Though many visitors stick to the Hotel Zone, El Centro is the place to go for a taste of true Mexican culture (and a temporary reprieve from tourist prices). This is where the locals live, where Maya culture thrives and where families come on weekends to catch a movie, eat out and browse artisanal crafts. In the evenings, vendors dot Avenida Tulum and El Parque de Las Palapas, hawking churros, esquites and tortas. At night, bands play in the little bars along Avenida Yaxchilan, the main nightlife drag.
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A 14-mile stretch of oceanfront resorts, seafood restaurants, prettified shopping malls, water parks and buzzy bars and clubs, the Hotel Zone is ideal for those who take a one-stop approach to travel. The area, though, also contains culinary gems like Fantino and La Joya, cultural treasures like the San Miguelito Archaeological Site and the Mayan Museum of Cancun. The best place to survey the zone in its entirety is from the deck of the 260-foot Cancun Scenic Tower, located nearby. And while genuine seclusion may be in short supply here, the white-sand beaches and calm waters make this a prime spot for sun lovers. User-friendly buses run frequently and allow travelers to pop in and out of the zone’s subdistricts.
Though Cancun proper encompasses only the Hotel Zone and Downtown, the city is surrounded by not-to-be-missed treasures, including the relatively tranquil Isla Mujeres, Spanish for “Women Island” (so-called for its association with Ixchel, the Maya goddess of midwifery and medicine). A quick ferry ride or drive from the city, Isla Mujeres is a beach-lover’s dream. At the southern tip of the island, travelers can check out the ruins of the ancient Ixchel Temple and the sea turtle rehabilitation center. The colorful downtown area has delicious fresh seafood restaurants.
To escape the bustle of Downtown and the Hotel Zone, drive 40 minutes to the sleepy fishing village Puerto Morelos. The star of this tropical port is the stretch known as La Ruta de los Cenotes, or Cenote Route. A form of sinkhole, water-filled cenotes are the most exquisite natural feature of the Yucatan Peninsula. They are ideal for swimming, diving or lounging among the foliage, and this popular route allows visitors to make a day trip out of cenote-hopping. Though guided tours are available, the road and cenotes are well marked, so it’s easy to rent a car and DIY.