Cancun - A Caribbean Dream

by Ollie Barstow on 11 January 2012, 07:01AM Cancun - A Caribbean Dream

For a destination that has become synonymous with global travellers and is now regarded as the most popular holiday choice in the Caribbean, it is remarkable to think that just 40 years ago Cancun was a nondescript Mexican peninsula in Quintana Roo with no permanent inhabitants.

Certainly, when Mexico unveiled its ambitious plans to transform this land of sand dunes into a tourist attraction larger than its other iconic draw, Acapulco, in 1970, few could predict that Cancun would become an internationally revered Caribbean holiday mecca.

Even so, though it may have required a leap of faith from the Mexican Government to transform this region, once unknown to even most Mexicans, into its primary tourism hot spot four decades down the line, standing amidst its redeeming features, the soft sands, excellent climate and crystalline waters, proves that nature had already done the hard work.

It’s appropriate then that Cancun’s emblem is made up of exactly those features, with red denoting the sun, gold for the sand and blue marking the sea. Indeed, whatever man brings to this area, it is a secondary draw to the splendour that was here long before the 70s…

It’s a measure of how well regarded Cancun is that those humble beginnings centred around the Nichupte Lagoon have spread almost 130km down the coast towards the historic sites of Tulum. Indeed, though Cancun is the name sun-seekers will type into Google, Playa del Carmen and Riviera Maya will broaden your options and provide a greater choice, from budget to luxury, quiet to raucous…

Cancun itself is a lively centre, its development focused on long, thin land mass that stretches up Caribbean Sea and is distinguished by its ‘7’ shape. With a calm lagoon on one side and the glittering Caribbean Sea on the other, staying in Cancun is a sensory treat – even many of the high-rise hotels have been styled with influences of Mayan architecture in a nod to the country’s history.

Though pre-tourism Cancun lacked greenery, the ‘hotel zone’ is now awash with verdant finery, particularly the golf courses that provide an added attraction for those that enjoy a relaxing round to supplement their holiday. Indeed, Cancun is a tempting option for those wanting to revive and refresh, with the various high-quality spas feeling just that bit more sumptuous when surrounded by Caribbean glory.

Even so, these provide choice moments of serenity amidst the otherwise bustling ambience of this sunny resort. Indeed, vibrant and vivacious go a long way to describing many features in Cancun, from the atmosphere, to the people, to even the cuisine, where distinctive Mexican dishes, such as Cochinita Pibil – pork marinated in annatto and sour orange juice – and Pescado Tikin Xic – baked fish wrapped in banana leaves - temper international classics that otherwise cater for the ‘temporary residents’.

Naturally, the nightlife in Cancun ensures the sun is no prerequisite for an enjoyable time, and nearly everyone comes out to play, dancing on the sands, Corona in hand and embracing the party atmosphere… The Four Tops may have famously gone ‘Loco in Acapulco’, but an ode to ‘Crazy in Cancun’ can’t be far away.

Of course, the energetic scene in Cancun’s holiday hub will not make everyone’s travel wish-list, prompting many to venture further down the coast, into the Riviera Maya district, towards Playa del Carmen.

Maintaining the splendid draw of its ivory beaches, lapped by unspoiled waters, Playa del Carmen has capitalised on the tourism boom in the area, growing from a fishing town into a fully-fledged attraction, with many resorts, most notably luxury hotels, appearing along the pristine shore. Even so, strict rules imposed to maintain the town’s charm have limited developments to five-storeys, ensuring Playa del Carmen is pleasantly more intimate than its Cancun sister destination.

Though defined by its tourism influx, the natural beauty and a captivating legacy that attracts such resorts remains the defining element of this region, particularly in Riviera Maya, which includes the walled city of Tulum.

Ironically, given that parts of the region barely had a name just 40 years ago, it is thriving with historical significance, particularly in Tulum to the south of Riviera Maya, one of the better preserved Maya sites and a draw for tourists with its distinctive architecture, topped by the Pyramid El Castillo.

As spectacular as its on-land scenery is, it is Cancun’s stunning underwater world that arguably sets it apart from other holiday destinations, thanks in part to the dramatic cenotes and caves, as well as being home to the second-largest coral reef on earth.

Indeed, the diving opportunities along the Cancun, Rivera Maya coastline are some of the world’s finest, with that shimmering surface hiding a plethora of enchanting aquatic life, with unique plants and animals calling the reef their home.

For more cautious divers, the Riviera Maya tourist corridor is home to many breathtaking cenotes, caves and passages that were considered by the Mayans to be sacred. These natural marvels are almost unique to the Yucatan Peninsula and with many still remarkably untouched, they are an imperative stop on any holiday to the Cancun, Riviera Maya region.

The vast Dos Ojos is one such cenote, the flooded caves proving popular draws for many, especially snorkelers, who will appreciate the fairly shallow and crystal-clear waters.

Those who prefer to stay on dry land should instead make time for a visit to the interesting Xcaret and Xel-Ha theme parks, self-proclaimed eco-tourism sites that will educate and enthral in equal measures. Though shows, treks and attractions will captivate visitors with shorter attention spans, both parks include portions of the Mayan archaeological sites that lend their respective names, allowing a unique glimpse at the country’s history amidst all the modern paraphernalia.

While purists will argue that Mexico doesn’t have the essence that distinguishes other Caribbean long-established destinations, with their colonial charms and island intimacy, Cancun is simply another rendition of how to do a Caribbean holiday. 

Put it this way, if the Caribbean was a cocktail, Jamaica brings the rum, Barbados adds the tropical juice and Antigua puts the cherry on top…  a Cancun holiday, on the other hand, is the naughty shot of tequila at the side!


Images Courtesy Mexican Tourist Board.

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