Hard Rock Hotels & Resorts
By Judy Waytiuk
Next to the U.S., which accounts for 58 per cent of tourists to Mexico, Canada at 17 per cent is its biggest source of tourism – and Cancun’s the biggest Mexican tourism draw by far, hauling in more than 3.3 million visitors annually, eagerly seeking sand and sea – snorkeling, fishing, golf, scuba diving, surfing and sailing. But tourism numbers to Mexico slipped a little last year, and with 72,000 glitzy hotel rooms to be filled alongside increasingly-tough competition from other Mexican travel hotspots, Cancun has to keep on top of its game to stay on top of the numbers.
The Strip & Beyond
New construction’s not an option on the filled-up narrow peninsula that comprises the destination’s original hotel zone, but re-invention is. The former Cancun Palace is now the all-inclusive 12-storey, 600-room Hard Rock Hotel Cancun, and in 2013, the Aventura Cove Palace and adjacent Aventura Spa Palace will become the Hard Rock Riviera Maya, with a family side and an adults-only side: 489 family rooms and 777 guestrooms for adults along with four bars and a grotto pool that goes nightclub after hours.
Palace Resorts’ Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort has a new saltwater aquarium and dolphinarium with eight dolphins, managed by Dolphin Discovery. Riu Palace Mexico Playa del Carmen re-opened in December 2012 after a $20 million renovation, and off the mainland, Sunscape Sabor Cozumel opened in mid-January 2013 as a combination of Sabor Cozumel and Regency Cozumel.
But arguably the best part of vacationing in Cancun involves stepping off that beautiful beach for some local exploration.
Cancun itself has grown over the years into a city of some 500,000 people with a plethora of dining, shopping and nightlife choices. Its ecological reserve offers a slice of natural serenity, and for partiers, nightlife runs well towards dawn with nightclubs, discos and party cruises along the bay and Laguna Nichupte on the south side of the strip, which is actually a long, narrow, sandy peninsula.
Veteran Cancun vacationers will want to strap on snorkel or scuba gear and keep track of the world’s first underwater sculpture park, the Cancun Underwater Museum. New sculptures are added every year with a final goal of more than 400 life-size human figures which will ultimately become crusted over with marine and reef life. One of the goals of the museum in the Cancun and Isla Mujeres National Marine Park is to ease pressure on Cancun’s increasingly-challenged natural reef system.
While all-inclusive buffets serve up a boggling variety of North American-based food, sampling the genuine local cuisine’s a big part of vacationing – the Maya weren’t just builders of mysterious ancient cities, they were pretty crafty chefs. Try the thick, savory chirmole sauce that can also be a soup, egg-stuffed enchiladas in green sauce (papatz tzul), relleno negro (chicken or turkey in a thick black sauce) and cochinita pibil, a sort of pulled pork dish. Fresh seafood’s a given, and local beverages Jamaica (sort of like cranberry cocktail, but made with dried hibiscus flower petals) and horchata (a cinnamon-spiced rice milk) are well worth hunting for on a menu.
Fairmont Hotels & Resorts
Get Your Indiana Jones On
A little further afield, Mayan ruins beckon. Get an orientation on the subject at the Cancun Museum, El Rey right in the Cancun hotel zone, and El Meco just a few kilometres north of Cancun. Hop the Playa del Carmen ferry to Cozumel and make a visit to the San Gervasio ruins part of the daytrip. Then plunge deeper into the slightly more remote mainland ruins at the well-trodden pyramids of Chichen-Itza, the smaller Tulum ruins on the coast further south, and the massive grounds and climbable pyramid at Coba.
For overnight immersion into the jungle at Chitzen Itza, a couple of hotels are working hard on the conservation side of tourism. The spa/boutique Hacienda Chichen Resort has designed ecologically-oriented visits to archaeological zones, cenotes, natural caves, bird watching and Spanish Colonial history. The Lodge at Chichen Itza, right in the archaeological site, operates charming, rustic Mayan-style bungalows and a tranquil ambience with lots of local flavour. Canny travellers will spend a couple of nights at one of these hotels, to get up early and beat the crowds at Chichen Itza and then sleep over before heading back to Cancun.
If all that’s a little too tame, there are plenty of extreme sports: Cancun has one of the highest bungee jumps in Mexico (the 70-metre Regio bungee); dozens of cenotes offer unique snorkeling and diving, especially through tour operators like Alltournative and EcoColors Tours; and other operators provide kayaking and bicycling tours. A half hour’s drive south of Cancun, Selvatica adventure park features 133 hectares of jungle, three high-rope circuits including the Aventura 11-cable zipline, a new 12-zipline Extremo course, and the first A.C.C.T. (Association for Challenge Course Technology) fully certified Aerial Trek (high ropes course with over 20 elements) in the Americas.
While Cancun’s traditionally viewed as a partiers’ paradise, especially during spring break season – the region’s working hard to get on the green bandwagon.
Not far south of Cancun, an all-day immersion into the eco-park Xplor takes explorers underground into vast caverns, and older parks Xel-Ha and Xcaret offer more traditional tourism-oriented experiences based around Mayan culture and history with a little snorkeling and a healthy, all-natural dose of eco-tourism for variety.
Newer hotels have embraced ecologically-sound management methodology.
Hacienda Tres Rios Resort and Nature Park gets most of its power through solar sources, runs a native plant and tree nursery, and recycles, re-uses and reduces consumption passionately. Tucked into a 131-hectare nature park near Playa del Carmen, Tres Ríos opened in late 2008, the first luxury resort in the region to go green. With 273 suites now, the resort plans to ultimately operate five hotels with more than 1,700 suites, full- and part-time residences, marina, a premium spa, beach club and convention centre.
At the Fairmont Mayakoba, Rosewood Mayakoba, and Banyan Tree Mayakoba, all located between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, the hotels are connected by water channels through mangroves, and are designed to encourage nature walks, jungle zip lines, and cenote-diving. The golf course is Audobon-certified; among other eco-friendly management methods, trees that die here are left standing as habitat for birds and small animals. The resort partners with Community Tours Sian Ka’an, a community-based consortium of three tour operators who run programs into the nearby Biosphere Reserve/UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Community-based tourism greening’s happening, too. North of Cancun, the little-known Punta Verde Project integrates local communities and nature into guided exploration of part or all of the Puerta Verde (Green Door) jungle trail. It can be booked – well in advance, since the operation tends to be heavily seasonal – through www.kanche.org. Short daytrips are possible, but the full trail is a four-day, three-night adventure. The organization involves seven Mayan communities in a route through the Yucatan jungles, where visitors kayak, explore caves, swim with whale sharks off the island of Holbox, and do a little semi-civilized (cots have mosquito nets) camping.
From sublimely luxurious hotels to thoroughly-natural adventure choices, Cancun in recent years has managed to expand its destination horizons to appeal to a wide range of tourism interests. Yet the Mayan flavour of the place remains intact, its history has become a valued part of all the aspects of tourism here, and it's definitely playing at the top of its game.
Cancun’s Maya Museum
Celebrating The Maya
Cancun’s Maya Museum is now open, celebrating the culture of the area’s oldest residents. Housed in a complex of five buildings, the Museum honours and explains the history and mysteries of this ancient civilization.
In the Sala Maya, discover aspects of Mayan architecture, art and other artifacts that ancient Mayans used on a daily basis. Sculptures and architectural fragments of Chichen Itza, the Yucatan and a collection of ancient engraved bricks from the city of Comalcalco in Tabasco are also exhibited. In all, 350 artifacts are on display throughout the Museum.
Next door, the San Miguelito archeological site recently opened as well. This location was inhabited over 800 years ago until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
Cancun’s Maya Museum and the San Miguelito archeological site are located on Kukulkan Boulevard in Cancun’s Hotel Zone. Museum hours: Tuesday – Sunday 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. and Thursdays from 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. For more information, visit www.cancun.travel