Since 1974, the island of Cancun has been developed from a small fishing village to an international resort attracting over 700,000 visitors each year. Booming Cancun City, across the Nichupte Lagoon on the mainland, was non-existent 20 years ago; it now supports a population of 250,000. Such incredible growth did not just happen; Cancun was selected-reportedly by computer – by a Department of Tourism task force as a development site that would bolster the Yucatan’s sagging economy.
The task force (FONATUR) created the master plan for and supervised the orderly development of both the Hotel Zone (which occupies the entire island) and Cancun City. The result is Mexico’s leading tourist destination – Cancun now accounts for nearly 20 percent of the nation’s tourism income.
Most non-hotel beaches are located on the bay side of the island. Playa Tortugasis a popular spot for sunning and swimming in the bay; it is located a little more than halfway between the mainland and Punta Cancun and offers both restaurants and changing facilities.Playa Caracol, east of Playa Tortugas, is a favorite spot with local residents.
Other beaches include Playa de las Perlas, Playa Juventud, Playa Linda and Playa Langosta.Playa Chac Mool, just south of Punta Cancun on the Caribbean, is a pleasant beach with changing facilities, a restaurant and a bar.
The Anthropology Museum, located in the Convention Center near Punta Cancun, provides a good introduction to Cancun’s Mayan history. The museum houses artifacts including masks, sculptures, pottery and jewelry; a friendly staff will answer questions.
Pok-Ta-Pok golf course boasts a temple by its 12th hole. Close to the Convention Center, there is a minor ruin by the sea behind the Westin Camino Real Hotel and two small temples at Yamil Lu’um near the Sheraton Hotel.
Farther south, you’ll find San Miguelito, a site consisting of temples and pyramids set around a ceremonial square. The modest El Rey ruins, perhaps once a royal burial ground, are west of San Miguelito in a jungle clearing on the shores of the Nichupte Lagoon. If Cancun’s ruins whet your archaeological appetite, you can visit the mainland’s larger ruins, including Tulum, Coba, Chichen Itza and Uxmal.
You’ll find dazzling arrays of indigenous tropical birds in the aviary behind the Mauna Loa shopping center, including flamingoes, toucans, cranes, pelicans and roadrunners. Multicolored tropical fish are visible from the glass-bottom boats that sail regularly on the crystalline waters of the Cancun’s lagoons; many of these excursions include a stop at La Isla de los Pajaros in the Nichupte Lagoon, home to thousands of species of birds. Serious bird-watchers will want to visit the sanctuary at Isla Contoy, a tiny island north of Isla Mujeres.