History, important areas and more 

Cancun is such a young city, that I can actually say I’ve lived through practically half its history. International, multicultural, touristic and paradisiac are words frequently used to describe Cancun, which sound pretty reasonable taking into account that 50 years ago, people from all over Mexico and the world came into this sea of wonders and opportunities in search of turning it into a city.  

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What’s funny about it, is that all these words talk to us about something foreign coming into a distant land; cultures that arrived, visitors from overseas, or simply a piece of heaven that couldn’t be from this Earth. That’s why, some people may find themselves limited into thinking Cancun is just beaches and vacation. 

There are many who’ve found a home here, and others like me, who have been children of the city, sharing a mutual growth. This is why I’d like to talk to you about Cancun once more, but this time I don’t want you to see it as advertising and travel agencies sell it, but from inside out, as someone who invites you to his home town, since Cancun has been mine all lifelong. 

Cancun’s history goes further, further back… 

You must first know that Cancun was founded as a city only just 50 years ago (1970), however, traces and vestiges of civilization go back to pre-Hispanic ages. Some say that this area was more of a place of pilgrimage or commerce surveillance. These vestiges correspond to the Maya civilization in its Classic and Postclassic period. 

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El Rey, Archaeological Site in Cancun

Further along, in 1517, the area was toured by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, and as a geographical reference, it appears on the 1776 maps by Juan de Dios González. References to these ancient traces of civilization can also be found on US captain Richard Owen Smith’s travel notes from his tour along the Caribbean on the XIX century. Likewise, we can find clues of Cancun’s history in varied explorer and sailor notes from very old ages. 

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One of the first advertising campaings for Cancun

Cancun’s history as we know it today 

What we may classify as Cancun’s recent history (or Cancun’s history as a modern city), or its foundation, goes back to the 1970’s. Tourism was exponentially growing and proving itself as an important economic activity in Mexico. As it happens, all of us Mexicans know that we live in paradise, however, the rest of the world was just beginning to discover that too. 

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Cancun’s hotel zone a couple of years back in time

In order to take advantage of this bonanza, a mission arose. It was something of a search for the promised land… paradise within paradise. For this, an expedition through the coast of Mexico took place, looking for an area that would become irresistible for travelers all around the world. 

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Vintage photo of Cancun’s coastline

They say that during the expedition, many finalists came up on the lists… places that are currently touristic Edens in Mexico too: Huatulco, Los Cabos, Ixtapa, among others. All of these are dream destinations, however, none of them could win the hearts (and eyes) of the people as a certain thin land strip between the coast of the Caribbean and a lagoon. A small island shaped as a number 7, where the temperature was warm all year long, turquoise crystal-clear waters at easing temperatures, white soft sand, fresh to the touch. 

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These bridges connected the hotel zone with Cancun’s continental land

This small piece of land showed too, the possibility of building a series of attractive accommodations in front of the sea or the lagoon, one after another, turning into a heaven for sights, for tourists, and for investors. This is how the Cancun’s Hotel Zone was born. However, there was still much to discover inland.  

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Hotel zone bridges nowadays

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What makes Cancun so unique? 

Yes, the color of the sea. The beaches and the sand were decisive factors when choosing Cancun over other beautiful destinations. Even if the turquoise water itself is unmatched, it is not the only sight that stands out. As it happens, the ground conditions of the Yucatán Peninsula account for a couple of factors that make this place the only home in the world for an unparalleled set of places: cenotes. 

The limestone above of which this peninsula is located, as well as the huge underground river system that runs beneath our feet, find themselves in certain ground widenings, collapsed roofs, caverns and other types of openings that result in the most jaw dropping natural pools. There are different types of cenote, and such was the surprise to discover that the land comprising Quintana Roo was filled with these wonders. 

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 Another important fact is that Cancun is located on a large plain in the country. In fact, this condition covers the whole Yucatán Peninsula. That is why, when reaching the top on places such as the Cobá pyramid, you’ll find yourself upon an impressive view of verdant jungles, everlasting clean skies and an evergreen or everblue horizon.  

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Cancun is also host to a variety of landscapes that set you in direct contact with life itself; mangroves, underground rivers, caverns perfect for scuba diving or adventure, islands nearby and well… just an authentic natural heaven. 

Further from its natural beauty 

Most cities and towns in Mexico have a commonly known historical center with many similar elements: a main square, a cathedral, and some important government building, all of these with a very classic style result of cultural fusions. 

Cancun is an exception to this rule. To begin with, the distribution of the city is pretty unique on its own. It’s actually difficult to get a common answer when you ask people for directions to Cancun’s city center. While some may point you to the town hall, let me tell you that you won’t find much else there.  

Others may take you along the area of Mercado 28, a famous market of crafts where you’ll find all types of curiosities, souvenirs, and traditional Mexican amenities. Besides, you’ll be able to eat with a very homely taste and fresh ingredients. This market is a great place to find crafts and souvenirs at a much lower price than those you would find on malls or the airport. 

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Tripadvisor photo by: Morena F

Very close to this market, you’ll find Parque de las Palapas (Palapas’ Park). A square surrounded by palapas and small restaurants that have won the hearts of the people of Cancun. There is also a church, as well as infinite stands of typical clothing, crafts, street food and the unforgettable marquesitasPlease… try a marquesitaI cannot stress enough how important it is for you to try a marquesita when you visit Cancun or any destination in the Yucatán Peninsula… simply delightful. 

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Tripadvisor photo by: Fernanda C

In Parque de las Palapas, you may also find (depending on the dates) different travelling artists, theatrical performances or seasonal events. You may spend a pleasant afternoon enjoying naturally flavored waters or a typical corn on the cob. 

Another answer I have heard when asking for Cancun’s city center, believe it or not, is Plaza Las Américas. While this mall has been in Cancun for as long as I can remember and it has become a point of reference even for public transport, it is not however, Cancun’s city center. Nevertheless, in Plaza Las Américas you’ll find many options to eat, have a cup of coffee, or of course, go shopping. 

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Besides, this mall has grown along with the city, and one of its newest sections is called Malecón Américas. This after the fact that just by crossing the street after a nice cup of coffee, you’ll reach Malecón Tajamar (Tajamar pier) where you may enjoy a wonderful sunset at the feet of the lagoon while you gaze at the mangrove and the Hotel Zone. 

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Another much more recent, but equally important meeting point is Marina Town Center Mall. Commonly known or referred to by the locals as Puerto Cancun. This modern and luxurious mall is completely open and in it, you’ll find all types of stores, top tier restaurants and a view to water channels. 

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As its name states, this mall has its own port and you may get to it by sea if such is your plan. You may also reach this mall by its Hotel Zone entrance or by the side of the city. 

In a very similar concept, maybe a bit more touristic, is Plaza La Isla (La Isla Shopping Village) and Luxury Avenue. This are two of the most important malls in the Hotel Zone (I don’t include Puerto Cancun in this list as I consider it more of a part of the city), since they are filled with choices from luxury shopping to a pleasant afternoon.  

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An afternoon at Plaza La Isla Photo by Tripadvisor

At Luxury Avenue it’s common to find art exhibits, even though this may vary according to the season. At La Isla, being an open mall, you’ll be able to have a delicious ice cream or a cup of coffee while you enjoy the sunset next to the lagoon. 

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Luxury Avenue

As you may have noticed, even on the Hotel Zone you may find other types of entertainment past the waves. In fact, the Hotel Zone is home to Teatro de Cancún (Cancun’s Theatre). The biggest theatre in the city in which you may enjoy plays, as well as symphonic concerts. Check the show schedules and squeeze one in for your next visit. 

Back to the city, you’ll find other important spots. For example, Ombligo Verde (The Green Bellybutton), called this way since it is geographically the center of Cancun, and in justice to the nature of the city, it’s a small natural reserve filled with verdant jungle. On its surrounding, there’s Cancun’s Cathedral and other important stores. 

There are also the stadiums: Beto Ávila, home to Los Tigres de Quintana Roo (professional baseball team of Cancun) and of many box-office concerts along the years. Next to it, is Andrés Quintana Roo Stadium, former home of Atlante (Professional soccer team that recently left the city) and their most recent championship, however, it is currently looking for a new team to represent our colors. 

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Beto Ávila Stadium Instagram: @tigresqr

Near these two, you’ll find Parque Kabah, another small natural reserve where you’ll find lots of nature and locals exercising. This park has also been an important part of Cancun’s history as it is a local favorite for its ecological importance.

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Heron at Parque Kabah Instagram photo by: @heysoylou

In just 50 years, Cancun has become an actual city itself. The most important touristic destination in Mexico and the second airport with most passenger influx in the country. Can you believe our control tower used to look like this?  

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Early Cancun airport control tower

Our current control tower is the tallest in all Latin America, but you can still find a replica of this first on the roundabout between Colosio Av. and Tulum Av. 

How do you think Cancun will look after the next 50 years? 

Remember that every day is a chance to enjoy and be a part of Cancun’s history. 

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