I Visited Cancun Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic — Here's What It Was Really Like
With Cancun open for tourism, one traveler shares her experience visiting the popular tourist destination.
As destinations around the world slowly wake from their quarantine hibernations and begin to promote tourism once again, Americans may find themselves asking, “Where can I travel?” Gone are the days when great deals and travel inspiration on social media were the determining factors in our vacation planning; the world has changed since the outbreak of the coronavirus, and the responsibilities of those choosing to travel must change as well.
New priority prompts to consider include: Where is it safe to travel? (In other words, to what extent will you be putting yourself or others at risk by traveling there?) Which destinations are open? (Based on the state and/or country you live in, will you be allowed entry?) And will you have to quarantine upon arrival?
If you’re ready and comfortable enough to fly, Cancun is a destination that ticks all of those boxes. Since having formally reopened for tourism on June 8, the Mexican Caribbean has seen “several hotels, parks, tours, entertainment, and restaurants restart operations with new internal health and hygiene protocols to ensure the safety of guests,” said Dario Flota, Quintana Roo tourism board director.
Whether you’re prepared to plan a vacation or you’re simply curious about what’s going on south of the border, here’s everything you need to know about traveling to Cancun right now.
First things first: Is Cancun safe to visit right now?
As long as COVID-19 is a threat, traveling is a risk. The safest place to be is at home. But all things considered, Cancun has been doing an impressive job at containing and preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
Cancun was the first destination in the Americas and one of the first few in the world to receive the “Safe Travels” global safety and hygiene stamp from the World Travel & Tourism Council. The stamp indicates that the destination has “implemented the new safety measures for travelers that WTTC has recognized and approved,” said Quintana Roo Governor Carlos Joaquín González.
It’s the result of major efforts from the state government in creating their own local safety and hygiene program, called the Mexican Caribbean Clean & Safe Check Certification, which is available to all companies in the tourism industry and “aims to maintain the highest sanitary measures for the prevention and containment of COVID-19 and generate confidence among guests, partners, and the community.”
“Over 6,000 companies to date have applied for the certification, which reaffirms the commitment of our people to the safety and health of our visitors,” said Flota. Certifications can be verified on the website MexicanCaribbean.Travel before or during your travels.
Timing, for now, is also on the side of the cautious traveler. In addition to summer already being an off-peak season for travel to Cancun, the number of visitors is still especially low, making social distancing a breeze.
Houston resident Meggan Orduno just visited with her husband, Richard, to celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary after quarantining for three months and forgoing her planned 30th birthday celebration. “We were the only people on our floor of the resort,” she said.
Orduno had booked the trip before the pandemic and was prepared to cancel if need be, but said she felt “completely safe” in Cancun, calling the situation back home “far worse.” Though the couple doesn’t plan to travel again this summer, they say they “wouldn’t think twice about doing it” after what they experienced in Cancun.
Are Americans allowed to go to Cancun right now?
Yes, indeed. In fact, at no point did the border ever close. Though the United States and Mexico entered into a joint initiative in mid-March to restrict non-essential travel across the border (this is currently still in effect through July 21), that only applied to land crossings, commuter rail, and ferry travel. Though there was (and still is) a Level 4 global health advisory warning against all international travel — and non-essential travel between the two countries was discouraged — it was never restricted via air. The U.S. travel advisory for Mexico, in particular, is now down to a Level 2, calling on visitors to exercise increased caution.
This may serve as a relief for many Americans hoping to travel internationally, as other borders are likely to remain closed to U.S. passports for some time. Just ask Michelle Jackson of Dallas and Regina Davis of Oakland, who recently took a girls' trip to Cancun with a couple of other friends. The group booked the trip the moment tourism formally reopened in Cancun, and said the “open air and empty beaches” were a welcome change from life in their shut-down cities.
Do locals support the reopening?
While it’s impossible to speak for everyone, the overall attitude is positive. Unlike some destinations that received backlash from residents for reopening, the citizens of the Mexican Caribbean are thrilled at the prospect of being back in business. Economies everywhere are suffering and in need of stimulation, and Cancun’s is by no means an exception: Tourism accounts for 90 percent of Cancun’s economy and is the only primary industry in Quintana Roo. This past April, during the height of the lockdown, tourism income brought in only 6.3 percent of what it did a year prior, and reports say close to 90,000 tourism jobs in Cancun were lost. Though Mexico has a form of unemployment insurance available, many who applied were rejected from receiving it. The “lucky ones,” so to speak, are receiving the country’s minimum wage, a mere 123.22 Mexican pesos ($6.36 USD) per day.
“It’s barely enough for one person, let alone a family, which many of our tour guides work to support,” said Milton Estrasi, owner of tourism company Urban Adventures in Mexico. With no work to be had during the pandemic, Estrasi was forced to let go many of his employees in destinations throughout the country. One of them, Cancun tour guide Luís Mirazo, said he had to give up his apartment in nearby Playa del Carmen and move in with family due to lack of income. Local reports say about 10 percent of the local population has also left. “The pandemic has affected us in every possible way, emotionally and economically,” said Estrasi. “Everyone involved is super excited about finally being able to reopen.”
Many of those already reemployed are the staff of the hotels and resorts in Cancun’s popular Hotel Zone. Salvador Gutiérrez, assistant to the chief concierge at the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancún All Inclusive Spa Resort, has been back at work since June 13. “It was a difficult time staying at home, but I’m working for a company that gave me a second chance to come back,” said Gutiérrez. “Not everyone I know has had the same luck and unconditional support that I do, and I know that we are blessed to have the support of this company.”
What is it like to fly to and from Cancun right now?
Though the frequency of flights from the U.S. to Cancun is still significantly limited, this is changing on a weekly basis. As of July 6, Cancun International Airport is back to receiving flights from Charlotte, Denver, Fort Lauderdale, New York, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, and Houston on principal carriers, including American, Delta, Southwest, United, Sun Country, Spirit and JetBlue.
On a visit in late June, I flew direct from New York on JetBlue, where all middle seats were blocked (this will be the case through at least July 31) and mask usage was diligently enforced. The flights were boarded back to front to prevent people from having to pass each other in the aisle, and seating assignments were adjusted to maintain as much distance between passengers as possible. The plane looked and smelled cleaner than I’ve ever seen it. I also changed my flight home the morning of, and only had to pay the fare difference. Flight change and cancellation fees are waived through July 31.
Under ASUR, the company that operates the major airports in southeast Mexico, Cancun’s airport protocols have been updated to include temperature control, social distancing measures, mandatory mask usage, and hand sanitizer stations. Expect to have your temperature taken upon arrival, and when returning home, you'll have to fill out a COVID-19-related questionnaire at the airport before being allowed through security.
Security upon entry and exit was stricter than I’ve ever experienced, too. I had perfectly legal snacks confiscated from my carry-on bag while in baggage claim, and watched TSA meticulously inspect every item in my toiletry kit (even though I have PreCheck) upon departure, discarding any travel-sized bottle that seemingly was a quarter of an ounce too large.
What is it like getting around Cancun right now?
If you’re planning to stay within a resort for the duration of your trip, your best bet is to simply book an airport transfer to and from in advance. Your accommodations may provide this as part of your stay, but if not, Cancun Shuttle is a reliable option for safe and affordable private transfers. Though they normally offer shared rides as well, they are not available (nor recommended) at this time. There are no app-based ride-shares like Uber or Lyft in Cancun. There are a plethora of taxis, though many are cash-only and may overcharge you as a tourist.
If you want to step away from your accommodations and explore the area, consider renting a car — especially now, as it’s better to avoid public transportation. I opted to rent a car from Hertz for these reasons: The company introduced its new Gold Standard Clean sanitization process, and even still, an attendant eagerly wiped down the car’s interior at my request, which I appreciated. When filling out the rental paperwork, only one person per party was allowed inside Hertz’s building. This mandate was good in theory for social distancing, but not practical. Groups of families were left to wait outside in the heat, sometimes with less than six feet of distance between them. Booking and paying for your car in advance would likely expedite the process, so you can get out more quickly.
One thing to keep in mind when renting a car in Cancun is price gouging on insurance. It is not uncommon in many big tourism destinations, but is particularly insidious here, where rental base rates can be as low as a few dollars a day. Rental companies may try to insist that purchasing their insurance is required, and it can suddenly add up to several hundreds of dollars. While you should never drive without insurance, it is not required to purchase theirs; purchasing in advance from a third-party or booking with a credit card that includes complimentary rental insurance is recommended to save money. If you do this, however, the rental company may put a temporary hold on your credit card for up to a couple thousand dollars.
One big upside to driving in Cancun is that parking is quite easy and cheap. There is ample free parking near beaches and other attractions, and parking in a garage or private lot will often only cost you a couple of dollars.
What is it like staying at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun right now?
Perhaps the most important decision when planning a trip to Cancun — any time, but especially during COVID-19 — is where you’re going to stay. In addition to the usual considerations like price, location, and amenities, look into each resort’s new safety and hygiene policies and how well you’ll be able to socially distance at communal spaces like the beach, pool, and restaurants.
We stayed at the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancún, and were positively impressed with the resort’s attention to detail in ensuring everyone’s safety. Upon check-in, our temperatures were taken and our bags sanitized. We were assured that we would have unfettered access to as many disposable masks as we needed. All employees wore gloves, masks, and protective shields throughout the day, and according to housekeeper Susana Cristel Badal, they also were required to shower and have their temperature taken upon arrival each day. “We have all been trained to follow the ‘Travel With Confidence’ protocol guidebook that explains in detail how to clean and sanitize the guest suites,” she said.
Inside the elevators, attendants greet you with giant jugs of hand sanitizer, and inside the guest suites, boxes of masks and hand sanitizer sit beside the bed. The classic hotel pen and notepad set is still found on the desk, but is now wrapped in plastic. I once absent-mindedly stepped into the lobby with my mask still in my beach bag, and within seconds, an employee politely approached me with a new one. In the resort’s Gem Spa, attendants are also required to wear a mask, shield, and gloves while performing treatments, and guests must wear masks throughout as well.
“We all feel safe since the hotel has implemented these new safety protocols,” said Badal. “They are very strict, but we all follow the new procedures. I feel happy being able to keep my job and provide for my family. Not everyone is this lucky.”
Because of the low occupancy rates (all Cancun resorts are currently booking a maximum of only 30 percent of their rooms, but many have been operating with less than 20 percent), we had full stretches of beach and poolside space nearly all to ourselves, all day long. Our server, Jesús, was quick to learn our names, drink orders, and snack preferences, and kept us consistently comfortable while maintaining respectful distance and ensuring our orders were safely covered during delivery.
What are the beaches in Cancun like right now?
Public beaches are currently closed in Cancun, but all beaches in the city are technically public. So, what does that mean? If you’re staying at a resort, you should be fine. According to Roberto Cintrón Gómez, president of the Cancun, Puerto Morelos, and Isla Mujeres Hotel Association, tourists can still have access. The idea is that since hotels are controlling the number of guests staying on their property, they will be able to ensure proper social distancing on the beaches.
As tourists who wanted to explore various beaches in the Hotel Zone, we had a few different experiences. One public beach had a chain blocking the parking lot entrance, but when we drove up to inspect, a friendly attendant removed the chain and let us park. We asked if the beach was open, and he said yes. Whether he was misinformed or simply being nice, we were able to stay without issue, and saw only one other group there.
Another day, we walked to the beach of a nearby resort that was still closed for business, and planted our towels on the sand in front of it. We had the entire beach to ourselves for the day. On our third and final off-property discovery, we visited a public beach that offered street parking, but had a chain across the sidewalk entrance. We stepped across it and found an attendant to query. She said the beach was closed, but suggested we walk over to the resort next door and use the beach there. This resort was open, and had a handful of couples and families spread across a very large swath of sand. We stayed on the sand (though the beaches are public, lounge chairs are limited to hotel guests) and watched as the police shooed away folks who hadn’t taken the attendant’s advice and set up shop in the truly public section. The lifeguard also regularly blew his whistle at swimmers in the ocean who got too close to the edge of the hotel’s property. We only stayed here a short while before leaving, not wanting to cause any trouble.
What is dining and shopping in Cancun like right now?
Non-hotel businesses downtown and in the Hotel Zone are just as diligent — if not more so — with their hygiene and safety measures. Masks are required, there’s an unlimited supply of hand sanitizer, and temperatures are taken and shoes wiped clean upon arrival. At restaurants, tables are spaced far apart to ensure a safe distance, especially when masks are removed to eat and drink. I saw someone who accidentally left their mask at their table immediately be given a new one when exiting. If you plan on visiting a shopping mall, prepare to apply hand sanitizer at the entrance of each and every store (in addition to the main entrance, of course).
Even street vendors have gotten with the program, something Estrasi said is one of the few positive things to come out of the pandemic. “The government has gotten more strict and is banning businesses that are not following the rules,” he said. “Local street food spots have become safer than ever because of all the restrictions that exist now. If they don’t follow the safety and hygiene instructions, the government closes it down immediately.”
Plenty is still closed, though, especially outside of the Hotel Zone. It’s important to remember that it’s still a pandemic, and it will take a while for everything to return to normal. And most importantly, with all that Cancun is doing to keep you safe and healthy, make sure to return the favor. Wash your hands, wear a mask, keep your distance, and do not travel if you are unwell.