Cancun, dubbed the ‘Mexican Caribbean’, has exploded in popularity throughout the last few decades, and it now ranks among the most popular winter-travel destinations in the world. Yet back in January 1970, Cancun’s official population count was three.
Not three thousand, not even three hundred. Just three.
Now, it’s a magnet for revellers, who come for the themed bars, award-winning clubs and back-to-back music festivals. But exactly how much will a fun week in Cancun take out of your bank balance? Is Cancun expensive, or it as cheap as you’ve heard?
Over the next few minutes, we’re going to look at how expensive Cancun is (quick answer: not very!) and how much you need to spend for a great vacation (quick answer: not much!)
But first, as ever, some background…
All You Ever Wanted to Know about Cancun in 45 Seconds.
Cancun is located on the northeastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, facing the Caribbean Sea. Back in the late 1960s, the Mexican government decided they needed to do something about economic development. But without the necessary funds, it was clear that Mexico needed to attract foreign investment. And so they looked for an area that they could develop from the ground up — and their gaze quickly landed on Cancun. With its large areas of flat land and white sand beaches, it was an area ripe for development.
Development started in January 1970 and, in 1974, the first hotel was opened — built on land that had been a dense jungle only four years previously. Money continued to come in from Mexican investors, but now Spain and the US were also keen to get in on the action, and foreign investment poured in.
Mexicans, keen to move away from the drug wars of Mexico City, saw Cancun as a great place to make a new start and flocked in their thousands. They were soon followed by young families from other parts of the world, keen to take Mexican citizenship and become Cancúnenses.
Now, Cancun is home to over 740,000 people (a far cry from the original 3!), and the economy is booming. Foreign investment continues to finance new hotels and beachfront developments, and the locals send their kids to private schools and highly-rated Cancun universities.
Despite the distant threat of the drug cartels, Cancun is regarded by the Mexican authorities as a resounding success. In 2007, the World Tourism Organization presented Cancun with their ‘Best of the Best’ award “for excellence and good governance.” Cancun recently celebrated its 50th birthday in April 2020.
(Fun fact: Cancun is actually an island, joined to the mainland by bridges at each end.)
(Extra Fun fact! Most people think that the ‘party area’ — the Hotel Zone where all the big nightclubs are located — is Downtown Cancun. But in reality, Downtown is actually located on the mainland, and the Hotel Zone is on the Isla Cancun. Very confusing!)
Should I Use Dollars or Pesos in Cancun?
As a rule of thumb, you should always carry local currency, especially for tipping and for paying cash amounts such as taxi fare. When you’re in Cancun you’re in Mexico, so you should always be carrying pesos, which is the official currency. (Contrary to what some people believe, the residents of Cancun are not desperate to convert their entire holdings into dollars – the peso will do just fine!)
In Mexico, the government requires change to be made in pesos, even though the initial transaction may have been in dollars. However, the government does not stipulate a conversion rate, so merchants are free to be ‘flexible’ with how much change they’ll hand over.
At the time of writing, the US/Mexican exchange rate is 1 USD = 22 pesos. However, if your taxi fare is 50 pesos and you hand over three dollar bills, don’t expect any change — your driver will ‘assume’ that it’s a tip. If you pay in pesos there’s no room for argument, and everyone’s happy (with the possible exception of the driver, who was probably expecting a bigger tip!)
Another big confusion is that Mexico uses the $ sign for pesos, and shady street vendors occasionally ‘forget’ to mention this to tourists when taking their money. (Mind you, if a tourist is happy to pay twenty times too much, then perhaps they shouldn’t be allowed to carry a wallet in the first place…)
The best way to get pesos is to use an ATM, but be sure to only use ones that are actually in a bank. These will charge a small fee, usually 20 to 30 pesos per transaction, whereas other independent ATMs are free to set their own (ludicrous) charges.
Beware of high street ATMs with bank logos plastered all over them — these are run by third-party licensees, not the banks themselves, and they’ll use an inflated exchange rate plus a massive transaction fee. The same goes for ATMs in shopping malls and even in the lobby of your hotel. So we’ll repeat our warning: only use ATMs in banks, and nowhere else.
(Confusing fact: In the 1980s, inflation in Mexico was running so high that people couldn’t keep up with how many zeroes there should be on each transaction. By 1993, this had become so unmanageable that the Mexican government introduced the ‘nuevo peso’. They did this by simply removing three zeroes from every price, so 1,000 old pesos became 1 new peso almost overnight. If you’re thinking that this caused massive confusion, you’d be right!)
How Much is a Beer in Cancun (and What About Cocktails?)
If you fancy a beer whilst you’re on the beach, it will cost you between $2 and $3 (that’s in US dollars, not Mexican pesos!) Beers from street vendors will be about two-thirds of that price, whereas you should expect to pay roughly double in a nightclub.
If you prefer your drinks served in a cocktail glass, then you can expect to pay about $5 and up, and again you’d need to double that in the clubs.
Lots of nightclubs offer VIP passes which include unlimited free drinks. As a price guide, the VIP package for CoCo Bongo — one of the top clubs in the Hotel Zone — is available online from $85. This gives you free ‘skip-the-line’ entry and a free bar until closing (usually 3:00am). This sounds like a great deal!
However, there’s no such thing as a free lunch (or in this case a free bar) and to us this sounds like a scam. The review of one particular package, sold by the well-respected Viator, suggests that we’re right. And if Viator can be taken in by a bogus offer, then it’s worth looking very carefully at the small print before you commit. We think it’s a better idea to buy your VIP pass direct from the club — it may work out a bit more expensive than the online deals, but at least you’ll know it isn’t fake.
How Expensive is Food in Cancun?
It’s quite refreshing to find out how cheap the food is in Cancun. If you stick to the street food and small roadside diners then you’ll easily find a filling meal for less than $5.
One great area to try is the Parque de las Palapas, which is a paved-over city park in Downtown. As well as an open-air stage for live gigs and a playground area for kids, there are loads of food carts scattered around. This is the place to sample genuine Cancun food, not the tourist-pleasing ‘genuine fish and chips’ (!) that’s served in the Hotel Zone and at the resorts.
Of course, you can’t leave without trying a taco, which come in all shapes and sizes and with every type of filling imaginable. A large taco with your choice of filling will cost you between $3 and $4 from the food stalls, or about $7 from a mid-range restaurant. There’s no such thing as an untasty taco, and they’re genuinely Mexican!
Whilst we’re on the subject of genuine Mexican food, you should ask a local for the best place to find cochinita pibil, which is a marinated pork dish that’s considered Cancun’s local dish. Influenced heavily by the Mayan culture, the pork is marinated in citrus juice and then annatto seeds are added, which gives the whole dish a vivid burnt orange colour. The whole thing is then wrapped in banana leaves and roasted to taste. It’s a very unique flavour, but then Cancun is a very unique place!
At the other end of the scale, there’s no shortage of well-reviewed restaurants to tempt your palate. Cancun is fortunate to have fish caught daily from the Straits of Yucatán, so a seafood dish is an absolute must. Casitas, in the Hotel Zone, is one of the most recommended restaurants in Cancun, but it’s also one of the most expensive, with prices that start from $500 (and yes, we’re still using US dollars). We’ve also heard good reports about MeroToro, which is another fairly-expensive Mexican seafood restaurant.
In general, Cancun food is cheap and the portions are filling. If you want to ‘flash the cash’, then $60 to $80 will get you a nice romantic meal for two with a decent bottle of wine. And if you happen to win the lottery whilst you’re out there, there are plenty of high-end restaurants to choose for your celebrations.
(Fun Fact: If Cancun were a cake, it would be baked backwards. That’s because the original name for Cancun was ‘Ekab’, which is ‘bake’ backwards) [That’s enough fun facts – Ed]
How Expensive are the Activities and Tourist Attractions in Cancun?
Unfortunately, this is where the cheap prices stop.
If you want to visit a tourist attraction then you’re obviously a tourist, and the Cancunenses need your money. So prices are pretty much the same as for any other beach vacation. We can’t list them all, so here are some prices for a few of the more popular choices:
- Isla Mujeres Discovery Sail: $79.00 This is a 30-minute sailing trip to the nearby Isla Mujeres (Mothers Island), which offers gorgeous white sand beaches and clear ocean waters for swimming and diving.
- Tulum Express Tour: $62.00 A half-day tour amongst the Mayan ruins of Tulum, followed by a beach trip.
- Speedboat Adventure: $69.00 One for the ocean lovers, you get a 2-person speedboat equipped with snorkelling gear, which is yours for 2 or 3 hours. Go where you like!
- Columbus Lobster Dinner Cruise: $89.00 A romantic cruise under the stars, whilst feasting on the finest lobster. For some visitors, especially couples, this is a definite highlight.
There are some all-attraction pre-paid tickets available from Go Cancun Pass, which could bring you savings of $200 to $300 if you plan on visiting lots of the attractions. Alternatively, make sure to ask about tour availability at your hotel, as they often run promotional deals with preferred agents.
(Please note: we have no affiliations or associations with Go Cancun Pass and we receive no commission or reward if you follow their link.)
How much money should I take to Cancun?
We all have the site budgetyourtrip.com bookmarked because they use real travel costs from tens of thousands of travellers to work out a whole range of very useful data. Here are some figures showing the average amounts spent by tourists for different lengths of vacation in Cancun (these include accommodation costs, but not airfare).
Here’s another useful set of costs, this time broken down into daily amounts. (Some of us feel the figure for ‘Alcohol’ may be a little too low, but maybe they haven’t included Spring Break!)
Is shopping cheap in Cancun?
Depending on what you want to buy, you can make quite a saving in Cancun.
One thing that Cancun has no shortage of is malls. Unfortunately, even if you’ve never been to Mexico before, you’ve already seen most of these malls. They’re the same malls you get in every major city, and they’re all built to attract tourist money.
Instead of a mall, we recommend a trip to Parque del Artesano. As the name suggests, it’s a very arty area with a 70s hippie vibe — full of small, often tiny shops that sell handmade arts and crafts. The prices are what you’d expect, but you can often pick up some very unusual pieces that you won’t find anywhere other than Cancun.
If you must go to a mall (and we know some of you must!), then you should try the La Isla Shopping Village, which we can only describe as an outdoor mall with boat rides. Yes, boat rides! The Shopping Village borders a lagoon, and the stores are arranged on walkways connected by canals. It’s these canals that offer the boat trips, and you can even swim with dolphins in the lagoon. The stores include names such as Bulgari, Guess, Nautica, Ultrafemme and (of course) Zara. There’s also the usual range of chain restaurants, such as Planet Hollywood, Chili’s and Johnny Rockets; plus some smaller snack venues and several bars.
Downtown Cancun has some mega supermarkets, where you can buy locally produced food for extremely low prices. (The biggest chain is called ‘Liverpool’, which seems strange to see on Mexican island signposts!) However, some foods are expensive even in the bargain superstores — because so many products need to be imported, the cost-to-shelf is high, and those costs are passed on to you. There are also a few open markets selling souvenirs, but these are just cheap, mass-produced fridge magnets and coffee mugs.
For souvenir shopping, you need to visit the flea markets. Mexican blankets, limestone sculptures, hats (sombreros, of course!), hand-made jewellery and even the odd stuffed donkey — for sale as far as your eye can see. The prices are quite expensive to start, but that’s because you’ve got to haggle! Never accept the opening price: it’s just the first move in the bartering game. How much money you can save depends on how good you are at playing the game!
Is Cancun Safe?
In 2006, Mexican authorities mounted a massive crackdown on drug crime, aiming specifically for the heads of the drug cartels. The problem was that the crackdown was too successful! Many of the country’s biggest drug lords were jailed or killed, and over 80,000 cartel members reportedly lost their lives. But this created a vacuum at the top levels of the Mexican cartels, and the lack of any sort of crime leadership, actually caused a rise in crime and an increase in bloody turf wars.
But the cartels’ brutal regime was restricted to only rural areas; they understood that tourists to Cancun were large consumers of recreational drugs, and so the tourist areas were off-limits for any cartel-related violence. In fact, National Public Security figures for 2019 show that cartel-related violent crimes have actually decreased by 32 per cent over the previous year.
So although drug-related violence is not unheard of in Cancun, it doesn’t even make it into Mexico’s top 10 list of dangerous cities. By Mexico’s standards, that makes Cancun a safe place.
(Fun fact: In the 2019 World Population Review, Mexico was listed as only the 24th most dangerous country in the world. So it’s not even in the top 20.)
(Not so fun fact: That was out of a list of 161…)
So, Is Cancun Expensive?
If your idea of heaven is sitting on a beach all day and partying all night, then Cancun is your kind of place, and it won’t cost you too much to achieve your nirvana. There’s budget accommodation to be found, especially in the low season, and food and drink are comparatively cheap.
As for partying all night, you can find clubs that are still lively at 6:00 am, so that’s another point for Cancun. The VIP passes are definite money-savers at the bar, and there are special deals available for most other services
But while Cancun is definitely cheaper than some other major resorts, it’s not really the bargain you may have hoped for. In peak season, the hotels charge the same as a hotel in Hawaii or the Bahamas, although there are some good all-inclusive deals and special offers to be found on the major holiday websites.
So, the takeaway here is that Cancun is not particularly expensive, and sometimes it can be quite cheap. In other words, price is not really a factor.
With that in mind, you can go ahead and book your vacation, or perhaps you still want to consider other destinations. If you do, we’ve got you covered — just click the links at the bottom of the page for some great destination ideas.
Whether it’s Cancun or Kuta, Hawaii or Honduras, we’d love to hear your vacation stories, and we’re especially pleased when we get your tips and tricks for a better vacation.