Holiday Extras Essential Guide to Mexico
Introducing… our Mexico Travel Guide!
Hola intrepid explorers and welcome to our Mexico travel guide; the only place to find all-the-need-to-know stuff about travelling better in Cancún and the Riviera Maya. From tourist resorts, essential information and bundles of tips about language, history, money and general things to do, we've got you covered right here in this Mexico travel guide.
Since Mexico is muy grande, we're going to focus on Cancún since that's where spent a lot of our time, but we'll also cover a few other areas from our jam-packed excursions to give you best overview of the country.
Cancún sits on the Caribbean coast in the southeastern Mexican state of Quintana Roo and you'll probably know it for its exotic nightlife and swanky all-inclusive hotels, but there's another side to this popular holiday hotspot that we think it's totally worth leaving the free bar to do some exploring.
Drive a couple of hours from the city and take in some Mayan culture, explore historical ruins, some super-sexy beaches, and go back to nature for some gorgeously gorgeous gorgeousness. Sound tempting? Well, keep reading and see for yourself.
Here's what you can expect from this Essential guide to Mexico:
- How to get to Cancún
- The best ways to travel around Cancún
- Top things to do when on holiday in Cancún
- Staying safe in Cancún
- Money in Cancún
- Speaking Spanish in Mexico
- Traveling sustainably in Cancún
How to get to Cancún
Flying to Cancún from the UK is totally easy. We flew with good ol' British Airways and thanks to a leisurely pitstop in Clubrooms airport lounge, the 10-hour-plus flight went surprisingly quick.
Annoyingly our flight was at the crack of dawn, which was made all the better by staying at a nearby airport hotel the night before, which meant getting up was a lot less agonising. The key here is to be as prepared as possible, so putting your car in an airport car park the night before is also a big win for reducing unwanted stress levels ahead of that epic flight.
Do I need a visa to enter Mexico?
Those with British passports don't need to worry about having a visa to enter Mexico, but you will be asked to fill out a landing card before passing through customs.
We found out the hard way that IT'S SUPER IMPORTANT TO KEEP THAT LANDING CARD SAFE – you'll need it to leave the country and if you don't have it then it's an on-the-spot fine of $500 (that's pesos, not dollars, but we'll cover that a bit later on). And to really add insult to injury it has to be paid in cash. Fortunately, there was an ATM but it does charge, so just bear that in mind.
Getting out of the airport
Bear in mind that Cancún alone sees way over 4 million tourists visit each year and for the most part they know how to accommodate for so many visitors, for example we were met by a sea of English-speaking transport companies as we left the airport.
Now, it has to be said that if you're booking your holiday to Mexico through a travel agent, then chances are that they've organised transfers for you, which is lovely. But, if you're freestylin' and doing it yourself, like we did, you need to think about organising those transfers beforehand. Naturally, we're obviously super-organised and used Holiday Extras to book our airport transfers. That being said, it's worth being prepared for a very small amount of organised chaos since queuing is a pastime solely practised by us Brits, but the alternative and winging it looked a lot more hectic.
Shuttles are great if you're on a budget or looking for a cheap way to travel to Cancún. Take the ADO bus company (Mexico's version of a Megabus or Greyhound) to the big downtown Cancún bus station and most shuttles include air con and wifi, so yay!
From the bus station you could take a cab or the R1, R2, R15, and R27 buses that go to the Hotel Zone and will say Hoteles. Although this is the cheaper option it is the longest way to get to the Hotel Zone and could take you triple the amount of time than booking a private transfer.
The best ways to travel around Cancún
Real Mexican culture is best outside of Cancún and many hotels provide excursions that include transport. If you're going at it alone to explore Cancún you'll need to make your own way, which fortunately is straightforward enough thanks to plenty of transport options on offer.
Outside of Cancún we chose to a hire car for the majority of getting about. Admittedly, this is one of the most expensive options, but it is by far the easiest and most convenient if you're feeling confident. Alternatively, you can arrange a private driver who will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel. We did this for one trip and our amazing driver pulled over for snacks when we asked him.
For traveling within Cancún we took the local bus into town; the R1 and R2 run through the Hotel Zone to downtown and come every 5 minutes. Use these services to get from your hotel to the beach as well as travelling into Cancún town if you fancy hitting the markets for some shopping. These buses were simple and cheap with a single ticket costing $11 pesos, which works out to be less than 50p.
The ADO buses run to all tourist locations and can be picked up from designated bus stops. Just consider that these buses can take a little longer as they frequent multiple stops.
Another budget option is the Colectivo. These are 10 – 16 seater mini buses that not only run more frequently than the ADO style buses but are also cheaper and have air-conditioning. The vans are differentiated by number and colour.
Top things to do when on holiday in Cancún
We've already established that Cancún's the place to go if you want beaches and nightlife, but there's more to explore outside of the city and it's all completely unique to Mexico, making it an absolute must for any self-respecting Wanderluster.
From history to nature, Mexico has it abundance. Let's take a look at our favourite things to do in Cancún.
1. Chichen Itza
One of the Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza is a famous Mayan Ruin 2 hours from Cancún and most hotels will organise excursion packages here. This stunning stone pyramid was built by the ancient Mayans who believed that climbing to the top put them closer to heaven.
Chichen Itza is home to a collection of Mayan pyramids including the 24-metre high Kukulkan Pyramid, aka El Castillo, akaThe Castle. It's a popular tourist attraction and can get really busy, so our advice is go early to avoid both the crowds and the heat.
2. Mexican cenote
Cenotes are freshwater swimming holes in caves that are unique to this part of the world. They formed naturally about 6500 years ago and the collapse of limestone acts as a water filtration system.
Ancient Mayans revered these water sources during dry seasons and would form communities around these sacred wells, which were believed to be portals to the afterlife…
The water can be a little cold but it can be super refreshing in the baking heat. Plus they're also rich in lovely mineral and cheaper than a designer spa treatment back at the hotel. Get a local, ie. your private driver, to take you to the best cenotes. Ours took us to Ik-il near Chichen itza and a lesser known one called Multum, which happened to be a little quieter. Also, avoid visiting Cenotes on a Sunday – it's a free day for locals and can get super busy.
Note: It's important to avoid using sunscreen and bug spray before diving in to keep the water as clean as possible.
Coba is another Mayan ruin worth visiting during your trip to Mexico, mainly because it's less popular with tourists than other ruins in the area. Additionally (and perhaps the best bit) you can hire bikes and pedal through the surrounding jungle. If you don't fancy cycling or climbing you could walk or hire a tuk-tuk and the rider will show you the sites.
Another selling point is being able to climb to the tallest ruin in Mexico, Lxmoja. The 42-metre climb is steep and completely exposed to the sun, so make sure you top up on sunscreen before you climb. Views from the top are stunning and the perfect place for a sweaty selfie.
Top tip: The ruins are also close to many centotes and you could combine two visits into one day.
Tulum is gorgeous.
OK, there's more… for 7 miles of untouched white sands and clear-blue Caribbean sea, Tulum is possibly the closest to paradise you'll get, and the 2-hour drive from Chichen Itza and Cancún is well worth it.
Tulum's also home to one of the last built Mayan cities and once served as a major port for trading way back in the 13th century. The ruins are close to the ocean and there's also a strip of great local bars and restaurants.
Top tip: For a more authentic experience and laid back vibe, visit this coastal town for local produce and cute boutique hotels and shops.
5. Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres is a small island off the coast of Cancún and makes for the perfect day trip as it's only a 20 minute boat ride from the Hotel Zone. We took the Ultramar ferry from Embarcadero Pier which happened to be right next to our hotel. The ferry from Puerto Juarez, close to downtown Cancún, is also available and has more frequent crossings.
As for wildlife, we saw dolphins off the coast, hundreds of iguanas roaming the rocks and also visited a turtle sanctuary Tortugranja (Turtle Farm). Turtles are an endangered species but in Latin America they are still killed for their eggs and meat. Tortugranja was founded in the 1980's by a local fisherman with the intention of protecting the turtles and their eggs. It's good to know that the offspring of the turtles released from the secure beach next to the sanctuary are also protected when they return each year.
Finally, snorkeling and scuba diving are really popular with visitors to the island. You won't be pushed to find a company that'll let you dive with whale sharks or visit MUSA, the underwater sculpture garden by artist Jason deCaires which is designed to attract people away from the famous Manchones Reef and allow it time to regenerate.
Staying Safe in Cancún
Cancún is a city built for tourists and has the largest police presence in all of Mexico, but as you probably know, it's always good to be vigilant. Here are some safety tips for traveling in Cancún.
- Watch out for pickpockets, especially when in busy areas like the markets.
- Many hotels will filter water themselves but if you're out exploring, only drink bottled water, even if it means paying higher prices for water at tourist locations, it's worth it to avoid getting ill.
- Avoid using Uber, the rules regarding the service are a bit of a grey area in Cancún. A local advised us to always stick with the regulated taxi companies.
- Don't leave drinks unattended at clubs and bars and refuse any 'free' drinks offered to you.
What's the money in Cancún?
The peso is the currency in Mexico, which uses the symbol $.
Confusingly, you can also use American Dollars in Mexico but as a general rule of thumb, always accept change back in the currency you spent to avoid getting ripped off. If you pay in American dollars and get the change back in pesos you will always lose out.
Most hotels are able to change currency for you, and if not there are plenty of banks around that will.
If you go to the markets then haggling is expected, so don't be afraid to get a good deal and never take the first price. Always negotiate!
How much did we spend?
Here's a breakdown of what we spent during our Cancún trip:
- Direct return flights with British Airways cost – £577 per person
- Holiday Extras worldwide travel insurance, standard cover – £16 per person
- Holiday Extras airport transfer, 4 seater car, one way to Tulum – £35
- x1 hotel room in Tulum – £57 per night
- Enchiladas in Cancún – $4 pesos (about 15p)
- Entrance to Chichen Itza – $9 pesos (about 34p)
- Entrance to Ik-il cenote – $4 (about 15p)
- Return ferry to Isla Mujeres – $17 each person (about 65p)
- Entrance to Coba ruins – $4 pesos each (15p)
Speaking Spanish in Mexico
What phrases should I learn for my Cancún holiday?
- Hello: Hola
- Yes: Si
- No: No (easy enough)
- Please: Por favor
- Do you speak English?: Habla usted Inglés
- May I have the bill please?: Puedo tener la cuenta por favor
- How much is it?: Cuánto cuesta?
- Thank you: Gracías.
- Goodbye: Adiós.
Traveling sustainably in Cancún
Sustainable travel in Mexico is important to the locals and the environment, and we like to know that our experiences are having a positive impact on the places we visit, so here are our tips for traveling responsibly in Cancún.
Avoid taking pictures with a flash when on the beach at night. The baby turtles hatching mistake it for moonlight and end up walking in the opposite direction to the sea.
Speaking of the sea, don't put sunscreen and bug spray on and then go straight for a dip. The chemicals in these products can be dangerous to sea life and disrupt the natural balance of the water. Put your cream on a half an hour before swimming so it has time to absorb into the skin. This rule applies to cenotes too.
Try to buy gifts from markets instead of your hotel gift shop to support local businesses in the area. We can recommend Market 28 for beautiful mexican souvenirs.
If you're staying in an all-inclusive hotel with an abundance of drinks and food, avoid throwing away plastic cups after every use. Re-use them and say no to straws because single use plastic often ends up in the ocean and causes tremendous damage to sea life.
Avoid buying coral. For one thing, buying coral is generally illegal, although there's a tenuous loophole which means some naughty toe-rags can legally harvest back coral so long as it comes with a government label and comes from a licenced source. Another thing, many are fake and fobbed off to unsuspecting tourists. The best policy is to not buy it and leave the coral where it belongs… in the ocean.
For more information on traveling sustainably visit www.thetravelfoundation.org.uk
So that's everything you need to know about Cancún! There's quite a lot to take in but, if you take one piece of advice from this guide, it's to escape the city and experience a wealth of history, culture and natural beauty available in this awesome country.
If you're reading this and think we have missed out a top tip then let us know and leave a comment to share with other travellers!
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Exchange rates accurate at time of writing.Top