If my frequent travels to Cancún have taught me anything, it's that paradise will throw you a curveball from time to time.

Among the setbacks, I've experienced a costly car break-in, brazen price gouging and a debilitating bout of sickness with dengue fever, an ordeal that still makes my joints ache just thinking about it. But every time I found myself in need of help, the good folks in Cancún have stepped up big-time, and that's no small thing.

While some first-time visitors never leave the touristy, high-gloss hotel zone – which I get, the stunning resort offers pillow-soft Caribbean beaches – you’ll kick yourself later if you overlook the Centro, a bustling downtown.

This is where you can mingle with locals in the neighborhood cantinas and barter at traditional markets. Visit one atmospheric taco joint and you’ll be glad you made the effort. 

With that in mind, here are nine essential tips to make your Cancún trip run as smooth as possible.

People waiting at the restaurant entrance at busy dinner time on 5th Avenue, shopping street on Playa del Carmen, Cancún
Take sensible precautions when out at night in Cancún © anouchka / Getty Images

1. Stay alert but don't let the clickbait headlines spook you

Despite all the grim news about Mexico's drug-related violence, Cancún and the wider Yucatán Peninsula are generally considered safe.

Granted, you should never treat the crime problem lightly, but drug gangs rarely target tourists, especially if you avoid illicit activities.

That said, it's important to keep a close watch on your drink in bars and nightclubs. There have been reports of some tourists getting their drinks spiked with so-called date rape drugs. You should also avoid withdrawing money from ATMs at night, and never carry large amounts of cash.

2. Monitor hurricane season and seaweed surges

Cancún's hurricane season runs from June to November, and over the years the city has seen powerful storms cause devastating damage. Always check the latest weather forecast before you board a plane.

Also, keep a close eye on sargassum seaweed surges (sargazo in Spanish), which can turn Cancún's turquoise waters brown. These blooms leave mounds of smelly, decomposing macroalgae carpeted across otherwise white sands. An influx of seaweed makes swimming and sunbathing downright unpleasant.

If it happens when you're in Cancún, consider doing less beach time and splash around in hotel pools and cenotes (freshwater sinkholes) instead.

The invasive surges occur intermittently, usually from March to August, but they can be unpredictable. The NGO Red de Monitoreo de Sargazo posts daily updates on beach conditions in Cancún and the nearby Riviera Maya.

3. Tip generously and haggle respectfully

Keep in mind that many Cancún service workers (namely restaurant and hotel employees) depend on tips to supplement miserable wages. In restaurants, leave a 15% gratuity if the service is not already included.

Remember to check the bill carefully, though – some unscrupulous establishments have been known to tack on a "service fee" in the hope that customers unknowingly leave an additional tip.

For airport and hotel porters, tip about M$25 a bag, while for tour guides give an extra 10–20% of the cost of the outing, or perhaps a bit more for full-day excursions. Gas station attendants typically get about M$5 to M$10.

Bartenders, baristas and taxi drivers generally do not expect tips but always welcome them. It's acceptable to haggle with the market and street vendors to a certain degree, but remember that they're just trying to make a living.

Woman swimming in freshwater in a cave
Pack sunscreen but don't wear it when swimming in delicate ecosystems such as cenotes © ferrantraite / Getty Images

4. Don't forget to pack ID, bug spray and casual clothing

To rent a car, you'll need to show a passport, driver's license and credit card. Mexican law requires you to have liability coverage, known in Spanish as daños a terceros.

Citizens from the US, Canada and EU countries, as well as residents from dozens of other nations, do not need visas to enter Mexico as tourists.

To protect yourself from mosquitoes and the sun, pack biodegradable insect repellent, long-sleeve shirts and a pair of pants. You'll definitely need the bug spray when visiting during the muggy wet season from May through October.

Even if you have repellent or sunscreen of the biodegradable variety, do not use them while swimming or snorkeling in fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs and cenotes. Loose-fitting clothes that dry quickly will serve you well for water activities and rainy days.

The palm trees and sunsets as seen on Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico with a woman watching the sun go down
Make time to visit some nearby destinations like Isla Mujeres © Marco Bottigelli / Getty Images

5. Explore the surrounding countryside

You can usually find plenty of things to do in the hotel zone and downtown Cancún but try to squeeze in at least one trip to see a different side of the Yucatán Peninsula. Seven to 10 days should give you ample time to tour Cancún and beyond.

Venture south to check out ancient ruins, jungle-set swimming holes and small fishing towns along the Riviera Maya, or head east on a day trip to Valladolid, a colonial city with a rich Maya history.

Alternatively, the nearby islands of Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox provide blissful nature escapes for snorkeling, diving and kayaking adventures.

6. Carry cash and bring a credit and/or debit card

Even though most places in Cancún accept major credit cards, it's always useful to carry some cash, especially in the smaller surrounding towns and islands.

Many hotels, and even some restaurants, accept US dollars, but they normally offer an unfavorable currency exchange rate.

The ubiquitous ATMs accept foreign debit cards but expect to get dinged with international transaction fees for withdrawals.

The same goes for many retail purchases as well. Some major credit cards won't charge such fees, giving you the most bang for your buck. Cancún's ATMs dispense Mexican pesos.

A plate of traditional Mexican tacos
Step outside your all-inclusive environment to appreciate Cancún's diverse culinary scene © Peter Mr / Shutterstock

7. All-inclusive resorts are great, but you're missing Cancún's food scene

The hotel zone is home to most of Cancún's all-inclusive hotels, though high-end resorts are also cropping up in Punta Sam and along the sublime Isla Blanca peninsula, north of downtown.

The all-inclusive experience ranges from luxurious adults-only setups with above-and-beyond service (personal butlers and all) to slightly more affordable family-friendly accommodations.

If you're looking for a safe, self-contained environment with multiple restaurants, bottomless drinks, easy beach access, alluring outdoor pools, and kid-focused activities, book an all-inclusive.

If you prefer the resort experience without the meals and booze, some places offer room-only rates. This pushes you to get out and dive into Cancún's diverse culinary and nightlife scene. Budget travelers will find more options downtown, where hostels and mid-range digs abound.

Crowds of just arrived tourists are waiting in line for taxi outside of Cancun International Airport.
Maybe take an official taxi from Cancún International Airport © anouchka / Getty Images

8. Rideshare services are available in Cancún

The app-based transportation service Uber operates in Cancún, but due to a long-running dispute by taxi union members, drivers and their passengers have faced harassment and, in some cases, attacks.

If you decide to use Uber, do so at your own risk. Do not order a car from the airport, bus station, ferry terminals, or other points where rival taxis may be watching.

For the most affordable transportation from the airport, look for the red ADO bus, which runs frequently from the airport terminals to downtown Cancún's first-class bus terminal. However, if you're staying in the hotel zone, you're better off taking a shuttle or cab.

9. Don't drink the water, and try street food with caution

Cancún's tap water is generally not safe to drink unless you know it's filtered (agua filtrada). The same goes for drinks prepared with ice; when in doubt go without. Bottled or purified (purificada) water is your best bet to stay hydrated, and you'll need plenty of it to avoid heat exhaustion.

Eating street food can be somewhat dicey in Cancún, but it's a tantalizing risk that many visitors are willing to take.

This article was first published Oct 4, 2023 and updated Jan 24, 2024.

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