Virgin America lets loose in Cancún

Virgin America Cancun Launch

Virgin America just can’t sit still these days. In the past two months, they’ve launched service to Dallas/Forth Worth (and added frequency from both LAX & SFO), placed an impressive order for 60 new A320′s (to be delivered starting in 2013), said adiós to Toronto for the time being, and launched service to two cities in Mexico; Los Cabos and now, Cancún.

Everything about Cancún seems like a good fit for the airline. It’s sunny. It’s flashy. It’s exotic. It attracts a young crowd and has high seasonal traffic with a significant need for competitive nonstop options from the West Coast.

But Cancún is a destination that has a way of polarizing travelers. For most Americans born after 1975, it’s notoriously synonymous with Spring Break, loud nightclubs, and excessive resorts as far as the eye can see. For some vacationers, these are the only reasons to go. For others, they are the reason to never even consider going. Yes, the beaches may be spectacular and the attractions plentiful, but the rush to develop and commercialize both has left most of the city devoid of a single trace of ‘authentic’ Mexican culture – a fact that managed to earn Cancún the top spot on Gadling’s list of places not to go in 2011.

With that in mind, allow me to be the mediator here and tell you exactly why you should go (or at least fly to) Cancún in 2011…

Simply put, Cancún is an affordable, accessible, and a safe gateway to the larger Yucatán peninsula. Yes, it may be an overdeveloped tourist mecca with little soul or culture in the eyes of true travelers. But the vivid blue waters, white sand beaches, and Mayan ruins of the outlying areas offer an entirely different world that’s only six hours away.

Before taking Virgin America’s inaugural flight from LAX to CUN, the farthest I’d ventured in Mexico was Puerta Vallarta. I didn’t really have high expectations for the Mexican Riviera, since my association of it was a blur of generic beach scenes from a decade-old MTV Spring Break broadcast. Which is ironic in hindsight, considering that our flight was the backdrop for an episode of VH1′s Top 20 Countdown; complete with an in-flight performance by the Goo Goo Dolls.

The 5 hour flight itself was great. The margaritas were festive and the atmosphere was as playful as all Virgin America’s inaugural launches are. The only hitch that passengers will encounter in the ‘complete’ Virgin America experience is the lack of in-flight WiFi after crossing the US-Mexico border – an issue that Gogo and Aircell will hopefully address with coverage expansion in the coming years.

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Upon our arrival, our Virgin-worthy accommodation was the gorgeous and brand-new Live Aqua. If you’re accustomed to hotels with two white Rolls Royce Phantoms parked outside, chic interiors filled with hip ambient music, extensive spa services and an array of tasteful eateries, then this is the place you’ll want to stay. It is plausible that you could forgo leaving the hotel grounds and be perfectly content with relaxing by the beach for your entire trip. And for the price of an all-inclusive stay, that’s exactly what I would do.

But, it turns out there are actually things to do around Cancún besides lounging and clubbing. Escape the herds of tourists and head south to quieter beaches at Playa del Carmen, where you can hop across to Cozumel and explore Mayan ruins. Or venture west and check out the ‘authentic’ colonial town of Tizimín on your way to catch a boat to the tiny but charming Holbox Island (and swim with whale sharks in the summer).

If you’re short on time but looking for adventure, then look up one of Cancún’s best day trips; Selvatica’s zip-line & ATV jungle excursion. In the span of a half day, you can fly through the trees on seven different zip lines, drive your own ATV, and swing from ropes into a beautiful blue cenote (Spanish for giant swimming hole).

I can understand why people dislike Cancún. It’d be very easy to come expecting authentic Mexican charm and leave never wanting to lay eyes on another beer-toting American again. But keep your time in the developed area of Cancún short, and you won’t be dissapointed.

Needless to say, my only regret is that I didn’t have more time to explore the outlying areas of Cancún. For a sub-$500 flight that’s just under 5 hours from LAX, or roughly 6 hours from SFO, it’s an easy trip that I certainly plan on making again. Especially if Virgin America can keep their fares low, which they usually do for recently launched destinations. Better yet, enter to win one of three VIP trips that the airline is giving away right here.

If you have your own crazy stories or suggestions about why or why not to go to Cancun this year, leave them in the comments section below!