In many ways, Cancun reminds me of a beautiful woman all dressed up for a night on the town; No hair out of place, perfect makeup, properly manicured and sporting her finest attire for all to see. A person coming to Cancun on vacation can be easily seduced by her obvious beauty and charms; sparkling white beaches, warm turquoise-clear Caribbean waters, a vibrant nightlife with plentiful restaurants and legions of uniformed paid staff enthusiastically providing top-notch service wherever you go. As the Caribbean’s most popular vacation destination, Cancun draws eager visitors from across the globe; her International airport a beehive of activity as an enormous fleet of vans and taxis shuttle visitors to and from their resorts and hotels ready to experience all of her abundant charms. This is the Cancun that most know; the Cancun that is on display to the world as the favored Caribbean playground. This is our home.
Diane and I recently spent some time in the Mexican or local part of Cancun where we had previously spent little time. We weren’t intentionally avoiding it; it’s just that for retired folks, we stay pretty busy and we finally made some time to do some shopping and spend some time getting the feel of the “other Cancun” There was a particular store for arts and crafts that Diane had heard of and wanted to find. We found it and it was huge!! Diane stocked up on painting supplies. We also found some other great stores, did some shopping and had a nice lunch in a small place filled with locals. I don’t think we saw more than 5 other Gringos the entire day and they all had expensive cameras hanging around their sunburned necks. Good for them for breaking away from the tourist district!
There is a visible difference in culture between the area where we live and the local neighborhoods we have recently visited. We both LOVED the local neighborhood areas and were completely comfortable. It reminded me just a bit of being back in Ecuador.
We now live in Cancun’s “Hotel Zone” or Zona Hotelera. Stretching for several miles, it is a row of condos, resorts and nice hotels on a narrow strip of perfectly manicured land with the Caribbean Sea on one side and a protected bay on the other. This is the heart of the tourist area where International visitors fill shops and restaurants and laze around the world-class beach in newly purchased swimwear. In this area one can get along pretty well without knowing much Spanish and the U.S. dollar is accepted almost everywhere along with pesos, of course.
While our furnished condo is very nice and its location is outstanding with direct access to the Caribbean only steps away…it is insulated from the local culture in the same way that Disney World is artificially insulated from the regular city dwellers of Orlando.
We have the best of both worlds here in Cancun. Our home is situated on one of the world’s best beaches, tons of restaurants and modern shopping close by with great infrastructure while a short drive will deliver us to the other and completely different Cancun; the authentic Cancun of the local, working people that tourists rarely see.
In this other Cancun you will find plentiful street vendors selling all kinds of merchandise from small carts. The tempting aromas of local foods waft onto the streets as fresh tortillas, fish, chicken, pork and onions combine with a variety of local chiles and spices to make one’s mouth and eyes water just walking along. Food vendors with their rolling carts serve hot tacos and tamales to the locals washed down by the milk of a freshly topped coconut with a straw extending from the top.
There is noisy traffic congestion, buses and trucks clogging streets bumper-to-bumper as motor scooters scurry alongside and between vehicles without regard for traffic regulations or signal lights. The air is filled with the sounds of auto horns and music seemingly coming from everywhere. Delivery trucks block streets and alleys, their 4-way flashers apparently providing immunity from any violation. Numbers of young men operating shoe-shine businesses from tiny wooden boxes make the crowded sidewalks even more challenging. Shop owners sit on packing crates in front of their stores encouraging passers-by to come and look around. Many of the women dress in the colorful, traditional attire of their region. The Mayan influences are rich in this area and the food and clothing clearly reflect that heritage along with the strong jaw lines and prominent facial features of many.
Small groups of uniformed school children weave through the crowds at high speed, giggling and laughing while cramming their mouths with snack food. In this other Cancun, hard-working people go about their daily lives without the ever-present touristy spit-shine and hustle one experiences in the Hotel Zone. It is real…authentic…gritty! These are where the locals live their lives without uniforms or pretense. We love it!
I’ve never been a fan of the Disney parks and their clones. Concrete, fiberglass, metal and plastic are used to build an artificial environment designed strictly to harvest money. I much prefer the extraordinary natural beauty and experiences such as can be found in Alaska, Central and South America, Mexico and other places to an experience that is artificially created from synthetics. Even in the states…especially in the states, natural beauty has been packaged and is being sold by the glimpse. It seems that tourist areas are much the same across the globe. Natural beauty is purchased by the acre or hectare, packaged and resold for profit and …we buy it!
Our life in Cancun offers a nice balance between a well-manicured, quite civilized and perhaps a bit contrived existence here in the Hotel Zone and a completely authentic experience just a short drive away in the “other” Cancun.
We do enjoy living on the beach and appreciate how the local economy is driven by tourism. That said, I’m glad that we are able to connect with the real Mexican Cancun. As good as things are, I’d been missing reality, a bit! We’ll definitely be spending more time there soon!
There are numerous other cities and towns here in Mexico offering much different experiences. Merida, some 4 hours away is such a place. In fact, once one gets away from the Mayan Riviera here on the Caribbean coast, you can find more much more Mexico in Mexico. It is tough to find a coastal community along the Mayan Riviera that is untouched by tourism. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I can’t say. I’ve only recently arrived but the impact is clearly visible.
The Pocket Babe and I also spent a recent day on the Island of Women or Isla de Mujeres as we visited with new friends and toured a large sea-turtle rescue facility and hatchery. One of my buddies recently commented that having found an island of women, we should now focus on finding an island of rum.
Dude, Please!! This is Mexico. Here, it would be an island of Tequila!