November 17 – 24, 2016 (Temperate season)
Currency: Peso ($)
Visa: 180 days
Cost of living: Low
Ah, Cancún. An escape for so many, with brilliant blue waters stretching out to the horizon and baby soft sand up to the hotel doorstep. But fifty years ago, it didn’t exist. Everything we saw, from the massive coastal resorts to the sprawling city they support, was built from nothing to attract and separate tourists from their money. We found enough good food and fun to pass the time. But we couldn’t shake the feeling that we had stumbled into an alternate universe, one that left us feeling out-of-place despite being surrounded by familiar things. Our last stop in Mexico was among the least Mexican places we’ve seen on this trip. Roughly as authentic as our Tex-Mex Thanksgiving in Croatia.
Where we stayed
Cancun only ended up on our radar because we needed to be close to their airport to catch a flight. Unlike every other Airbnb↗ we’ve stayed at this trip, we rented a room instead of an entire apartment. Prices were higher than elsewhere on the Yucatan Peninsula which necessitated some compromise. Plus, the reviews for the place were glowing.
The home was tucked into the Las Palmas neighborhood, far from the Hotel Zone and waterfront. Our Uber dropped us in a completely different neighborhood at first. It turned out there were two streets of the same name 4 km away from one another. Thankfully, our hosts were responsive and we got it right on our second try. They greeted us warmly and showed us to our room. Previously home to their now-grown children, it was spacious and reasonably private for a shared home. We had our own TV and even minifridge, and they ceded the upstairs bathroom to us for the duration of our stay.
Our hosts were very polite and happy to chat. Every morning they prepared a lovely light breakfast for us to enjoy on the patio. Nevertheless, we much prefer to have a home to ourselves. The rental came with “access” to the kitchen, but we felt somewhat unwelcome making use of this benefit, even though we were quick and tidy with our meals. We also disliked having to work around the social lives and sleep schedules of our hosts and spent more time than we wanted cooped up in our bedroom with the door closed. They were thoughtful, even going as far to drive us to the Isla Mujeres ferry and the airport, but we will probably keep the “entire place” filter on in the future.
What we did
Cancun is famous for one thing – its magnificent white-sand beaches. We spent all of one afternoon exploring them in the Hotel Zone. An Uber dropped us off on the south end at Playa Delfines, and we spent the next couple hours walking the ~10 km of waterfront north until it ended. The beaches truly are beautiful, the sand warm and smooth, perfect for long walks. If sipping $10 margaritas on lounge chairs was our thing, this would be paradise. But we passed hotel after hotel and saw the same cookie-cutter scenes play out a dozen times over. Same pitchmen for parasailing or water jetpacks. Same vacationers drinking the same umbrella drinks or playing the same games in the sand. And immediately opposite the picture-perfect water, those mammoth resorts lined up like dishes on a shelf. When the beach ran out, we ended up in the very definition of a tourist trap, surrounded by Hard Rock Cafes and Señor Frog’s. The Hotel Zone was very much its own world, and not one we cared to live on.
Isla Mujeres was similarly geared for tourism. ATMs spat out dollars over pesos and attractions posted prices in both (with the dollar price shamelessly inflated, of course). But it felt calmer and less crowded than the mainland, so we enjoyed it anyway. We met up with some extended family that were vacationing there, and they were happy to play tour guide for us. The highlight was definitely the Tortugranja turtle farm & aquarium. All sorts of sea creatures are on display, from sea horse to horseshoe crab (and one especially thrilling octopus►), but the stars of the show are the turtles. Big ones, little ones, and adorable baby ones. And you can feed them pellets, which are a drop in the bucket for adults but maybe a little too much to handle for the little guys. The sea and sky were of course also lovely, and there were plenty of curiosities to give it a little more personality. We even saw that seashell house that always shows up on the front page of Airbnb. Add in the fun of a ferry to and from the island and this was a pretty pleasant way to spend a day.
Food & Drink
We had plenty of grocery options for this short stay – we were within walking distance of an Oxxo, Mega, Wal-Mart, and Chedraui. Perhaps because of the tourist influx, they seemed to stock a greater variety of “American” items. We mostly stuck to local ingredients, except for a junk food snack or two. Tacos, guacamoles, and pastas were simple to make and kept us from overstaying our welcome in the kitchen. One new box we checked was sampling the mamey fruit. Its slimy texture and underwhelming flavor quickly demonstrated why we hadn’t seen more of it around.
Good street food was harder to find than in Mérida or Playa↗, but we did stumble upon a neighborhood taco cart dishing up deliciousness. Pork and cabeza del rey (beef head) tacos were delicious quick meals. We did allow one going-out meal splurge at XB Burger. We craved a burger and they had good reviews. American chains like Starbucks were everywhere too, so we took advantage of the chance to use up some gift card balance (while most gift cards only work in the country they are issued in, Starbucks cards actually work internationally in a handful of places). Their Mexican-style hot chocolate was actually not bad!
Most beers on offer were made for hot-weather drinking, which meant lots of light, flavorless lager. Bud, Corona, that kind of thing. The best-distributed brand with any flavor was once again Bohemia (actually owned by the same company that makes Tecate, Sol, and Dos Equis). Their Noche Buena seasonal beer – “good night,” but also “Christmas Eve” – was far from their best but was heavily discounted and made for a pretty picture at least. Up on a high shelf at Wal-Mart we found a single 6-pack of Goose Island from Chicago. After a couple of months of mediocre local brands, it was a surprising treat. We bought it for our host as a thank-you present, since no one likes driving to the airport before dawn, no matter how much they say otherwise.
We arrived at the ADO bus station from Mérida↗, the one-way tickets only cost about $10 US each.
Lots of taxis pestered us for business out front but we ignored them and got an Uber↗ instead. City buses were also a viable option; we caught one on our way back from the Hotel Zone. Drivers tend to like loud music and may be heavy on the gas or break, but the $0.50 fare sure beat the $7 Uber.
Two separate ferry terminals run frequent boats to Isla Mujeres. A single round-trip was about $7.
Stuff of interest
For our week in Cancun, we kept using the Telcel SIMs↗ we purchased in Playa del Carmen. Recargas could be bought at just about any convenience store, but we had plenty of credit left over.
We suffered our first theft at the Cancun airport. We’d been carrying an ancient Windows Phone as a backup in our checked bag, and it survived airport security at a dozen countries before being pilfered here. InterJet played along and “investigated” before ultimately telling us it was our fault for having valuables in a checked bag. Fortunately it was practically worthless and had no personal information on it, but it was a good reminder to keep our guard up.
Many places, at least those that serve tourists, will take US dollars (though at a predictably awful exchange rate). Much cheaper to get pesos, though ATMs in the most touristed spots can be a bit dubious. We tried to buy a few snacks at one of the big resorts and they had trouble comprehending that we did not have a hotel room key or US dollars. After huddling with the manager, the guy at the register ultimately decided we were in fact allowed to use the legal currency of the country we were in to buy our goods.
What we learned
Cancún was not for us. The location was gorgeous, and it was an okay vacation. But it wasn’t travel. We were happy for the break, and happier still to get back underway.