Cancun and Playa del Carmen: What’s New at Mexico’s Top Destinations

Sunset at the Gran Caribe Resort in Cancun, Mexico. Photo courtesy Gran Caribe
Sunset at the Gran Caribe Resort in Cancun, Mexico. Photo courtesy Gran Caribe

The Most Visited Destination in Mexico 

Cancun has been Mexico’s go-to since the 1970s, when it was carved out of the Yucatan jungle, specifically designed and built to be just what it became, the most visited destination in Mexico.

As a very young Director of Public Relations at the now-defunct Cancun Sheraton, I was able to experience the area in its infancy, in 1980, when just seven hotels dotted the strip.

I’m happy to report that while today’s Cancun is full of endless swinging nightclubs, upscale shopping malls and restaurants, and a Miami Beach-like strand of hotels.

It still offers miles of magnificent white-sand beaches with clear, turquoise waters, considered by many to be among the most beautiful in the world.

An aerial view of Cancun, Mexico. Flickr/dronepicr
An aerial view of Cancun, Mexico. Flickr/dronepicr

Located on the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Cancun is easily accessible via the state-of-the-art Cancun International Airport (CUN), with direct flights from many U.S. and other international cities.

The region is home to fascinating archaeological sites, 13 top-rated golf courses, multiple sumptuous spas and a wide range of accommodations for every price range and taste, including the ultimate in luxury.

The region beyond Cancun (loosely known as the Riviera Maya starting just south, and stretching down for some 86 miles) boasts many eco-themed parks and other attractions, including a new Cirque de Soleil dinner theatre show, called Joya, www.cirquedusoleil.com

Children play on the beach in Cancun, Mexico. Flickr/Tom Hart
Children play on the beach in Cancun, Mexico. Flickr/Tom Hart

Travel in Cancun

Cancun’s mainland city is fronted by a 14-mile-long hotel zone that extends out between the Nichupte Lagoon and the glittering Caribbean.

Many resorts are fabulous palaces and pyramids that boast highly regarded restaurants and gorgeous swimming pools and spas.

This gateway to the Mayan world has enjoyed recent enhancements to the infrastructure of many local Mayan ruins dotting the hotel strip and surrounding areas, including the famed Chichen Itza and Tulum, both reached by rental car, taxi or tour bus.

Adventurous visitors can explore the vast nature and culture of the region’s unique islands (Holbox, Isla Mujeres, Isla Contoy and Cozumel), all within reach for day trips.

In the heart of Cancun’s Hotel Zone, the well-designed Mayan Museum of Cancun (Museo Maya de Cancun,) is a fascinating study into the culture and practices of the ancient people of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Spend an afternoon out of the sun, exploring precious alabaster, obsidian and jade burial masks, weapons and artifacts collected by the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Airy walkways and latticework lead visitors to the neighboring archaeological site of San Miguelito, which dates back to 1250 A.D. www.inah.gob.mx

Snorkeling in a cenote. Photo by Janna Graber
Snorkeling in a cenote. Photo by Janna Graber

The vast river-filled caverns (cenotes) at Ecopark Kantun-Chi are reached by ladders descending deep underground.

Visitors can experience four of these natural pools during the Xenotes Oasis Maya excursion, viewing stalactites hanging over the grottoes and pre-Hispanic artifacts submerged on the limestone floor.

Snorkels are provided to explore the underwater gardens, and an optional zipline takes guests through the jungle canopy, ending with a cooling splash. ww.kantunchi.comwww.xenotes.com

For a culinary and folkloric adventure, visit the local market, Mercado 23 in downtown Cancun. Top finds at this public market include hand-painted Hidalgo pottery, embroidered blouses and mementos, all at better prices found elsewhere in touristy shops.

The true fun is the incredible display of fruits and veggies which you’ve probably never seen before. If you’d like to learn how to prepare them, and/or other Mexican dishes, check into a full-day Mexican cooking class with Chef Claudia at Can Cook in Cancun. www.cancookincancun.com

Cancun’s Interactive Aquarium, located in the La Isla Shopping Village just west of the Hotel Zone, is a family-friendly attraction with a hands-on approach about local marine life, from touch tanks to dolphin swims to shark feedings.

A perfect rainy day activity for families, the Interactive Aquarium is open every day from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Admission is about $14 USD, but you can save a bit by booking online.

Relaxing on the beach at the Playa Gran Caribe in Cancun, Mexico. Photo courtesy Gran Caribe
Relaxing on the beach at the Playa Gran Caribe in Cancun, Mexico. Photo courtesy Gran Caribe

Where to Stay in Cancun:

While there is a dizzying number of all-inclusive hotels in both Cancun and Playa del Carmen, Playa Hotels & Resorts (made up of 14-hotels in Mexico and the Caribbean,) offers a distinctive mix of included activities and amenities not always found at other hotels.

In Cancun, Playa features the 470-room Gran Caribe Resort, on a beautiful stretch of pristine white sands in the heart of Cancun’s famous Hotel Zone, within walking distance of the most popular shops and nightlife.

Welcoming, couples, families, friends, and groups, guests can enjoy Gran Caribe Cancun’s Oki® Splash Water Park, with a giant pirate ship and castle water slides.

The complimentary Oki Kids Club features supervised activities for ages 4 to 12 and the Oki Fun World Mini Golf The T-Zone for Teens is another favorite feature of this family oriented all-inclusive resort, as well as a wide range of included activities and amenities – even in-room liquor dispensers! https://www.playaresorts.com/Gran-Caribe-Cancun

It's another sunny day at the beach near Playa del Carmen. Photo by Janna Graber
It’s another sunny day at the beach near Playa del Carmen. Photo by Janna Graber

Travel in Playa del Carmen

The Riviera Maya begins in Puerto Morelos, just south of Cancun, flows through Playa del Carmen, Akumal and Tulum, and ends in Punta Allen.

This spectacularly beautiful region is known for its quiet, relaxing resorts, and a wild variety of eco-adventure options and archaeological ruins from the still-vibrant Mayan culture.

Many of the properties offer special programming and amenities for children and teens. Zoning laws limit hotels and other buildings to four stories, adding to the more intimate feel found here.

Located in the state of Quintana Roo, ‘Playa,’ as the locals call it, fronts the azure Caribbean, and is the heart of the Riviera Maya. About 50 miles south of Cancun, this is where those who want to see and be seen go.

The city’s famous pedestrian-only, 10-block-long Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) is thronged 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Patio dining at a restaurant in Playa del Carmen. Photo by Janna Graber
Patio dining at a restaurant in Playa del Carmen. Photo by Janna Graber

Many Europeans, especially Italians, visit the region, and many have stayed to live in the area. Playa is near Cozumel and the Mayan ruins of Tulum and Coba. 

Chichen Itza, recently named one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and a UNECO world heritage site, is a bit farther.

The Riviera Maya offers a wide variety of excursions and tours such as scuba diving and snorkeling beside coral reefs, or in majestic subterranean rivers that wind through limestone caves (called cenotes).

Note that there are many daily cruise ship visits to the area, during which times it can get crowded, so plan accordingly when going to popular attractions.

Where to Stay in Playa del Carmen:

Playa Hotels & Resorts offers the perfect answer to those stuck between an adults-only or family-friendly property, as it hosts one of each directly in front of each other.

So, parents can leave the kiddos with the supervised children’s program at the Gran Porto and walk across the street for some adults-only peace and quiet.

Though The Royal and Gran Porto are separate facilities, guests are welcome to visit the restaurants and use the amenities at either one.

(Though children under 18 are not allowed at The Royal) — and Gran Caribe as well, should guests find themselves in Cancun for the day.

The Royal Playa del Carmen is a beachfront, adults-only resort just steps from Playa del Carmen’s famous Fifth Avenue.

This resort features all-suite accommodations with private balconies and spectacular views, double jet whirlpool tubs, swim-up suites and beachfront walkouts.

All 570 spacious rooms are suites, featuring a balcony with a hammock and double Jacuzzis.

Befitting its four-diamond status, The Royal offers Beach Butler service by the pool and beach, providing such free amenities as sunglasses, fresh towels, magazines or books in all languages, 20 different suntan lotions and bottles of water.

https://www.playaresorts.com/The-Royal-Playa-Del-Carmen

The family-friendly Gran Porto Resort is located on a beautiful, protected stretch of beach, across from Fifth Avenue’s shops, clubs and restaurants.

Architecturally reminiscent of a classic Mexican hacienda, the resort welcomes couples and families. 

Special features at the Gran Porto Resort include Family Suites with bunk beds and extra space for up to five guests, the expansive SPAreal – a full-service spa and hydrotherapy zone, the complimentary Oki® Kids Club, and the T-Zone for Teens. 

https://www.playaresorts.com/Gran-Porto-Playa-Del-Carmen, www.playaresorts.com

If You Go

Mexico Tourism Board
www.visitmexico.com

Janna Graber
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