Independent travellers often find the glitz of Mexico’s mammoth resort city, CANCÚN, off-putting and its beachfront pleasures brash and expensive. Certainly, for anyone who has been out in the rest of the Yucatán or is eager to get there, all the concrete can be a downer. But a night spent here on the way in or out doesn’t have to be wasted, so long as you appreciate the city as an energetic, successful frontier experiment, rather than lament its lack of history. A closer look reveals hidden beach bars and inexpensive taco stands frequented by cancunenses who are friendly and proud of their city’s prosperity.

Brief history

If nothing else, Cancún is proof of the government’s remarkable ability to get things done in a hurry – so long as the will exists. In the late 1960s, the Mexican government decided to develop a new resort area to diversify the economy. Computers crunched weather data, and surveyors scouted the country’s natural attractions to identify a 25km-long barrier island just off the northern Caribbean coast as the ideal combination of beautiful beaches, sparse population and accessible position. Construction began in 1970, and when the first hotel opened in 1974, it relied on a generator for electricity and trucked-in water.

In the twenty-first century, the city has struggled to shed its reputation for tacky fun (Spring Break happens only a month a year, after all), but it has successfully courted Mexican tourists. It faced a serious crisis after Hurricane Wilma severely eroded the beach in 2005, but restoration schemes finally seem to have taken hold.

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