Car rental Cancun
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Why rent a car in Cancun?
Cancun is a popular beach resort destination for North Americans, but also for Central and South Americans and Europeans. While lounging on the pristine beaches and partying in the nightclubs is certainly what the city is known most for, many travellers prefer the resorts on the coast near the city for a more peaceful vacation. Of course, the best way to reach these resorts is in a rental car.
The city also serves as a gateway of sorts to the Mayan ruins that are scattered across the Yucatan Peninsula. Some of the ruins are easily accessible, with a car, while others are still covered by jungle requiring more of an adventure to reach. In any case, if a traveler wants to more than just relax on the beach next to their chosen hotel, a rental car would be a major benefit.
Top ways to enter Cancun
Almost all visitors arrive in Cancun at the Cancun International Airport. The airport has flights from Central America, Bogota, and Lima in South America, many Canadian and American locations, and Europe. It is located south of the city and is directly connected to the Hotel Zone via Boulevard Kukulcan. Rental cars are available at the airport, with major suppliers having desks inside the terminals, others being located on the airport grounds, and even more with meet and greet services.
Having no deepwater port, Cancun does not have cruise ships docking in the city. Some cruises may anchor offshore with passengers being tendered to land. Most cruise ships include Cozumel on their itinerary, from where a ferry to the mainland is available. A ferry service from Tampa, Florida to the Yucatan Peninsula is slated to begin in the winter of 2020. Its port of call will be Progresso.
The more adventurous may arrive in Cancun via a private boat. The main marinas are located between Downtown and the Hotel Zone and north of Downtown. For those wanting to venture inland to see the Mayan ruins, rental cars can be picked up at the rental providers’ offices downtown or at some hotels in the Hotel Zone.
Useful city facts
Cancun was built in the 1970s in what was then a very rural, but beautiful area. The city is split into two areas, the Hotel Zone where all of the hotels and tourists stay and Downtown where the locals live. The city, being entirely new, does not have much in the way of cultural attraction or and nothing in respects to colonial architecture. The Downtown area, perhaps a welcome escape from the tourist world, has typical Mexican restaurants and shopping for the local residents but little else to offer.
Hurricane season lasts from June to November, with the months between August and October having the highest likelihood of activity. Major hurricanes have hit Cancun in the past. Hurricane Gilbert hit the city directly in 1988 and washed away a significant portion of the area’s beaches. The ocean had to be drudged to reform the beaches to keep the tourists coming. Most recently, the eye of Hurricane Wilma passed over Cozumel and Playa del Carmen and very near Cancun. The city would again need to rebuild afterward.
The hurricane season coincides with the low tourist season. This has more to do with the general weather than hurricanes, specifically. The summer and fall months are the rainy season in the Yucatan, with almost daily storms and very high humidity. If you seek a quieter vacation and can cope with the rain and humidity, very good hotel deals can be found during the offseason. One shouldn’t avoid traveling in this season due to the threat of hurricanes, but instead, keep an eye on the forecast and perhaps have travel insurance in the case that the trip needs to be canceled or cut short due to a storm.
The water temperatures in Cancun hover between 79°F and 84°F, pleasantly warm. Travellers should be aware of the riptides on Cancun’s oceanside beaches. These depend on the wind and are sometimes deceptive, with a calm-looking sea having a strong undercurrent. Be sure to either check with your hotel’s staff or look for the lifeguard's flags to find out the current situation before swimming, particularly with children.
Be prepared for the fact that “tourist information” pretty much means a sales pitch. The typical method of selling timeshares, offering free tours or activities if you attend a high-pressure sales pitch, is very popular in Cancun. Unless you are prepared to spend your time to get something for free along with being well-grounded to resist the pressure of purchase, it is best to avoid these people altogether. If you are interested in purchasing a timeshare, you are best served doing your own research, comparing prices, and finding one independently.
Top destinations and activities
- Beaches - The prime reason travelers flock to Cancun and the Mayn Riviera in general is to lounge on the Carribean beaches. Cancun’s Hotel Zone is built on a long beach shaped like the number 7. On the northern end, the beach can get crowded. The crowds tend to die out further south. There is also a beach with parking south of Punta Cancun near El Rey. Traveling south of the city or north to Isla Blanca, travelers can find lush, lonely beaches on which an entire day or days can be spent. Do note that the island that the Hotel Zone sits gets hot, particularly in the wet season, with little shade which relief from the heat can be found. .
- Partying - The other thing Cancun has become known for is its partying. While at other times there is always a party atmosphere, things get particularly busy during the American spring break weeks from late February to mid-April. During this time tens of thousands of college students descend on the city to spend a week getting sunburned and drinking copious amounts of alcohol. The bars and clubs are centered around Punta Cancun. For a more family-friendly atmosphere, it is best to stay further south of this area at one of the more expensive and newer resorts.
- El Rey - Though most of the archaeological sites in the Yucatan are located elsewhere, one site exists in the middle of the Hotel Zone. The Mayan name for the village is not known, but the site is named after one of the sculptures as it looks like a king (rey, in spanish). The site consists of 47 structures and is well worth exploring. Afterwards, head to the Mayan Museum of Cancun which is just one and a half kilometers away.
- Diving - Though Cancun is known as a party place, seasoned divers also know the city and surroundings offer a world-class diving experience. Many PADI dive centers are located both in the city and along the Riviera Maya where novice divers can take Discover Scuba Diving or Open Water courses. The highlight for diving in Cancun is the Cancún National Marine Park in which the Underwater Museum, a group of structures submerged beneath the water along the reef. Of course, diving in the area’s cenotes are off of Isla Mujeres is also a highlight.
Traffic and parking tips
There have been numerous reports of police officers asking for bribes in both Cancun and the entire Yucatan area. If you are stopped by the police, insist on going to the police to pay the fine along with keeping record of any details to be able to file a complaint. One particularly heinous scheme is to stop tourists as they are returning to the airport as it is known that they will not have time to go to the police station nor file any form of complaint. There have been reports of this happening near the Puerto Juarez ferry terminal. The best defense in this case is to return to the airport even earlier than you otherwise would to leave plenty of time in case anything like this were to happen.
In regards to legitimate police stops, note the changes in speed limits and follow them as speeding fines are common. While tourists used to be able to drink and drive without impunge, nowadays there is no tolerance for drunk driving. Many checkpoints are often set up in and around Cancun. Do not drink and drive unless you want a stay in a Mexican to be part of your vacation stories.
Mexico has a program called Angeles Verdes (Green Angels) which provides trucks that patrol the tolled highways to assist drivers of broken down vehicles. The operators of these trucks can fix basic problems or tow your vehicle and will do it for free. You can call the Green Angels toll-free at 01-800-987-8224 or dial 078 in an emergency. Do be sure to keep your receipt from the tolls, as this is funded through the tolls.
Parking is not much of a worry in this part of Mexico. Every hotel in Cancun and the surrounding area provides free parking for guests. Shopping centers also offer free parking (though it may be time-limited). It is also possible to park near the Punta Juarez ferry terminal. If traveling to Cozumel without your car, two paid parking lots and an underground parking garage are located near the ferry terminal in Playa del Carmen.
Though Mexico is famous for cartel violence, the Yucatan area is not among the hotspots for this (though there has been an increase in violence in Cancun itself). Tourists are not usually the targets of this violence. It is advisable to avoid driving at night, particularly on rural roads. Bandidos are rarer now, but can still be a problem at night.
Mexico has an extensive system of toll roads due to a government program started in the 1980s to update the country’s road system. The Mexican toll road system is called Cuota. Toll booths are located along the highways at the end of sections of the road, therefore, on a long ride, you can pass through multiple toll booths. While credit cards used to be accepted, drivers can now only pay with either cash or an electronic tag placed on the car’s windshield. The electronic tags may be available from your rental car provider, but usually comes with a fee. However, the fee is usually just a one-time fee for the tag, not a daily fee as in other places like many places in the United States. ATMs are few and far between along the highways, so be sure to keep plenty of cash to pay for the tolls.
Compared to other countries, Mexico’s tolls can seem rather expensive. It is possible, however, to avoid most toll roads as Libre (or free) roads usually go alongside them, though they are much slower to travel on due to going through many villages along the way. This may make for more scenic travel on short trips but would certainly hinder progress on any longer trips.
Ideas for a day-trip
- Chichén Itzá - The world famous Mayan archaeological site must not be missed when travelling to Cancun. Located just two hours from Cancun (if taking the tolled highway), the city is centered upon El Castillo, which unfortunately can no longer be climbed. The site was named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Having a tour guide to tell you about the people that inhabited the city between 600 and 1200 AD is highly recommended. Be prepared for the tolls on the way to and from the ruins. As of 2019, the total for reaching the site is about 380 pesos (one way). Credit cards are not accepted and ATMs may not be found along the way, so be sure to bring enough cash.
- Isla Mujeres - Isla Mujeres (Women Island) is an island roughly eight miles of the Yucatan coast. Ferries to Isla Mujeres eave from three different places in the Hotel Zone (Playas Tortuga and Caracol and El Embarcadero) and Puerto Juarez. The ferries that depart from the Hotel Zone cost a little more and run a little less often. A parking garage is located near Puerto Juarez where, for a small fee, you can leave your rental car for a day or more. Scooters and golf carts can be rented to get around the island. The Island is a beautiful place that is a perfect place to get away from the tourist mecca that is Cancun.
- Playa del Carmen - Another famous resort town, Playa del Carmen is just an hour’s drive south of Cancun. The center of the Mayan Riviera, Playa del Carmen has a more relaxed atmosphere with high-end resorts and a European feeling. Ferries to Cozumel depart from the town.
- Tulum - Further south of Playa del Carmen, around 130 kilometers from Cancun, Tulum was a former Mayan port and is now the only archeological site located on the coast. Similar to Chichen Itza, a large pyramid called El Castillo dominates the site and is located on a 12-meter high cliff. This seems to indicate that it used to be a lighthouse. For anyone interested in Mayan ruins, this location is a must-not-miss one.
- Cozumel - The island of Cozumel is another famous destination. It can be reached by ferry from Playa del Carmen and is also a common port of call for cruise ships. A plethora of water-based activities can be enjoyed on the island, including fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, and sailing. The coral reefs surrounding the island host a trove of tropical fish and make for the perfect diving or snorkeling experience.
- Isla Blanca - Though often visited by locals, many tourists don’t bother to venture to Isla Blanca north of Cancun. This is one of the trips that can only be done with your own car, as getting a taxi back to town is probably not possible. You can take either Avenida Bonampak or Car. A. Punta Sam which will meet eventually. The paved four-lane road will turn into a sand road which leads to a parking lot which is as far as you can drive. Take a picnic and enjoy the lonely beach, or if you are lucky enough, try some of the fish in the few restaurants located near the parking lot.
- Parque Natural Ria Lagartos - Due to the lack of a road along the coast, it takes approximately three and a half hours to drive to this national park from Cancun, requiring drivers to go through Valladolid. In addition to seeing the salt flat and pink lagoon, it is possible to take a boat tour during which you will see unique wildlife up close.
- La Ruta de Los Cenotes - The route of the cenotes, which are pits that were formed after the limestone bedrock collapsed and the groundwater beneath was exposed. Though it is not the only place where they occur, cenotes are particularly associated with the Yucatan Peninsula. The sinkholes were regarded by the Maya as a way to the afterlife and were therefore treated as holy. Many Mayan cities were formed around cenotes, as they made it easy for the inhabitants to get water. Although cenotes can be found across the peninsula, La Ruta is a route with many cenotes along one road. The route begins just south of Puerto Morelos which itself is south of Cancun. From there, travel west towards Leona Vicario, stopping wherever you find a great cenote.
- Cenotes X'kekén and Samula - Though not on La Ruta de Los Cenotes, these two cenotes are also worth visiting. They are located just outside of Valladolid, making them a perfect pitstop on the way to or from Chichen Itza. Both of these cenotes are enclosed with small holes in the top that let in daylight. This creates a stunning place that you would regret not taking a dip in.
Most popular rental types and cars
The most popular class of rental car in Cancun is economy like the Kia Rio. Compact cars like the Volkswagen Golf are also popular. The many families that decide to vacation in or near Cancun make intermediate cars like the Volkswagen Jetta popular, too.
Note: Cars rented in Mexico, as a general rule, are not allowed to be taken to any country other than the United States. It is, of course, highly unlikely that anyone renting a car in Cancun would want to take the car to the United States. Belize and Guatemala are both much more reasonable as destinations within reach of Cancun. Unfortunately, it is not possible to take a rental car to either, nor are rental cars available at the borders of either country. It is possible to rent a car in either country if either arriving by air or by taking a bus from the border to a city in which rental cars are available.
- Belize - Anyone spending more than a few days on the Mayan Riviera shouldn’t miss also going to Belize. An affordable ferry exists from Chetumal to the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. In Chetumal, you can leave your rental car in a secured parking lot called Estacionamiento "Del Centro.” They are not open on Sunday, but will probably meet you to let you get your car, especially if you arrange this in advance. From San Pedro, it is possible to travel further to Caye Caulker and Belize City by ferry. Flights on small aircraft are also an option. Note that immigration procedures will take place upon arrival in San Pedro and when you return to Chetumal.
- Guatemala - Though part of Guatemala is also located on the Yucatan Peninsula, it is not possible to travel to the country with a rental car. However, flights are available from Cancun to Guatemala City. To reach Guatemala by bus would probably involve transiting through Chetumal and Belize.
The Yucatan Peninsula is in many ways more similar to Guatemala and Belize than the rest of Mexico. Guatemala, Belize, and the Mexican part of the peninsula share a common Mayan culture. Venturing further, to the North American part of Mexico would certainly make a great road trip for any travelers that have the time (driving time can be lengthy).
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