When you look around at the towering hotels of the hotel zone and the urban sprawl of downtown it boggles the mind to think that some 50 years ago there was nothing in Cancún but sand and fishing boats. But the course of history changed dramatically in the early 1970s when Mexico's ambitious planners decided to outdo Acapulco with a brand new world-class resort that would be located on the Yucatán Peninsula.
In the Beginning
Cancún was inhabited long before developers came along in 1970 with plans to build a glitzy resort city. As you'll see at the Zona Hotelera's archaeological sites of San Miguelito and El Rey, small Maya communities flourished in the area from 1250 to 1550. Despite the relatively small size of the community when compared to, say, Chichén Itzá or Cobá, the settlement played an important role in regional maritime trade and fishing. Archaeologists believe that by around 1550 the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors forced the settlers to flee their prime beachfront property and it remained mostly abandoned after that.
Fast forward about 400 years. After much debate about where to build Mexico's next big resort destination, Mexico's tourism honchos agreed in 1970 to embark on a mass development project on an island sand spit shaped like the number 7. The name of the place was Cancún. At that time, the remote land was known as Isla Cancún (Cancún Island) and it overlooked a tiny fishing village called Puerto Juárez, just across the bay (population about 100 back then). Puerto Juárez is now home to the busy Isla Mujeres ferry terminals. Once development was underway, vast sums of money were sunk into landscaping and infrastructure, yielding straight, well-paved roads, potable tap water and great swaths of sandy beach. As the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) mushroomed, Cancún Centro cropped up on the mainland and became one of the fastest growing cities in Mexico – today it's Quintana Roo's most populated city and though the seat of government is in Chetumal, Cancún is unquestionably the state's economic capital.
In more recent history, the city has gained notoriety for several catastrophic hurricanes that have left behind widespread destruction. In 1988, as Cancún's robust tourism economy was growing rapidly, Hurricane Gilbert struck the Caribbean coast with astonishing force, packing category 5 winds and making a direct hit on Cancún, which caused millions of dollars in damages and left thousands of people in the area stranded after the airport's control tower was badly damaged. Yet another force of nature wreaked havoc on the city in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma, one of the strongest hurricanes on record, walloped the northeast corner of the state with obliterating power (winds over 240km per hour) and excruciating durations (72 hours). In the wake of Wilma's destruction it appeared that it would take years for Cancún and its surrounding areas to rebuild. The hurricane struck in late October. By spring of 2006, the city was standing again and clearly on the path to recovery. Two years later, after Cancún's beaches were still recovering from massive sand erosion caused by Wilma's storm surge, Hurricane Dean made landfall in 2007 and exacerbated the problem as it carried off even more of the beach resort's precious white sand. Dean did most of its damage further south but once again the economic impact on Cancún as the region's tourist hub was far-reaching.
When hurricanes Gilbert, Wilma and Dean whipped into town, they destroyed many hotels, flooded much of the city and caused considerable beach erosion. The hotels were quickly rebuilt and the sands were replaced. Yes, you heard that right, the sands were replaced. Much to the ire of environmentalists, this involved a massive undertaking of dredging white sand from nearby sandbanks and then moving it ashore. Some call this practice 'beach nourishing,' others warn that it is causing long-term environmental damage to marine ecosystems. But it wasn't just the storms that were washing Cancún's sand away. Making matters even more complicated, for at least 25 years Cancún's famous sugar-sand beaches have been receding due to a significant global sea-level rise. So even without the hurricanes and their increasingly higher storm surges beach erosion seems inevitable. Another big problem for Cancún is overdevelopment. In 2015 a multimillion-dollar project to build a sprawling mall had to be shut down during its initial phase of construction after developers razed 150 hectares of wetlands and beach, causing significant environmental damage in an area just south of the city. Developers had plans to build a 570-hectare shopping center called Dragon Mart, where vendors would sell mostly Chinese products, but after mounting public pressure regulators halted the development. Yet another controversial project angered environmentalists in 2016 when some 58 hectares of mangroves were destroyed to make way for office buildings and shopping centers along a downtown thoroughfare dubbed Malecón Tajamar. Mexican law prohibits the destruction of mangroves and the property has been shut down for further development while the matter gets settled in court.