Cancun is comprised of two parts: Zona Hotelera (The Hotel Zone) and everywhere else. The Hotel Zone continues to receive mixed reviews by those who frequent Mexico and those who only come to Cancun once. Here’s my take on The Hotel Zone for a family.
We arrived in Mexico, completely ignorant of what it had to offer. Our only concern was to get to our Airbnb and ensure it had wifi. At this point in our sabbatical we were one month in and I’d say we were ignorant of how we wanted our trip to look. Even as I write this, in February 2019, after four months of travelling, we are still evolving our perception of this family sabbatical. Anyway, I digress!
So, we arrive in Mexico, having booked cheap tickets to Cancun and a cheap Airbnb in the Hotel Zone – with wifi – and having just arrived from Cuba where we were disconnected from the world and the tourist infrastructure is lacking.
At Cancun airport, the airport was modern and had great facilities including free wifi. We were approached by someone selling us transfers who held a laminated sheet showing price comparisons of taxis and buses so we book the transfer in the mini-van. Looking back we fluked getting charged the right price for four people. Even though the ADO option would have been cheaper, it also would have been too stressful to navigate for our first trip there. Cancun airport have great options which we only find out about in our second trip to Cancun, including the wonderful ADO aeropuerto buses.
If you are travelling light and have had a short flight then the ADO bus would be the most economical way to go. Once you arrive at the station you could catch a colectivo to the Hotel Zone or another bus.
Personally, I recommend booking a transfer in advance or at the airport. We arrived late at night with lots of luggage and tired kids. I didn’t want to have to work all those transfers out on arrival. Plus you get dropped directly to where you need to go.
We had decided to book only three nights accomodation in the hope that we would work out where to stay once we had arrived. It was a little over the budget but we were in, what is rated as, the best part of Cancun ie The Hotel Zone.
We had just been in Havana talking with a couple from New Jersey about Mexico. They were of a very fearful mentality telling us that we shouldn’t go there because our children could be kidnapped, telling us horrible stories, propagated through their mainstream media. We didn’t have any wifi in Cuba to verify any of their stories so we decided to be extra vigilante in Mexico.
So, when we arrived at our apartment complex, we saw guards and barrier arms in the driveways. We questioned how safe this place was that it needed security guards. There was a lot of paper work and processing before we could enter. But finally we were taken to our apartment. We were concerned we’d need better Spanish but most people speak a little bit of English in Cancun so we were able to get by.
The place was a spacious one bedroom apartment that could sleep all six of us. This was the first stop where we had a sofa bed so I didn’t think anything of it when the kids said it was super uncomfortable. It was only at the next airbnb that we learnt we would not book sofa beds because in an Airbnb they are so highly used there is no more cushion left in them. In effect you are sleeping on the metal frame. Other than that, the one bedroom aspect was not a problem. This stop was only for three nights so we didn’t mind being in each other’s way.
Ajay and I had to connect to wifi to complete some work for a client. This was when we realised how vital good internet is for us as we travel, particularly for any contract work that comes through. The internet here was so bad, we would go down to the free wifi at the administration desk to do our work. That meant in the middle of the night, one of us wondering down while the other stayed in the apartment to listen out for Lui in case he woke up (he was waking up a lot at this age).
While we were here we still had to find accomodation for our next spot. We wanted to book for a month and settle down after the constant travelling for a month. Although people had told us you could ask a local about where to stay and they would be able to help you find accomodation, we didn’t find that to be true. However, it did help us to define where we should stay. We settled on the little island of Isla Mujeres (here’s how that went) off the coast of Cancun. We realised that the Cancun Hotel Zone was very expensive for a family of six to find decent accommodation (in our budget) and we were still plagued by this false notion about security threats in Mexico. More about that in the Safety section
The first night, after we had settled into the apartment, we needed to feed everyone dinner. We hadn’t seen any places to eat on the long drive to the apartment. We asked the guards about some food options. Our host had only told us about an Oxxo which is a dairy that sells snacks and was about ten minutes walk away. The guards were super helpful. They called up a pizza place that did deliveries and ordered for the “gringo” ie Ajay 🙂
This was when we noticed that it’s really hard to find food on the one street that runs through the Hotel Zone. It took us a while of being in Mexico to realise that some Oxxos sell eggs, bread, milk and other basics for cooking something up for the kids. Also, nothing was walking distance from where we were.
The next day the guards told us where to find a supermarket. But the taxi was 200 pesos to get there. Looking back I can see how expensive the Hotel Zone was because of how far away things are. We took the taxi to the supermarket and stocked up on what we needed. The main Hotel Zone shopping area had supermarkets, malls, restaurants, bars. It was fully designed for tourists.
Our first morning at the apartment we scouted the area. We found an awesome pool that was right next to a beautiful beach with gentle boogie boarding waves. After organising sustenance, we headed to the pool for a swim. There was a baby pool that Kenzo loved splashing in and a deeper pool that went down to 8 feet.
We got some homeschooling done and then went for another swim in the late afternoon. This time Carmelo and I were eager to get to the beach. The waves were rough enough to keep Kenzo and Lui from wanting to be in the water but gentle enough so that I wasn’t worried about watching Carmelo and Giselle. They love boogie boarding and this beach definitely had the waves for it so they were loving being in the water.
As the sun began to set we headed back to the apartment to warm up. There was a shower as we stepped off the sand where we had to wash off all sand. Kenzo was keen to get back in the pool because now the coloured lights had turned on. But the pool was cold so we were trying to get him back upstairs where dad was working and would cook us dinner once we got back.
Our two days at this place were spent like this with pool time and beach time twice a day. It kept the kids happy as they settled into school life and adjusted to our new country of choice.
We found out about a few scams while we were in Mexico. We didn’t have issues with any of these except one but I’ll list them here since the Hotel Zone (and other hotel zones in Quintana Roo) is where you may find it to be more of an issue.
– Finding extra items on your bill that you hadn’t ordered
– Being overcharged for an item at a restaurant
– Having to buy bottled water because they say they don’t serve glasses of water – every restaurant has garrafons of water. It is clean drinking water. You can order a glass of water and everywhere we went it was free.
– Being asked by the taxi driver for a tip. This only happened to us once when we had arrived in Cancun for the second time. Of course, I refused to pay him and threatened to call his job to report him. He left in a huff and very quickly at that point.
As I said earlier, when you fly into Cancun, you can catch the ADO bus to the central station. If you are not staying in the Hotel Zone it will be cheaper to find a taxi from here. If you are staying in the Hotel Zone, I recommend a shuttle. You can book it in advance with your hotel or with another company online. There is really great tourist infrastructure in Quintana Roo so you could also rock on up to the airport and book it when you land. Just make sure you are paying the right price for the place you are travelling to. Expect anywhere in the Hotel Zone to be expensive.
When staying in the Hotel Zone, there is so much security everywhere and so many tourists that your safety or your child’s safety is not really an issue. Normal theft issues are still an issue and that exists anywhere in the world particularly in countries with a higher poverty rate. We didn’t leave our kids alone when we were out in public but we did leave them in our apartment alone and that was in Cancun city, not the Hotel Zone.
You have to decide for yourself what levels of precautions are suitable for you and your family but don’t believe the exaggerated scare stories portrayed by mainstream media. Go to Mexico yourself and you’ll see what I mean.
When we landed in Cancun and went to the Hotel Zone it became obvious that this was a tourist trap. Yes there is a beautiful beach but this was not the Mexico we had signed up for. As we spoke to more travellers, those who have travelled to other parts of Mexico always say “Cancun is not Mexico”. Long term travellers do not rate Cancun. Short term travellers who have only been to Cancun think it’s great.
If you are staying in a resort then you will love that resort beach life in the Hotel Zone but please don’t tell people you have experienced Mexico if you have not left the Hotel Zone. There is so much to see even in Quintana Roo (the state where Cancun is). If you travel to Playa Del Carmen and Tulum you can expect smaller and then smaller again versions of Cancun. There are people that really don’t like what Cancun means to so many tourists, even Mexicans I’ve spoken to don’t like it. So how to fix this issue if you have booked your tickets to Cancun?
Not far from Cancun is Valladolid and Merida which will give you a flavour of what other parts of Mexico can be like. Mexico is made of up many different ethnicities and it spans a huge area with all sorts of terrain so, if you have landed in Cancun, do yourself a favour and look into what else you can do in Mexico. It’s too beautiful to miss out on. Check out our posts on Chiapas if you would like some inspiration.
I’ve heard of tourists coming to Cancun and only seeing the Hotel Zone because they either stay in their resort or go to the shopping area of the Hotel Zone. Don’t be one of those people! Get out of Quintana Roo as soon as you can and experience the real Mexico that has so much variation of race, culture, landscape, shopping, and flavour. There’s so much more to see outside of Cancun.
But if you are staying in Cancun then check out Tulum, Chichen Itza, Bacalar, Valladolid and Merida. From other travellers we met along the way, these were there favourite places to visit from Cancun. We took the opportunity of going to a few places. Check out our family’s glimpse of Tulum and Isla Mujeres.