The city is actually split in two main area, the Zona Hotelera, which is a an 18 Km long island which is located facing the caribbean on one side along a long sunny beach strip with many large fancy hotels and on the other back side it is surrounded by a beautiful lagoon called Laguna Nichupte. The second part of the city is called Ciudad Cancun, which is in the mainland. This is where most of the Cancun local people live, and also where tourists can find more budget accommodations. Ciudad Cancun and Zona Hotelera are joined by this long causeway/bridge. They are literally two different worlds. Ciudad Cancun has some nice restaurants and bars along Avenida Yaxchitlan, and a more Mexico feel to it. The Zona Hotelera has the opulence of Las Vegas, Nevada with a beautiful beach, nice malls, fancy bars but no casinos.
Nearby are many Maya sites that are easy to explore. They offer a unique insight in the precolombian civilization of Mexico. Many tourists get packages to visit Chichen Itza,a good 2-3 hrs away by car. But, if a tourist takes local buses, or even better, rents a car…there are many wonderful places to see. Some of the closer ones to Cancun are Cob and Tulum, which are near Playa del Carmen, which is also another tourist ocean area on the so called Ruta Maya, within an hour from Cancun. Tulum ruins are near the water, so it is a scenic place, Cob is about 45 mins. inland from Tulum….very wonderful place. Renting a bike on site is recommended in order to visit the whole site, as it is very spread out. There is also a nice tall pyramid to climb with an awesome view of the surrounding jungle….
Near Chichen Itza, just north of the city of Valladolid, there are the recent excavations in a place called Ek Balam. The place is very well preserved, and it is worth a visit…and you’ll miss most of the crowds that go to Chichen Itza.
If you are into Mayan ruins, it is recommended that you visit the surroundings near the city of Mrida (on the west side of Yucatan, 4 hrs. by car from Cancun) and do the Ruta Puuc. This route is best enjoyed in a couple days, but, if you are in a rush, you can do it all in one day if you have an early start. The most impressive one is a place called Uxmal…it is well preserved and very large. There are several other ones…about 5-6 of them, among them Sayil and Labna. They are all great, well kept, and uncrowded. From there, after Ruta Puuc, you can drive to Chichen Itza…visiting some small Yucatecan small towns and villages on the way, such as the town of Oxcutzcab, famous for their citrus industry and see their main downtown square, church and market.
Back to Cancun:
The other main attraction of Cancun consists of the possibilities to see the world under the waves. Snorkeling and diving in Cancun and nearby Cozumel are among the best of the world.
There are these other things around Ruta Maya, they are these waterholes near mangrove area, sort of like sinkholes filled with clean fresh water. These are called Cenotes, and you can swim in them. There are tons around this area and they are worth checking out.
The town itself is rather disappointing however and if you have not booked a room with your flight it would be better to find lodging somewhere else. The big hotel chains are focused very much on package deal groups and do not cater well to individual travelers. This is correct, yet, to do Cancun in a budget, try Ciudad Cancun for lodging, the hotels are a lot more reasonable there, and there are even a few hostels. You can always catch a bus to the beach area.
Cancun is a wonderful destination. For beachcombers who do not want to leave the sun, they can just do that. But for those who want to get some culture and explore the richness of Yucatan and Quintana Roo, the opportunities are endless. This is a very unique area, very different from Mainland Mexico.