For travellers seeking to explore Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Cancún Centro’s hotels and restaurants make it the ideal budget base for delving deeper into the region.
Cancún has a bit of a reputation. It’s not a particularly good one. But strip away the spring breakers and the thoughtless, damaging tourism such as animal-cruel dolphin shows, and you have a unique corner of Mexico to explore. A good way to start is to base yourself in Cancún Centro, where you have much lower room prices and easy access to buses and colectivos (local shared transportation vans with very low prices) heading all across the Yucatán Peninsula and beyond.
With visitors arriving at Cancún Airport in their tens of millions, a common next step for anybody not on a package holiday is to take the ADO bus into the city. This stops at the station right in the heart of Cancún Centro, a part of Cancún that feels more like a city for locals than the Zona Hotelera a few miles away. As a result, you can tap into authentic Mexican culture here in a way you’ll never experience in the hotel zone.
Chopping thick wedges out of the dense jungle, it seems as though Cancún is a constant building site. What makes this so unusual, for a city whose population passed one million people in 2023, is that it was only a small fishing village less than 60 years ago. Snatches of the natural beauty decimated by the poorly regulated tourism industry here still exist, and they’re much easier to find if you steer clear of the guided tours and do your own thing. Here is a look at the best facilities in the neighbourhood and why they make this a great base for your Mexico adventure.
Things to Do
Most evenings, but particularly on Sundays, the social focal point of Cancún Centro becomes Parque de las Palapas (77500, Tulipanes LB). So named for the umbrella-covered tables, the large pedestrian space isn’t much to look at during the daytime, but as soon as the sun sets, the food trucks come out and the live music begins on stage. The resultant atmosphere is part carnival, part passeggiata, with families playing games and adults eating street food and soaking up the mood.
Tulipanes is a good street for finding authentic Mexican food at this time, it links Parque de las Palapas to the main highway that bisects the neighbourhood. Cross this main road you’ll come to a square in front of the Palacio Municipal (Carr Cancún – Tulum 5), which is particularly photogenic at sunset. Just behind it is a small, sculpted garden, but there’s not a great deal else to see in this area.
The other main attraction in Centro is Mercado 28 (Xel-ha Mz 13, 77509), a large flea market almost as old as the city. While it serves a more functional role as a place to pick up a few bits of beach wear that you might have forgotten to pack, it’s primarily a place to find souvenirs. Pick up a special bottle of mezcal or tequila to take home (tastings are occasionally available from some merchants), as well as Maya-inspired carvings and Day of the Dead figurines.
Day Trips from Centro
While these sights are pleasant and worthwhile, they underscore the fact that Centro is primarily seen as a point of interchange for travellers heading elsewhere. Take a local bus (R1 and R2 roughly every 10 minutes in either direction) to the Zona Hotelera, with its megaresorts and wild nightlife. Highlights for visitors are the Museo Maya (Blvd Kukulcan km 16.5, Zona Hotelera), with it’s large collection of archaeological artefacts rescued from the many ruined Maya cities all around. San Migeulito is one such ruin, with its own small pyramidal temple, located next door to the museum. Head another mile (1.5km) south to the bigger archaeological site El Rey, which dates back to the 3rd century.
Alternatively, head north to Puerto Juárez (bus R1 from the highway or R6 from Av Tulum) to catch the bright yellow Ultramar ferry to Isla Mujeres. It’s possible to cycle all the way round the island in a day, although the humidity doesn’t always make this a particularly fun option (bring plenty of water). The best way to travel is via electric golf cart, making it easy to reach the island’s highlights, such as the Tortugranja turtle conservation spot, and Punta Sur, with its coastal paths and lighthouse. Playa Centro, to the north of Isla Mujeres, is one of the region’s best beaches.
Where to Stay
Particularly if you’re planning on a longer stay in Cancún, or if you’re looking to meet fellow travellers, you can’t get much better than Nomads (Av Carlos Nader Supermanzana 2A). This modern hostel has a rooftop pool, a large bar, a café and co-working space downstairs, and good value private rooms. There’s also a kitchen and shared dining space. Colectivos for Playa del Carmen leave from Av Tulum a couple of minutes away, and the bus station is about a five-minute walk away.
To stay in a similar location but with a little less party and a lot more chill, check out Eco Hotel El Rey Del Caribe (Av Uxmal 24-L 18). Characterised by lush, green common areas, including around the courtyard pool, this is a cosy base from which to make day trips around the area. It’s a rare bright spark of a conservation-minded hotelier operating in the heart of the mindless tourist sprawl.
For a top end hotel that is set apart from the main Zona Hotelera drag, there’s the Renaissance Cancún Resort & Marina (Blvd Kukulcan Km 1.5, Puerto Cancún). Although located a few kilometres away from Centro, it’s the closest resort hotel to the neighbourhood, with the benefit of being beside Cancún Marina, which is a good alternative for ferry trips to Isla Mujeres. Rooms are spacious and modern, with plenty of hotel amenities, including a pool, gym and a sauna.
Where to Eat
Sanborns Café (Av Uxmal San Miguel 22) is part of the nationwide restaurant chain that was founded in Mexico City in 1903. When it comes to breakfast, you can’t get much better. Coffee is free refill, and a variety of tasty egg dishes is served with a side of toast and fruit at no extra cost. During the rest of the day, try one of their excellent enchilada dishes, drowning in mole or salsa verde.
The stretch of Av Carlos Nader between Avs. Cobá and Uxmal is gradually becoming a dependable place to find a good international restaurant in Centro. For example, Woking Dead (Av Carlos Nader 80) serves up bao buns with tuna or pork belly. The main draw is their stir fry noodles, with a choice of vegetables, meats and, in true Mexican style, a range of salsas to taste. They also serve excellent regional craft beers.
This area of Cancún Centro is also packed with fancier dining options. Al fresco dining at La Fonda del Zancudo (Av Uxmal Supermanzana 3 Mz 02 Lt 33) takes place beneath strings of fairy lights in a leafy garden. Starters and specials are usually Latin American in nature, such as empanadas liberally filled with cheeses, while the mains veer over to Italian and American, with burgers, pizzas and pasta dishes made to a high standard.
If you’re looking for something cheap and cheerful, there’s no shortage of hole-in-the-wall taco joints around Centro, particularly if you head west of the highway. Minutes from the ADO bus terminal, Quesadillas Tierra del Sol (C Margaritas Supermanzana 22 Mz 21 Lt 44) dishes up empanadas and quesadillas with a range of fillings including prawns, as well as vegetarian classics such as nopal cactus or, if you’re brave, huitlacoche, which is corn infected with a fungus considered a delicacy in these parts.
Where to Drink
While it has nothing on the raucous fiesta facilitating bars of the Zona Hotelera, there is no shortage of bars in Cancún Centro. Route 666 Bikers Bar (Avenida Yaxchilán Mz 17 Lt 100) is a good place to try if you’re looking for something lively and different. Live rock sets the tone, and beer is sold by the litre, which is ideal for washing down their burritos and chicken wings.
Before it’s time for a tipple, there’s always coffee. Onesto Café (Av Carlos Nader 6) isn’t the easiest place to find (you have to head behind the street front), but it’s well worth the hunt. This inviting little spot may well have the best coffee in Cancún, which is helped along by the warm welcome and charming ambience.