Mexico: So Much More Than Cancun!
By Tim Leffel
Next time you’re with a few people who don’t travel very much, ask them to name a city in Mexico. Odds are most, if not all of them will spit out Cancun before anything else.
But there is far more to the Yucatan Peninsula than this hedonistic, shrink-wrapped magnet for package tourists. First of all tourism in Mexico is big business. Mexico is the seventh-largest tourist destination in the world.
Around 80% of those visitors come from the US or Canada. More than 40 million tourists came to Mexico in 2018.
Foreign tourists are forecast to increase spending by 11 percent in 2004, pumping more than $10.5 billion into the country’s economy.
All told, the rise in first quarter 2018 visitation translated into a 7.2 percent increase in tourism revenue, reaching $6.217 billion.
Those figures are for Mexico the country, which is a very big country indeed. Despite all that land and a very long list of attractions, however, Cancun sucks up an inordinate chunk of that traffic. Cancun receives more visitors each year than Acapulco, Mazatlan, and Cabo San Lucas combined.
An estimated one in four international visitors to Mexico heads to Cancun. When you add in the strip south of there — the Riviera Maya, which includes Playa del Carmen and Cozumel — it’s easy to imagine that this little section of a huge country gets close to a third of its tourists.
While that is scary enough, the true picture comes from how long people spend there. Do you think they are coming down to explore the leisurely pace of Mexican village life, or to sample the different regional cuisines? Or to compare the Mayan period styles of Chichen Itza to Ek Balaam?
According to the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau, no way Jose. US visitors who enter via the Cancun airport now average a mere 5.1 days in the country. Yes, that’s right—five days. One survey of Americans found that 83% who came to Mexico visited only one city.
Get out of town!
Most budget-minded travelers, of course, don’t spend the whole time in Cancun. First of all, they don’t want to spend that much dinero. The city was built to attract vacationers who are prepared to blow through a few hundred dollars a day, and the plan has paid off brilliantly.
Budget hotels in Cancun near the beach are about as common as topless Mexican women and prices on everything from beers to meals to taxis are the highest in the whole country. Most package tourists, of course, don’t even notice. As long as it is cheaper than home, they’re happy.
The budget travel beach crowd usually takes a long ride south to Tulum, finding a cabana on the beach for $25 a night instead of a high-rise hotel for $200. But if you can take the time, there’s a lot more to see in the Yucatan. Fly into Cancun — after all, the price is usually right because of all the competition — then catch a bus out of town to one or all of the following.
Most people arrive in this most visited of all the Mayan ruins sites via an “excursion tour” from their resort. They pay $50-$75 each for the long bus trip, spend a couple of hours listening to their guide drone on and on, and experience the ruins during the absolute hottest time of the day. When they get back to their hotel, they’ve spent an entire day of vacation on a tour bus, most of it looking out at boring flat scenery.
There is a better way. Bus connections go to Valladolid (more on that later) several times a day from Mérida, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Cancun. You can spend the night there and catch an early bus to Chichen Itza, or go directly to the ruins and stay at a hotel nearby. Either way, your total costs will be about what the resort crowds paid, but including a good night’s sleep.
If you stay nearby, you can get there early in the morning and have the ruins almost to yourself. By the time you have seen it all and are starting to sweat unbearably, you’ll be heading out as the resort buses start to file in. Some hotels will even give you a ride there in the morning, including the very pretty Dolores Alba where I’ve stayed. $33 to $39 a night double.)
This city is like a mini-Mérida and doesn’t see a lot of tourists. It’s a nice stop for a taste of colonial architecture, a bit of non-touristy shopping, and some reasonably priced local food. There’s also an impressive cenote right in town. This is probably the best place between Cancun and Mérida in which to take it easy and find the local rhythm.
Some people absolutely love this capital of the Yucatan and others don’t quite get the appeal. It probably depends on how much you thrive on heat, as this can be a very hot and sticky place much of the year. Most people get over it though—some so much they end up moving here. If you like live music and cultural performances, this is the place. There’s something going on in one of the parks every night and Sundays are a real buffet of musical talent.
There are lots of the things you would expect in a colonial city: large churches that are several hundred years old, charming squares, street vendors, a dizzying local market, and outdoor cafés. There are dozens of interesting hotels in Mérida, nearly all of them a good value. I can personally recommend the fun and funky Luz en Yucatan ($25 to $50 per night).
The Gulf Coast
About 30 km north of Mérida is the Mexican gulf coast. The water here doesn’t look like it’s straight out of a Corona commercial, as it does on the Caribbean side, but it is still a quite pretty shade of green. Progresso is the main town here, with lots of bars and restaurants on the water and drink service on the beach.
There are a few small hotels in town, but no big resorts. This town, as well as all the others to the east and south, are primarily used by Mexicans who own or rent vacation homes. If you have a car, you can go exploring to find a beach that catches your fancy and there are several places where you can view flocks of flamingos.
If you have a big group or a family, this is a great place to rent a beach house. For one week, they range anywhere from $250 to $1,000 outside of the very limited high season (Late July, August, and Easter week). Expect a sleepy, fishing village kind of atmosphere most of the time—a far cry from the resort areas on the other coast.
This Mayan site doesn’t get nearly the traffic of Chichen Itza, which is a good thing in most visitors’ eyes. In some ways, it is more impressive, partly because it is more spread out and several buildings poke out of the trees in the distance. You can get here by bus, but if you have a car and some time, there are plenty of other Mayan sites in the area.
If you have more money than time, a pricey, but romantic way to get around the area is to enjoy a rail journey. Deluxe passenger train tours depart from Mérida for different routes that take in Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Campeche, and even west to Palenque. The journey to Palenque, for instance, includes five meals, one-night hotel in Campeche, a tour of the Mayan ruins at Uxmal, and transfers for $595. A six-day trip hitting a lot more stops is close to $1,500.
One last reason…
If you need another reason to stay out of Cancun, picture yourself being around the cast of MTV’s Real World for days on end, except imagine them all being constantly loud and drunk. I’m no tea-totaling prude by any means, but being surrounded by teens that will drink until they puke or pass out every night is not my idea of a good reason to get my passport stamped…
Tim Leffel is the author of five travel books, editor of the narrative webzine Perceptive Travel, and has been blogging on the Cheapest Destinations Blog since 2003. He lives in Guanajuato, Mexico with his wife Donna.