The year was 1991. A scrawny 20-year-old college sophomore (spoiler alert: it was me!) headed south of the border to Cancun, Mexico in search of girls, sun and tequila. I did Cancun the way that all the kids did back then: crammed into a cheap party hotel with my buddies, hitting clubs and hanging out at beach parties until sunrise. After a week of debauchery, it was back to school time and all I had to show for it were blurry snapshots on a disposable film camera, a wicked sunburn and a case of Montezuma’s revenge. But, hey, it was worth every peso.
Now, 25 years later, I bring a much different set of expectations to a spring break holiday. Instead of Corona and Jose Cuervo, my inspirations include a quick non-stop flight, unusual and enriching activities and a strong dollar. I have grown up, now the question is: has Cancun grown up as well?
Upon arrival, the very first place I want to act my age is my accommodations. The JW Marriott Cancun, a 5-Diamond property known for its relaxed elegance in the heart of the hotel zone proves an exceptional place to call home base for a week. With a 35,000 square foot spa, 3 restaurants and an adults-only pool with daybeds, cabanas and ocean-side massage beds, it’s a significant upgrade from yesteryear and all you could ask for in a property located right on the beach.
Next on the list: to put down the margarita and explore Cancun beyond the just its glorious surf and sand. The Yucatan Peninsula possesses a myriad of natural wonders spliced with ancient Mayan history. Not wanting to deal with coordinate ground arrangements including renting a car, dealing with directions and buying tickets, I booked all-inclusive tours through Viator.com where all I had to do was show up at the JW’s lobby on time with the rest of the details handled.
There are three travel-worthy attractions south of the city that brilliantly package the natural beauty of the Yucatan into unforgettable experiences. Head south on highway 307 and after an hour arrives at Xcaret Eco-Archaeological Park. Xcaret offers more than 50 attractions on its massive natural campus including a butterfly pavilion, snorkeling tours and swimming in underground rivers.
A bit further south, Xplor, offers more of an adventurous connection to the jungle with an intricate network of multi-story zip lines, amphibious vehicles and underground rafting in caverns covered in stalactites. At night the park transforms into a nighttime adventure called Fuego Xplor where all of the activities take on a much more mysterious and romantic feel after dark.
And about an hour and a half south of Cancun, Xel-Há, something akin to a natural inlet aquarium, offers snorkeling in its tranquil, turquoise waters, tubing underneath a canopy of mangroves in a natural “lazy river,” jumping off small cliffs and swimming in the underground caves or cenotes. There are several all-inclusive restaurants on site as well as a spa and real-working Mayan sweat lodge. They also offer many other experiences at a premium including swimming with dolphins, stingrays and manatees.
Cancun also offers a jumping off point to 2 of the most celebrated archeological sites in the world: Tulum and Chichen Itza. Formerly a Mayan fortress city, Tulum sits high atop a bluff two hours south of the city overlooking the Caribbean. Its main attraction, a small building called the Castillo, remains one of the most iconic images in all of the Americas. Walk among the ancient ruins of the complex and then finish your day with a swim below in the sea.
Head 2 and a half hours due west of Cancun and arrive at the massive pyramid of Chichen Itza, presumably the most powerful of all the ancient Mayan cities. Besides the main attraction, a 78 foot stone pyramid, you must see the Great Ball Court, a place where the Mayans once played a game called Mesoamerican ballgame that historians believe was akin to racquetball but was involved human sacrifice with the decapitation of the game’s loser.
So, in the end, it wasn’t Cancun that had the growing up to do—it was just me. The Mayans and their ancestors had been there enjoying the natural bounty of beautiful jungles, oceans and beaches thousands of years before I or my MTV generation came along and did the limbo. The good news: with my new approach to Cancun, not only did I experience a spring break to remember, it was a spring break I could remember.
If You Go
Delta offers several daily direct flights into Cancun International Airport (CUN). www.delta.com The flight time clocks in at just over 2 hours and upon clearing customs you’re just a 20-minute drive to the hotel zone. Also, Cancun is on east coast time so you should be on the beach roughly 4 hours from the moment you leave the gate in Atlanta.
At press time the exchange was 19 pesos to the US Dollar making a very favorable rate for American tourists.
For exploring the Yucatan rental cars are cheap and plentiful but I have heard tales of police shaking down tourists for bribes so I opted to leave the driving to the professionals. Trip Advisor’s Viator www.viator.com matched us up with the top local operators who utilize luxury buses, sophisticated ticketing systems and our experience could not have been better.
The plush JW Marriott sits smack dab in the heart of the Hotel Zone just a few miles from the airport. They offer 448 rooms and suites, most with private balconies with stunning views of the Caribbean, as well as marble bathrooms, pillow top mattresses, and 24-hour room service. www.marriott.com