Once the go-to resort for hedonistic spring breakers, modern Cancun has an altogether more sophisticated vibe. Its nascent culinary scene, quirky attractions and a burgeoning collection of boutique hotels have broadened the appeal of the city, which is the gateway to Mayan ruins, secretive cenotes and glorious beaches.
As fine as icing sugar and appears to go on forever, the Riviera Maya’s world-renowned beaches are one of the main reasons why holidaymakers hotfoot it to Cancun. Lapped by the warm Caribbean Sea, the beaches are backed by swaying palms, iguana-strewn headlands and rambling Mayan ruins, most notably those at Tulum, where visitors can combine a visit to an ancient archaeological site with a day on the beach.
Clinging to a cliff above the white sand, Tulum’s ruins are stunning, but they pale in size when compared to those at Chichén Itzá, which was one of the largest Mayan cities in Mexico during its heyday. An easy day trip from Cancun, this Unesco World Heritage Site is dominated by the lofty peak of El Castillo, a 365-stepped stone pyramid that is believed to be the physical embodiment of the Mayan calendar (the calendar that predicted the end of the world in 2012).
Chichén Itzá’s other architectural highlights include the Temple of Chacmool – famed for its weather-worn sculpture of a reclining Mayan figure – and the Hall of the Thousand Columns, which stand like stony foot soldiers in neat rows.
The Mayans were smart and built Chichén Itzá near a sinkhole, which provided the city with a steady supply of fresh water. Also known as cenotes, sinkholes can be found all over the Yucatan Peninsula, which is believed to have more than 6,000 of natural pools. Filled with cool water and draped in tropical foliage, many cenotes are safe to swim in, including the one at Chichén Itzá, which is particularly invigorating after a long day roaming the ruins. Snorkelling and scuba diving are also permitted at some sinkholes, which support a wide variety of wildlife. There’s even a special tourist trail dedicated to the Yucatán Peninsula’s sinkholes. Dubbed the Cenotes Route, it joins the dots between the most spectacular pools, some of which you can zipline over.
One of the region’s most popular tourist attractions is Xcaret, a nature play park near Playa del Carmen, where visitors can swim in underground rivers, watch dance performances in an open-air theatre and learn about the local marine life in a coral reef aquarium. There’s a whiff of Disney about the place, but it is a fun day out for the family and easily accessible from Cancun.
The Riviera Maya is also home to a fine selection of hotels, which are scattered along the coast. A popular family resort is the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya, a luxury, all-inclusive property with its very own waterpark, Rockaway Bay, complete with 23 water slides.
Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya also has an adults-only, resort-within-a-resort called Heaven at Hard Rock, which offers guests the rock star treatment. Be sure to bring your dancing shoes because the party here “doesn’t end until you say so”.
A chilled vibe prevails at Unico 20°87°, which offers laidback luxury in luscious surroundings. A champion of local culture, the property is feted for, amongst other things, its modern Mexican cuisine. Excellent spa facilities and pop-up events make the case to stay all the more compelling.
Some of the peninsula’s best beaches can be found at Playa Paraiso, where shimmering waters, white shores and rustling palm trees tick all the boxes. Iberostar has a selection of hotels scattered along this scenic stretch of coastline including the Mayan-inspired Iberostar Selection Paraiso.
You think you know Mexican food, but then you visit the country and realise that all those tacos, nachos and quesadillas you’ve been eating at your local Mexican joint have been poor imitations. Out here is the real deal.
Part of that comes down to the ingredients, which don’t travel well; those ripe avocados, juicy tomatoes and fiery chillies that grow so abundantly in Mexico lose something magical once they’ve been packed onto a plane. So lauded is the local produce that in 2017, Noma, the celebrated Danish restaurant that has four times been named the world’s best, decided to open a pop-up outpost in Tulum.
Cancun, meanwhile, has been busy recasting itself as a foodie hotspot. Once defined by gimmicky, Western-influenced Mexican restaurants, the city has been nurturing homegrown chefs, who champion local ingredients and traditional recipes.
The region’s growing reputation for gastronomy has also lured acclaimed international chefs, including Massimo Bottura, the culinary maven behind Italy’s renowned Osteria Francescana restaurant in Modena, who brought his talents to Cancun for the 2022 summer season.
The truth is, though, you’re just as likely to have the best food of your holiday down some unassuming side street as you are in a high-end restaurant, thanks to Cancun’s venerable roadside hawkers, who ply time-honoured trades in tacos and other local specialities.
For a true taste of the Yucatan, try the slow-roast pork – or cochinita pibil. Usually stuffed into tacos or tortas, this favourite local staple is typically washed down with a cold beer or punchy tequila cocktail, which aren’t in short supply in Cancun.
Good food often finds you in Riviera Maya. Even on the beach you’re likely to see folk walking around selling kibis, another much-loved Mexican snack made from mashed wheat and ground pork or beef, seasoned with spearmint, onion and garlic. One is never enough.
Seafood is another speciality in Cancun, where the day’s catch often dictates local menus. Don’t leave without trying ceviche; chunks of raw fish cured in lime juice, and served with chilli and onion. Peru claims to have invented it, but the locals here seem to have mastered it.
One of the most exciting attractions to open in Cancun this century has been MUSA, an underwater sculpture park where more than 500 life-sized monuments have been installed on the seabed in an attempt to marry art and nature. The sculptures – which include men, women and children, as well as, weirdly, a replica of a Volkswagen Beetle – were designed to be colonised by corals, which are slowly smothering the figures.
So how do you see them if they’re all underwater? Well, the museum has a glass-bottom boat, which gives visitors the opportunity to view the sculptures without getting wet. It’s also possible to see the works on a diving or snorkelling expedition, which gives you the chance to inspect individual pieces, such as the well-known figure of a man watching TV on his couch.
The underwater sculpture museum is located between Cancun and Isla Mujeres, a laidback little island surrounded by gorgeous beaches and colourful reefs, which have long been popular with divers.
Isla Mujeres is also home to a turtle breeding centre, where conservationists provide a fascinating insight into the lives of these sea creatures.
Dolphins are another one of the island’s big draws and visitors have the opportunity to swim with them at Garrafon Natural Reef Park, which offers other water-based activities, including kayaking and snorkelling.
Fewer countries in the world are more biodiverse than Mexico, which is lauded for its birdlife. Indeed, Cancun is the gateway to renowned twitcher hotspots such as Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, near Tulum, and Coba, an ancient Mayan city surrounded by jungle. There’s excellent hiking to be had here too, with rainforest trails joining the dots between crumbling pyramids.
If you have a fancy for flamingos, head north to Rio Lagartos Yucatan, where the bright pink birds arrive in their droves. Alternatively, take the ferry to Cozumel, a relatively undeveloped island south of Cancun, where laughing gulls greet you on arrival and warblers chirrup from ancient ruins, signing the same songs to holidaymakers as they did to the Mayans.
By Sarah Edworthy, written for The Telegraph.