I went to Cancun with two goals in mind: 1, to earn the last 3,400 miles that I needed before December 31, 2011 for Delta’s elite status in 2012; and 2, to not go anywhere near the water. The first goal was the original goal; not exactly a mileage run, per say, but I needed to fly exactly 3,400 miles to gain elite status in 2012, but more about that in another post. Cancun was the cheapest destination that I could go to on New Year’s weekend to fulfill that mileage requirement. Then, I started brainstorming about how to turn this trip into an article for Dauntless Jaunter. Everybody talks about Cancun in terms of the nightlife and the ocean-view resorts. While this is a great vacation idea, it is not what I do; I don’t vacation. I live to travel and write, and I write about traveling and destinations as it is experienced by the locals. The Cancun we all have come to talk about resembles a Disney World for adults, and it doesn’t interest me.
So, I set out to experience and write about the real Cancun, that inner-city version that most of us don’t realize exists. I found it, and quite easily. I stayed at a hotel near the airport, for budget purposes. I dropped my things off, then set out to see what I could find. Coming from New York City, the weather was quite hot and humid. Though we are having a very mild winter this year (so far), the temperature was almost 90 degrees in Mexico.
First thing I did was to check out this beautiful park nearby, called the Parque Urbano Kabah. This park intrigued me from the beginning, as it is a shaped like a perfect slice of pizza. To get to the entrance was a bit rough. Cars and dirt-bikes are constantly passing in front of it, and it became a bit of a challenge to get to the gate. Once I got in, I was surprised to notice that all that traffic noise just seemed to disappear. The growth of flora is thick, and the tropical vegetation must provide a sound barrier to the street. I found many paths, that all winded back and forth for what seemed like miles. Along the way, I discovered several open areas where local children were playing catch or climbing on jungle gyms. Stray dogs are everywhere in non-resort Cancun, and I passed a few of them along with joggers. Coming out of the park sort of disappointed me, as I saw hulking on the other side of the street a gigantic Costco; yes, that Costco, the big-box discount wholesaler. A couple of blocks down was a big Walmart. McDonald’s are everywhere, also, but I am glad to say that this was about the extent of any Americanization that I saw in the inner-city of Cancun.
Venturing further, I made my way to a main street in this “real Cancun”. It was called Paseo Lopez Portillo, and on both sides of the street were little stalls of food, shopping outlets, hecklers, roaming dogs, and all kinds of other things. I realized that this is their “Main St.”, and I felt completely at home. There was a lot of commotion on that street, and every 10 yards seem to have another street vendor selling fireworks for the upcoming New Year’s celebration. I passed some other tourists, but mostly it was just me as the foreigner, and I continued west, farther and farther from that exotic green sea.
I came to an open area that had been designated as a sort of pop-up carnival. There was a skating ring set up, and it was entertaining to watch these kids skate with shorts and tanks on in the hot and humid weather. Numerous booths were set out with carnival games, finger-foods (such as salchichas, platanos, and nachos), and trinkets. A life-sized nativity scene was set up, and families waited in line to replace the plastic versions with themselves and take pictures. A huge Christmas tree stood in the center of the plaza, towering over a nearby Cathedral.
My favorite experience was a taxi ride late one night on the way back to my hotel. See, the taxis in downtown Cancun often “double up” by picking up passengers while still having a passenger that they haven’t dropped off yet. I got in the back seat, and told him where I was going, and he told me he was just going to drop the guy in the front seat off first. The two guys chatted like old buddies until they reached his house, then as the guy got out, the driver asked me if I wouldn’t mind sitting up front. He wanted to talk, which may sound strange as you read, but if you could see and hear it coming from him, you wouldn’t hesitate to say yes. We drove around, and he chatted me up. We spoke in a bit of Spanglish, and I taught him a few words in English, and he returned the favor in Spanish. He asked me, “What are you doing all the way out here?” to which I replied that I wanted to see the “real Cancun.” His face lit up at that, and he started telling me all about life in the city for a guy like himself. He told me that the beach area was basically the United States, which I found amusing, because he was right. When he dropped me off, he thanked me many times just because I trusted him as a tourist to ride up front and shoot the shit with him.
This was a short trip, and its purpose was not to see Cancun at all. However, I do hope that the next time you visit Cancun, you will spend at least some of your time in the heart of this city. The beach resorts have all the same amenities as the ones in Florida, though the beauty of the water is a compelling attraction. Just don’t miss out on the energy of the city, the working-class atmosphere of the people who really make this town tick. Practice a little Spanish and put a smile on some faces that could really use it. Walk down the side streets, support the local mom and pops, try some real Mexican food, but don’t touch the water!