Cancun may be a resort town, but it’s a resort town with a rich sense of history and a lot to do beyond just hitting up the beaches and frequenting the local bars and clubs. And being so catered towards tourists means that there are plenty of safe and accessible areas to stay in Cancun.
Cancun has become known as a place of debauchery. The past couple of decades have elevated it into the same stratosphere as spring break mainstays like Panama City Beach and Key West, but marketing it as merely a place for rowdy high school and college kids is doing the city a grave disservice.
There’s no doubt that the parties are wild and encouraged in Cancun, but focusing solely on the scenes catered to tourists means missing out on the vibrant and varied culture that existed long before visitors arrived and continues to flourish today.
Cancun is optimally positioned to provide you with easy access to a number of ancient Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza, while the Museo Maya de Cancun offers hundreds of stunning local artifacts without ever having to leave the city. And the city itself tells a more recent history that’s equally as rich and meaningful.
The modern and ordinary lives of modern Mexicans take place in a city overflowing with gorgeous colonial architecture, and the authentic and indigenous Mexican food you’ll find in Cancun is a far cry from the tex-mex fare that’s popular on the other side of the border.
Just be sure to pack some light clothes. Cancun is relatively hot and humid all year long. While the spring and summer are the preferred time of years for visiting partiers, the fall and winter has its own distinct advantages. Not only is the weather significantly more mild, but you also don’t have to worry about throngs of kids filling the streets.
The city’s winter months from December to April are actually peak travel season, and that means that the best places to stay in Cancun are going to offer a lot of open hotels, hostels, and bed and breakfasts. Just be sure to book your lodgings in advance, or you may have less options regarding where to stay in Cancun.
Fortunately, no matter what time of year it is, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to cool off. In addition to the sandy beaches, Cancun and the surrounding areas is rich with Cenotes – sinkholes that offer access to brilliant blue pools of water without having to be directly underneath the sun.
Where to stay in Cancun: Best areas to stay in Cancun
Due to the fact that this is primarily a resort town, Cancun is one of the easiest cities in Mexico for travelers to get around. Much of the city is pedestrian friendly, so walking and biking are both viable options for making your way through the more popular areas in Cancun.
The city is also home to an inexpensive but effective public bus system, and private shuttles and ferries can take you to the surrounding landmarks and islands with little to no hassle. And as you might expect, taxis and ride share services like Uber and Lyft are also available.
The bottom line is that accessibility doesn’t need to be an issue when you’re deciding where to stay in Cancun. You can focus instead on the neighborhoods that interest you.
1. Downtown Cancun
Downtown Cancun, or “El Centro”, is one of the best areas to stay in Cancun if you want have easy access to the more popular beaches but also have some variety around your hotel that goes beyond sand, surf, and beachside bars and souvenir shops. While you can’t walk to the more well regarded beaches from most of El Centro, most of them can be reached directly by public transit buses.
There’s a greater sense of authenticity in El Centro than you’ll find in parts of town that are right on the beach, and it’s easier to get the essentials you need without having to pay exorbitant tourist prices for them.
El Centro gives you a taste of the real Cancun, and there are a number of spots worth checking out if that’s the sort of flavor you’re looking for. Mercado 28 is an open air market, and well it contains a decent amount of souvenir shops, there’s a lot of great things to find here as well. Even the souvenirs tend to be more hand-made, personalized, and cheaper than what you’ll find in neighborhoods with a higher concentration of tourists.
Food stalls are available in abundance in Mercado 28, and the district is also brimming with a ton of standalone restaurants featuring reach and genuine local specialties.
Also worthy of note is Parque Las Palapas. This park is a favorite spot of locals, and it gets pretty crowded in the evenings and on the weekends. It’s a great place to mix and mingle with the real residents of Cancun and even get some suggestions for restaurants, bars, and attractions.
If you’re looking to shop for more brand name items, the outlet mall known as Las Plazas Outlet offers a ton of well known names at very low prices.
El Centro is one of the best places to stay in Cancun if you’re looking for a mix of authentic living and the beautiful tourist beaches, but it’s a practical choice as well. Hotels, restaurants, and stores all tend to be more affordably priced than they are in other neighborhoods that tailor their interests more directly to tourists.
That makes this a popular spot to stay for younger travelers: both backpackers trying to get by on a shoestring budget and revelers looking to unleash their inner party animal on the streets of Cancun.
2. Zona Hotelera
Any resort town is going to have their tourist district. For Cancun, that neighborhood is known as Zona Hotelera. But while these neighborhoods have a tendency to be mocked for their artificial and overpriced nature, there are still plenty of reasons to set up camp at Zona Hotelera during your stay.
As the name might suggest, Zona Hotelera is overflowing with hotels. The whole neighborhood is a hive buzzing with activity 24 hours a day, and it’s one of the most readily accessible and best places to stay in Cancun if you’re looking to be pampered through your entire trip.
Because while the area itself may be artificially tailored to tourists, that means that everything from the architectural design of the buildings to the staff at the restaurants and hotels is catered to providing you with the best experience possible (and recommending their spots to your friends).
All of the hotels offer rooms overlooking the Caribbean Sea, and while the neighborhood itself is largely bereft of major cultural landmarks, most hotels can connect you with readily accessible tour companies that can take you out into the wild. Whether you’re looking to explore the islands or venture into forgotten ruins, getting there is always as simple as just asking.
It’s really the amenities in this neighborhood that are more appealing than the culture or the landmarks. You’ll find yourself surrounded by American, European, and Canadian travelers, but you’ll also have easy access to beaches, pools, and a thriving nightlife. There’s never a lack of things to do in Zona Hotelera.
Shopping malls are available in abundance, while the Scenic Tower offers stunning views of much of the city. The standout attraction here is Underwater Museum of Art, which is essentially an aquarium museum that pairs underwater sculptures with living sea life.
Of course, the level of attention you’ll get in Zona Hotelera comes at a price. The Hotel Zone offers some of the best and most luxurious hotels in the entire city, but they also tend to be the most expensive.
If you’re backpacking your way through Mexico, this probably isn’t going to be one of the best areas to stay in Cancun. But if you’re simply looking to kick back and relax without having to plan an itinerary or you’re visiting on a honeymoon or with kids, it’s potentially the most low stress area to pick for your stay.
3. Puerto Juarez
Aside from the fact that both areas of Cancun occupy a privileged position along beachfront property, Puerto Juarez and Zona Hotelera are like night and day in terms of personality. The latter is built exclusively to cater to the whims of vacationers, while the former is a sleepy and local seaside community.
Located about a mile and a half north of the city center, this neighborhood wasn’t even incorporated as a part of Cancun until 1990. That makes this community quieter and less rife with top shelf restaurants, shopping, and nightlife than the other areas on our list, but it’s also a great choice if you’re just looking to immerse yourself in the lives of local Cancun residents and get away from the tourist crowds.
In large part, this is due to the nature of the beaches. While there’s abundant shorefront property in Puerto Juarez, it’s not crystal clear like those in Zona Hotelera. But that said, it’s a virtual heaven for travelers who like to go boating. If you’re looking to regularly go out on fishing expeditions, this is where to stay in Cancun.
The other major advantage is that it’s the primary ferry point for access to Isla Mujeres. If this high value destination is out of your price range, Puerto Juarez can be a great compromise: giving the access you need without breaking your budget.
The people here are friendly and welcoming but aren’t trained to cater to your whims like the staff in Zona Hotelera, and a number of great hole in the wall restaurants occupy the coastal road winding through the region. If you want to meet the real locals of Cancun without their customer service masks on, it’s a promising place to stay.
Also nearby is El Meca, a small but beautiful Mayan ruin that isn’t as crowded or commercialized as some of the larger sites around Cancun.
If you’re on a tight budget and you’re looking to avoid the tourist crowds of Zona Hotelera, Puerto Juarez can be an ideal choice. But you may have to hunt around a bit for lodgings. Renting a condo from locals, potentially on an app like Airbnb is a promising start.
Puerto Juarez may not be tailored specifically to the needs of travelers, but the cheap and anonymous nature of the neighborhood makes it a welcoming option if you’re looking to stay in Cancun for an extended period of tie.
4. Playa Mujeres
Playa Mujeres is like the younger and sometimes overlooked kid sibling of Zona Hotelera. Both areas are designed with the tourist set in mind, but Playa Mujeres doesn’t get nearly as much traffic as Zona Hotelera. And while the Hotel Zone is centrally located to offer easy access to much of the city and surrounding areas, Playa Mujeres is a little more isolated.
If you decide to stay here, you can expect to rely mostly on the amenities that the resorts on site have to offer. That said, the resorts that cover almost the entirety of this region are absolutely loaded down with events catered towards foreign travelers.
The beaches here are the most obvious selling point. While they might not be quite as blue or crystal clear as those in Zona Hotelera, they’re still undoubtedly beautiful, and they tend to be calmer and less crowded as well. This is a region that can offer you a level of privacy that you often can’t find in some of the more populated areas of Cancun.
And while Playa Mujeres offers direct connections to Isla Mujeres, there’s plenty to do out in the Caribbean without having to venture out that far. Snorkeling, scuba diving, and yachting excursions are available in abundance, and you can even venture out onto the waters to meet dolphins.
It’s also home to an 18 hole, 72 par golf course. And just like in Zona Hotelera, most of the hotels and resorts offer excursions to all of the important sites throughout Cancun and the surrounding countryside.
Playa Mujeres is going to appeal to the same time of travelers as Zona Hotelera with some caveats. Almost all of the activities available in this neighborhood are going to be centralized around the resorts themselves.
Zone Hotelera is a neighborhood where there are countless things happening at every hour of the day. Visitors to Playa Mujeres will want to create more curated trips. If you want to spend your time in Cancun planning day trips between lazy afternoons in the pool or at the beach, it’s more than accommodating.
Resorts and hotels are more pricey than in less tourist-focused areas, but they’re also cheaper on average than in Zona Hotelera. Just keep in mind that if you want to check out what the rest of the city has to offer, you can expect to take a shuttle or car to get there.
5. Isla Mujeres
If you close your eyes and imagine a tropical paradise island, the image in your head will probably closely resemble Isla Mujeres. Located eight miles off the city’s northern coast, The ocean surrounding this island paradise are some of the most gorgeous and immaculate around: clear enough to see the bottom, accompanied by meticulously white sands, and lined with palm trees.
It may be a little further afield than neighborhoods in Cancun proper, but the locals here have done a tremendous job of making sure that everything you could possibly need is always within arms reach.
A community in and of itself, the downtown district of Isla Mujeres is lined with quaint and charming shops. It’s a one stop location for all of your souvenir shopping as well as for fine dining and nightlife.
The center of town is also home to some truly gorgeous sea wall murals. Just because this is a tourist-focused community doesn’t mean there isn’t a sense of local color. The zocalo – or city square – features live music and activities practically every day and night, and there’s a regular monthly art fair held there throughout the winter months.
Yoga, massage, and classes are all available without having to step foot off of the island, and the entire area can be easily explored on a bike or behind the wheel of a golf cart. And since the island is situated right in the middle of the Caribbean, there are a countless variety of activities for the more adventurous set.
There’s a decent variety of ecological theme parks on the island proper, or you can venture out into the waters to engage in deep sea fishing, scuba diving, or snorkeling.
If you want to be pampered but find the crowds of Zona Hotelera or Playa Mujeres to be a bit too much for your tastes, Isla Mujeres is the place to stay in Cancun. It’s isolated enough from the city of Cancun to feel like its own little world, and it tends to be less overrun with visitors than those other resort areas.
And rather than be dominated by major international hotel chains and expensive resorts, you’ll find a decent variety of options for lodgings that range from budget friendly options to chic and high class boutique hotels.