As one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mexico, Cancún attracts about four million visitors each year to its pristine white beaches, its top-notch resort and hotel scene, and its crystal blue water. The city is home to about 140 hotels that line the beaches in an area called the hotel zone, attracting all types of guests, from traveling business people to timeshare owners to families. The city is probably most famous for its Mayan ruins, which dot the landscape around this southern region of México. From El Rey to Tulum, the ancient stone remains are unique archaeological attractions that tell the original story of the now bustling modern city. Many people also visit the area for it’s great dive sites. Colorful coral reefs and diverse sea life are located right offshore, and a variety of inland cenotes (deep natural wells) attract diving enthusiasts to explore the rich underwater worlds of Cancún.
Before hotels, tourism, and even Spanish conquistadors, Cancún was populated with Mayan natives; many of the ruins in the area point to Mayan civilization existing from about 400 B.C. to 1500 A.D. The Mayans were a very advanced society, constructing elaborate architectural marvels, utilizing advanced farming techniques, generating astronomical and mathematical theories, and developing sophisticated cultural and artistic technologies such as calendars and hieroglyphics.
Around 1517, the first Spanish explorers arrived on the Yucatán peninsula and found flourishing Mayan civilizations. The Spanish worked hard to conquer the Mayan people, under the pretext that there was much gold and silver to be found in the natives’ land. By the late 17th century, much of the Mayan population had died off or been conquered by the Spanish conquistadors, effectively signaling the end of Mayan civilization.
It wasn’t until the 1840s when American explorer John L. Stephens began his documented investigations of the area around present-day Cancún. He found the area to be mostly full of crocodiles, trees, and Mayan ruins, and wrote and mapped his way across the southern Yucatán peninsula for two years.
The fate of Cancún changed in the 1960s, when the Banco de México conducted a study of the country to decide where they should invest money to create vacation and tourism destinations. At this point in time, Cancún was still a tiny local settlement (home to only a handful of residents), and for the most part, was occupied by a dilapidated coconut plantation. In 1969, the bank’s researchers chose five destinations they wished to develop, and Cancún was one of them. Ixtapa, Los Cabos, Bahías de Huatulco, Loreto, and Cancún were all selected for their beautiful natural scenery, local historical significance, and proximity to Caribbean vacation destinations that were competing for tourism dollars.
Construction and development began immediately on these resort communities, and for Cancún, that meant building a ‘tourism zone’ that was concentrated with hotels, shops, and marinas. A residential town was constructed in the northern section for permanent residents, complete with infrastructure, houses, schools, markets, etc., and an international airport was built to attract visitors from across the globe. Soon, international investors began to build in Cancún, adding to the original hotels and resorts that were built in the hotel zone, and the once small and inconspicuous Mexican region began to boom into one of the country’s most popular vacation destinations.
Cancún is located on México’s Yucatán peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo, which lies in the southeastern part of the country. The city is effectively divided into two parts—the mainland and the island, or hotel zone. Most visitors stay on the island part of the city, as it caters to foreign tourists with all-inclusive resorts, global restaurant chains, and entertainment outlets such as watersport rentals and nightclubs. The mainland city (or “El Centro”) is known for its more authentic Mexican atmosphere, complete with neighborhoods of permanent residents, local markets, central squares, and historical monuments and buildings. Another popular destination in the area is Isla Mujeres, a small, laid-back island that lies just offshore from the hotel zone, making it a great day-trip for Cancún visitors.