Solo Travel to Cancun

Today’s guest author, Prime, is a Manila-based journalist, traveler and anthropologist. She blogs about her journeys as a woman traveling solo at The Gypsygals.

photo, image, souvenir stall, Chichen Itza

A souvenir stall in Chichen Itza

The Maya, I believe, are obsessed with numbers. The indigenous people of Central America and Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico are credited with having invented the concept of zero and developing their own solar calendar. They were also expert astronomers, and were able to monitor lunar and planetary movement using only their naked eyes.

Perhaps it was fitting that while traveling in Cancun I would also develop an obsession with numbers.

Numbers ruled the three weeks that I spent in Cancun. As one of the hundred or so journalists that were covering the U.N. climate talks, I was always looking at my watch, running to the next press briefing, the next interview, the next free shuttle that would take me from my hotel to the convention center.  Later, when the conference was over and I had time for myself, I had to count every single minute waiting for the tour bus or following the schedule set by the tour guide. Exploring tourist sites, I had to count every dollar that I spent, Cancun being more expensive than I thought.

photo, image, Chichen Itza

El Castillo in Chichen Itza

Shopaholics Beware

No shopaholic can survive in Cancun.  I am a fairly disciplined shopper, but even I succumbed to temptation.  One evening I was rushing to get to a restaurant, but I got derailed in the hotel lobby, lured by a stall selling colorful embroidered bags.  After much haggling I managed to buy a fuschia bag for $20.  It seemed like a bargain at the time, but I changed my mind when I got home to Manila and had a look at the dozen bags in my closet.

Another day I went to the renowned souvenir market, Mercado Veinte Ocho, in downtown Cancun. I swore to myself that I would only spend about $20 for gifts for my family and friends. But after bargaining for an hour, I left the famous souvenir market clutching a bag of t shirts and keychains, with zero money left in my wallet.

Chichen Itza: Discovering the Mayan Pyramid

Anyone visiting Cancun who has a smidgen of interest in the Mayan culture goes to Chichen Itza – a UNESCO World Heritage site, a five hour bus trip from downtown Cancun. The city was once the political capital of the Mayan highlands and is now home to some of the finest (and well-preserved) stone buildings built by the Maya people. Thousands of tourists visit here every day and numerous stalls and vendors offer everything from shawls to hats to replicas of the Mayan pyramids.

photo, image, caribbean sea

Overlooking the Caribbean Sea

Yup, you read that right – pyramids. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Maya also built gigantic pyramids. Unlike the Egyptians, the Maya used the pyramids as a place for worship, not as royal tombs. The step pyramid that loomed over Chichen Itza is known as “El Castillo” or the Temple of Kukulkan, the Mayan Snake Deity.

The best time to visit is just before the sun rises or just before the sun sets. It is only during these times that the corner of El Castillo casts a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent. I enjoyed just wandering around the ruins – the El Castillo, the Great Ball Court used for the ritual ball game, a platform dedicated to the planet Venus, and the Sacred Cenotes – natural sinkholes which were once used for human sacrifice.

Tulum: Tracing the Obsidian Trade

I went to Tulum the next day and while this pre-Hispanic city pales in comparison to the grandeur of Chichen Itza, I still enjoyed wandering around this place if only because it gave me another opportunity to learn about the Maya people.

photo, image, Tulum ruins

The city square in Tulum

Tulum is located on the east coast, and since it had access to both land and sea trade routes, it was once renowned as a trading center for obsidian. The natural volcanic glass was important to the Mayan world as it was used to make spears and jewelry, and for ritual sacrifice.

One of the most visited temples here is the Temple of Frescoes. A testament to the Maya’s deep knowledge of astronomy, it was used as an observatory for solar rotation. Its stone walls were decorated with murals showing Itzamna, God of the Sky and the Moon Goddess Ix Chel.   And then there are the remains of the temples dedicated to the Descending God, a Bee God and even a God of Wind.

But perhaps what attracted me most were the remains of El Castillo, once a step pyramid dedicated to the Descending God and which once served as a watchtower and a landmark for sailors.  The El Castillo sits on a cliff, facing the azure Carribean Sea. I didn’t have the chance to swim and sunbathe but having the time to just sit, looking at the sea, was more than enough to soothe my mind and senses.

  • musement

    Amazing tips and photos! Book fun activities in Cancún with Musement including excursions to Chichen Itza and snorkeling, perfect for solo travelers:

  • Janice Waugh

    I’m afraid that I don’t have that information. I would suggest the forum at Frommers. People there will be able to answer your question.


  • Valentina

    We are planning (my boyfriend and I) to go to Mexico in June 2013. The plan is to book the flight only and once we arrive there, get a car and go find an accomodation ourselves. This, in our view, should allow us to be itinerant, see more places and spend less – yes, we’re a bit tight on budget; besides, we don’t really like these “all inclusive” kind of things. Basically, a sort of adventurous and not turisty experience.
    Do you reckon this will be feasible? Any suggestion on this highly appreciated!
    Thanks in adance for your advice.

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  • Alexander John

    The ruins of Tulum are awesome. Iit’s the only historic site I know where you can actually swim at the beach and have a great time! A must when you visit Cancun or the Riviera Maya

  • Samwalker

    I plan on taking a solo trip to Cancun, Thanks for sharing your experience. 

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  • Kevin Hawley

    @Mark, thanks for the info., a week is no prob., the longer the better, always rent a Jeep and go find those places no one knows about.

  • Mark Tisdale

    @Kevin – I’m not positive Delta still offers direct flights to Mérida, but when I went, they only flew in (and out) on Sunday, so if you were coming and going from there, you had to stay in increments of a week! That said, I really like Mérida. To me, it was far superior to Cancun. If you’re going for the beach, Cancun would have it beat, otherwise, it’s my choice of destinations in the area.


  • Kevin Hawley

    @Mark, I will remember about flying into Merida. I Solo’d to Cancun and then Jeeped to Chitzen Itza, which was great. But had I known, I would have skipped Cancun, sadly it has become quite Americanized and a party place.

  • Mark Tisdale

    It’s funny, my second trip to Mexico, I wanted to go to Cancun, mainly because I wanted to see the Maya ruins, but I was trying to use frequent flyer miles and couldn’t make it work until I discovered I could fly into Merida. So, my first visit to Chichen Itza was via Merida and I never laid eyes on Cancun at all. Last January, I did a whirlwind tour from Mexico City down to Cancun and saw Chichen Itza again and then Cancun. It was pure culture shock. It was not hing like the rest of Mexico which I enjoyed so much. I ended up spending time on the beach at Playa del Carmen before my flight out in Cancun. Loved the beach at PDC but still a bit indifferent to Cancun.

    I’m jealous of the weather in your photos of Tulum, though! I managed to get some stormy days and my visit to Tulum the skies were just flat gray clouds…

  • Karen ho fatt

    I have been to Mexico solo twice. Not sure if I would do that again. I have found it difficult to find unique stuff in these more touristy areas. If I go off the beaten path in more lesser known areas, more success there though. But I must admit a lot of stuff is cheaper than in North America and I end up filling my bags with a few items before I leave.

  • Prime

    Hi @Jacs – unless you’re prepared to shop till you drop better store your wallet in the hotel safe.

    @Traveling Ted – yup Manila is cheaper. But i visited several Asian countries and even went to Australia and Canada, but Cancun is really pricey esp if you stay in the Hotel Zone (I had to because I was covering an event). The taxi to the airport was like 40 dollars and everyone is always angling for a tip.

  • Traveling Ted

    I can imagine that goods would be cheaper in the Philippines. I bought a nice colorful guitar strap there for 50 cents that has lasted over 5 years.

    Nice report on what to do in and around Cancun.

  • Jacs_13

    I plan on taking a solo trip to Cancun this Fall with the purpose of seeing the Pyramids. Sounds like a great time! Thank-you for writing this, I will keep my wallet closed! :)