If you’ve never visited Cancun, or you went straight from the airport to one of the all-inclusives along the Mayan Riviera, you might be forgiven for imagining a quaint sleepy town on the beach.
Well, not exactly.
While there is plenty of white sand, turquoise waters and gently swaying palm trees, there’s a whole other side to this exciting tourist destination.
Cancun is a vibrant, thriving city of more than 1 million inhabitants, with a buzzing city centre, schools, universities, government offices, hospitals, pro baseball and soccer teams, nightlife, shopping centres, cinemas, churches, social clubs and all the services you’d expect as the resident of a modern and prospering city.
While it’s true the local economy revolves around tourism, Cancun plays an important role in international trade and regional commerce too, and enjoys one of the most stable and solid local economies in Mexico and in all Latin America.
Half a century ago, the city was indeed a sleepy fishing village, before being hand-picked by Mexico’s tourism ministry as the ideal site to build an international tourist destination. So, pretty much all of Cancun’s one million residents are first and second generation migrants, from all across Mexico, making for a rich, diverse tapestry of cultural influences from many regions.
There is also a growing population of foreign nationals (primarily Canadians and Americans), who make Cancun their home for at least part of the year, with an increasing number making the city their permanent residence. The expat community is active and welcoming, and people keep in touch through Facebook groups and frequent get-togethers at local bars and restaurants.
Cancun is extremely well connected. Its busy and modern International airport has direct flights daily to several cities in Canada and the United States, and to many more connecting through Mexico City.
The climate is Cancun ranges from warm to hot. Temperatures are generally around 30 C (mid 80s F) during most of the year, and a little higher in summer. The rainy season is from May to October, and the dry season from November to April. This is of course ideal for snowbirds, who avoid the hottest and rainiest parts of the year when they head north to spend the summer.
If your Spanish isn’t up to snuff, not to worry. Unsurprisingly given the importance of tourism in the region, English is spoken pretty much everywhere in Cancun and indeed throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.
While the beach is a major attraction, longtime residents of Cancun are in unanimous agreement that the best thing about the city is that there are so many other things to do. There are numerous archaeological sites in the region, including the major attractions of Chichen Itza (so-called 8th Wonder of the World) and the ruins at Tulum. Then there are a host of natural attractions, such as the Cenotes (sinkholes filled with crystal clear waters) that dot the landscape, nature reserves, bird sanctuaries and jungle tours. There are plenty of towns, resorts, hidden beaches and other places for day trips and getaways, such as charming Playa del Carmen to the south and the captivating Holbox island north of the city.
And of course there are the never-ending options out on the water … Deep sea fishing, diving, snorkelling, swimming, boating, surfing, wakeboarding, water skiing, parasailing, kayaking, paddle boarding and sailing.
For golfers, Cancun is something of a paradise. There are 15 outstanding options in the immediate area, including some famed courses. El Camaleon is home to the Mayakoba Golf Classic, the only official PGA Tour held outside the U.S. or Canada, and El Tinto is the only Tournament Players Club facility outside the United States. Not surprisingly, some of these courses are expensive to play. However, residents can qualify for a discount pass that can be used on many of these courses.
One thing is for certain in Cancun, you’ll never be at a loss for finding something to eat. There are upwards of 1,000 restaurants, of every kind and for every budget, from family-run seafood eateries on the beach to award winning Michelin starred establishments. Traditional and “alta cocina” (haute cuisine) Mexican, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, seafood, steakhouses and pizza joints, to name but a few options. For a taste of home, there are even a couple of joints called Mr. Poutine and Queen Poutine that battle it out for the hearts of expat Canadians.
Long term and permanent residents marvel at the quality and low costs of services. Internet access is fast, reliable and cheap. As are the cellular services. And both are more economical than equivalent Canadian or American services.
Similarly, utilities are surprisingly cheap, even with the air conditioning going full blast for much of the year. Domestic help and cleaning services are also very accessible. And occasional visitors who require someone to look after their property and manage rentals for them will find there is a whole army of professionals in the market.
Overall the crime rate is low, and is comparable to most Canadian and US cities of similar size. Tourists and foreign residents are rarely the target of robberies and other crimes, and when Cancun does make the headlines, it’s often because the city is such a famous destination and generates more interest than less known places. As in any city of this size (Cancun has a population of around 1 million people), residents simply exercise common sense as they go about their daily lives.
There are seven major hospitals and many specialized clinics that offer first-class care at reasonable prices. In many cases, Canadian provincial health care plans and US private insurance policies cover costs, and if you become a resident you can qualify for Mexico’s national health insurance plan, called Seguro Social, which costs a few hundred dollars per year.
Overall, health and dental care is excellent, and costs are low enough that in many cases expatriates choose to pay out of pocket. Medications can be purchased at a fraction of North American prices, and in many cases do not require a prescription.
There is a thriving expat community Cancun that keeps in touch through Facebook groups and organizes frequent get-togethers at local bars and restaurants.
Day to day shopping needs are easily managed, with a wide variety of options for groceries and necessities, from traditional Mexican markets to large modern supermarkets and specialty food and liquor stores. The big box stores such as Walmart, Costco and Sam’s are also installed in Cancun, and you’ll find plenty of familiar items and brands imported from the US and Canada. Generally, prices for fresh produce is cheaper than back home, and processed and manufactured goods about the same.