Because Cancun was built specifically for tourism, it has a unique layout unlike other cities that slowly develop on their own. Almost everything of interest to visitors—including accommodations and attractions—are in Zona Hotelera (the Hotel Zone), a narrow peninsula that has the Caribbean on one side and the Laguna Nichupte on the other. Then there's El Centro (downtown) which was built for all the workers and, as you might guess, has a little bit more authentic Mexican cuisine and culture than you'll find in the Hotel Zone. Off the coast lies Isla Mujeres and farther south between the Hotel Zone and the border at Belize is an ever-growing coast of resorts and beach communities.
The Hotel Zone occupies an island—really more of a peninsula--shaped like the number seven, with 14 miles of white-sand beaches that the Mexican government recently sank $71 million into re-widening. Bridges connect each end to the mainland, and between the island and the mainland is the saltwater Laguna Nichupte, where everything from kayaking to jet skiing and parasailing is available. The Hotel Zone is home to nightclubs, restaurants and big shopping malls with movie theatres, bowling alleys and franchise fast food like McDonald’s. There’s only one road, Boulevard Kukulkan, and addresses are numbered in kilometers starting from the bridge to El Centro, growing larger as the boulevard heads south. For people who are hesitant about visiting Mexico, the Hotel Zone feels familiar and comfortable. Aside from the iguanas roaming about, it often looks more like South Florida than the rest of Mexico.
This is the coastline south from Cancun to Tulum and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. You know anytime anything gets named “Riviera” it’s going to have the bejesus developed out of it. But Cancun visitors often find their way there. Puerto Morelos is a popular spot from which to go on snorkeling excursions, and the once-quaint little fishing village of Playa del Carmen has exploded into a city, but in the tourist zone the choice of shops and restaurants is wonderful. Playa del Carmen is also where you catch the ferry to Cozumel. Farther south are the ruins of Tulum, and the town of Tulum is still small and bucolic, with some good hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving tacos and rustic Yucatecan cuisine.
“El Centro” is Spanish for “Downtown.” It’s the center of a town created to house the workers key to Cancun’s tourism, which has become a still-fast-growing city with a population of approximately 600,000. Be warned, it’s not “more authentic,” as it’s sometimes described in guidebooks. There’s no charming colonial center, no historic cathedrals to visit. Nor is Cancun an area with distinctive local arts and crafts. But you’ll find souvenir shopping less expensive in El Centro than in the Hotel Zone, and there are a number of good restaurants eminently worth visiting.
This 5-mile-long, narrow, and lightly populated, island is 8 miles off the mainland just north of Cancun. It can be reached by ferry or water taxi, and once on the island, transportation is by foot or golf cart. Most people who spend more than a few days in Cancun go at least once to Isla Mujeres. It's growing every year, but is still a little more laid back than the mainland in Cancun. Due to a plethora of cheaper accommodations and restaurants, it has also often been referred to as the "poor man's Cancun," but that's changing rapidly with more development.
Punta Sam/Playa Mujeres
This area just north of the city of Cancun and Puerto Juarez (a 15-20-minute drive) has recently gone from being called Punta Sam to the fancier Playa Mujeres. Isla Mujeres is almost directly across the bay. It’s a development with an excellent golf course designed by Greg Norman, hotels and homes, and is an option for people who find the Hotel Zone just a little too busy, but want to be close to all it has to offer.