Cancún: The Mexican Fishing Village That Became One of the World’s Most Popular Party Destinations


Cancún. It’s all sun, beach, and partying, right? Well, you’re mistaken. This famous tourist spot on the Yucatán Peninsula may have become synonymous with excess, but from Lucha Libre to Mayan history, and the natural beauty of its nearby jungles, Cancún offers much more than just a beach vacation.

Coming here now is also special. It’s been 50 years since the first hotel in Cancún was inaugurated. In the early 1970s, the coast was empty except for a small fishing village. But the boom was not organic; it was part of a plan to create what the Mexican government of the time called a “billionaire’s playground.”

That plan, called The Cancún Project, was approved in 1969, and the first stone was laid in 1970, with the purpose of building a new city from scratch. It would include an area still known as the Hotel Zone, a part of the city for local residents and workers to live, and an airport for people eager for good weather and fun to fly into.

Quintana Roo, which became a Mexican state in 1974, the same year the first hotel opened, now hosts a series of resorts, of which Cancún is the original.

Cancún has become a resounding success. Around 21 million visitors arrived here in 2023, exceeding the forecasts of the Ministry of Tourism and reminding everyone that it is Mexico’s must-visit.

Fighting with the Past

A night out in Cancún doesn’t have to involve drinks, hitting each other with balloons, and dancing in the streets, although all these things have their place. To enjoy something truly local, it’s best to get sporty, with a night of Lucha Libre.

A sport with a large following, where wrestlers fight with masks that, when lost, cannot be put back on. All this leads to a colorful but brutal experience, which one can’t help but enjoy, whether it’s for the wrestlers being thrown out of the ring or for the delicious tamales you can eat before the show.

Although this historical form of entertainment, dating back to the 20th century, offers visitors a glimpse of local culture, in Cancún there is something even older to marvel at. Thousands of years before Cancún arrived on the tourist scene, the Mayan Empire built temples and cities here, whose ruins are still visible among the pyramidal hotels that mimic their original design.

Diving into History

To fully understand the highly developed civilization that grew here, it’s worth venturing into the jungle. To Puerto Morelos and its iconic cenotes. These deep sinkholes, found throughout Quintana Roo, formed during the last ice age when weakened limestone collapsed, providing the only source of fresh water in the jungle.

The word derives from the Mayan language, whose people believed they were sacred spaces, a way to access the underworld.

“They call it Xibalba,” explains Roberto Rojo, a biologist and founder of Cenotes Urbanos, a non-profit organization dedicated to conservation. “Xibalba is the Mayan word for the underworld… it’s not like hell. It’s just another place in their universe.”

“Many of the pyramids or temples are built over a cenote or a cave, or very close to these places, because they were very important to them.”

So important, in fact, that entire cities and temples were built around them, like Chichén Itzá, designated one of the new seven wonders of the world in 2000. Sacrifices were also made, throwing animals into the depths of the water to appease the Mayan gods.

In the Zapote Cenote, in Puerto Morelos, it is possible to dive to the bottom and see something that has been there for over 10,000 years.

“It’s a very special cenote because at the bottom there is a complete skeleton of a giant ground sloth that lived here during the Ice Age,” Rojo explains.

A Spiritual Experience

The jungle of the peninsula also hides other secrets. Two hours from Cancún, in Tulum, lies an unusual, improbable, and frankly crazy museum and art center. SFER IK opened its doors in 2019. It is part museum, part gallery, and part jungle, in harmony with its surroundings, with no flat floors or ceilings, built with local wood, vines, and even living trees.

The idea of architect and philanthropist Eduardo Neira Sterkel, also known as Roth, is designed to bring visitors closer to nature and the beauty of the Yucatán jungle. And it does so in a truly unique style, from its undulating walkways to the way vines fall along the paths, while trees rise above.

Roth explains that, with the 200 trees that make up SFER IK, it’s a way to bring nature into everyday life.

“I believe nature is the last resource we have, we have to take care of it,” he says when asked why it was so important for him to create this amazing space. Undoubtedly, it’s a place where one can feel calm and content, in harmony with the surrounding world. It’s not the Cancún known for its bustling party life. Not by a long shot.

Likewise, the healing powers of a temazcal ceremony move away from the stereotypes associated with the region. This ancient Mayan tradition is still practiced today in the jungle surrounding Cancún, an opportunity to relax, detoxify, and purify among the vegetation.

There are even local shamans who lead the ceremony in the temazcal, a stone igloo with a burning fire inside. It’s like a sauna in the jungle. The darkness of the space is meant to break down barriers between people, with ceremonies lasting up to eight hours where feelings and thoughts are shared.

“This is very good for our body; we are healing, detoxifying,” explains the shaman from inside the temazcal. It is believed that the Mayans participated in these types of ceremonies after a battle or a competition at court. Thousands of years ago, they, like so many ancient civilizations around the planet, understood the power of mindfulness.

The Old, the New, and Everything in Between

While the natural wonders draw tourists away from Cancún, the rain, which arrives here more often than one might think, keeps tourists indoors, in the city’s countless shopping malls. We may be in modern Mexico, but the souvenirs have a clear Mayan trend, from local handicrafts to fridge magnets covered in temples.

Fortunately, the sun is never far away, which means there’s time to marvel at the turquoise waters, the boats skimming the surface, and the birds dotting the sky. It’s impossible to ignore that this is a corner of the world of great beauty.

Just like the Mayans, the visionaries of today’s Cancún knew what they were doing when they created this tourist wonder. Today it is an intoxicating mix of the ancient and the modern, an extraordinary place worth exploring, from its beaches to its bars, through its cenotes and jungle delights.

Source: CNN