Chris (sweet, considerate man that he is) planned a surprise trip to celebrate our 25th anniversary, although from the get-go it was destined to be a surprise that wouldn’t remain a surprise. To keep trip costs in check, Chris booked airfare and hotel using points. The kicker? He needed my Starwood points to book the hotel (!). Chris assumed a Starwood email would reveal our destination but it was Southwest who outed him; when I checked in for a Pittsburgh flight in March, the Southwest App’s home page highlighted upcoming trips. So funny and quite characteristic of our marriage: adventurous but ever-practical!
The trip held a few firsts for me: first time to Mexico, first time we booked day-long sightseeing bus tours, first time I set my alarm for 2:30am to leave for a trip (zoiks!). We’ve flown on plenty of early-morning flights, but since our house is on the market we had to leave it show-ready. I guess that’s another first (and hopefully last): cleaning and tidying in the dead of night.
Although Cancun was a celebratory trip, it was also a working vacation and I wrote every day (another first!). My initial impression of Cancun, formed at the airport waiting for our hotel shuttle: “sultry, dirty and friendly.” Looking back, the description holds up. Cancun is a study in contrasts with the Hotel Zone’s pristine and glittering 5-star properties, and the areas in between a touch grimy and smelly, generally begging for a good scrubbing. No matter where we traveled (in up-scale restaurants, sightseeing tours, or on public transportation), the people were open and good-natured.
This article gives summary info for our 5-day trip; future posts will dig into sightseeing details for the Mayan Museum in Cancun and excursions to Chichén Itzá and five different cenotes. This trip summary includes a packing checklist and advice for traveling in Mexico.
When to Visit
I was glad we traveled in early May, both for weather and tourism. Temperatures hovered in the 80s, perfect for the beach but uncomfortably hot at Chichén Itzá; it must be suffocating in the summer when heat and humidity increase. One of our tour guides revealed that Cancun is busiest July 15 to August 20, December 15 to January 6, and March to April during spring break (a long span since Europe, the United States and Mexico each have different break times). He feels it’s best to visit mid-January through February for warm days and cool evenings, and in early May before it gets too hot and crowded.
He stressed that high season should be avoided if possible since prices can double.
As you can see below, we spent about $900 out-of-pocket for the trip. Since we traveled on points, airfare and hotel were covered. We splurged on sightseeing, booking two all-day excursions, and though food was inexpensive (perhaps because it was so cheap?) our restaurant tab gradually increased as we hit ever-nicer establishments. The breakdown for our 5-day trip:
- Airfare: Chris used 32,000 Southwest points for his ticket (from the pool of 110,000 required to earn the Companion Pass). I traveled using his Southwest Companion Pass which cost $40 in fees.
- Hotel: 20,000 Starwood points (5,000 per night)
- Chichén Itzá tour: $144 for the 2 of us, plus $20 tip.
- Xenotes tour: $202 for 2 of us, plus $20 tip.
- Meals: $415 which is $83 per day, or $41.50 per person per day.
- Groceries: $15
- ATM: $34, mainly for eating out, bus transportation, and minor tipping.
- Airport Transportation: $53
Sightseeing aside, we could have easily spent less had we stuck to cheaper restaurants. Another $30 could be shaved by taking the public bus to and from the airport (more on that below).
The Aloft Cancun met our basic needs but I would not recommend it. From glossy online photos, I knew the hotel would have a modern look with bright colors, but like models in fashion mags, those flawless images clashed with reality. Our room felt worn and austere; in general, the hotel needed maintenance and a quality paint job.
The rooftop garden area is the Aloft’s saving grace with a sparkling pool, comfortable loungers, and a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding area. We liked the location for easy access to restaurants, a big grocery store, and the beach, just a 5-minute walk away.
We packed a lot in for such a short trip and scheduled a nice mix of activities. Our rough itinerary:
- Day 1: Arrived late afternoon. Checked in and went grocery shopping. After dinner, grabbed beach towels and beer and walked to the beach to take in the sunset.
- Day 2: Took the Chichén Itzá tour which visited the Hubiku cenote, Chichén Itzá, and the colonial city of Valladolid. The tour spanned 12 1/2 hours, 7:30am to 8pm. Long day!
- Day 3: Enjoyed a beach run and walk along the jetty, then worked at the hotel’s rooftop garden. After lunch, explored the Mayan Museum in Cancun and worked a bit more.
- Day 4: Explored four different cenotes on the Xenotes Oasis Maya tour. Went swimming, zip-lining, snorkeling, kayaking, and rappelling. The tour lasted 8 hours, 9am to 5pm.
- Day 5: Departure day. Started the day with a street run (nice for a change of pace, but lots of traffic) before checking out and heading to the airport by 11am.
We don’t normally book group tours, but enjoyed both of these for the simplicity (just showed up and they did the rest) and day-long access to informed guides.
Each time we ate out we chose a different restaurant, and though unintentional, gradually stepped up in price. Porfirio’s was our favorite for both the food and ambiance, and we visited twice, once for dinner, and the second time for dessert and a nightcap. In order, we dined at:
- Mextreme: Good value, but basic and not much flavor.
- Casa Tequila: Chris loved their guacamole sauce.
- La Destileria: The restaurant is on the water and has a gorgeous view form the porch. I devoured my chicken molcajete.
- Porfirio’s: Also on the water with serene porch seating. Dinner came with free chips, three salsas, and a delicious bean dip. My Camarones Diabla was outstanding. Came back another night for drinks and churros served in a miniature street vendor cart. They were having trouble with the credit card machine and gave us free “strawberry cheesecake shots” for the delay, made with Frangelica. Very nice!
- Fred’s: Lovely place but too upscale for me; I didn’t care for the formality in this setting. The complimentary mango sorbet was a nice surprise.
We shopped at the Chedraui grocery store three times for bug spray, snacks and drinks. So cheap! Beer was reasonable in restaurants at 52 pesos for a Tecata Light, but in the grocery store, we paid just 64 pesos for a 6-pack of Corona Light (about $3.44).
Since receiving Global Entry with TSA Pre-Check in November 2015, we’ve glided through security in minutes every. single. time. For this Cancun trip, we waltzed up to security, were summarily denied TSA Pre, and sent to the regular line. What?! Incredulous, we marched back to the Southwest counter, but they confirmed: Southwest doesn’t support TSA Pre for international flights. Ugh. The line was huge and moved at a glacial pace, making us appreciate TSA Pre-Check all the more.
Once in Cancun, it took 20 minutes to get through passport control and customs. And though multiple sources warned about running the gauntlet at the airport, we did NOT get accosted by timeshare huskers. After all the build-up, I was a little bummed.
Happily, Global Entry worked on our return to the United States, and we sailed through passport control in minutes.
Cancun Airport Transfers
Chris booked our airport transfers through Olympus Tours. They were on-time, professional, and Chris enjoyed practicing his Spanish with the drivers.
The rides were relatively inexpensive at $52 for two round trips to the airport for both of us, but we could have spent just $20 had we taken public transportation. The bus from the airport to downtown Cancun cost $4 per person, and local buses (including downtown to the Hotel Zone) were about $0.60 per trip.
Cancun Ground Transportation
Traveling by public bus was a breeze in Cancun. Each trip cost about 10.50 pesos (or $0.60) per person and bus stops were plentiful - just look for the simple blue or white sign with a bus icon. We took the bus to the Mayan Museum and to restaurants for both lunch and dinner.
We didn’t consider renting a car, but quick research revealed that cars may look cheap until fees get tacked on and drive the price up. Insurance is the biggie since your regular insurance isn’t valid in Mexico. This article from Trip Advisor explains insurance issues along with police and gasoline scams to be wary of.
Next Trip to Cancun
Since we couldn’t get enough of cenotes and ruins, and would love to snorkel in the area, we might just have to return to Cancun someday to check out these activities that fellow travelers recommended:
- Take the ferry to Isla Mujeres
- Visit the ruins at Coba and/or Tulum. Coba is higher on my list since it can be climbed!
- Snorkel at Punta Nizuc, Musa (the underwater museum), or one of the other recommended spots in the area.
- Explore Xel-Ha, especially if we have kids along.
- Take a run along Playa Delfines
- Visit the El Ray archaeological site in Cancun.
¡Hasta la vista!
This post is part of a Trip Summary: 5 Sultry Days in Cancun