Keep your wits about you and keep a friend close in this beautiful party central, writes Grant Bradley

Once a sleepy fishing village, Cancun has glitzed itself into Vegas at the beach.

It's a heaving place with 5 million mainly US tourists descending every year on its massive hotels, beaches and turquoise Caribbean waters to swim with stunning marine life. On land, they play golf and go on jungle tours.

And it's where to go to study the ancient Mayan empire, which had a stronghold on the Yucatan Peninsula, where Cancun's resorts sit on a long, low stretch of glorious white sand.

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The 5000-year Mayan calendar ended on December 21, 2012 — feeding plenty of speculation about a global apocalypse. Walking through Cancun's high-octane nightclub zone after a quiet taco meal, there's an end-of-days feel to the place on any night right now.

Tulum's Mayan ruins. Photo / Grant Bradley
Tulum's Mayan ruins. Photo / Grant Bradley

For American college kids, this is Spring Break Central during March. Even during the quieter early June it's rocking with conga lines of patrons who pay $US35 (NZ$47) and up for all they can drink. They weave around bemused passers-by on the footpath and back into open-fronted clubs.

There, gyrating dancers perform in cages overlooking the pavement, grim and twitchy security guys frisk male patrons (you can't be drunk before you get in and guns are not allowed) and touts outside will try to sell you anything from club tickets to recreational drugs.

It's full-on, a fun young person's town after dark — but unless you're with a responsible friend, be cautious. An English woman told me she passed out after two drinks. Fortunately, her partner was there to carry her out, foaming at the mouth, after having her drink spiked. She was sick all the next day and lost her phone in the commotion.

Walking to the beach early in the morning you see the clubs' concrete floor getting hosed out.

But that beach — just 50m behind these pulsating clubs — is as nice a strip of sand as you could want. On the busiest day I was there, it wasn't crowded, the sea temperature was about 27C, just below the air temperature, and the trade winds had whipped up a small beach break.

Cancun beach. Photo / Grant Bradley
Cancun beach. Photo / Grant Bradley

After covering an airline industry conference, I rented a serviceable surfboard for US$20 from the lifeguard tower, got a few waves and yakked to a local as the daily thunderstorm rolled through.

There was a nice vibe and it said everything about the many sides of Cancun — a place where you see some of the worst of industrial-scale tourism, that can feel a bit too edgy but also where you can get some great experiences and meet genuinely friendly locals.

My hotel hired out bikes and I was able to pedal around, comparing prices at the many booths offering diving, snorkelling, jetskis or speedboats, excursions to Mayan ruins and my target: the biggest fish of all, the whale shark.

The place I found said it could get me on a boat in my one-day window but I was a bit dubious. One guy took off on my bike, tried to beg money from me and showed me a brochure of women for hire. I signed up for the whale shark trip (I did carefully check the receipt) for US$160 plus a $5 marina fee.

I was relieved the early morning shuttle arrived on time, the briefing was comprehensive (organic sunblock only, don't touch the fish, lifejackets and wetsuits compulsory). The near-new 10m boat had two 150-horsepower engines and was capable of 80km/h, and the snorkelling gear was great.

About 20 similar vessels formed a flotilla to hunt the fish with help from spotter planes. Finding them can be a lottery, especially early in summer, but our skipper Omar managed it within 90 minutes.

"Jump and swim" was the order, and we were off the side of the boat in pairs with guide, Eric, alongside the endangered plankton-feeding monsters, locally known as dominos because of their spotty skin.

They cruise slowly near the surface but slow for them is quick for us. It's a struggle to keep up for more than a minute or so, especially wearing a lifejacket. Take your own wetsuit or rent one to make swimming deeper easier.

But a brief encounter is enough to get a sense of the size of these beasts, which can weigh up to 15 tonnes and are up to 15m long.

We had three brief sessions with them. You have to be reasonably fit — one woman from Charleston was too seasick to jump in, while another from Houston had one failed attempt and then flagged it.

We called at a disappointing reef for snorkelling off Isla Mujeres, a lovely resort island close to the mainland, before anchoring in a beautiful bay with lots of other whale shark and dive boats.

Omar served his delicious homemade ceviche — snapper marinated in citrus juices — and then it was back to a bit of spring break with blaring music from neighbouring party boats. Another taste of Cancun's good, the bad and the noisy.

Nightlife in Cancun. Photo / Grant Bradley
Nightlife in Cancun. Photo / Grant Bradley

Five bargains

1.

A Mexican Sim card from Chedraui Selecto supermarket for NZ$14. I topped it up a couple of times for about $25 and had plenty of data (essential if you're on the move) and local calling for six days.

2. A six-pack of Corona for NZ$4.15 at the supermarket. Drinks are less expensive in restaurants and cafes than in New Zealand and takeaway liquor is ridiculously cheap.

3. Rental cars: I rented a small, near-new Chevy for two days and it cost NZ$102. I drove two hours south to Tulum, a comparatively laidback place famed for its Mayan temple on a cliff above the beach. Highway driving is straightforward but watch for the banknote switcheroo when topping up with gas before returning your car. Your credit card "won't work" for the pump attendants and when you pay cash they will protest you've given them the wrong denomination peso or US dollar (the greenback is widely accepted throughout the area) after switching it when you are distracted. Watch the transaction like a hawk.

4. Eden Cenote or Cenote Jardin del Eden, a limestone sinkhole just off the road to Tulum. There are hundreds of these in the area; some are in resorts and have underwater caves with stalactites and stalagmites and elaborate networks of waterways and cost $200 to snorkel or dive. Eden is more humble with $8 admission and $5 to rent gear. A beautiful place in the jungle to spend a couple of hours.

5. The executive airport lounge at Cancun Airport. At NZ$52 it was worth a splurge. The public departure area is frenetic and airlines don't have lounges at Cancun. The paid lounge is compact but has good complimentary food and drink.