Time for a quick getaway somewhere warm and reachable with inexpensive airfare. Somewhere to dip your toes in the sand and enjoy a drink under an umbrella. Somewhere for a few days of self-care, sleeping late, and not putting much effort into planning the trip.
After a quick review, you narrow your choices to places in the Caribbean or Mexico — and decide on the latter. Why? Mexican destinations have continuously been the most visited by Americans for over a decade. A search of the top 10 Mexican destinations listed Cabo, Tulum, and Puerto Vallarta, but the most reliable go-to destination is Cancún.
Like a good friend, you know what to expect: sunshine, good food, amenities, and entertainment. Travelers are quick to talk about Cancún and share their photos and experiences. Their plans and tips often influence the decision-making of first-time and repeat visitors to this mecca.
Yet if you looked back at the late 1950s to early 1970s, you couldn’t visit Cancún because it didn’t exist — yet. It was developed specifically as a tourist city in the 70s. Instead, you would go to Acapulco. Today, Acapulco is a reminder of what a Mexican vacation used to be, with celebrity sightings and huge mansions with dramatic views of the beaches and oceans.
Since the 1980s, Cancún has become a vacation destination, while Acapulco has become a scruffy non-destination. Here are the key differences to consider.
1. Landscape And Accessibility
Cancún was designed to be an easily accessible destination for various types of travelers and groups. The main area, the Hotel Zone or Zona Hotelera, is flat and borders the Caribbean Sea. The zone is divided into northern and southern sections.
As the northern section offers most of the entertainment and restaurant options, you will find more people there. In contrast, the south is a bit quieter with a more relaxed atmosphere. Both sections are easily accessible by taxis or buses that routinely make the rounds to and from downtown and the airport.
Acapulco is spread out, so its terrain is a little tougher to manage. High-rise hotel options are within the Golden Zone or La Zona Dorado. This zone has a variety of hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs along Acapulco Bay. These days, Mexican teenagers often hold late-night parties on the beach.
Choosing to stay outside of this zone provides a more tranquil and authentic experience. Diamante (Diamond) hosts the all-inclusive guests, while the Traditional Zone is near where locals spend their time.
Because Cancún’s La Zona Hotelera has 22 miles of warm white and yellow sand, you will find almost everyone there, especially on the northern end. Most hotels have private beaches. You can take a taxi to other beaches, with your best option being Playa Delfines (Dolphin Beach), though it lacks restaurants and hotels.
If you decide to trek to the southern end, then consider Playa Chac Mool, which is a quiet place far away from crowds.
Acapulco grew around its bay as a fishing village and its beaches are plentiful and varied. Various public beaches line Avenida Costera Miguel Aleman: Playas Manzanillo, Hornitos, and Honda. Early in the day, the beaches are quiet, but pick up towards the afternoon and stay busy throughout the weekend with the various locals, tourists, and vendors hanging out there. Various restaurants, entertainment, and bars dot the area, including one that hosts Lucha fighting and a Zocolo (Plaza Alvarez) that features local events.
Other options include Playa Angosta (narrow beach), which has beautiful views. To get to the Isla de la Roqueta, you have to buy a ferry ticket from Playa Caleta that will transport you to Playa Roqueta and Marin Beaches. All three beaches become fairly crowded with local families and Mexican tourists.
Overall, Pie de la Cuesta is a favorite due to its tranquil environment and the low number of visitors.
There are many all-inclusive resorts within Cancún’s Hotel Zone, and each features its own branded restaurants for on-site meal options. If these do not appeal to you, the area has numerous options and varieties, including Argentinian, Mexican Fusion, and Italian, along with other popular favorites. The cost is a little pricey, so be prepared.
I prefer to go into town and visit the area around Parque de las Palapas, which has more local favorites and inexpensive options. On most evenings, you can either people watch or catch live events within the park. Avenida Yaxchilan has several restaurants and bars that line its street, including local favorites. The avenue has a feel that is distinct from the Hotel Zone, and I tended to gravitate toward the avenue.
Acapulco has a lot of regional dishes such as pozole (which was once a meal eaten by the Indigenous peoples that featured human flesh) and Relleno Guerrerense as well as Oaxacan cuisine. You can find various pizzas, burgers, and other American comfort foods spread out along the main drag.
What I enjoyed most was the mix of traditional restaurants along the main drag as well as local restaurants along Benito Juarez, which runs right into the Zocalo. Most were inexpensive and filled with a mix of people enjoying the night.
The best place to try all the local favorites is within Mercado Central. It is quite literally so big that it spreads out to the surrounding streets. The original market is tucked deep within its interior. If you plan to go, it is best to hire a guide since it is so massive that you will need assistance in finding your way around, reaching the food areas, and exiting without going in circles.
Most Cancún-based options involve various water activities, including parasailing, boat tours, ATVs, cenotes (caves), and adventure-based tours. Chicken Itza (the city of the water sorcerers) provides historical and cultural connections and often serves as visitors’ first connection to Mayan history and lore.
Cancún’s attraction is its focus on options that allow visitors to simply have fun in the sun and dance until they are exhausted or until they have had too many margaritas or tequila cocktails.
Although Acapulco has La Quebrada, which features divers who take a plunge into the waters below narrowly avoiding jagged rocks. Most activities revolve around the Old Hollywood status that the destination used to enjoy. Visits to John Wayne’s former ocean-view mansion, a meeting with a former CIA sketch artist, and exploring the sites where forgotten stars once partied are at your disposal and attract various groups who remember these celebrities. All of these events are featured in photos that still line various parts of the city and a few of the older hotels like Los Flamingos.
Military history gets its due with the Fort of San Diego, which houses the Historical Museum. Artists try to get a peek into the former home of artist Diego Rivera, La Casa de los Vientos, or Exekatikalli, which sits above the main streets on a residential street.
5. The Negatives
Cancún makes for a good getaway, group trip, or introduction to the country, but if you are pining for an authentic Mexican experience, then it is not for you. From the hotel zone to the layout of the area, it was created specifically as an easy-to-navigate travel destination and nothing more. Although it can become humid during the summer months, the environment is ideal and almost always enjoyable due to its proximity to the Caribbean Sea.
When I visit, I shut my mind off and simply enjoy myself. If you are looking for an authentic experience, it would be best found further away from the Hotel Zone.
On the other hand, Acapulco grew at its own pace. It looks and feels lived in. The interior suffers from urban sprawl, which gets worse once the humidity sets in during the summer months. With that said, it is not a walking city. The hills and layout can become demanding due to how spread out the city is.
Yet, since its best days are long over, you will be spending more time with locals who have reclaimed the area. There is no real distinction between La Zona Dorado and the surrounding area minus the hotels. Old Hollywood is tucked away, so Acapulco is trying to carve a new identity out of modern times. To some, it may be more of a party destination due to the inexpensive options, but what I found is that it was easy to simply walk away from it to find a small space to sit down and enjoy a beer while watching the sunset over the water.
Although both destinations draw visitors due to their proximity to the water, the experiences are drastically different. As you plan your trip, ask yourself what type of vacation you are interested in. Acapulco’s rough natural beauty combined with urban landscape or Cancún’s simplicity and arm’s length amenities.
For more information on traveling to Mexico, check out these articles: