In ever-expanding Cancún, the hotel zone is the yin to downtown's yang. Spanning across a 22km (14mi) L-shaped island lined with seductive Caribbean beaches, pulsating nightclubs and high-rise resorts, the Zona Hotelera (hotel zone) is Mexico's most famous tourist playground. Conversely, on the mainland, the oft-overlooked Centro (downtown) provides the local flavor with its old-school marketplaces, buzzy cultural events and budget friendly eats. For a closer look at what makes these areas tick, here's a breakdown of the top neighborhoods.
North hotel zone
Best area for families
Blessed with Cancún's most swimmable waters, the 7km (4mi) stretch of coast from Playa Las Perlas to Playa Caracol is a no-brainer if you're traveling with children, as you'll seldom have to worry about dangerous rip currents. Good-value, family friendly accommodations along this north-facing side of the hotel zone include the oceanfront resort Beachscape Kin Ha, which runs generous low-season promos; and Casa Tortugas, an exceedingly rare locally owned hotel esteemed for its spacious apartments with full kitchens. Nearby, kids can channel their inner swashbuckler on pirate ship outings or take in eye-popping panoramas on the Torre Escénica, a revolving observation deck that rises 80m (262ft) above the expansive hotel zone while affording stunning vistas of the surrounding wetlands and nearby islands.
East hotel zone
Best area for culture
As if Playa Delfines’ azure coast didn't deliver enough wow-factor, the emblematic white-sand beach lies within walking distance of the world-class Museo Maya de Cancún (Maya Museum), the adjacent San Miguelito archaeological site and the nearby ruins of El Rey, ancient Maya maritime settlements inhabited between 1200 and 1500 CE. You can easily hit all three sights in one day and then cool off with a swim in the enticing Caribbean. The Museo Maya exhibits hundreds of pre-Hispanic artifacts unearthed in southeast Mexico, making it the ideal place to learn fun facts before hitting the ruins in and around Cancún. To appreciate the quieter side of the hotel zone, head south to Nizuc Resort and delight in Peruvian ceviche at the serene oceanfront Ni restaurant.
Many of the big hotels along the eastern shore are of the high-end, all-inclusive variety, such as the impeccable adults-only Le Blanc, but you can still find a handful of budget options like Mayan Monkey, which spoils guests with spectacular lagoon sunsets and the occasional croc sighting.
Best area for beach getaways
If only you could get a glimpse of what Cancún looked like before the development boom hit. Oh wait, you can. But make it a point to head for the relatively unspoiled northern tip of the Isla Blanca peninsula, as a growing number of luxury resorts are cropping up on the south end as of late. Sitting about 20km (12mi) north of the city, this sublime northern extension of downtown Cancún (it's actually a municipality of nearby Isla Mujeres) makes for a beautiful drive along a traffic-free road flanked by the aquamarine Caribbean Sea and wildlife-rich Laguna Chacmuchuch, a shallow lagoon that attracts kiteboarders, birders and fly fishers. Along the way, you'll come across several rustic beach clubs and thatched-roof seafood restaurants where you can crack open a book, a cold cerveza (beer) or simply meditate on fine white sands far removed from the hubbub of the big city.
Best area for nightlife
Sure, one can make the argument that Cancún has cooler nightlife scenes than this spring breakers' stomping ground, but good luck finding a more iconic one. We're talking about massive discos with acrobatic spectacles, beach clubs with DJ-driven pool parties and boisterous bars known for their tequila-fueled revelry. During the high season from December to April, hotel zone institutions like Coco Bongo and The City are jam-packed with thousands of clubgoers who come together to dance and drink themselves silly into the wee hours.
La Isla & Playa Marlín
Best area for shopping
Modern malls abound in Cancún, but the open-air La Isla Shopping Village is a cut above the rest thanks to its spectacular lagoon views, Venice-inspired canals, a 70m (230ft) Ferris wheel and the complex's latest addition: Luchatitlán, a new arena where you can watch high-flying masked marvels going at it in lucha libre (professional wrestling) matches. With more than enough distractions to keep uninspired shoppers entertained, avid browsers can leisurely go about their business in the boutique stores and small shops selling everything from locally produced chocolate and handmade embroidered garments to Yucatecan hammocks and xtabentún (a regional anise liqueur). For distilled spirits, mosey over to La Europea, which stocks top shelf tequila, mezcal and other alcoholic agave drinks. After the shopping spree, decompress at nearby Playa Marlín, a sustainable beach hugging a glorious coastline.
Cancún Centro & Puerto Juárez
Best area for local flavor and pinching pesos
Downtown may not have the hotel zone's postcard perfect beaches but it provides something that the tourist center so often lacks: authentic flavor that's easy on the wallet. Most locals live in the Centro, lending downtown a far more genuine air as you find yourself munching on inexpensive Yucatecan eats in colorful markets or taking in free shows in public spaces like Parque de las Palapas, an urban park that hosts concerts and other spirited cultural events.
Just a short walk away lies one of our favorite hotels, El Rey del Caribe, where cozy rooms overlook a pool and tropical garden that's home to a family of small opossums. While in the Centro, don't overlook Puerto Juárez, a port community known first and foremost for its Isla Mujeres ferry terminal but it’s also an underrated neighborhood for eating. In Puerto Santo, where your fish comes right off the moored skiffs, the day's fresh catch is grilled to perfection in an under-the-radar beachfront location. Or swing by the unassuming Kiosco Verde, a former corner store that fries up a succulent whole boquinete (hogfish) at a price that has budget-minded travelers singing its praises.