Cancun (credit: Randy Yagi)
Each year, millions of students across the country prepare to descend upon popular spots like South Padre Island and Panama Beach for spring break. But the most famous, and likely the most popular, spot for students in this annual rite of spring is Cancun, in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Well known for its warm waters and mega beach parties, Cancun will literally be party central when the first wave of students arrive into this glorious city bordering the Caribbean Sea and will remain so throughout the entire month of March. To help prepare for the biggest college party of the year, this practical guide offers tips the best there is to see and do in Cancun.
All U.S. citizens must present a valid passport, book or card for travel beyond the border zone of Mexico. Therefore, all visitors destined for Cancun must observe these official entry requirements. Additionally, all U.S. citizens traveling as tourists beyond the border zone or flying into Cancun must pay a fee (currently 190 pesos or about $20) for a Mexico tourist card (FM-T). For visitors flying into Cancun, the fee is typically included in the airfare, but a form must still be filled out. The tourist card may also be obtained from Mexican consulates, border crossings, tourism offices, airports within the border zone and on most airlines serving Mexico.
The official currency in Cancun is the Mexican peso. U.S. dollars are still widely accepted, although merchants and businesses are no longer allowed to change U.S. dollars for peso. Currently, one U.S. dollar is equivalent to 18.71 Mexican pesos, ten U.S. dollars are 171.11 pesos, and so on. Conversely, one peso is equal to $.05, although the rate will fluctuate. Among the best places to buy Mexican pesos are currency exchange offices at the Cancun Airport, banks and ATM machines.
How To Get Around
The easiest and most affordable way to get around Cancun is by bus. Spring breakers arriving at the airport can take a 35-minute bus ride on the ADO buses into Cancun for about $4 or have their transportation arranged in advance through a travel site. First time visitors should know that the bus from the airport only travels to the main station in downtown Cancun (el centro), which is a few miles from the Hotel Zone (Zona Hotelera). Once at the station, visitors can then transfer to the bus R1. The fare is just 8.5 pesos (in coins only), or about 45 cents. Official information on city buses is limited, but there is frequent service in the Hotel Zone.
In order to visit some of the region’s most popular attractions, such as Playa del Carmen and Tulum, visitors will have to take the ADO bus. The fare depends on the destination but can be easily determined by accessing the online fare calculator. Spring breakers can also take taxis to get around, but the fare will be far more expensive than public transportation. Particular taxis are located around hotels.
Where To Stay
Most spring breakers will want to stay close to all of the best nightclubs in Cancun. That means finding a great hotel in the Zona Hotelera, particularly near the northern tip of the barrier island, which happens to be the location for the biggest and most famous nightclubs. But the biggest spring break beach parties are more than five miles south at the Krystal Cancun and the Grand Oasis Cancun, which also boasts the area’s biggest swimming pool. In all, more than 100 hotels reside on the barrier island shaped like a “7” from one tip to the other, and there is no time to wait to book reservations. Among the other top hotels favored by spring breakers include Grand Caribe Real, Hotel Riu Cancun, Grand Fiesta Americana and Krystal Grand Punta Cancun.
Some online business like StudentCity, Sun Splash Tours and Spring Break Cancun offer package deals, which may include hotel accommodations, express access to the hottest nightclubs with open bars and round trip airport transportation. Still, students looking for the best possible deal should do price comparisons with other leading travel sites such as Kayak, Expedia, Priceline and TripAdvisor. One last option for students is StudentCity’s all inclusive Inception Cruise, although time is definitely running out.
Where To Eat
Spring breakers will have several dining options in Cancun, particularly in the Hotel Zone. Recommendations for affordable dining include Restaurante Mextreme, Senor Frogs, Camabalache, La Palapa, Tacun, Carlos and Charlie’s and Tacos Rigo. For spring breakers venturing into downtown Cancun, there are many other great dining places like Kaxapa Factory, Madrez Cafe and Tacontender. Also in Cancun and the Hotel Zone are several street food vendors selling delicious local cuisine and OXXO convenience stores, much like a 7-11 in the U.S. with snacks, drinks and hot food like burritos, tamales and pizza.
World renowned for its nightlife and entertainment, Cancun will host what’s billed as the world’s largest spring break event, when the fourth annual Inception Music Festival rolls into town. Held over 30 days and 30 nights, the mega-event is operated by Student City and features daytime beach parties at StudentCity’s co-headquarters hotel Oasis Cancun, world-class EDM DJs, contests and more before capping the festive evening at some of the hottest dance clubs. Over the past three years, the Inception Music Festival has hosted such major music artists as Hardwell, Snoop Dogg, Tiesto, Alesso and Avicii. Among the participating nightclubs in previous years were Mandala, Palazzo, Sweet, Dady’O and The City, the largest nightclub in Cancun and in all of Latin America. The Hotel Zone is also home to several other phenomenal nightclubs including Bulldog Cafe, Senor Frogs and Cancun’s most popular nightclub, Coco Bongo.
Break goers must be mindful of basic safety tips to ensure a safe and memorable trip to Cancun. The U.S. Passport and International Travel lists several tips online that are also available in print form as a PDF. Among the valuable tips are your passport, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption, obeying local laws and being conscientious of your surroundings. StudentCity also has a similar list of safety tips, such as using the buddy system, not accepting drinks from strangers, securing valuables and using only licensed taxis. Lastly, students might also want to sign up for the free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to alert them of any travel advisories and connect them to the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.
What Else To Do
Spring breakers may find enough things to do in the Hotel Zone for the entire stay. But if there isn’t, they should venture out to some of the most famous attractions in the Yucatan Peninsula, one of which is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. One of the closest popular attractions is Isla Mujeres. Located eight miles from the coast, the narrow 4.3 mile long island is easily accessible by ferryboat, although departures are more expensive from the Hotel Zone than at the three main ferry ports in Gran Puerto, Puerto Juarez and Punta Sam.
Further south of Cancun is the world famous Riviera Maya on the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula. Accessible by the ADO buses, spring breakers can visit famous beaches like Playa del Carmen and its five-star luxury hotels such as Mayakoba, Banyan Tree Mayakoba and Grand Velas Riviera Maya.
Just off the coast of Playa del Carmen is the equally famous Isla Cozumel, or simply Cozumel. Often depicted in travel brochures to Mexico, the island is world-renowned for its scuba diving and snorkeling as well as its beachside hotels including Cozumel Palace and the Landmark of Cozumel.
Even further south is Tulum, one of the last civilizations built and inhabited by the Mayans and an affordable alternative to the other suggested attractions. But Tulum is definitely worth visiting for spring breakers and just recently was voted first among world’s top destinations on the rise for 2016 by TripAdvisor. In addition to the Maya Ruins is the chance to visit and explore or even swim in one of the famous cenotes, natural sinkholes created when a cave ceiling has collapsed.
The most famous attraction in the Yucatan Peninsula is Chitzen Itza, one of the largest ancient Mayan cities. Estimated to have been built in 600 A.D.. Chitzen Itza is a World Heritage Site and its pyramid (El Castillo) was named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 1998. Spring breakers can take a tour bus or an ADO bus to the historic site with the latter the more affordable option. However, either trip will be an all day affair, since it’s at least a six hour round trip ride but definitely worth the time, expense and effort.
Randy Yagi is an award-winning freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he received a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com