Family Travel Survival Guide: Cancun

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LEVEL-HEADED: A Mayan Chac Mool head (Grant V. Faint/Digital Vision/Getty)

El Centro
If you want to see the real Cancun—the part void of large resorts—then head to El Centro. This downtown area, just across the Playa Linda and Punta Nizuc bridges from the Hotel Zone, is the older section of the city, where most Cancun locals reside. This translates to authentic Mexican fare, markets carrying goods at cheaper prices than the hotel gift shop, and a taste of everyday life in a city best known for, well, escaping from everyday life.

Avenida Tulum is the main artery running north-south through the area. Many large markets and restaurants are located along this strip. Three major streets, Avenidas Coba, Uxmel, and Chichen (there is a pattern here; the roads are named after Mayan cities) intersect Tulum, with sculpture-adorned traffic circles to mark the crossings.

Souvenir seekers should check out Mercado Veintiocho (Market 28), a huge open-air flea market just off Avenida Yaxchilan. Hungry? Taquerias and restaurants serving up Mexican specialties (and mariachi music) abound. After shopping and eating, Parque de Palapas is a nice green space to relax and catch live music amid the bustling downtown.

The R-1 bus shuttles from the Hotel Zone to El Centro for about 75 cents per ride. Taxis are also available, costing anywhere from $6 to $10 each way from the Hotel Zone.

Mayan Ruins
Think you need to plan a whole daytrip to check out Mayan ruins? Think again. Most Cancun-goers assume you have to travel at least a couple of hours—each way—to view Mexico's ancient architecture, which can be a trying outing for younger children. But Mayan ruins actually exist right in the heart of the Hotel Zone.

Ruinas Del Rey is located just off Kukulcan Boulevard on Cancun's lagoon side, incongruously located next to the Hilton Golf and Spa Resort. Excavated in 1954, but dating back to 200 BC, the site consists of two main plazas and two main "streets"—a unique aspect, as most Mayan ruins have only one thoroughfare.

In comparison to larger sites like Chichen Itza and Tulum, the Mayans kept it simple at Del Rey. But if you lack the time or funds (or patience) to reach the grander sites, this one will at least give you a peek at the ancient Maya world. And the locals—scores of iguanas lazing on the stone structures—are interesting spectacles themselves, and a delight for most kids.

Admission is $3 U.S., except for Sundays when it's free.


Linda Samuel is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

Published: 22 Apr 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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