Cancún turns 33 in 2008, and like many 30-somethings, she is absolutely hitting her prime. In 1974, a group of Mexican government computer analysts picked Cancún for tourism development due to its ideal mix of elements: transparent blue oceans, powdery white beaches, and immense potential for growth. Since then, the city has faced considerable natural challenges, emerging stronger and more irresistible each time. The wreckage of Hurricane Wilma, which tore through the Yucatán peninsula in 2005, has been replaced by exacting renovations, luxurious upgrades, and brand-new destinations throughout this slice of Caribbean paradise.
Cancún, or "golden snake" in Mayan, stretches from the old city to a 24km (15-mile) sliver of land connected to the mainland by two bridges. Between the old and the new rests the expansive Nichupté lagoon, a lush reminder of Cancún's jungle past.
Cancún remains Mexico's calling card to the world, perfectly showcasing both the country's breathtaking natural beauty and the depth of its 1,000-year history. One astonishing statistic suggests that more Americans travel to Cancún than to any other overseas destination in the world. Indeed, almost three million people visit this enticing beach resort annually -- most of them on their first trip to Mexico.
The reasons for Cancún's allure have not changed since the government turned this once-isolated beach into a five-star destination. In addition to its stunning coastline, Cancún also offers the highest quality accommodations, easy access by air, an unrivaled range of shopping, world-class dining and nightlife, and endless outdoor activities. Your day may begin with a jet-ski tour of the jungles near Cancún or a visit to one of several Maya ruins, followed by an afternoon of watersports or lounging poolside. After soaking up the sun, browse through a Mexican mercado (market) searching for bargains or visit upscale stores for duty-free deals. Several five-diamond rated restaurants await the discriminating palate, and rocking bars and dance clubs summon those who cannot bear to go to bed until dawn.
Cancún embodies Caribbean splendor and the exotic joys of Mexico, but it is also a modern megaresort. Even a traveler feeling apprehensive about visiting foreign soil will feel completely at ease here. English is spoken and dollars accepted; roads are well-paved and lawns manicured. Most travelers feel comfortable in Cancún, while some also feel surprised to find that it almost resembles a U.S. beach resort more than authentic Mexico. Indeed, signs of Americanism are everywhere here.
In addition to attractions of its own, Cancún is a convenient distance from the more traditional resorts of Isla Mujeres and the coastal zone now known as the Riviera Maya -- extending down from Cancún, through Playa del Carmen, to the Maya ruins at Tulum, Cozumel, Chichén Itzá, and Cobá. All lie within day-trip distance.
You will run out of vacation days before you run out of things to do in Cancún. Snorkeling, dolphin swims, jungle tours, and visits to ancient Maya ruins and modern ecological theme parks are among the most popular diversions. There are a dozen malls with name-brand and duty-free shops (with European goods at prices better than in the U.S.), and more than 350 restaurants and nightclubs. The tens of thousands of hotel rooms in the area offer something for every taste and every budget.
Cancún's luxury hotels have pools so spectacular that you may find it tempting to remain poolside, but don't. Set aside some time to simply gaze into the ocean and wriggle your toes in the fine, brilliantly white sand. It is, after all, what put Cancún on the map -- and not even a tempest of nature has been able to take that away.