I Just Traveled to Cancún Over Christmas, in the Middle of A Pandemic

While Mexico’s busiest city might get a few things “wrong,” there are many things it gets right, too

The family and I just returned from a quick trip to Cancún, Mexico. As my wife and I are both educators, we tend to have the same vacation time, which is good, but it’s always during the high season, unfortunately, making it difficult to avoid crowds and higher prices. This was my first time in an airplane in about two and a half years. As a family, we originally decided that we weren’t going to travel by air until the pandemic was over. Growing impatient, we eventually tweaked our decision: “We’re not going to travel by plane until everyone in the family is vaccinated.” Our youngest recently became fully vaccinated, which was a relief. And we now understand that we’ll be living with Covid for quite some time, so all we can do is to take all the precautions we can so that if we get the virus, as we probably will at some point, at least we can recover in isolation at home and not fighting for our life in a hospital. It’s important for us to start to travel again, but we intend to do it as safely and responsibly as possible.

We had hoped to travel over Christmas to Xalapa, where my wife is from, which would require us to arrive in either Veracruz or Mexico City. We hadn’t been to Mexico as a family for about five years, so there’s a number of people in my wife’s family who haven’t seen our kids in that long. In five years time, kids can look and act like totally different people. Since we started looking for flights way too late, all we could find that was under $1000 per person were flights that had multiple connections, which we wanted to avoid. Having a sister-in-law, Blanca, who lives in Cancún, we looked into the possibility of visiting her and found out that all four of us could travel there for more or less what it would have cost just one of us to go to Mexico City. It seemed like a good compromise; we could still see some Mexican relatives, although not everyone, and it wouldn’t break the bank. In what follows, I’ll talk about our experience of going to probably Mexico’s busiest city, over the Christmas holiday, during a pandemic. I want to make clear that I’m speaking only for my family and myself, as other visitors may have different experiences from ours. It’s not my intent to shame anyone or simply to point out flaws. I hope not to come off as morally superior to anyone. In forthcoming posts, I’ll talk in more detail about places we visited and how we liked them; here, I’ll just focus on the realities of traveling to a crowded destination like Cancún during a pandemic.

It’s important for us to start to travel again, but we intend to do it as safely as possible.

In the below image, you can see what greeted us as we arrived to the line to go through Immigration and Customs at Cancún Airport on December 20: a mass of humanity. Blanca works at the airport for a major airline, and she told us that all international flights are currently going through the same terminal, causing all sorts of congestion. It took us two hours to work our way to the front of the line, in which there was no social distancing. It was very frustrating. If you zoom in and look closely at the picture, you can probably point out a couple of people who aren’t wearing their masks correctly, but I would say that they’re the minority. Once we got to the front of the line, the immigration officer just asked us how long we were going to be there. Mexico doesn’t currently require anyone to be vaccinated or have a negative Covid test to enter, which makes things easier for travelers, although this policy doesn’t exactly bring one peace of mind. It looked to me like different travelers were receiving different treatment. I saw some travelers presenting many pages of documents to their assigned immigration officer. Again, ours just asked the one question and tried to scan our passports, which wouldn’t work for him for some reason, before letting us through. I suppose travelers from different destinations have different requirements.

Long lines of foreign travelers waiting to go through Mexican immigration and customs at Cancún Airport on December 20. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

In general, I found Mexicans to be more conscientious about mask wearing than Americans. In fact, I’m sure that none of the people in the aforementioned image who weren’t wearing their mask properly were Mexican. Moreover, I would often be in a vehicle driving through the streets of Cancún, and I would see a lone young person on a block wearing a mask. As a comparison, in my small town here in Illinois, I would say that compliance with wearing masks in stores is only about 50%; this is just an educated guess based on my own observations. And almost nobody here wears them outside, and I don’t either, I should point out. (Our county, in fact, can’t even get 50% of us to get a free vaccination.) Not only do Mexicans, in general, comply with requests to wear masks, but I see many of them wearing high-quality masks; the KN95 model is particularly popular.

Shopping centers were especially interesting, I thought, because even the ones that had open air sections had people standing at the entrances asking visitors to use hand sanitizer and put on their masks. Once inside, however, it wasn’t uncommon to see foreigners, especially, with their masks pulled down. Many individual stores in the malls, however, wouldn’t let you in if you weren’t wearing a mask and you didn’t want to use the provided hand sanitizer, and nobody made a scene or even complained. I never saw a waiter or employee of any business not wearing a mask properly.

The use of QR codes is quite popular in Mexico now, too, as a way to provide interaction with a company without having physical contact. For example, some restaurants, although not the majority, use them instead of providing physical menus. I’m not a real fan of this technology, if I’m honest, partly because my cell phone didn’t have service in Mexico unless I had wifi. And a few times I would have wifi but my cell phone didn’t have any batteries left.

One thing I noticed in Mexico that I haven’t seen at businesses here in the States are sanitizing mats placed at the entrances. While I’m a little skeptical about their efficacy, it’s nice to see that Mexican businesses are at least making all attempts to protect the health of employees and customers alike. One strategy to address Covid that I found especially interesting was at the entrance to the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá, where there was a large screen on which we could see ourselves walking towards the turnstiles. As I looked at my fellow tourists, I could see squares over our heads with our body temperature clearly indicated. (It was in celsius, so I didn’t have the math skills to determine for myself if anyone had a fever.) Like the sanitizing mats, this is something I hadn’t seen before. I don’t know if there’s an employee whose job it is to monitor the screen and prohibit the entrance of those who have an elevated temperature. I, at least, didn’t see anyone getting pulled out of line for having a fever. I also wonder how the often oppressive heat of a place like that affects our internal temperature. I hope that this type of technology is being used sensibly, and that it’s not just for show. Inside the archeological site itself, which is outside, most of us had our masks off.

While getting social distance between us and other tourists was almost impossible at a place like Cancún’s airport or waiting in line for popular attractions like Chichén Itzá, the popular beaches, of course, were big enough for us to get away from crowds. However, there are some activities that make social distancing a challenge, to say the least. Our trip to Chichén Itzá, for example, was part of an organized tour with a company that uses big buses, and ours was filled with 68 other tourists from around the world, plus two guides and one driver. (Cancún is several hours away from Chichén Itzá by bus.) These other people did a good job with their masks at the start of the day, but as time went on and we made stops at a cenote for those who wanted a swim or the center of Valladolid for some ice cream, people became more and more relaxed with their mask use, and the tour guides usually didn’t remind us to put them back on. Another place where I felt a little uncomfortable about the crowds was at Isla Mujeres on the docks for the ferries. The boat ride itself was okay, for even if there were a lot of people on board, we were seated on the top deck in the fresh air. However, the lines to get on board, especially for the return trip to Cancún, were quite crowded. Usually before boarding a tour bus or getting on a boat or entering an archaeological site, someone will take your temperature, but it’s usually done so fast that I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t just a formality intended to make people feel at ease.

I should point out that unlike most visitors to Cancún, we stayed in the home of a local, my sister-in-law. So, I’m not qualified to comment on the job that the resorts are doing to combat the Coronavirus.

Currently, all passengers wanting to travel to the US from abroad, regardless of citizenship and vaccination status, must provide evidence of a negative Covid test within 24 hours of their flight.

Shortly after making the flight reservations, news of the Omicron variant surfaced, causing the US government to change its requirements for reentry. Currently, all passengers wanting to travel to the US from abroad, regardless of citizenship and vaccination status, must provide evidence of a negative Covid test within 24 hours of their flight. This was the aspect of the trip that most worried me. Luckily, there is a testing center right in our terminal of the Cancún airport. The process is relatively simple, although it does take a bit of time to maneuver. Upon arriving at the test center line, you scan another QR code with your phone, which takes you to a webpage where you provide information about those travelers in your party who will be tested, such as name, email address, date of birth, citizenship, passport number, etc. Filling out that form provides you with a confirmation number that you provide to the workers at the front of the line, who get you set up. You also have to pay a fee, which I think was about $30 per person, if I’m not mistaken. A worker in a hazmat outfit swabs your nostrils, and results are ready within a half hour. Results are provided via email, but they also give you a print out to show to the airline. You will not be allowed to board without completing this step. Mexico does require another form that you can fill out online prior to boarding, dealing with whether or not you’ve knowingly been in contact with someone who was infected with Covid. It’s a bit strange to me that they would require that form to be completed to leave Mexico, but nobody asked us those questions when we arrived. We arrived at the airport for our trip home with what we thought was a ridiculous amount of time to spare. However, after all protocols were completed and we got to our gate, boarding had already began. I would say that you should double whatever time you think will be necessary for you at the airport. It’s better to get there early than to risk an unpleasant surprise that causes you to lose a whole day and money. The biggest risk about all this, apart from the obvious deadliness of the virus itself which should trump everything, is that if you test positive, you’ll have to stay there potentially a week or longer at your own expense. Even if the virus doesn’t affect you physically in a serious way and you manage not to infect anyone else, it can still significantly affect your time and your money.

Be aware of your surroundings, avoid nightlife, and resist the temptation to consume alcohol and drugs altogether.

There’s another aspect of concern for travelers to Cancún these days unrelated to the pandemic that I wish to address briefly here. Shortly after making our travel plans, we learned of an unfortunate incident at the zona hotelera, in which armed men on jet skis arrived at the beach and started firing. It’s not clear, from what I read, if they were actually firing at someone specific or if they were just firing in the air. Regardless, what a scary experience it must have been for the tourists who witnessed this! Doing a little investigation, I learned of another unfortunate incident, this one in the city of Tulum, in which a tourist was at a bar and actually got caught in the crossfire of rival drug cartels, fighting over territory. While these events don’t take place every day, they certainly are real and should make one pause. They didn’t deter us, and they obviously aren’t deterring the thousands of other tourists who are arriving to Cancún daily. All I can say is, be aware of your surroundings, avoid nightlife, and resist the temptation to consume alcohol and drugs altogether. For what it’s worth, in the zona hotelera, I did see military patrols on the beach and in the air. Again, I don’t know if this presence was a show to make people feel safer, although I can imagine that it could cause the opposite effect on some tourists. I hadn’t been to Cancún since 2009, and a lot has changed since then. The city kind of reminds me of Miami in many ways, given its beautiful beaches, expansive resorts, Caribbean weather, active nightlife, the sounds of Spanish and English used in more or less equal amounts, etc. And not unlike Cancún, Miami has also had – especially in the 1980s, but even now – more than its fair share of scary violence related to drug trafficking.

A little sympathy and a smile cost you nothing.

The last thing I want to mention about traveling to Cancún these days is the price. From what I could tell, flights to Cancún are quite cheap these days, as there is a very large number of flights available. Once you’re there, however, don’t expect the biggest deals. You can tell that the people of the region have been seriously affected by the pandemic and the many consecutive months without visitors. Expect significant pressure from sellers to upgrade any tours you want to sign up for. Wherever you go, tips are expected, and people aren’t shy about asking for them. On beaches like those of Isla Mujeres, every other minute you can be asked if you want to buy a souvenir, a massage, a popsicle, etc. I could tell that some tourists were frustrated by the pressure. I didn’t mind it too much, as I know that these people are just trying to make a living, and they’ve been hurting for some time. A little sympathy and a smile cost you nothing. One aspect of paying bills at restaurants that I found interesting was that if you wish to pay with a credit card, and most reputable establishments do accept them, they will bring a terminal to your table for you to use yourself. Thus, you never turn your card over to someone else, and it’s never out of your sight, which I appreciate.

So, all things considered, is it a good time for you to go to Cancún? You’ll have to answer that question for yourself. Again, we considered the risks and went anyways. It made sense to us to go primarily for the following reasons: (1) we were all vaccinated (and my wife and I had boosters), (2) we had somewhat flexible schedules in case someone tested positive while we were there, (3) we planned to do mostly outdoor activities, and (4) we were staying with a local who could advise us at every step of the way. There’s no guarantee that you can mitigate all the risks, though. In the end, it was a great trip that created lifelong memories for the whole family, despite the occasional feeling of unease about the pandemic.

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