Forget images of tumbleweed blowing across the desert: Cancun is the modern, sophisticated face of Mexican tourism - and it’s wonderful
A few decades ago Cancun was just a small, fairly bland seaside town, on Mexico’s Caribbean coastline. The main tourist area we see today was, and technically still is, an island, separated by a lagoon and two canals from the mainland. It wasn’t until 1970 that building work began, and the development of what has become a refined, top quality resort slowly evolved.
Like many travellers, I had arrived in Mexico with preconceptions based on numerous Hollywood movies and natural history documentaries that have been filmed here. I expected a dusty, slightly ramshackle resort, beset by local chancers trying to sell you all manner of unwanted items on the beach. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The tourist zone of Cancun is essentially built along a gently curving strip of land, with the sea on one side and the lagoon on the other. Wherever you choose your hotel, therefore, it’s likely to be on the waterfront. If your hotel fronts the lagoon, you don’t have the sand, but you will have a glorious and peaceful waterside to enjoy, with small boats, wildlife, and the most spectacular sunsets.
The seemingly endless beach has wide expanses of soft white sand, continuously washed by the warm Caribbean surf. It seldom gets too busy, but it's worth remembering that the next sizeable landmass is Cuba, around 200 miles to the east, so on a windy day the sea can get quite a swell on. There's a whole variety of activities available, too, and I tried my hand - quite successfully, except for running down the instructor - at windsurfing. I also had a great time on a horse-riding jaunt along the beach. Cantering along the shoreline, with spray flying up from the hooves, was an experience that will stay with me for a long time.
Cancun has a clean, modern, organised, and almost elegant feel about it, and perhaps the most pleasant surprise was how safe it felt. I was never pestered by annoying street traders, nor did I ever feel unsafe walking around – even at night – with some fairly expensive photographic equipment. I did feel it was very much a resort built for the American market, with the newest hotels taking on an almost Vegas-like style in their over-the-top luxury and designs. In the centre, there is a small designer shopping area, a huge Hard Rock Café, a Rainforest Café, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, and an assortment of lively beach clubs and bars. There’s a top quality choice of food in both hotels and restaurants, particularly some wonderful seafood choices, and it can be washed down with fine local wines.
One highlight of my stay was the opportunity to swim with the dolphins at the aquarium. This isn’t cheap, but I was impressed that they take time to ensure you know exactly how to behave so that the graceful mammals are not harmed or frightened. There is a compulsory education session before you get in the water, too, but once you are there the whole experience is superbly managed and I have to admit I thought it worth every penny.
Another high point – literally – is the sky-scraping observation tower. The circular room, with seats strangely positioned so they face away from the windows, slowly rotates as it gently climbs the central tower. The panoramic views across the whole resort and lagoon are breathtaking, and out in the azure blue waters of the Caribbean I could see small islands in the distance. From the over-loud speakers, it also gives a guidebook style narration, and plays some annoying music, as you ascend. Given the reward at the top, however, I guess that can be forgiven.
Seeing the small islands inspired me to seek some locally-run trips out to sea. I found a few boat owners moored near the inlet to the lagoon, close to the observation tower. One had a blackboard sign offering trips to the Isle of Contoy with ‘Snorkelling and Tequila Drinking Lessons’! How could I refuse.
We set off early the next morning, in a modern, well equipped, dive boat. A mile or two off the coast lays the second longest coral reef in the world, drawing scuba divers, snorkellers and less energetic marine enthusiasts in glass-bottomed boats. Our captain knew these waters well, and positioned the boat in a good spot for an hour, while myself and the dozen or so other adventurers took to the water. I have dived in many places around the world, but even I was awestruck by the palette of colourful marine and plant life just a few feet below the surface. Take a few slices of bread, and you’ll have myriad brightly gleaming fish all trying to eat from your hand.
A few miles further on is the tiny but unbelievably beautiful island of Contoy. The island has no inhabitants, and visitor numbers are strictly limited, so book as soon as you are able if you want a trip there. It’s a true haven of wildlife, including saltwater crocodiles in the swamps and stingrays in the crystal-clear waters near the jetty. Its main draw is as a unique bird reserve. A smaller speedboat will take those that wish to the rocky coves at the northern end of the island, where tens of thousands of birds are the only residents. Those who forego this extra trip can relax on the immaculately curved palm-fringed sands, to the music of gently lapping waves. It’s a true desert island paradise, and somewhere that has to be in my top five favourite places on the planet.
On the return journey, true to their word, there were tequila drinking lessons! And with the sun slowly sinking on the horizon, the water splashing off the sides of the boat, and Bob Marley’s greatest reggae hits playing over the loudspeakers, it was the perfect end to the perfect holiday.