Cancún: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Updated August 12, 2020.

This Travel Tip Tuesday is one I’m sort of dreading. I strive to always be honest in my blog, even if the experiences I had were awful, and my trip to Cancun was awful! I don’t like to be negative, but in all my research before my trip, I sure wish someone had warned me about these things!

For the record, my intention with this trip was to write a couple of blog posts for first time solo female travelers. I planned to write about what to do in the Hotel Zone in the short time I had there to make solo travel less intimidating for someone who’s on the fence. I was thinking this would be a great first trip because it’s safe, it’s not too far from the US, and would not force much (if any) jet lag. I planned (and still plan) on going back to the Yucatan Peninsula to check out the main Mayan ruins, islands, cenotes, and other activities farther afield, since many of those things are 2-3 hours from the Hotel Zone. Those plans did not work out!

That said, there is something good in every situation, and if you look hard enough, you’ll find it. Let’s start with the good stuff, shall we?

The Good

The Colors

Cancún is undeniably bright and beautiful! The view from the plane upon our descent was striking. The water went from dark blue to a gorgeous turquoise! Everything is painted in bright greens, oranges, pinks, yellows, blues, and reds. This girl likes vibrant colors that seem to make things come alive, and Cancún has them.

That Caribbean blue
Vibrant oranges
Perfect afternoon light
Gorgeous sunrise

The Seaside Massage

It was the day after Valentine’s Day. My husband was on a business trip where I couldn’t accompany him. And basically all my plans for a fun solo trip to Mexico did not work out. My love language is “physical touch,” and if you know about the 5 Love Languages, you know that means I needed a massage! It wasn’t too pricey, and it was worth every penny. Check out the view:

This was a good decision.

The Ruins

This is really the reason I picked Cancún: the history. I’ve wanted to see the Mayan (and Aztec, and Incan, etc.) ruins a long time. There are a few places to see ruins on Cancún island itself, as well as a Mayan Museum.


The Iguanas

How cute is this guy? They were all over the ruins, just hanging out.

Mr. Iguana out for a sunning.

The Bus System

At 10.50 pesos per ride (about 50 US cents), these buses rock. They come by very frequently (just minutes apart), and the bus drivers I encountered were so nice and very happy to be able to help me! I am not afraid to sit up front and make friends with my bus driver, and that definitely served me well on this particular trip!

Off we go!

Drinkable Water!

Having been an accidental victim of Montezuma’s Revenge in the past, I was dubious when I heard the water in Cancún was drinkable. But it’s true! And it’s a good thing. My goal every day is to drink one gallon of water, so I was thankful to be able to drink without fear.

The Bad

Difficulty Finding Mexican Food

There were 6 walkable restaurants to choose from, and only one served Mexican food. In Mexico! I made it through, though. Except I’m pretty sure that’s canned cheese squirted on the top.

I think that’s cheese wiz.

Rough Seas

It’s great that I had a view of the water and was close enough to hear the crashing of the waves, but what wasn’t so great was the roughness. All the red flags were up all along the beach, meaning it’s not safe enough to swim. Bummer. But it was still pretty to enjoy from shore.

The Red Flag of Doom

Spotty, Unsecured Wi-Fi

Not a huge deal in most cases, but travel is my work. If I can’t get reliable wi-fi, I can’t work. I also can’t FaceTime my husband while we’re apart. I also can’t text him. I can’t post pictures on social media or do any blogging without wi-fi. And since what little wi-fi there was had no password, I couldn’t check my bank account to see if my debit card info got swiped from one of the many ATMs I had to try just to get some pesos (more on that later). Here’s hoping for the best!

The Questions

When is your husband joining you? Are you traveling alone? Only one? You’re just traveling by yourself?

This was only from people at the hotel, not random people on the street, but seriously, four different people had to ask me two times each if I was traveling by myself. Why? I don’t know. It’s not that unusual these days, and I just didn’t appreciate the skeptical looks I got. Are they sorry for me? Sad for me? Can’t believe a woman would want to travel solo? I was already disappointed that I couldn’t tag along on my husband’s work trip, did these people have to insinuate that I should be sad? This was my excuse to go solo for the first time in a while, and I had been really excited about it! Until I got asked the same questions over and over again.

The Ugly

No Pesos

The first three ATMs I tried held only US dollars, and they only dispensed twenty dollar bills. Why would the ATMs in Cancún only give USD? I can maybe see having the option for USD in the tourist area, but why not Mexican pesos also? They also came with HEFTY fees.

I made the ultimate rookie mistake of not bringing any US dollars with me. I just figured I’d be using pesos. In all my research, I read over and over again that it’s best to get pesos out at an ATM in town instead of at the airport (I usually get local currency at the airport because the fees are usually not that bad, and they are generally more secure than those out in public), so that’s what I planned to do.

So I asked at the hotel where I could get pesos, but they basically said I didn’t need pesos, dollars would be fine. I did not believe that, so I set out in search of pesos anyway. Then I made another basic rookie mistake of panicking when I couldn’t find an ATM that would give pesos. So I did the worst possible thing (after walking around for an hour with no money) and got USD out of the ATM at the hotel. I just needed some cash!


I went to three different places and tried to pay with a $20, but I was turned away each time. Everyone wanted pesos or smaller US dollar bills. Never believe the guy at the hotel who says you can use USD instead of the local currency. That may be true at the resort, but not anywhere else.

I kept asking where I could get pesos, and I kept being directed to money changing stations, which come with much higher fees than the ATM, and I’d just paid an extra $13-30 (I couldn’t even tell from the receipt!) to get $80 out of the ATM at the hotel. I just wanted a secure, peso-giving ATM.

Finally, I tried to pay for a water at a convenience store, and the kid at the register said he couldn’t take the $20. Fighting back tears of frustration and embarrassment, I asked where I could get pesos. Thankfully, he pointed me to an ATM at a bus stop by the road. Finally! It still took me four tries before I actually got any pesos there, but I got them. Hopefully all those times the “transaction timed out” were just flukes and no one swiped my debit card info. I’d have to check when I got home since the wi-fi didn’t work!

Lesson learned: Get local currency at an ATM at the airport.
Do not wait. 

The Resort

I stayed at the Royal Islander, which came highly rated on Trip Advisor and I’ve been to plenty of hotels, hostels, and resorts, and this one is awful, in my experienced opinion. The staff were rude; they clearly didn’t want to help me explore the area, they wanted me to stay on the resort; and they expected $20 bills for tips. Not happening with this American! Here’s more:

  • The layout is confusing, it takes forever to get anywhere because there is no direct route from Point A to Point B; I literally spent half an hour wandering around trying to find the gym. They do not want you to leave the resort.
  • There is virtually no signage.
  • The two maps I did find posted on walls were upside down and in dark, unassuming places.

According to this map, the beach should be in front of me. Instead, it’s behind me. Everything is opposite.

Lesson Learned: Don’t stay at the Royal Islander or affiliated resorts. 

Being Charged for Gym Use

After I asked two people where the gym was and finally found it, I put in a great workout and got some aggression out of my system after a very frustrating day. It was only after I finished my workout and was walking out the door that an attendant stopped me and asked to see my room key. I thought that must be for liability reasons or statistics on how many people are using the gym, etc. Then I was shocked when he handed me a receipt and said the price would be charged to my room!

Again, I spoke with four people at check in and asked two more people where the gym was, and not a single one of them mentioned there was a charge for using the hotel gym. I had never even heard of that before, even at the nicest hotels and resorts where we’ve stayed. I went straight to the front desk to ask why no one mentioned it and told them I had never heard of that practice before, and thankfully they removed the charge from my account. It was like a slap in the face just when I was starting to feel good after a rough day.

Lesson Learned: Do not stay at the Royal Islander or any affiliated resorts. 

The Misinformation

Every time I asked for directions, recommendations, or help of any kind, I was given misinformation. For instance, I was so excited to visit Isla Mujeres. This was going to be my first solo trip in 7 months, and I was looking so forward to visiting the Island of Women! But it was not to be. When I asked the people at the front desk the best way to get there and back in time to shower and get to my 4:30 massage (this was the latest time they could give me, and if I skipped it I would still have to pay), the guy told me I wouldn’t have enough time.

The bus didn’t leave until 10, then I’d have to walk for the ferry, and he didn’t know how often the ferry ran, and then I would have to turn around and come back by the time I got there. At this point, I was done. I decided to have a beach day and try again to visit the El Rey Ruins in the afternoon. Come to find out, I could have taken the super fast public bus straight to one of the many ferries that would take me to Isla Mujeres for a few hours.

Lesson Learned: Do not ask the hotel employees for suggestions offsite. They want you to stay on the resort, even if you’re not happy there. 

The Beach Chair Reprimand

Just to add insult to injury on an already frustrating trip, I decided to relax by the ocean for a while to regroup before setting out for the day. All the chairs looked the same, all the walls of the resorts are painted the same yellow color. But apparently I picked a beach chair that belonged to a different resort. I’m still not sure what I did wrong since all the chairs were the exact same and there was literally no one else out there, but a security guard came over and started reprimanding me in Spanish. So I picked up my stuff and settled in the sand just a few feet away. Whatever. I closed my eyes and imagined I was on the beach on Kauai instead of Cancún.

Where I wish I was: Kauai, Hawaii
Lesson Learned: Make sure you know where you’re allowed to relax. 

What I Will Do Differently Next Time

  • Stay elsewhere. I’d much prefer to stay closer to the Chichen Itza Ruins (2.5 hours from Cancún), or check out Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, or Tulum for other beach options.
  • Go ahead with an excursion. I have never understood why people would stay somewhere that the only thing to do is to leave, but apparently that’s what a lot of people do. I read all about excursions from Cancún to ruins, reefs, other islands, other towns, etc., all of which were hours away. If I was to stay in Cancún again (which I don’t plan to do), I would join an organized excursion or two.
  • Not ask the hotel staff for help. The random people I met in Cancún were actually very helpful, friendly, and informative. They drew maps for me, gave me legitimate suggestions on things to see, and were just generally happy people. I got a negative vibe from the hotel staff the whole time.
  • Figure out the bus system early in the trip. Befriend the bus driver, my friends.
  • Stay at a different hotel. There are tons of options; the Royal Resorts should not be on your list of places to stay.
  • Bring USD with you, just in case. I am so embarrassed by this mistake, and I have never even once had a money issue like this before.
  • Get pesos out of the airport ATM. Please do yourself that favor.

I hope my missteps and negative experiences will help you have a MUCH better time in Cancún than I did!

For more, check out my Mexico Page!

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8 responses to “Cancún: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

  1. I lived in Playa del Carmen and I can recommend it. I used to go to Cancún to visit some friends and hang out, but honestly I prefer Playa. It is because the distances are shorter, the beach is closer and you can walk our use your bike easily.
    About the ATM’s, next time try to get cash in mexican atms (bancomer, banorte, hsbc, banamex) they will give you of course mexican pesos– (bancomer and banamex they charge you less for getting cashwirthdrawl– Sometimes at airports mexican pesos are more expensive (i mean the will give you less pesos). but check the rates before.
    I know.. and about the food, ohh girl, if you really want to try real mexican food, don’t eat at the hotel zone, of course everything is fake or fancy, nooo! get involve with locals, go to downtown, ask people about local food, it is cheaper and tasty tasty yummy! , sometimes some little restaurants by the street offer the best food!.
    Well that is my recomendation as mexican, and yes! next time visit Chichen Itz’a,if you love history you will love it.

    save travel!


  2. I’m sorry you had such a bad experience, especially since you’re someone who’s traveled a lot by yourself. I’m just happy you’re back.

    1. Thank you! I am fully recovered and ready for my next adventure!

  3. […] Before you go on your trip, please make a cash plan! It’s a great idea to have a credit card with no international fees for your travels, but it’s also a good idea to have a debit card on you as well. I have a Visa credit card and a MasterCard debit card, just in case one or the other doesn’t work in the country I’m visiting. You can use the U.S. dollar in many countries, but you will always get the best exchange rate in a country’s local currency. I always take out local currency from an ATM as soon as I land. It’s better to pay an extra dollar or two at an airport ATM than a lot more at a currency exchange station, or to be wandering around with no cash looking for an ATM. […]

  4. We stayed at the Royalton Riviera in Cancun in 2018. It is south of the hotel district. We loved it. They had several restaurants including a Mexican restaurant. With the Diamond Club you have a Butler service that is excellent. Most guests there seemed to schedule excursions. We did the one to Chichen Itza. The guides did a good job.

    The only down side to our trip was the seaweed on the beach. There was so much you couldn’t get in the ocean. Yet, the hotel and pools were wonderful. I think you just got a bad hotel.

    1. quickwhittravel Avatar

      I’m so glad you had a better experience than I did! I did get a horrible hotel. Horrible enough for me to feel that there are too many beautiful, kind, friendly, places to visit that are not Cancun! I may give it another chance in the future, but not any time soon!

      1. Understandable. We had a bad stay in La Romana in the Dominican Republic a few years ago. No, food poisoning, thankfully. The hotel food was not tasty and the staff seemed to resent the guests presence. We also did not like the airport. We felt like cattle being herded onto the bus from the plane to the open air airport. I’m almost sweating thing of it. ha ha

        Hope your next Cancun adventure is a good one.

        What is your favorite destination, so far?

      2. quickwhittravel Avatar

        Favorite destination is definitely the Baltics! We loved the people, the history, the food, the scenery. It was truly lovely, and the people seemed genuinely glad for us to be there. It’s amazing how people can make such a difference!

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