All-inclusive hotels with epic views of the Mexican Caribbean? Check.
Endless expanses of white, sandy beaches stretching as far as you can see? Check.
Turquoise waters lapping gently at your feet while you laze in the sun, read a book, browse your tablet, or get some work done on your laptop? Check.
Year-round sun and an endless supply of travelers of all types, from all corners of the globe? Check.
English-friendly environment where you can ease your way into the Spanish language without a crash course? Check.
There’s a multitude of reasons that people come to Cancun. It is, after all, the crown jewel of Mexico when it comes to the tourist industry as well as coastal real estate. And while at first glance you’ll see the above reasons portrayed in nearly every photo or blog post you come across on Google or Facebook or Twitter and beyond, one thing you almost never hear mention of is the mainland.
Even the Wikipedia entry for Cancun makes mention of the “Mexican” version of the city with a semi-racist undertone (if you read between the lines) of two separate versions of the same place. One for the foreigners, and one for the brown-skinned locals.
And it’s not an untrue fact; there are two very unique and completely different Cancuns, one that is heavily promoted around the world as being one of the premier beach destinations on the planet, and the other being the heart and soul of the Hotel Zone. But without the mainland, the Hotel Zone would cease to exist. And vice versa.
The reason for the distinction? The mainland is where the bulk of the employees working in the Hotel Zone live on a day-to-day basis. The rental rates are three to five times cheaper than they are in the all-inclusive tourist zone, and beyond that, the only grocery stores, markets and the bulk of the infrastructure that keeps everything flowing are all located in the mainland Cancun: the beating heart of the overall sprawl.
If you aren’t careful, if you dismiss the mainland as nothing more than a transportation hub (there is the ADO bus station downtown plus the international airport serving the entire Riviera Maya), it’s entirely possible to leave Cancun without ever actually experiencing anything remotely Mexican, because let’s face it: the Hotel Zone isn’t really Mexico at all; rather, it’s an English-language beach resort specifically marketed to foreigners from North America and beyond.
But there is a living, breathing city to be discovered once you dig beneath the surface. A thriving culture that marches to the beat of a very different – and very Mexican – drum. From Market 23 with its freshly-butchered meat stalls and produce stands, to the weekend events at Parque las Palapas, to the weekly presentations and displays put on at La Casa Del Cultura, to the local art community at places like Pasearte, to the lavanderias on every street corner and beyond…Mexico exists within the Cancun sprawl, but only if you are looking close enough to discover it.
Make no mistake: the culture in Cancun is not related to history. You won’t find colonial ruins here, as the city itself is barely 40 years old. However, the surrounding Maya culture and ruins celebrate centuries of development to dig into, and beyond that there is a thriving Mexican overtone to the mainland city that is the perfect stepping-off point if you don’t happen to speak any Spanish and just want to get your feet wet while preparing for prolonged exposure deeper into the country or further south into Central or South America.
The main difference between the two is obvious at first-glance. While the Hotel Zone is resort complexes and condominiums and townhouses stacked together, Cancun proper is two and three story typical block structures that you’ll find throughout all of Mexico. The older sections of the city are laid out in triangles known as “super manzanas”, or super blocks, while the areas within each super manzana are known simply as manzanas (yes, the same as apples).
Each area generally has its own school, little grocery store, church and built-in infrastructure. But as you go into the Hotel Zone or south of the city towards the airport you’ll see the northern influence on the architecture and city planning; new developments follow the grid pattern you’ll find in most other North American destinations throughout the United States and Canada.
If you only have a brief window of time, it’s hard to see beyond the surface layer of Cancun because you’ll spend most of your time on the beach and the all-inclusive restaurants at the resort. But if you want to set up shop and live for three to six months, there’s cable and fiberoptic Internet solutions, 3G and 4G networks, the aforementioned airport, plenty of supermarkets, a phenomenal medical tourism market, international banking options, parks, plazas, restaurants, and easy access to the beaches via the public transportation system that runs around the clock.
And while it’s not as cheap as central Mexico, mainland Cancun is more affordable than the Hotel Zone, although you sacrifice waking up to morning beach views in exchange for a lowered cost of living. The three of us (myself + Cristina + Devlin) lived very comfortably in downtown centro with a total cost of living around 800 USD per month for everything; rent, utilities, food. When I was just renting a studio for myself prior to that, my monthly bills maxed out at around $600.
That being said, if you don’t mind spending 1500 – 3000 USD per month in rent, the Hotel Zone has incredible views and a complete Westernized infrastructure. The only downside is that there aren’t any grocery stores in the tourist area, so you’ll at least have to bounce out to the mainland once in a while to pick up supplies.
Cancun is Mexican at its core, which means the weekends are always busy and you can time your trips appropriately. In a society where people aren’t plugged in 24/7, families still go out on the weekends, as does just about everyone else. Which means the parks, plazas and malls are absolutely bursting at the seams with people on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You’ll never be wanting for an event to attend, discounts on clothes, open markets and parades, fiestas and general revelry in the bohemian style…not to mention have access to the entire Riviera Maya with its myriad beaches, cenotes and ruins throughout.
It’s easy to get caught up in the laid back pace of life. I originally only came here for three months to learn Spanish and finish my scuba diving certification while preparing to dive off into the southern parts of the hemisphere. I still haven’t done the latter, but the former led me to meeting Cris, which in turn led to me spending the past 4+ years in the Riviera Maya, getting married and immersing myself fully into the Mexican culture.
If you are looking to explore more of the Maya civilization, enjoy an affordable cost of living and have direct access to some of the best coastlines on the planet, not to mention an international airport giving you access to the overall Central and South American sprawl south, Cancun is definitely worth looking at under a microscope. The mythical Spring Break and hordes of overweight American tourists are nothing more than a distant possibility and rarely venture out of their all-inclusive resorts, so you have nothing to fear and everything to gain in terms of beginner-level immersion into the overall Latin culture.
Author Bio: T.W. Anderson is the founder, head blogger, editor in chief, social media strategist and co tour leader for Marginal Boundaries, a Spanish and English travel brand with over 12,000 readers and 1+ million monthly views. He’s been traveling full time since January of 2008 and focuses on immersion travel, or long-term stays in countries around the world. He’s lived in Bulgaria, Colombia and then Mexico since 2010. he has published 12 books and is a regular speaker and teacher on social media management, plus the head teacher for the travel brand boot camps in Mexico from Marginal Boundaries. Tim will be leading a session on Facebook Advertising for the travel industry at TBEX Cancun.