Is the hotel zone of Cancun the best area for your vacation in the Riviera Maya? If so, how to make the most of it?
We all know the importance of choosing the right area for a resort or hotel. It will strongly influence your vacation.
Some travelers love the Zona hotelera. Others hate it.
Wouldn’t it be great to have an article that explains the pros and cons? In addition to giving you many tips to improve your stay?
Well, that’s good news. It’s precisely what you will find in this detailed guide.
I stayed more than 10 days in Cancun, and here is my analysis to know everything about this part of the world that attracts millions of travelers every year.
Bring your sunglasses, and let’s go.
Plan your trip around Cancun
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1# Cancun Hotel Zone: The Map
2# People Like To Stay In The Hotel Zone Because…
The hotel zone in Cancun is a favorite for tourists for many reasons. You have white, sandy beaches on the Caribbean sea, luxury all-inclusive hotels and resorts, turquoise waters, and bustling nightlife.
The Cancun hotel zone is a place to take a vacation without worrying about traveling or leaving the venue. The area gathers the best hotels. The all-inclusive resorts offer great food, drinks, and nightly entertainment, so many people don’t leave the hotel during their stay.
But if you leave the hotel, you can visit many nearby places, such as Puerto Morelos, the cenotes (natural freshwater pools), Mayan ruins, the downtown area, museums, and other sites of interest.
Must read: A guide to exploring the Cancun cenotes.
3# Wild partying in Punta Cancun
Cancun is a long 7-shaped segment of land with the sea on one side and a lagoon on the other. Punta Cancun is right on the corner of the 7 and hosts some of the best accommodations.
This area, which breaks the map of Cancun in two, is where the wild partying takes place due to the high number of discos and bars with DJs and live music.
You might have heard of the famous Coco Bongo nightclub, the City (which operates on Fridays only), Mandala, and Dady’O. All these bars usually open until 3 a.m., but they can prolong the party if the atmosphere is in full swing.
Two pieces of advice: don’t pick up fights. Some guys do it to have an excuse to call the police (allies with the “bad guys”) and make you bribe them to avoid being taken to jail. The second is to give servers a tip upfront, so you’ll get excellent service during your party night.
4# The southern Cancun hotel zone is quieter
If you want to be close to the action but without the noise or excess of tourists, stay in the quieter southern part of the hotel area.
There are no nightclubs in this zone, only a few restaurants.
The south part of the stretch that hosts most hotels offers less crowded beaches, although the sea is not as calm as in the north. This area is also closer to the archaeological site El Rey.
5# How safe is the Cancun hotel zone
Like everywhere in the world, you should be careful with your purse, pockets, cell phone, and belongings when in a crowded place.
Nevertheless, the Cancun hotel zone is safe day and night. Considering that the year before the pandemic (2019), Cancun, Mexico received more than 6 million visitors, you can safely walk everywhere.
The only two recent deadly crimes happened in 2018 and 2021, and those were shootings between drug gangs. Other than that, no tourist has been killed or injured.
Some advice: don’t carry lots of money or valuables with you and be as alert as you would elsewhere.
6# Food, drinks, and shopping are more expensive
Cancun is among the three most expensive cities in Mexico. And the hotel zone is the most costly part of Cancun.
If you go to the hotel zone, expect to buy drinks and food and pay for hotels at American prices. It’s challenging to find a room for less than 100 USD per night, unlike prices in the city center.
Should you want to go shopping without spending too much, downtown Cancun Mexico is the place to go. You can also eat tacos in the street to help you save some bucks.
7# Do they take US dollars in Cancun?
Yes, you can pay your restaurant bills or shop in the hotel zone with American dollars. However, I recommend you don’t.
The reason is that you’ll get an unfavorable exchange rate and end up paying between 15% and 20% more. The idea is to withdraw Mexican pesos from any ATM and pay with pesos instead.
Typically, ATMs that belong to Banorte or HSBC banks have low bank fees. Never accept the exchange rate offered by the ATM bank. It is always bad.
8# Not all restaurants are good
There are many restaurants in the hotel zone, but you should consider that some are better than others. There are some fine dining restaurants, though.
For instance, if you want a delicious tomahawk steak, good in size and quality, Harry’s Steakhouse & Raw Bar is the best choice. You can see sunsets from there and get complimentary cotton candy.
El Fish Fritanga offers seafood and margaritas (“pescadillas” is a must-try). You can also see the sunset and the lagoon from this place. There are tables on the beach, under the palm trees.
Lobster lovers can try it fresh at Lorenzillo’s, where experts breed the crustacean. Puerto Madero is another fine restaurant that serves excellent seafood (grilled lobster is yummy) and steaks.
And suppose you want to try authentic Mexican food in the hotel zone. In that case, you can’t go wrong at places such as Porfirio’s, El Galeon, and the Surfin Burrito: ceviche, burritos, tacos, and “chapulines” (fried grasshoppers on guacamole) are excellent tidbits.
9# Many resorts, but you should know how to choose
Most options in the hotel zone tend to feature tall buildings. That’s why you should try to get a room with lagoon or ocean views.
You must also consider what type of guests you want to see: Young party animals? Older, more relaxed guests? Families with kids? Couples?
Breathless Cancun Soul (nice infinite pool and techno music) and Temptation are great hotels in the hotel zone to have fun and party.
For families, a good choice is the Hyatt Ziva and Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach. Le Blanc SPA Resort Cancun and Hyatt Zilara offer luxury services for a romantic getaway.
There aren’t many hostels, boutique hotels, and budget hotels in the hotel zone. An excellent spot to meet people is the Mayan Monkey hostel. And for those who prefer more personalized attention with a few rooms available, the discreet Casa Tortugas Boutique Hotel will be ideal.
When saving money, a good option is to rent a villa with a kitchen to cook your own meals. The Westin Lagunamar Ocean Resort Villas & Spa and the Beachscape Kin Ha Villas & Suites are good places that offer this.
If money isn’t an issue and you want to try a luxury hotel, the JW Marriott Cancun Resort or Nizuc Resort & SPA are good options.
10# Public beaches in Cancun’s zona hotelera
All the beaches in Cancun are public (no private beaches, sorry). However, some hotels block or seclude some of the beaches, which are within walking distance from each other.
If you want to enjoy the beautiful, turquoise-colored waters and white, sandy beaches, a good spot is the Chac Mool, a beach behind the Forum shopping mall.
Another place is Playa Tortugas, where you can do a lot of activities such as jetskiing and parasailing. There’s also a ferry that takes you to Isla Mujeres and its famous Playa Norte beach.
Other lovely beaches are Playa Langosta and Delfines, where you have lounge chairs under thatch roofs on the sand. Forum and Gaviota Azul beaches are also some of the most popular. You’ll hear music from the nearby clubs. More options are Ballenas, Caracol Las Palmas, Las Perlas, and Playa Linda.
11# Cancun sand is special and “imported”
Hurricane Wilma did no favors to the beaches of Cancun when, in 2005, it took away most of the sand.
After this, the town government decided to bring 1 billion gallons of sand from the seabed, an initiative that cost 70 million USD. The original sand, which still exists, is the product of dead corals. That’s why walking on it is so pleasant, for it doesn’t absorb the sun’s heat.
12# Swimmers, beware of strong currents and crocodiles
The central part of the hotel zone has some strong currents, so you should be careful when swimming away from the shore. That doesn’t happen in the northern part of this area, where the sea is very calm, and you have white sand beaches.
Swimming in the lagoon Nichupte is not safe because there are crocodiles in that area.
13# Seaweed can ruin watercolor and swims
The presence of sargassum in the Cancun sea increases during the warmer months, from April to October.
Sargassum is a seaweed that travels in the Atlantic ocean. In the mentioned months, it usually changes the beautiful crystal blue color of the water in Cancun (like the blue of swimming pools) and turns it into a brownish, dirty-looking hue.
I don’t recommend swimming when there’s seaweed because it can get tangled around your limbs. Sargassum tends to pile up on the white sand beach, rot, and smell.
Punta Nizuc is the most affected area by seaweed, although the resorts try to keep beaches clean to avoid hampering your Cancun vacation. Sargassum hits harder in nearby places such as Tulum and Playa del Carmen.
14# Take the bus over the taxi
Unfortunately for tourists, a clash between taxi and Uber drivers hampered the implementation of these apps in Cancun. Therefore, taxis have a monopoly that allows them to charge between 10 and 20 USD for short-distance services.
Luckily, you still have a reliable and affordable bus service in the hotel zone. The buses run every 5 minutes on average. The most useful routes for your vacation are R1 and R2.
These routes take you from downtown Cancun to the hotel zone and vice versa. A one-way fare costs about 12 Mexican pesos (50 cents a dollar). Drivers only take pesos paid in small cash or small bills.
15# Can you walk around the Cancun hotel zone?
The answer is yes. You can walk along the shore in Punta Cancun and along the lagoon. The central and south areas of the Cancun hotel zone are not so pleasant to walk by because of their many buildings. Besides, a long walk under the scorching heat can wear you out, but you can do it, and it’s safe.
If you take this long walk along the shore, you’ll also discover lovely beaches that you can enjoy. Remember that all beaches in Cancun are public, even if sometimes they look like they have private beach access.
16# Book airport transportation beforehand
There are some advantages if you hire a service to be picked up at the airport before you travel.
One is that there will be a person waiting for you. This driver will assist you with your luggage and take you to the Cancun hotel zone.
Another advantage is cost. While a taxi can charge you 40 or 50 USD to travel the 11 km to Punta Nizuc, 18 km to the middle Cancun hotel zone, or the 23 km to Punta Cancun, a private service booked in advance can charge 30 USD. The same happens when you go from the hotel to the airport.
One piece of advice: When you get to the Cancun International Airport, ignore people trying to sell vacation plans or transportation services. Just look for the driver holding a sign with your name.
17# Stay at Cancun’s hotel zone or downtown?
The answer, if you don’t plan to be traveling around the pyramids and other places of interest, is that the Cancun hotel zone is a nicer place to stay.
Apart from bars, upscale hotels, and bustling nightlife, the Cancun hotel zone is located along a beautiful white and sandy beach that you can access any time you want.
This goes hand in hand with luxury hotels, the lagoon, and many entertainment options.
In downtown Cancun (el Centro), you can find more affordable hotels and hostels for budget travelers, and bars and restaurants are cheaper than in the Cancun hotel zone.
Downtown Cancun is also far away from the beach, which can deter some people from looking for a hotel in this district.
18# Cancun underwater museum (MUSA)
The underwater museum is one of the great and unusual things to see if you like diving. This is a conservation initiative that has become a landmark in Cancun.
The MUSA project began in 2009 and was designed to restore the coral reef around Cancun, Punta Nizuc, and Isla Mujeres.
You don’t have to be an expert diver, for the depth of the museum is only 10 meters. It features 500 submerged sculptures that microorganisms and colorful fish have already colonized.
You may book a bottom glass boat tour, snorkel, or dive to see the museum.
19# Shopping in the Cancun hotel zone
I mentioned above that shopping in the various malls along the Cancun hotel zone is not cheap. However, you can get the most out of this experience by going to Plaza La Isla shopping village. There are luxury shops and boutiques with famous brands.
This space consists of various shops located along and above a canal. This canal has an exit to the lagoon. If you want to save while shopping, downtown Cancun is a better option.
20# Don’t forget you’re in Mayan territory
Even if your all-inclusive beachfront resort or hotel has it all, you should remember that there are many places related to the Maya culture you can visit.
At the Museo Maya de Cancun, you can see sculptures carved in stone, paintings, jewelry, and ceramic objects. It’s an interesting stop before you visit the Maya ruins or the pyramids. You can learn about the history of the Mayas, including their rise and fall.
The San Miguelito archaeological area is inside the Mayan Museum, where you can see a pyramid. It only takes you 15 minutes to see this part of the museum.
El Rey Archaeological Zone is another option. For about 10 USD, you can get a one-hour tour to learn about Mexican history while seeing some ruins.
21# Don’t swim with dolphins
Dolphins are happy animals, except if they’re in captivity. These dolphins are also caught in a rather cruel fashion or born in captivity.
When you pay to swim with dolphins, you’re directly sponsoring animal abuse and helping entrepreneurs get richer. Some hotels in Cancun offer this possibility, so in my opinion, you should decline it.
22# See the city from the Cancun Scenic Tower
The only place from where you get a 360-degree view of the city is the Scenic Tower. This building is 80 meters tall. From there, you can even see Isla Mujeres.
You must pay 20 USD to go up, but if you keep your bracelet from any of the 9 Xcaret parks, the entrance is free. One good time to go up is just before sunset.
23# Wait in line if you want a pic next to the Cancun sign
Getting a picture in front of or next to the big-sized letters that spell the name of Cancun is a good souvenir, but you must bear with lots of tourists that want to do the same.
The sign is located near Playa Delfines. It is also challenging to find a parking spot if you go by rental car. So the advice is to go early.
24# Explore the Nichupte lagoon
The Nichupte separates downtown Cancun and the Cancun hotel zone. It’s one of the most beautiful yet underrated natural areas in town. Nichupte is one of the five lagoons that make this water system.
This place, full of mangroves, small crocs, and many bird species, is ideal for kayaking, taking a boat tour, or seeing sunsets. Sometimes you can even sport dolphins that dare into the lagoon.
It would be best if you did not swim in the lagoon because of the crocs. Even if they’re not big, they’re wild animals that could bite you.
25# Ask about the turtle release program
Female sea Turtles lay their eggs on the beaches of Cancun from June to September.
When hatching takes place, hotel staff guide baby turtles to the water. The lights of the hotels might disorient babies in their quest to reach the water.
These releases happen in the evening, so hotels, as part of their all-inclusive package, organize guests for them to see the baby turtles crawl their way to the sea. If your hotel doesn’t participate, probably neighboring resorts will, so you’d better ask.
26# A drunk pirate for a day
There is only a boat trip for adults in which booze is the protagonist. Here, you pay for the right to drink as much as possible. While you have fun and meet new people, you can listen to DJs playing hip-hop and R&B music.
At the boat, you can dance until sunset, eat snacks, and drink unlimited shots of tequila, vodka, rum, and beer to water those down. Did we mention champagne showers?
27# Catamaran tours
These boat tours are top-rated in Cancun’s hotel zone. For about 5 hours, you can ride a boat to Isla Mujeres, where you stay for a couple of hours. While on the trip, you can enjoy some included cocktails.
You can also hire a private catamaran. This option lets you enjoy the whole day and decide on the journey’s destination, including Isla Mujeres. The advice here is to wear a hat, sunglasses, long sleeves, and plenty of sunblock lotion.
28# Best excursions from Cancun
There are incredible tours that only leave from Cancun. To reduce transportation time, staying in Cancun (instead of sleeping in Tulum or Playa del Carmen) can be a good idea. A popular tour is Isla Contoy. This paradise island is home to more than 150 bird species and four kinds of endangered sea turtle species. Being a protected reserve, tourists must follow specific protocols (no more than 300 visitors per day, and sunblock is prohibited).
You can also swim with gentle giant whale sharks, preferably from July to August. There are several tours to do this in Cancun.
👉 Read my analysis of the best whale shark tours in Cancun.
29# Cancun’s hotel zone is an island
The Cancun strip is 22.5 km long, and it was built in 1970 to attract American tourists when Acapulco, on the Pacific Coast, was the favorite destination.
Cancun is a long, thin isle with the shape of a number 7. Some segments of the strip used to be as narrow as 20 meters. However, the land was widened. The Cancun hotel zone features the most beautiful beaches and blue waters in the area. A system of five interconnected lagoons and canals separates it from downtown.
The lagoons showcase mangroves, bird species, mammals, and small crocodiles, all in a relaxing atmosphere. This ambiance contrasts with the Cancun resort scenery.
Bottom line: Cancun hotel zone
The Cancun hotel area is very touristy, with high prices and a lack of Mexican atmosphere. Nevertheless, it is an ideal destination to spend quality time on a paradisiacal beach without hassle. Plus, it’s only a few hours by plane from the United States!
Impressive article, enjoyed reading it.
Thanks for shedding light on this topic.