In the summer of 2016, myself and a few friends spent a month travelling around Mexico, beginning in the Yucatán Peninsula and making our way towards Mexico City. Our point of arrival and departure for the trip was the airport in Cancún, meaning we spent a couple of nights at the beginning and end of our journey in this famed magnet for hedonistic spring-breakers and well-off sun-seekers. While our time in Cancún probably bore little resemblance to the experiences of those two types of holidaymaker, by the time I left I nonetheless felt like I had managed to gain something of an insight into this surreal yet undeniably beguiling four-decades-old city by the sea.
For those unaware, Cancún was literally built from scratch in the 1970s, with its previously sparsely inhabited jungle location identified by Mexican government computers as the ideal place to develop an idyllic new tourist resort. The city is divided into two main areas; the beachside zona hotelera, where most of the tourist-baiting hotels, mega-clubs and shopping malls are situated, and the downtown city centre where most residents live, where we stayed. The differences between the two are fascinating, and quite stark.
The zona hotelera is weird, vulgar and beautiful. Even though it certainly felt like the least authentically Mexican of all the places we visited, it was still unlike any other place I had ever been before. The zone’s standout feature is the stunning 25-kilometre-long beach, pictured below. From one glance at the golden sand and the luminous blue ocean, it is clear that those government computers did a very good job indeed. Facing this natural beauty, however, is the very human sight of a seemingly endless row of vast hotels. What’s more, each of these behemoths has its own private section of the beach reserved for its own patrons – one of which me and a friend were prevented from even walking across on the way back from an unsuccessful quest to find a shop. I found the juxtaposition between the exquisiteness of the landscape and the ugliness of the principle of separating people according to their wealth a little jarring.
I would be lying, however, if I said that this ruined my enjoyment of the time we spent out in the zona hotelera. Lying under an umbrella on the gorgeous Playa Delfines, sipping on a cool beer, rousing oneself only to venture now and again into the perfectly temperate ocean, it is pretty hard to feel anything other than blissful contentment. Moreover, the zona hotelera is dotted with fantastic little bars and restaurants offering delicious food and refreshing drinks for a fraction of the cost of the fare served by the mega hotels, of which we took great pleasure in availing ourselves. I particularly enjoyed the seafood and beer at El Fish Fritanga and Santos Mariscos (complete with pet iguana).
A half-hour bus ride inshore is the downtown city centre, which has a very different feel to the zona hotelera. Mainly, that’s because downtown is where most local people live and hang out, meaning that things are much less targeted at tourists than they are in the hotel zone. The Parque de Las Palapas is where we had the first tacos and the first churros of the trip, which were delicious and great value, and also has a stage on which live music, dance shows and other forms of entertainment often take place. The side streets around about here are interesting to wander around, and are full of little bars and restaurants in which to relax, much like that cool-looking dudeo in the picture below. Downtown Cancún gave us our first taste of Yucatán culture and cuisine, and more generally provides a welcome contrast to the less distinctive, somewhat more sterile vibe of the zona hotelera.
After Cancún, we went on to Tulum and then to Mérida. Tulum has an equally stunning beach untainted by the mega hotels with their reserved areas, while the city of Mérida probably offers more to explore in the way of local culture and tradition. Nonetheless, Cancún is an interesting (if unorthodox) city in its own right, well worth spending some time in even if you’re just a few students on a budget.