Isla Cancun

Craig OuthierMarch 3, 2022
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Stake out a choice slice of a legendary Mexican resort town at the JW Marriott Cancún Resort & Spa.

You’re driving down stately, tree-lined Kukulcán Boulevard about 10 minutes from the airport when it explodes into view: the fabled emerald seascape of Cancún. Appearing suddenly beyond an expiring canopy of guayacán trees, the ocean here is shockingly gorgeous under the midday sun, with a glowing, gem-like radiance that stretches almost to the horizon.

You want to touch it, swim in it, brush your teeth with it. Everything.

Be warned: This is not a view you’ll find uniformly in this sprawling resort city on the Riviera Maya. Due to oceanic vagaries such as water depth and salinity, this particular postcard-perfect image of the Caribbean Sea is the exclusive domain of Isla Cancún, a 6-mile sandbar located within Cancún’s zona hotelera, or tourist district. Insulated from downtown Cancún by a lake-like estuary and distinct from the rowdier fringes of the hotel zone, it’s a sliver-thin sanctuary of security-minded hotels, cutting-edge restaurants and adventure-sport outfitters. An isthmus of pleasure, if you will.

For Greater Phoenicians – who can fly nonstop to nearby Cancún International Airport for around $400 round trip – a visit to Isla Cancún has a variety of potential “looks.”

It can make for a tidy, two-night sojourn before a jaunt down the coast to trendy boutique hot spots like Tulum and Isla Holbox.

It can serve as a luxe forward-base for eco day trips in the surrounding Quintana Roo countryside.

Or, if you’re the low-key type, it can be the whole trip itself – a scenic, sun-drenched amnion of relaxation and all-you-can-ogle emerald ocean views.

“Which one do you like best?” a fellow traveler asks me, and eyeing the dozen or so half-consumed copitas of Mexico’s finest mezcal arrayed on the low table before me, I’m honestly at a loss. Is it the floral Arroqueño variety with its prominent vegetal notes? Or the Tobalá mezcal, cultivated in shady, rocky soil at higher elevations, which allegedly imbues it with a peppery finish?

They’re all great, and I’m a bit jet-lagged and, to be honest, after the fifth one I’m not sure I can tell the difference anymore, I tell her.

So it goes at the Sacbé Beach Shack as the nighttime surf pounds the shore while our small press group nibbles on chicken escabeche tacos and sips the expertly paired agave spirits. One of the on-site dining attractions at the JW Marriott Cancún Resort & Spa ( on Isla Cancún, the “shack” is actually a sturdy, low-ceilinged pavilion facing the beach, where drinks are mixed on a long oak bar and guests laze on Moroccan cushions nuzzled on the sand. Inspired by the moody watering holes of Tulum about 80 miles south of Cancún, Sacbé is an atmospheric jackpot, with the crashing waves and flickering light of a hundred candles casting an intoxicating spell over the evening. Speaking of intoxicating, another mezcal just arrived. Ay dios mio.

Situated in the very middle of Isla Cancún, the JW Marriott is tactically ideal for a well-rounded Cancún adventure, whatever your personal ambitions might be. For starters, the 450-room property boasts arguably the choicest stretch of private beach on the Isla Cancún sandbar, which has a short but remarkable history. As recently as 1970, the isthmus was a near-uninhabited coconut plantation (population: 3) until the Mexican government jump-started the region’s astounding transformation by financing nine hotels in what ultimately proved to be the most successful private-public project in the country’s history.

The JW Marriott Cancún joined the party in 2001, recently enough to include all the hospitality essentials – including an insanely scenic fitness center with 360-degree views of the ocean and estuary; and a spacious, manor-inspired spa with a complete arsenal of steam rooms, baths and serenity features – but not so new that Marriott had to shoehorn it into the now-fully-developed coastline. The central pool and lounge area is simply enormous, with a winding warren of foot bridges connecting an armada of swimming pools with magisterial beach views.

After our mezcal dinner, we stroll/stumble next door to the JW’s sister property, the Marriott Cancún Resort, to meet genial JW general manager Christopher Calabrese for margaritas at Champions, the latter Marriott’s on-site sports bar. (Yes, all the Marriott-itude can be confusing, but you get used to it.)

Ostensibly, Calabrese – who I’m pleased to learn lives in Scottsdale for a good portion of the year, and whose daughter attends ASU – just wants to fill us in on the history and virtues of his resort, but the sordid truth is quickly revealed when he grabs a microphone and starts crooning Sinatra over the bar’s karaoke sound system, a perk for guests.

Naturally, he isn’t the last of our party to go full Susan Boyle that evening. From my experience, the karaoke bug is more virulent than COVID, especially in Mexican resort towns.

Sunbeams penetrating Ik-Kil cenote inlet.
Sunbeams penetrating Ik-Kil cenote inlet.

Exploring the Isla

Another virtue of the JW Marriott as a forward-operating base for your vacation: The pool complex has a hospitality hut where you can book dive trips, ruins tours, watercraft rentals and other extracurricular amusements. It’s essentially a travel agency with mai tais.

Known as one of the world’s great diving hot spots, Cancún has been on my scuba bucket list for two decades now, so I book a morning excursion with Aquaworld ( a full-service water-play outfitter within walking distance of the resort. Tooling out to the water alongside roughly two dozen fellow dive enthusiasts, I enjoy 45 minutes of ocean spray and sunshine en route to Aquaworld’s Wreck and Reef Dive combo ($95), which starts with a one-tank tour of Cancún’s Punta Negra reef (highlight sighting: an old, grizzled barracuda) and concludes with the General Anaya, a C-58 minesweeper that was ripped in half by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and now makes for a sweet little 85-foot wreck dive. Midway through the dive, my Aquaworld dive master gamely entices me into the rusted, broken vessel, where we inch our way through the darkness before emerging into open water through a gash in the hull.

Aquaworld also offers tours of Cancún’s signature dive spot, the eerie “underwater museum” of submerged human statues ($81), along with night dives and longer, more ambitious excursions to the nearby island of Cozumel and its legendary underwater caverns, known as cenotes.

My diving jones satisfied, I make a quick afternoon reconnaissance of this central Isla Cancún neighborhood, which is on the upscale and sleepy side. If you want toot-toot cantina hombres and body shots, I imagine you’d take an Uber to Cancún’s El Centro district on the other side of Nichupte lagoon. Here, you’ll find rarified nightlife spots like Chambao Fashion Grill House (, an energetic – and, it must be said, somewhat insane – hybrid of a high-dollar, Maple & Ash-style steakhouse and a Milan fashion show, with a dash of Cirque du Soleil for flavoring.

It’s hard to decide where to train your disbelieving eyes when dining at Chambao. The epic views of the lagoon, framed cinematically by the restaurant’s open-air, Polynesian-beach-palace design? The 100-pound caveman club of jamón ibérico (Spain’s mythical Iberian, dry-cured ham) an eager waiter keeps parading past the table? Or maybe the platoon of 5-foot-10 beauties who filter in and out of the dining room between myriad costume changes, strutting and posing and sucking in their cheeks as we dine on Kobe beef more densely marbled than a Trump Tower foyer?

Later, a pair of acrobats perform fire tricks while suspended and inverted over the water just beyond our table. A “unique steak and seafood experience” is how Chambao bills itself – one of those rare instances in which a restaurant completely undersells itself. Where steakhouse-fashion-show hybrids are concerned, you will never experience better.

JW Marriott adult pool
JW Marriott adult pool

Beyond the Isla

Two day trips dominate the conversation when it comes to ecotourism and history near Cancún. The first is Chichén Itzá, the iconic Mayan archaeological site about a two-hour drive from town, best known for its fully intact central pyramid. All-inclusive tours including transportation, lunch and likely a tequila tasting will run you about $50.

The other big-two excursion – and the one I end up doing – is Cenotes Zapote (, an ecoparque about 50 miles south of the city, set a few miles inland in the lush tropical forest that blankets much of the state of Quintana Roo.

The big draw at the park is no mystery: cenotes, the fresh-water caves that form a massive capillary system under the Yucatán, stretching from Cancún to Tulum, from the deep jungle all the way to the ocean.

The park has four cenotes – which is to say, four water-filled sinkholes that you can jump or step into, including one outdoors with a zip-line stretched over it. But it’s the underground cenotes, set in dank, barely lit cathedrals of stalactites and limestone erosion, that are the most fun to explore via snorkel and fins, provided by the park. Imagine if someone filled Kartchner Caverns back in Arizona with the contents of Lake Mead, and you get a sense of the surreality and proto-Earthly stillness here. It’s fantastically worthwhile.

After wandering around and in the cenotes at your leisure ($40, children 5-11; $55, adult), you can graze at the park’s excellent buffet, featuring a regional spiced coffee known as café de olla (made with eye-opening gobs of a dark raw sugar known as piloncillo); a you-call-it taco grill with handmade tortillas; and a painfully spirited habanero salsa that will have you reaching for the nearest bottled water or Tejate.

Back at the JW, the option comes up to do a little parasailing – that high-flying marriage of parachuting and water skiing. Looks fun and all, but after putting in my diving and cenote-exploring duties, I’m more in the mood for one of the resort’s shaded beach-facing Bali beds – which is what they call a cabana in Indonesia, I guess.

And look – there’s that crazy, emerald-hued Cancún ocean again. Time to get my fill.

When to Go

Given its tropical latitude, the weather is almost always warm and agreeable in Cancún. The possible exception: the wet-season months of September and October, when rainfall quadruples and severe storms are more common.

Travel Advisory

Visitors are encouraged by the U.S. State Department to “exercise increased caution” in the state of Quintana Roo due to recent security incidents in Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Visit for details.

Beef at Mikado restaurant at the JW
Beef at Mikado restaurant at the JW


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