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July 28, 2010 at 04:55 PM

Travels to Mexico: Three Days in Cancun

Cancun, Mexico, Travelogue, Video

Fui a Cancún y Todo lo que Obtuve Fue Este Blog!

We've been on the road again the past two weeks, sneaking in some beach time ahead of our trip to San Francisco for the annual Yosemite camping extravaganza on July 23.

Our first stop on our travels was to the beach resort area of Cancún, Mexico. This was my second trip to Cancún, and Jessica's first to Mexico.


The beach!

I've been Mexico many times, having worked there for nearly a year and have visited all the usual border towns and resorts; Cabo, Cancún, Juarez, Tijuana, Nogales, Puebla, Cholula, Mexico City, etc, etc. I would be hard-pressed to advise anyone visit the border towns due to the explosion of drug-related violence in the past few years. While the violence hasn't targeted tourists, that's little consolation for anyone caught in the crossfire.

Having tempted you with that introduction, Cancún is still considered a very safe and comfortable place to visit for tourists. Additionally, despite the "Mexico" in "Gulf of Mexico", there have been no ill effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Cancún. Interestingly, resorts have experienced a marked spike in oil-related cancellations because of this assumption. For the record, Cancún sits on the Caribbean Sea, far southwest and up-current from the disaster.

As a consequence of the much-publicized drug violence, the oil spill, lingering effects of the Financial Apocalypse, and July being the offseason, deals abound if you want to spend a few days on a very nice beach. Add to that the 13/1 Peso exchange rate, and we were off to Mexico!


Tastes like chicken (pollo)
 
Cancún sits at the northeast tip of the Yucatán peninsula, with the Gulf of Mexico to the West, and the Caribbean sea to the east. The tiny island of Isla Mujeres is to the north and east, and the larger island of Cozumel is the south. Stretching south along the Caribbean is the Mayan Riviera, much quieter and more laid back than Cancún. In fact, some of the more upscale resorts built in recent years are found here, and many recommend skipping Cancún altogether and heading south.

Most hotels are in the Zona Hotelera, or Hotel Zone (duh) which sits atop a narrow island the south and east of the city of Cancún. The island itself is the exposed top of the world's second-longest coral reef that runs from the tip of the Yucatán some 600 miles to Honduras. There isn't a downtown Cancún per se, though many of the island's tourist draws are grouped midway up the island around the Las Islas shopping center, or the northern end of the island where such unique cultural treasures as the Hard Rock Cafe, Señor Frog's and Hooters can be found.


Slightly illegal camera phone picture of Cancun from our plane

There are a number of direct flights into Cancún (we flew straight from Newark). Cancún has a modern airport, the second busiest in Mexico. It also boasts the tallest control tower in Latin America, which I guess is impressive if you care about such things.

Cancún as a tourist destination is relatively new. In 1970, the Mexican government began exploring areas around the Yucatán to sponsor the development of a world-class resort destination. At the time, the city of Cancún had a couple hundred residents, and the modern hotel zone was a pineapple farm.

The government weighed a variety of factors in picking the location of its notional resort town; the quality of the beaches, the weather, the proximity to the US and Europe, area archeological sites and the number of potentially displaced local residents, farms and businesses. Despite Cancún being an obvious choice, and because spreadsheets didn't yet exist, the Tourism Development board famously punched all of this data into a computer which picked... Cancún. Even today, this idea of using a computer to pick the resort location is still talked about around Mexico, but I think it was more of a publicity stunt to appear modern, objective and very 21st century.

We stayed at the Ritz Carlton (recall my earlier comments about the bargains) because, well, its the Ritz. They also spent about $35M in the past year on a massive beach restoration project to combat ongoing beach erosion exacerbated by hurricanes in the past 3-5 years, and the central location was pretty ideal for restaurants and other things to do.


The Ritz Carlton

We arrived Friday morning and went straight to the beach. The weather was hot, but not unbearably so. It rains nearly every day, but only a for a few minutes. There was a tropical storm the week prior, and another right after we left so we apparently timed our visit perfectly. Because of the storms, the surf was high and tumultuous, but the water was warm and clear.


Despite the red flags, many were getting into the water (including me

Saturday was pretty much more of the same, though we spent more time by the pool than the sand. That evening we went to dinner at the Puerta Madera and took a long walk along the beach before sitting out by the bonfire the hotel does every Saturday.

It seems to me there's very little Mexico in Cancún. Nearly all the predictable US chain restaurants and chain stores can be found there, and we struggled to find interesting places to eat. The food isn't bad, its just nothing you can't get at home (and that includes readers whose homes are in Kansas). I asked the concierge to recommend "someplace fun", like a rowdy cantina, and was handed a menu for Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. We went to an Argentinian steakhouse, Puerto Madero, and a somewhat upscale Mexican place, La Habichuela (both recommended in Frommer's). They were both quite good, but otherwise dining was a struggle.

By Sunday we were feeling more adventurous and set out on something called a Jungle Tour recommended by the hotel concierge, though I don't recall ever entering or seeing a jungle on this tour.

The gist of this excursion was as follows: after a few minutes of instruction, mostly in Spanish, you're given a two-person speedboat which appears to be carved from single piece of styrofoam in someone's garage, then hastily painted as to appear as if it wasn't carved from a single piece of styrofoam in someone's garage. On the back of this boat is a rather large (some would say oversized) Honda outboard motor. Our mission was to follow our guide, along with 5 other boats, through some winding mangroves along the lagoon, under a bridge into the Caribbean, then to a national marine sanctuary for some snorkeling.


Happier times on the boat (before driving it)

Driving the boat was fun, but driving it fast enough to keep up with our guide was a little daunting. As the surf increased, the boat would jump the waves and slam back down, the whole experience a bit jarring. I was fortunate enough to have a steering wheel to hold onto, but Jessica was bouncing around trying hard to stay in the boat.

When we stopped to snorkel, the guide asked, "You not like to go fast?" and I said, "no". He looked at me puzzled, thinking, "well that intended-to-be-humorous exchange went nowhere."

By the time we got to the snorkeling spot, a large storm had moved in, but I guess when its raining, there's no better place to be than underwater. We did see a fair amount of fish, including a few rays and rather large barracuda. We snorkeled for about 45 minutes, despite the nearby lightning. Excursions in Mexico are all-weather events, unaffected by pesky safety regulations.

The boat ride back was a little smoother, probably because I had a better sense of what I was doing. That night we went to dinner at La Habichuela, and strolled around the La Isla shopping center, home to Planet Hollywood, Hooters, and something called Chocolate City, which appeared to be a Cheesecake Factory ripoff.


Immersed in authentic Mexican culture
 
Monday was our busiest day. We booked an all-day excursion to two attractions as recommended by our hotel: the seaside archeological sites of Tulum, and an ecological water park called Xel-Ha. We were picked up at our hotel at 7:30AM, and returned about 7:00PM that night.

Tulum is one of the two major Mayan ruin attractions in the Cancún area. The other, and said to be more impressive, is Chichen Itza. We researched "Wonders of the World" lists and found about two dozen, eating claiming to be the most definitive. That Chichen Itza was on about half of them was encouraging, but these lists also included sites as such "Shea Stadium" and "The Internet". Because Chichen Itza is considerably further and we wanted to do more stuff, we opted for Tulum.


Tulum

Tulum is a compound of Mayan buildings on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean sea. Our guide claimed these were the only ancient ruins built right by the sea, but I'm sure the words "only" and "ancient" were defined in a way that supported his point that not many are. As a result, the site was quite impressive alongside the brilliantly blue water.


The ruins of Tulum are in fact near the ocean

The rising and setting of the sun are important aspects of Mayan religious beliefs, and this site was chosen to track the sunrise over the Caribbean. The Mayans were pretty skilled astronomers, and many of their monuments reflected this. In Tulum, a small square window of stone is centered around the rising sun at 6:28AM on the longest day of the year, marking the Summer Solstice. A few hundred yards away, another window would frame the sun at 6:28AM on the shortest day of the year (the Vernal and Autumnal equinoxes were similarly marked). Planting, harvesting, war-marking, religious and civil ceremonies were all planned around the cycle of the sun.


Look closely, you can see the tiny stone window that frames the raising sun on the first day of summer

Our guide boasted at length at what skillful engineers the Mayans were, for example building roads at a slight elevation to avoid flooding during the rainy season. He then cautioned us to use the sidewalk back to the parking lot, as recent rains have left the new street underwater.

Our time spent in Tulum was about two hours, and was more than enough time to see the sites. We then boarded our bus to our next stop, Xel-Ha.


A good samaritan took this photo before our trip to Xel-Ha

Xel-Ha is the kind of place I would happily ignore if saw a brochure or billboard. In fact, we probably would not have even considered it if friends had not recommended it after a recent trip. Xel-Ha is a kind of ecological water park, a people-friendly nature preserve with all-inclusive bars and restaurants. The most popular things to do there are tubing, snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, cliff-diving and getting drunk off cheap beer.

We opted for many of the former, riding bikes to the head of the river, then tubing down to the lagoon, having lunch and spending the rest of the afternoon snorkeling in the coastal preserve. As cynical as I may have been, it was actually quite fun. We saw an impressive variety of tropical fish, and some frighteningly large and up-close stingrays.


Good times

After splashing around for a few hours, we grabbed a beer and settled in for 90 minute ride back to Cancún, arriving back at the hotel by 7:00. If you're pressed for time and want to combine an excursion, the Tulum / Xel-Ha combination is a good one.


Ah, last day at the beach

Our last day, Tuesday, we reserved for another "lounge around the beach" day. We reserved one of the hotel's beach cabanas, which you can occupy from 8AM until 5PM. It has a beach bed, a hammock, two lounge chairs and a butler. While the cabanas aren't exactly cheap, when you just sign for things it feels like its free. A rather epic downpour blew through halfway through the day, but then the sun re-emerged and the rest of the day was pleasant, warm and breezy, a perfect ending to the trip.


iPhone movie made during the storm. Caution: boring

Despite a terrific visit to Cancún, I'm not sure I would go back. I'm not recommending against Cancún, but there are other places I would like to see before I would return. As I mentioned earlier, there's very little sense of real Mexico here. While I didn't find it as busy, crowded or as obnoxious as I'm sure it can get around Spring Break, I felt like I was in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, or Pick Any Familiar US Beach Town. Perhaps to European or Canadian visitors, Cancún might feel a bit more foreign. We realized after we left that we never actually handled any Pesos. Given the construction we saw, and the "Coming Soon" for more familiar US chains, I don't see the vibe changing anytime soon. I guess if I want a taste of real Mexico, I'll go back to Taqueria Cancún on Mission Street in San Francisco. 

PS: First to correctly translate the title in the comments below wins a mini bottle of Mezcal. 



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