"Cancún is a great place to experience 21st-century Mexico. There isn't much that's quaint or historical in this distinctively modern city, many of whose residents have embraced the accoutrements of urban middle-class life—cell phones, cable TV—that are found all over the world.
Most locals live on the mainland, in the part of the city known as El Centro, but many work in the posh Zona Hotelera, the barrier island where most resorts are located. Boulevard Kukulcán is the main drag in the Zona Hotelera, and because the island is so narrow-less than 1 km (½ mi) wide-you would be able to see both the Caribbean and the Nichupté Lagoon on either side if it weren't for the hotels. Kilometer markers alongside Boulevard Kukulcán indicate where you are. The first marker (Km 1) is near downtown on the mainland; Km 20 lies at the south end of the Zone at Punta Nizuc. The area in between consists entirely of hotels, restaurants, shopping complexes, marinas, and time-share condominiums.
Cancún is not the sort of place you can get to know on foot, although there's a bicycle-walking path that starts downtown at the beginning of the Zona Hotelera and continues through to Punta Nizuc. The beginning of the path parallels a grassy strip of Boulevard Kukulcán decorated with reproductions of ancient Mexican art, including the Aztec calendar stone, a giant Olmec head, the Atlantids of Tula, and a Mayan Chacmool (reclining rain god).
South of Punta Cancún, Boulevard Kukulcán becomes a busy road and is difficult for pedestrians to cross. It's also punctuated by steeply inclined driveways that turn into the hotels, most of which are set at least 100 yards from the road. The lagoon side of the boulevard consists of scrubby stretches of land alternating with marinas, shopping centers, and restaurants. Because there are so few sights, there are no orientation tours of Cancún: just do the local bus circuit to get a feel for the island's layout. The buses run 24 hours a day and you'll rarely have to wait more than five minutes.
When you first visit El Centro, the downtown layout might not be self-evident. It's not based on a grid but rather on a circular pattern. The whole city is divided into districts called Super Manzanas (abbreviated Sm in this book), each with its own central square or park. The main streets curve around the manzanas, and the smaller neighborhood streets curl around the parks in horseshoe shapes. Be prepared to be frustrated. Local maps often look like a ball of yarn, and asking for directions rarely gets you anywhere. Few people seem to know exactly where anything is, even the locals who live in El Centro. When exploring on foot, expect to get lost at least once and enjoy it-you may just find yourself stumbling upon a courtyard café or a lively cantina.
Initially, tourists may feel out of their comfort zone when moving from Zona Hotelera to the bustle of El Centro. Here locals roam the streets, taking great pride in living in an authentic cultural quarter rather than in a zone of mass tourism. When driving, be sure to have a designated navigator pointing you in the right direction. Smaller side streets are one-way only, often looping back to the point from which you came. Main streets are paved with uneven cobblestones and tend to maneuver around circular islands generally known by their enormous landmarks. At times you may find yourself running in circles, especially near the roundabouts that branch off in eight directions.
In general, walks through downtown are somewhat unpleasant, with whizzing cars, corroding pathways, and overgrown weeds. Sidewalks disappear for brief moments, forcing pedestrians to cross grassy inlets and thin strips of land separating four lanes of traffic. Far from wheelchair-friendly, El Centro can be quite dangerous for the passive pedestrian. Be extremely careful when crossing busy roads, especially during rush hour, when traffic officers take to the streets.
Avenida Tulum is the main street-actually a four-lane road with two northbound and two southbound lanes. The inner north and south lanes, separated by a meridian of grass, are the express lanes. Along the express lanes, smaller roads lead to the outer lanes, where local shops and services are located. This setup makes for some amazing traffic snarls, and it can be quite dangerous crossing at the side roads. Instead, cross at the speed bumps placed along the express lanes that act as pedestrian walkways.
Avenidas Bonampak and Yaxchilán are the other two major north-south streets that parallel Tulum. The three major east-west streets are avenidas Cobá, Uxmal, and Chichén. They are marked along Tulum by huge traffic circles, each set with a piece of sculpture. West of Avenida Tulum to Yaxchilán is where you can find authentic Mexican food at some of the best hole-in-the-wall cantinas. East of Tulum to Avenida Bonampak is considered the more upscale area of El Centro, where business executives tend to roam during lunch hour."