Mexico was the first country I flew to internationally (not counting my road trips to Canada). It’s been 10 years since I was last here, and I wasn’t sure what my impression of Cancun would be after traveling to 50 other countries around the world. I knew I loved Mexico the first time, and I’ve been dreaming about coming back and eating real Mexican food ever since.
For the most part, our flight from Edinburgh to Cancun was uneventful. Although we flew with various restrictions in place as we left Scotland, successfully made it “across the pond” (transatlantic) – my first time returning to the Americas in over 5 years.
Cancun has an international airport with 4 terminals and 62 gates, and it’s anything but fancy. We landed at Terminal 4. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait for a shuttle as we did at CDG. It only took about 2 minutes to walk to immigration, which had a distinct lack of signage. Despite Cancun being one of the only places in the world completely open to tourists when we arrived, the line wasn’t too long to get to the counter.
The immigration officer asked us what our purpose for entering the country was. I said business while Vanesa said pleasure. She then asked to see our Airbnb reservation, and that was it! No further questions asked. She stamped our passports with a 6-month visa-less entry and we were through.
The baggage claim is where we ran into a snag. It took nearly half an hour for our bags to appear, which left us only about 10 minutes to get to our prepaid bus to Cancun. It didn’t help when one of the rowdy guys decided it would be fun to ride the belt, causing it to be shut down for several minutes. But we finally got our bags, walked right past customs as we had nothing to declare, and made our way outside.
There were very few shops in the airport as we left. It was mostly just car rentals and shuttle kiosks. Outside, a couple taxi drivers approached us, but quickly backed off when we said we had a bus. On the other hand, my brother was harassed by a taxi to get a ride with them a week later.
Airport to Cancun Bus
To get to the Ado buses (the main buses from the airport to Cancun or Playa del Carmen), walk straight out of the airport down the walkway a couple minutes until you get to the big parking lot, and then make a right where you’ll see the bus stations. The Ado buses come about every fifteen minutes. If you didn’t prebook your ticket online, you can get one from the kiosk in the terminal. Note, these directions apply just to Terminal 4, which is where we landed, but the Ado buses stop at every terminal.
The bus ride into town was quite comfortable. Ado buses play movies (ours was Batman vs. Superman), and I especially like the way they tag every bag in the hold for added security, although they don’t request to see the tag counterparts when you arrive in Cancun.
Our Cancun Airbnb
The Airbnb we stayed at in Cancun was called Casa Kosan. It was located just a couple streets behind the central Ado bus terminal, and thank god it was! We were essentially moving to Mexico and between the three bags I was carrying, I had upwards of 100 pounds of clothing, electronics, and other necessities for long-term travel. I was still wearing my cold-weather clothing from Scotland, and I don’t think I could have made it any further in the 85°F heat.
Casa Kosan is a 3-bedroom shared apartment managed by an old Croatian man. It’s secure, has a fully-equipped kitchen and a shared bathroom with a shower that has luke-warm water and minimal pressure. Our room had a big, comfortable bed and AC. That’s all that mattered to me, although Vanesa would have much preferred a pool to lounge at. We had initially planned to stay at a hostel nearby, but our private room ended up being the same price.
Where to Stay in Cancun
When looking for accommodations in Mexico, know that you’ll be paying up to 50% more for the various taxes and fees. Some of the booking platforms incorporate the fees, but others don’t. While Hostelworld says a bed is only $9 a night, your final cost will be closer to $15 due to the occupancy tax, and Airbnb also adds on service and cleaning fees as well. Either way, accommodations in Mexico are still relatively cheap, but Cancun is one of the three most expensive parts of Mexico.
Cancun and the surrounding cities are capable of accommodating hundreds of thousands of tourists at a time, and the range of options is staggering. Down in Tulum, you can find incredible, boutique cabins, beachside bungalows and treehouses, but prices there can go up to a staggering $3,000 per night! In Cancun, most of the hotels are located in the aptly-named “Hotel Zone,” but some of them are all-inclusive and ridiculously expensive. If you’re on a budget, you’ll probably want to look in the city center and then get a bus to the beach.
How to Withdraw Cash in Cancun
We woke up early on our first morning in Mexico. Well, early in Mexican. Although our phones said 6 a.m., it was noon in Edinburgh. Our first order of business was to find an ATM. I’ve long since learned in my travels never to exchange or withdraw money at the airport unless you want to pay the highest fees. Instead, I look for local banks in town to withdraw cash with my Charles Schwab debit card. Schwab is by far the best, as they have no international fees and will even reimburse you for any fees that ATMs charge you.
I found a bank ATM not far from our Airbnb, but it took me several minutes to withdraw cash as I’d forgotten my PIN! That’s what I get for not using that card in nearly two years. Anyway, over the next couple days, I learned that the best place to withdraw cash is at supermarket ATMs, such as Super Chedraui, although each ATM has a slightly different mark-up fee. Banamex seems to be the best rate.
After getting some cash, we went in search of breakfast. Quite by accident, we stumbled upon Mercado 23. It’s called 23 because Cancun is divided into about 250 neighborhoods, each with its own number, and Mercado 23 is simply in neighborhood 23. It’s also the oldest market in Cancun, and the one which the locals frequent (compared to Mercado 28, which I’ll cover below).
Our first breakfast was huevos motuleños, named after the town of Motul near Merida, Mexico. Huevos motuleños is a regional dish on the Yucatan peninsula. It consists of fried eggs served on tortillas with refried black beans and tomato sauce, topped with ham, peas, plantains, and cheese. It might sound like an odd combination, but it was absolutely delicious.
There are about a dozen food stalls in Mercado 23, and we made our way through most of them over the four days we spent in Cancun. They were some of the cheapest places in town, and every dish we tried was fantastic.
Mercado 23 is also where I got my first haircut in months since all the barbers in Scotland had been closed due to the lockdown. My haircut cost a mere $2.50. It wasn’t the best quality, but you get what you pay for.
There are plenty of other stalls in Mercado 23 where you can get fresh produce, meats, clothing and souvenirs. The market opens around 9 a.m., although some of the food stalls open earlier, which was perfect for us as we continued to get up early for the next several days.
Cancun’s Hotel Zone and Beaches
After breakfast, we headed for the main attraction – Cancun’s beaches. It was really easy to get there. From just outside the bus station, we jumped on the R1 bus for 12 pesos ($0.60). It takes about 30 minutes to get to the Hotel Zone, depending on traffic. The Hotel Zone is the sandy strip of beach on the other side of the lagoon next to Cancun. In other words, it’s the city, a large lagoon, and then a strip of beach with nearly a hundred large hotels and resorts.
My first sight of the water took my breath away. I’ve been to some pretty fantastic beaches around the world, but none of them have had such a vivid blue as the water in Cancun. It’s such a bright blue, it honestly looks photoshopped. The waves aren’t that big – smaller than in Southern California, but far larger than in Edinburgh. I was able to bodysurf a few of them, but I had more fun using my Samsung S20 Ultra phone to take some amazing photos and videos in the water. I eventually ran out of battery and then had to wait overnight for the ports to dry out enough to charge up my phone again.
At the top of the Hotel Zone is a group of hotels, clubs and attractions that are like a mini Las Vegas. Things are quite wild in this area, between crazy shows, exorbitant prices, and a lot of drug use. Suffice to say, it wasn’t my favorite part of Cancun. But if you head to the south just a couple of minutes where the hotels are older, you come to emptier beaches. Well, Cancun in general wasn’t that busy, even though Mexico is about the only place in the world really accepting travelers with open arms (no quarantine, tests, or restrictions) at the time of this writing.
Before we left Cancun, we made sure to check out Mercado 28, the other big market. This one is probably about ten times the size of Mercado 23, and definitely more for tourists. Unfortunately, every stall had a man outside shouting at us with a constant stream of verbiage. Even if we tried to say something to them, they just kept talking as if we weren’t even there. This very quickly became too obnoxious, and after a quick circuit around the market, we left.
If you’re looking for a specific souvenir or a really good selection, Mercado 28 is probably where you’ll find it. I’d recommend taking a pair of headphones with you, as you’ll just be overwhelmed by all the demands to buy their silver, tequila, cigars and everything else that they offer there.
Some Other Observations
Cancun is the second-largest city on the Yucatan Peninsula and the largest in the State of Quintana Roo with a population of nearly 900,000 (not including the millions of tourists). In other words, it’s huge and sprawling. Maybe not by Los Angeles standards, but it is big. Most people think of Cancun as just the strip of beach, a.k.a. Hotel Zone. In the city proper, there are all kinds of other attractions and stores, such as malls, cinemas, Walmarts and even a Costco.
Transportation in Cancun
Getting around Cancun was rather difficult as I wasn’t able to find any website, app, or map that showed the bus and colectivo (minivan) routes. At least the rides I did find were cheap. The bus from the airport was about $5, the bus to the beach is currently $0.60 (and regularly increasing bit by bit), and the bus down to Puerto Morelos – the next city south – was $1.50. I’ll go over more about the cost of Cancun in a separate post on how to travel there on a budget.
Is Cancun Safe?
I felt surprisingly safe throughout my entire stay in Cancun. Despite nearly every home window having bars, there didn’t seem to be a lot of crime. Neither my girlfriend nor I ever had that sixth sense that someone was going to rob or harm us. I heard from a fellow traveler that Tulum tends to see quite a bit of violence, and another friend of mine was recently robbed in Playa del Carmen. Sure, every part of the world has those few individuals whose whole purpose is to harm others, but don’t focus on them.
There’s a lot more I could say about Cancun, but I’ll leave those for separate articles. I’ll have to write an article about the cuisine of the region, how to travel to Cancun on a budget, and maybe one on all the street art. But I also want to focus on Puerto Morelos, which is where I moved to after my four days in Cancun. I completely fell in love with Puerto Morelos, and I think it’s a far better destination to visit, also it doesn’t have the same fantastic blue beaches that Cancun has. At least it only takes an hour to travel between the two.