After spending as little time as possible in Cancún I have to admit that it’s kind of a nightmare right now, from prices to crowds, to traffic.
A Very Brief Visit
As covered in a hotel review, I was recently (and unexpectedly) in Cancún for a short four-day trip over a weekend this month. My visit was not to stay in the Hotel Zone and I didn’t shop in the city. I mostly avoided the mess and sidestepped as much as I could, however, I understand better now why some recoil when mentioning Cancún.
Prices, Crowds, Traffic
First of all, the Mexican Peso is up considerably vs. the US dollar at least as to where it’s been in years past. When I was in Mexico less than two weeks ago the exchange rate was just a little over 16 MXP to $1 USD. Prior visits have been closer to 20 MXP to $1 so it already felt more expensive for many items but adding inflation and insatiable demand seems to have compounded the issue. A local Mexican restaurant in the airport (yes, airports are more expensive than the street) wanted more than $21 for a simple burrito. An order of chilaquiles topped $13 which is simply tortilla chips, salsa, shredded chicken, and sour cream. Johnny Rockets sold meals in the $20 range as well – and for the uninitiated, that’s a burger and fries. Starbucks was the closest to US prices at $5-7/drink.
I flew out on a Monday, and though it was not a holiday weekend, it makes sense that on a Monday the airport is a busy place. That said, I had a delay in my connecting flight and was looking to jump on an earlier one if I could. For this trip, I flew American Airlines and found five departing flights ahead of mine: Miami, Dallas, Chicago, Charlotte, and New York JFK. I was headed to Philadelphia but could have made connections from any of those alternatives. Departing within 30 minutes of each other from approximately the same area, every single flight was oversold. Not only were they oversold, but standby passengers were pushed to the next bank of departures at each gate.
I recognize that Cancún is a tourist destination popular throughout the US, Canada, the Americas, and Europe. But it’s been a long time since I stumbled past so many tourists who might be flying for the first time in a very long time and simply get lost walking to their gates. It wasn’t just casual travelers though, either. The lounge (Priority Pass) offered a $5 reservation days in advance. I should have paid that because it was overrun during my two-hour stay in the airport with a waitlist. Every restaurant was full or on a wait, and I could only find solace in an emptier part of the airport near the United gates in between flights at the opposite end of the terminal.
My ride to and from the marina should have taken about 20 minutes but traffic pushed it just over 40 minutes. There were cars everywhere, some were locals just trying to get to work or school, but many were taxis, car services, hotel shuttles, and Ubers. I sympathized with the Mexican people who have to deal with as much congestion as I witnessed at 2 pm on a Friday afternoon and 9:30 am on a Monday morning.
Traffic was so bad that I thought (and researched) whether helicopters were an option. My trip to Isla Mujeres involved a private boat and the 40 minutes I mentioned. Blade, which operates quick five-minute flights from New York City airports to Manhattan could have saved me 80 minutes, and other travelers even longer. It might consider expanding to Cancún for other destinations in the area that can be cumbersome to drive, but quickly and easily overcome overhead. There is a local service that offers quick five-minute flights to the airport but it runs $2,400 roundtrip for up to four passengers. At Blade pricing ($95-195) I might have been a customer in at least one direction, but at $2,400, I passed.
Alternatives Become More Popular
Playa Del Carmen has long been an alternative to the hotel zone, and Isla Mujeres is coming up with properties like Impression by Secrets, Zöetry, and a yet-to-be-named Marriott on the island. Tulum is a lengthy drive but offers more of a relaxed and eco-tourism vibe to counter the noise and action of Cancún.
It makes sense that visitors want the convenience of hundreds of flights from airports near to them but then want to move further afield for a varied experience. Tulum is adding its own airport, flights were announced just yesterday but those flights are domestic in nature and offered by AeroMexico, and discounter Viva Aerobus (Volaris has not scheduled or announced destinations yet.) Smaller equipment from American’s Miami base, JetBlue’s Fort Lauderdale, United in Houston, and Delta in Atlanta could make sense with travelers willing to pay a premium to get to their destination faster and easier. Time will tell if routes make sense from outside of Mexico.
I enjoyed my trip to Isla Mujeres but was reminded of the nightmare that Cancún proper is right now. From crowds to prices the place is packed and it’s more than I would opt to participate with any time in the near future. Yes, it’s peak season, yes, it’s a heavy tourist destination but I’ve been traveling all summer and haven’t seen anything quite like this. I never would have thought I’d see the day of a $21 burrito in Mexico (airport or not), especially when I have yet to see those prices throughout the US (New York City excluded.)
What do you think? Have you been to Cancún lately? How did your experience compare?