Cancún is a great place to experience 21st-century Mexico, since it has everything you'd want in a vacation: shopping, sports, spas, and beaches. Here you'll find five-star resorts, exceptional food, Mexican culture, and natural beauty within minutes of the world-famous Mayan ruins. That said, there isn't much that's quaint or historic in this distinctively modern city, many of whose residents have embraced the accoutrements of urban middle-class life—cell phones, Internet, cable TV—that are found all over the world.
Most locals live on the mainland in the part of the city called El Centro and work in the posh Zona Hotelera, whose main drag is called Boulevard Kukulcán. Kilometer markers alongside Boulevard Kukulcán indicate where you are, starting from Km 1 near El Centro to Km 20 at the southern tip of Punta Nizuc. The area in between consists entirely of hotels, restaurants, shopping complexes, marinas, and time-share condominiums. Most travelers base themselves in this 22½-km (14-mile) stretch of paradise, unless the charm of El Centro's city life trumps the beach.
The party atmosphere of Zona Hotelera has inevitably earned it the title "Spring Break capital of the world." Dozens of bars and nightclubs cater to college students just south of Punta Cancún at Km 9. Fortunately, this late-night/early-morning scene is contained within a small area, far from the larger resorts. Although Cancún is a magnet for youth on the loose, families are drawn to the limitless water sports, pristine beaches, and children's activities including theme parks, live entertainment, and dolphin programs.
For authentic Mexican food at some of the best hole-in-the-wall cantinas, travel west of Avenida Tulum (El Centro's main street) to Yaxchilán. The more upscale area of El Centro is east of Tulum to Avenida Bonampak. Although El Centro is less visited by travelers than Zona Hotelera, the downtown area holds cultural gems that will remind you that you really are in Mexico.