When to go
Peak season stretches from around Dec. 20 until after Easter week, with a slight lull between New Year’s and President’s Day weekend before spring break begins. This is the dry season, when humidity is lowest, daytime temps hover in the low- to mid-80s, and some nights even call for a sweater.
Although the lights and pageantry are lovely during the Christmas season, from Dec. 15-20 until Three Kings’ Day, Jan. 6, hotel rates are the highest of the year, doubling or even tripling, and crowds become unpleasant.
The weeks between Thanksgiving and the Christmas offer the best of everything: few crowds, the year’s lowest prices, pleasant weather and a festive holiday atmosphere. The period from the second week in January until spring break kicks in is a close second.
In low season, from May until Christmas week, crowds thin out as the temperatures and humidity rise. Hurricane season is June to late November, with most storms hitting in September and October. If you plan to travel then, you might want to consider travel insurance. Historically, storms have brushed or hit Cancún every three years.
U.S. travelers must have a valid passport to enter Mexico. An entry permit known as the “tourist card” is issued upon arrival and must be surrendered when you leave Mexico. Losing it can cost you up to $60. No visa is required for stays of up to 180 days.
Don’t panic if you get a bill for $300 after enjoying a simple meal. The “$” symbol is also the sign for the Mexican peso.
Though dollars are widely accepted (you’ll receive change in pesos), it’s smart to carry some coins and small bills in pesos. Change can be as elusive as unicorns, particularly in smaller towns and the Yucatán Peninsula interior.
For the best exchange rate, use credit cards and get cash from bank ATMs — not third-party machines, which charge higher rates when they work at all. While Visa and MasterCard are universally accepted, American Express is less popular. Avoid the airport’s currency exchange booths, even if you have to use dollars until you get to an ATM. Those in downtown Cancún offer better rates than those in the Hotel Zone.
Ways to save: Always pay in pesos, even if the price is quoted in dollars. Hotels and merchants set their own, usually exorbitant, exchange rates.
Mexico’s electrical system is 110 volts AC (60 cycles), as in the United States. Older hotels sometimes have only two-pronged outlets, so bring a plug adapter if you have a three-pronged plug.
You’re never far from an internet connection here, certainly in most hotels and restaurants. Internet cafes, though dwindling, are still easy to find.
It no longer requires a second mortgage to use a cellphone in Mexico, which is one of the world’s least-expensive countries for mobile users. You can take advantage of that by inserting a local SIM card in an unlocked phone, but an add-on roaming plan from your phone carrier is simpler.
Tipping rates are similar to those in the U.S. for porters, housekeepers, waiters and bartenders. But keep in mind that tips make up the bulk of many service employees’ income; some, like grocery baggers, earn nothing else. Tip taxi and airport shuttle drivers only if they handle bags; 10 pesos (about 50 cents) each is fine. Tip tour guides 10 to 15 percent of the fee. Gas station attendants customarily receive 5 to 10 pesos if they clean your windshield and check your oil and tires. Dollar bills are acceptable for tips, but U.S. coins cannot be exchanged.
Ways to save: Be careful not to double-tip in restaurants: Always check to see whether a service fee is added to the bill. Most times it won’t be, except for larger groups, but a waiter or owner will occasionally try to slip it by a tourist. Non-Spanish-speaking guests often mistake the tax for service charge, but menu prices, by law, already include the 16 percent federal IVA (value-added tax), which may sometimes be broken out for accounting purposes.
Where to stay
With 32,000 hotel rooms just in Cancún alone — from ultra-chic to laid-back beach bum — you’ll be spoiled for choice. Cancún's famous Hotel Zone occupies a skinny island shaped like the number seven, tracing a path between the Caribbean beaches on the east and Nichupté Lagoon on the west. It’s connected to the mainland by two causeways. The mainland city to the north, where Mexicans live and do business, is called El Centro (downtown) even though it sprawls far beyond the city center.
Like most of the coastline, the Hotel Zone is dominated by all-inclusive megaresorts, self-contained cocoons where you need never venture out. Historically known for cheap buffets and rooms stuffed with college kids, it has embraced ultra-luxurious properties such as the Iberostar Cancún and Grand Velas in recent years. Those seeking a grownup-oriented vacation can also turn to many adults-only properties along the coast, from the 450-room Excellence Playa Mujeres north of downtown Cancún to the 260-suite wellness-themed Le Blanc Spa Resort in Cancún to the 28-room the Beach Tulum eco-hotel on the Riviera Maya.
Cancún hotels include grande dames Ritz-Carlton, J.W. Marriott and Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancún. The Beachscape Kin Ha is a smaller, moderately priced independent hotel on prime beachfront. A few affordable hotels hug the lagoon shore, such as longtime favorite Sina Suites and the newer Real Inn.Both draw travelers seeking a mature atmosphere at a safe distance from the club zone.
For a smaller, locally owned hotel in Cancún Centro, Xbalamqué offers some of the amenities (and architectural excesses) of the Hotel Zone, at a fraction of the price. The more refined Adhara Hacienda Cancún is a great bargain, while the modern Fiesta Inn Cancún Las Américas offers beautiful views and proximity to one of the city’s best malls.
Many major hotels have wheelchair-accessible rooms, and even more have ramps and wide entrances in public areas. The Four Points by Sheraton in El Centro, part of the Cancún Medical Tourism Complex, is fully accessible and completely smoke-free. It’s one of only two Cancúnhotels with pool lifts, along with Westin Lagunamar. A few others have ramps leading to their beaches.
Vacation rentals are another popular option, perfect for multigenerational families. Loco Gringo stands out for its deep local knowledge and concierge service. HomeAway, VRBO and Airbnball offer rentals.
The Riviera Maya, south of Cancún, has its share of huge beachfront all-inclusivesbetween towns, as well as boutique hotels, simple inns and vacation rentals.
Puerto Morelos, the guardian of the region’s most pristine stretch of coral reef, is still a traditional small town with friendly, modest hotels such as El Moro, just off the town square. South of town, Mayakoba is a luxury master-planned resort with four hotels and a championship golf course united around an ecological mission.
Playa del Carmen, once a sleepy seaside village, is home to busy pedestrian-only Fifth Avenue and now rivals Cancún not only for size and lodging capacity but also for noise, raucous clubs and traffic. While modest boutique hotels, such as the intimate Hotel Lunata, built Playa’s reputation, northern Fifth Avenue has sprouted stylish upscale hotels including La Semilla and Hotel Cacao. The appealing La Pasión’s location a few blocks off the beach makes it a bargain.
Farther south, Akumal, “Place of the Turtles” in Mayan, is a small, ecologically minded diving and snorkeling haven where you actually can swim with sea turtles (but don’t touch or otherwise disturb them). It has a smattering of hotels and abundant vacation rentals. Mellow, boho-chic Tulum boasts that famous Maya temple overlooking the Caribbean. Lodging options are divided between a string of pricey, semi-rustic palapa(palm thatch-roofed) hotels on the long white beach — Cabañas Tulum is among the best — and the hostels, B&Bs and affordable hotels such as Don Diego de la Selvaand Posada Luna del Sur in El Pueblo, the funky city on the highway.
Ways to save: Save on accommodations just prior to Christmas, from mid-January until President’s Day and in low season, when rates fall by 20 to 30 percent. The region’s abundant air-hotel packages can also save hundreds of dollars on a week’s vacation.
How to get there
Cancún International Airport (CUN) is Mexico’s single busiest entry point for international travelers. Drive time to Ciudad Cancún is about 25 minutes, and to the heart of the Hotel Zone, about 30.
Ways to save: Comfortable first-class buses cost only 78 pesos (about $4.20) to downtown Cancún’s ADO bus terminal or 190 pesos ($10.20) to Playa del Carmen. When the airport siteis offering one of its frequent promotional rates on private vans, the per-passenger cost will often be lower than a shuttle, without the multiple stops.
Activities to arrange before you go
Cancún and the Riviera Maya are all about spontaneity, but you should lock in tickets to the splashy Cirque du Soleil’s “Joya” in advance. While most tours can be booked locally a day or two ahead, reserve whale shark tours and dive-certification courses before you go. Eco-parks, dinner cruises, cooking classes and golf tee times should be safe to book after you arrive, but check for advance-booking discounts.
What to pack
Clotheshorses, rejoice! The warm climate and casual atmosphere require little more than lightweight, natural-fiber clothing and flip-flops, meaning you can pack that many more outfits. A simple but elegant dress for women, and lightweight slacks and a dapper shirt — maybe a short-sleeved Mexican guayabera — for men is about as formal as it gets. A hat, sunglasses, biodegradable sunscreen, bug repellent and a couple of swimsuits are essentials. Water shoes will save your feet on rocky shores, while sturdy tennis shoes are best for climbing around archaeological sites. Tuck in a lightweight sweater or jacket, and you’re good to go.
Contrary to some news reports, Cancún and the Riviera Maya have not been reduced to gang battlefields. Cancún has largely been spared violence apart from some incidents in 2017, which didn’t affect tourists. Keep an eye on the State Department travel advisory, which remains at Level 2 (“exercise increased caution”), and take the usual precautions: Stay away from crime-ridden areas, especially after dark; don’t overdrink; don’t buy drugs or visit places where they are sold; and don’t go out alone at night. Keep valuables out of sight and your purse or wallet secure.
For some perspective, Cancún’s murder rate doubled in 2017, but at 20 per 100,000 people it is only now catching up to Washington, D.C.’s rate and is nowhere near Baltimore’s 52 per 100,000. According to State Department statistics, U.S. travelers in Mexico are more at risk for auto accidents and drownings.