start your Cancun adventure. There are plenty of restaurants, beaches, shops, and nightclubs here.
As you’ve heard, the beaches have crisp white sand and gorgeous turquoise water. There are even a few free beach chairs and umbrellas you can sit under (we found some blue ones with Bud Light branding).
However, the beaches were crowded and the water was clogged with brown seaweed. That made it a bit less fun. So while it’s fun to spend some time on the beach, but we quickly wanted to see the rest of the Hotel Zone.
A few of my favorite places in the Hotel Zone:
- The La Isla Mall was so much fun. It’s an indoor-outdoor mall with canals, palm trees, stone bridges, fountains, live performers, cafes, and shops. It’s lively and packed with people — unlike the other malls in the Hotel Zone, which I found were totally dead — and has a fun and friendly ambiance. Some restaurants even give you a waterfront view. We loved this cool Thai restaurant here where we got to eat in a treehouse while sitting cross-legged on a mat. Spend an evening or two here; you’ll love it.
- There are Maya ruins and a small archaeological museum farther down the strip. The mini-pyramid at the San Miguelito ruins (attached to the museum) was a real highlight. We didn’t have time for the El Rey archaeological zone a bit farther south, but I heard it was good.
Besides the cheap, authentic restaurants, downtown Cancun is full of places to visit. Mercado 28 had super-cheap souvenirs (12 pesos for a magnet, 10 for a keychain). There was some unusual stuff, too, like Maya calendar stones, masks, chessboards, and hot sauce. They even had Maya-style skulls with American football team logos painted on them, making the skulls look like they were wearing football helmets:
I also loved the Parque de las Palapas. It’s full of street food vendors, leafy green areas, and cool murals. We walked through it on a Friday night and saw a live concert, vendors, kids on a trampoline, and tons of locals.
Chichen Itza, a mighty ancient city of the Maya people, might just be the most impressive archaeological site in the New World. It was even voted one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Chichen Itza was a really fun day trip from Cancun, so I recommend it!
Tour or DIY?
Chichen Itza is a 3-hour drive from Cancun, so it takes some work to get there. My friends booked a tour to Chichen Itza on Viator and liked it, and there are a few other well-known tours. They’re expensive and only give you 2–3 hours at the site, so we decided against doing a fancy tour. Many people in the markets and Hotel Zone were peddling cheap Chichen Itza tours, but they had no online reviews and no website, so we didn’t fully trust them.
Instead, we decided to do the trip ourselves. I think it was a good move: we saved money and got a full 5.5 hours in the site (instead of 2–3 hours in a tour). Plus, it was flexible. Instead of having to follow a tour group everywhere, we could take water breaks and souvenir-shopping breaks whenever we wanted, and we could spend as much (or as little) time as we wanted at each monument.
Doing the trip ourselves took some legwork, but it was worth it. I’d recommend you try a DIY trip to Chichen Itza. Here’s how we did it.
Getting to Chichen Itza
The ADO bus company offers a cheap daily bus from Cancun to Chichen Itza and back. The bus picks you up from the ADO terminal in downtown Cancun at 8:45am and reaches Chichen Itza in 3 hours. Chichen Itza is an hour behind Cancun, so that’s 10:45am local time. The bus leaves Chichen Itza at 4:30pm local time and gets back to Cancun in 3 hours (8:30pm Cancun time, because of the time difference). So you get over five and a half hours in Chichen Itza, far more than any tour would give you!
You can’t buy ADO tickets online because their site doesn’t accept non-Mexican credit cards (seriously?) Instead, go to the terminal a day or two before and buy the tickets in person. We did this and got round-trip tickets for 450 pesos ($25) each. The buses are comfortable, quiet, and air-conditioned, and they even have a bathroom. A great choice.
Exploring Chichen Itza
Once you reach Chichen Itza, you’ll have to pay about 250 pesos ($14) each to get in. There are licensed tour guides at the entrance, but I heard they cost 900 pesos ($50).
To save money and have more flexibility, we just self-guided our tour — which you can do if you read up ahead of time.
If you’re a real archaeology geek like me, check out an awesome book called The Maya, which dives deeper into the city’s history. One interesting tidbit is that Chichen Itza has a blend of Maya and Toltec (a native group from central Mexico) architecture, so some people think the Toltec king, banished from his capital, came and conquered Chichen Itza. The Wikipedia article on this is controversy is worth a read.
By the way, we had lunch at the Oxtun restaurant right by the park entrance. The food was pretty good and reasonably priced.
The top sights at Chichen Itza
You could spend days at Chichen Itza, but here’s what I put on my must-see list:
- El Castillo, the iconic step-pyramid. It’s dedicated to the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl (known to the Maya as Kukulcan).
- The ball court. Ancient Mexicans played the “Mesoamerican ball game” on courts like these. You had to hit a softball-sized rubber ball with your hips and get it through a circular ring mounted high on the wall. The losing team probably died at the end. Chichen Itza’s ball court is the largest in all of Mesoamerica.
- El Caracol, or the observatory. It’s a round building that Maya astronomers used to track Venus and other astronomical objects.
- The Cenote Sagrado, or sacred sinkhole. This is a 200-foot-wide hole where the land drops 60ft straight down to the water table. It looks like a giant crater filled with water.
The merchants here are eager to bargain with you. One guy offered us a magnet and mini-pyramid for 300 pesos, but we haggled him down to 130 for the pair. A few tricks that came in handy for us:
- Go right before 4pm, when all the merchants close for the day. They’ll sell you stuff for ludicrously low prices — one guy offered me a mask that earlier cost 300 pesos for just 50.
- Point confidently at one merchant a few stalls over and tell your merchant, “that guy offered me [some low price] for this exact same thing.” We found that the merchants never dared leave their stores to check other stalls, so they can never call your bluff. This trick got us the steep discounts on the magnet and pyramid.
- Walk away from the merchant and they might start shouting discounts at you to lure you back.
- Lowball your offers, as always. The merchant will probably try to meet you in the middle.
This scenic island off the coast of Cancun made for a fun day trip.
Like with Chichen Itza, we weren’t impressed by the tours on offer so decided to do it ourselves. To do it yourself, take the R-1 or R-2 bus to Playa Tortugas in the Hotel Zone and get an Ultramar Ferry to Isla Mujeres. The ferries leave once an hour (so time your arrival and departure properly) and cost $19 for a round trip. Read the Lonely Planet section on Isla Mujeres on the ferry ride over.
Once you’re there, you’ll need some wheels to get around, since the island is 4 miles long. Many shops will rent you bicycles (about 100 pesos per person), scooters (300 pesos each; seats 2), or a golf cart (about 1000 pesos; seats 4). The salesman scared us away from the scooters so we took bikes. Honestly, though, the roads are flat and full of tourists going maybe 20mph, so you should be pretty safe riding your chosen mode of transport. Using bikes, it took us 40 minutes to get from the town at the north end of the island to the far southern tip.
Our main priority was snorkeling. We followed Lonely Planet’s advice and went to the Hotel Garrafon de Castillo, which is more of a beach club than a hotel. We got snorkeling gear and lockers for two people for a grand total of 240 pesos ($15). That’s a huge steal given that the fancy snorkeling place next door charges 700 pesos per person. Snorkeling was fun and we saw some gorgeous yellow-and-black, camouflage, and purple fish. If you go, avoid the left side of the beach with the shallow water and rocky ocean floor, because there’s some pretty nasty fire coral that will give you a painful rash. (My girlfriend learned this the hard way.)
We didn’t get much more time on the island, but I heard the turtle farm and Hacienda Mundaca (historical mansion) were good too.
The best places to eat are in town at the north of the island. We went to a local restaurant called Ruben’s and a really cute ice cream place called the Gelateria Monte Bianco, where the friendly owner sold us a delicious homemade apple pie.
We caught the 8pm ferry back to Cancun because we didn’t want to rely on the next and final ferry for the night, which leaves at 9:15pm. I’d recommend you shoot for the 8pm ferry as well.
Cancun has some exciting nightlife. What we didn’t realize ahead of time, though, was that it’s really expensive. Most nightclubs here had cover charges of $25–40. Yes, several clubs offer an open bar with admission, but I heard the drinks are watered down and, as you might imagine, it’s hard to get the bartenders’ attention given all the people mobbing them. Still, it’s worth hitting the clubs at least once.
One budget-friendly place is Señor Frog’s, a kitschy bar/club. The perk: no cover! It’s officially a bar but, later in the night, it turned into a mini-club (not as intense as a real club, but hey, it was free). Many servers will try to give you alcohol — which might seem free but actually costs quite a lot of money. If you go to Señor Frog’s, don’t take any of the “free” stuff anyone gives you, because most of the time, it won’t be free.
Coco Bongo, a hybrid of a nightclub and Las Vegas-style show, was a memorable experience. The night alternates between nightclub-style dancing and high-energy show segments, which for us included acrobatics, actors re-enacting fight scenes from Batman and Tron, and Brazilian dance sequences. It’s a good time, but tickets are an insane $70 on weekdays and $80 on weekends. Tickets include an open bar, but it’s so crowded that you can barely get to the bar, let alone get the bartenders’ attention.
Instead of buying tickets online, we went to the Coco Bongo ticket office during the day and got a deal: a $60 ticket that included 4 drinks instead of an open bar. That saved us $20 each.
We weren’t planning to drink anyway, so the 4-drink cap was no big loss. Even if you want to drink, it’s probably too hard to get more than 4 drinks from the bar anyway since it’s so crowded. So go in person and get the $60 ticket if you can!
Overall, we thought the Coco Bongo experience was worth it for $60 each — but we wouldn’t go more than once since it gets old. Señor Frog’s is worth hitting up one or more times, for sure.
I hope these tips help you have a great trip to Cancun! If you have any questions or advice for future travelers, feel free to leave a comment. And if you like this article, please give it some claps!