This article is from the August - September 1998 The Mexico File
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In Defense of Cancún
by Lynne Doyle
Lynne Doyle lives in Maine, but whenever possible she travels to Mexico for adventures.She has been a teacher, has owned and operated a photography studio, and often gives lectures and shows slides of her trips to Mexico. She contributed "The Border Crosser" to the July 1998 issue of The Mexico File. The second part of Lynnes defense of Cancún will be found in the October 1998 issue.
I dearly love reading The Mexico File and look forward to its receipt with great anticipation every month. The combination of other peoples impressions of places that I love and the informative/descriptive items about places I have never been all are a source of great enjoyment for me. However, it makes me a little sad to note that as time goes by, there is rarely any mention of any part of the Yucatán (an article on Isla Mujeres in November of 1996 and one on Mayan ruins since I have been subscribing) and when there is a mention, the authors seem to treat the word "Cancún" like it has four letters, if you get my drift. Recently, a wonderful guy connected to The Mexico File, who shall remain nameless, referred to the Yucatán as a theme park with small waves, and less recently he described Cancún variously as "the brain-child of a computer," "a cultural mecca...(ha ha ha)," and "a skyline of generic resorts." Actually, he is not alone. Mexicophiles everywhere seem to share his view, and many are downright ashamed to admit that they have sampled the delights of Cancún. Even in my family, we jokingly refer to Cancún as Miami Beach South. While there is certainly some truth in these views, there are also for me many wonderful things to recommend Cancún. And after being bombarded with all of this negativity, I feel compelled to offer a defense.
Travel to Cancún
Not the least of the advantages of Cancún is the fact that, for those of us on the East Coast, Cancún is by far the cheapest and quickest entry point into Mexico. From New England (I live in Maine) and New York, it is easy to find round-trip flights into Cancún for as little as $300 in the dead of winter. I have frequently flown non-stop charter from Boston in four hours, and occasionally commercial air can get you there in just a little longer time. The charter companies TNT and GWV often will sell air-only tickets along with their package flights, and if you wait until the last minute and find a charter that isnt full, these tickets are particularly economical. I have found it preferable to fly to Cancún for $329, spend 40 pesos (about $4.00) for a cab to a bus station in downtown Cancún, and another 56 pesos for a bus to Merida rather than the $750 and ten hours I would have to spend to fly directly to Merida. Believe it or not, less travel time is involved. This also beats spending $650 to fly to Mexico City on a journey that takes all day with several stops and changes.
Of course, this wouldnt be ideal for people who dont like bus travel, but I consider Primero Clase buses a treat with their movies (usually in English), selected beverages and air conditioning, plus a wonderful chance to catch up on my reading (bring your own books paperbacks in English are hard to find and beyond expensive when you do find them). I cant recommend second or third class travel they stop everywhere, have no reserved seats (which means that as many tickets as are requested are sold), and no movies or air conditioning which wouldnt be so bad, but Mexican people dont seem to like the windows opened. It takes around three hours to get from Cancún to Merida by Primero Clase bus (depending on the driver...), sixteen hours to Mexico City, and twenty-four hours to Oaxaca. Another bonus to bus travel is that I have often gotten helpful tips regarding special things to see from native sitting next to me.
Finding Accommodations in Cancún
Regarding the issue of accommodations in Cancún, I have found it can be done in three ways. The resort area of Cancún is divided into Ciudad Cancún...where the natives have homes and conduct the business of living, and the Hotel Zone...the sand spit shaped like a "7" which houses the hotels and shopping malls that brand Cancún as "generic." As a tourist, one can travel by charter and stay in one of the very high-end, fancy, and self-contained resorts chains that populate the vertical longer end of the "7." These hotels are very expensive from $1,200 to $2,500, depending on if you choose a meal-inclusive vacation. Choose instead one of the older, more quaint hotels on the horizontal top of the "7." They range from $400 to $800, again depending on whether or not meals are served. Or try the Poor Mans Cancún and stay in one of the tiny, family-owned hotels in the city...where the cost varies widely. I have never stayed in any of the expensive "generic resorts" only gone for lunch so cannot comment on them, except to say that they are very far from the city and seem to be very crowded.
Initially, I bought complete tours featuring the Hotel Zone, but I have learned to stay in some of the older, smaller hotels built at the beginning of the development of Cancún and frequented more by Mexicans and Europeans than by Americans. (I never buy all-inclusive packages because I feel that they tie you to staying at your hotel and eating the same stuff all the time in order to get your moneys worth, when one of the best things about Cancún is eating out.) My absolute favorite of the little hotels is Dos Playas, named for its two small beaches separated by a great protrusion of limestone that features a deck overlooking Bahia Mujeres. The hotel is small (112 rooms), and its gardens and carefully manicured lawns are far more beautiful than its rooms. A chief attraction is the family of iguanas that sunbathe on the stone walks in the morning and love the hibiscus blossoms fed to them by guests. The hotel has an open-air restaurant called Los Guacamayas with a limited but excellent menu (my favorite dish is Pollo Monterey...about $4) and staff members who help with Spanish lessons and the most economical ways to get anywhere you want to go. One waiter there shared with me that outside of the hotel zone, the maximum cab fare should be $N7.00, no matter how far you are going. This is information not commonly given to tourists. The beaches at Dos Playas are lovely and uncrowded, the drinks big and cheap ($2.00) and not watered down (they have two-for-one specials from 7:00 to 9:00 every night), the towels large and puffy, and the water pressure excellent (this is sometimes an issue in Cancún). There is no young lady on a loudspeaker urging you to do the macarena and no night life except that generated by the guests, which, as the bar overlooks the pool, can often get interesting.
Other older, economical hotels I have stumbled onto include Las Perlas (more rooms, larger menu, but the air conditioners sound like jets landing in your room and the service is terrible), The Carousel (a German-owned hotel filled with European guests and the general fun-factor expected of a German facility, along with a girl with a bullhorn...but the water pressure is great), and the Aquamarina Beach (meticulously clean and a much bigger hotel). The costs are similar, but none has the conviviality of Dos Playas. I have found this kind of trip to be wonderful when I am tired and need a rest. The beaches of Cancún, both the bay and the Caribbean, are truly unsurpassed even though they have surf only during storms, and I have found no other place so restorative. There is definitely something to be said for lying in a beach chair and having a handsome bronze boy bring you a large gin and tonic just because you look like you need one.
There is Soul in Cancún
For me, one of the major drawbacks to chartered tours is that if you want to stay longer than a week, you still have to pay the full weekly price of the tour, even though you will only fly back and forth once. Also, staying in the Hotel Zone outside of a tour when I spend a great deal of my time in the city anyhow did not seem to be the best allocation of my resources (translation: it would be beyond my budget). So on one of my trips I decided to research a way to spend less and stay longer. The excellent Cancún metro system travels anywhere in Cancún, all around the city, to and from the Hotel Zone, day and night, for three pesos...and it is accessible anywhere. It is about a fifteen minute trip from Dos Playas to the center of the city on the bus, and I would fan out from there looking for a clean, quiet and cheap hotel, preferably with a pool. (This is not an issue, however. All of the beaches in Mexico belong to the government, not the hotels, so you can stay in any hotel and have access to the beaches adjacent to other hotels. All it takes is three pesos and your own beach towel.)
I canvassed a lot of hotels and was lucky enough to find Hotel la Hacienda. The main street in Cuidad Cancún is Avenida Tulum and the Hacienda is three and a half small blocks west from there, on Avenida Sunyaxchen, right on the roundabout. It is small (about forty rooms) and really pretty with beautiful plants, a nicely furnished lobby and a small pool and restaurant in the back. (About the pool: I discovered that the sun is on it only late in the afternoon in January, but in March it is in the sun most of the day.)
The manager is Luis Casares Castellanos (his family owns it), who was an exchange student in the U.S. and thus speaks perfect English. His office is available to anyone with a question and he is incredibly well-informed about anything concerning the city and the Yucatán in general (he comes from Merida). The first time I stayed there, I walked in from the street and felt like I was in someones living room. The staff is polite and in uniform and likely to be studying their English at the check-in desk and anxious to practice it. The rooms are definitely not fancy (except for a couple of special rooms for long-term guests), but all have air-conditioning, Mexican TV, and good water pressure. Some have French windows facing the street, while others overlook the pool. The food in the restaurant is very basic, but good and served with a smile. That first time I got a nice room for $20 a night, which became continually discounted the longer I stayed. Luis stored my luggage when I went to Merida for ten days, and again when I went to Mexico City. He also arranged several side trips for me that I would not have known about without him. The second time I went I faxed him before I left home and he saved a really nice room for me, as far from the "spring breakers" as he could manage.
Staying in a hotel like this is not luxurious travel, by any means. There is no cable, incoming calls have to be taken at the front desk, and you have to go to the lobby for bottled water instead of finding it in your room. But for me, the money I saved was well worth it. (In the winter of 1997 I kept myself on the Yucatán for five weeks with $1,000, and that included most of my shopping.) The people who stay there are from all over, and the staff go out of their way to put you in touch with others looking for similar adventures. Everyone is friendly and helpful, and the restaurant can be used for gathering and talking without having to buy anything, a real rarity in Cancún.
There are a couple of similar hotels, the Antillano and the Rivemar on Avenida Tulum, but they are more than twice the cost of the Hacienda and both have bars, which seriously ups the noise quotient. They do have cable, though. Next door to the Hacienda is the Hotel Caribe International, which is big and fancy and has all the amenities found in the Hotel Zone. The cost is $50 per night in January, and the price increases to $70 and $80 a night further into the spring. Still the cost is less than prices on the strip. I found it more economical to stay at the Hacienda and use the pool and dining room at the Caribe.
I am a serious collector of Mexican folk art, and a significant feature of Cancún for me is that one can usually find, somewhere in the city, an example of anything created anywhere in Mexico...although prices can vary considerably. Things are usually more expensive in Cancún, but with a little ingenuity you can get around the high prices of the strip. I collect Talavera pottery, for myself and as gifts, and there are two places to get it that are not a whole lot more than Dolores Hidalgo, which I have found to be the cheapest. One shop, called simply Talavera, can be found in the Hotel Zone, between the malls of Plaza Mayfair and Plaza Caracol. It has everything under the sun, from bathroom fixtures and tiles to simple bowls and vases, and the prices are not horrible. They offer the convenience of shipping, but this usually costs twice the price of the piece. The other shop, in Ciudad Cancún, is called Artesania Ruth and has piles of Talavera stacked on the sidewalk in front of it, with an emphasis on really large planters. This place is on Avenida Coba (just a short walk from Hotel la Hacienda). Nobody speaks English and there is no shipping (in fact, you should repack anything you buy there yourself), but the prices and selection are great. For the even more adventurous, there is Mercado Veinte Ocho, deep into Ciudad Cancún behind the Post Office. Tourists seldom venture this far, but if you do and can manage to communicate, the buys are even better (although the selection isnt so great).
I also collect animales Oaxaqueños (the hard-carved, hand-painted surrealistic animal figures) and have gone directly to Oaxaca to find unique examples of them. The best buys are those found by renting a car and driving around to find the villages of the artists. This can be very time-consuming and frustrating, however, if you dont know where you are going, and I usually dont. I have developed favorite artists and havent any idea how to find them. The prices found in the shops in the city of Oaxaca are, in my experience, often as inflated as in Cancún and the selection is nowhere nearly as extensive. In the center of Ciudad Cancún, in the Mercada Ki-Huic, which extends from Avenida Tulum through to Avenide Nader, there is a small shop that imports only the best quality, signed animals. Its owner will discount for quantity and I have done better there in adding to my collection than anywhere else in Mexico. The downside is that you have to really search through the maze of little shops to find this place, but once you see it, the quality of the merchandise lets you know that you are there. For people who shop and/or collect, it is nice to have it all available without having to travel the entire country.
Editors Note: Look for the second half of Lynne Doyles "Defense of Cancún" in the October 1998 issue of The Mexico File.
This article is from the October 1998 The Mexico File
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In Defense of Cancún, Part II
by Lynne Doyle
This is the second part of Lynne Doyles article on the saving graces of Cancún. Lynne lives in Maine, and she often travels to Mexico for adventures.She has been a teacher, has owned and operated a photography studio, and often gives lectures and shows slides of her trips to Mexico. She contributed "The Border Crosser" to the July 1998 issue of The Mexico File. In the following article she describes a number of interesting tours around Cancún.
People traveling to Cancún can lie on the beach all day and party all night, never leaving the strip, or they can use Cancún as a base from which to travel all over the Yucatán or they can combine the two. When you arrive at the airport a smiling Mexican girl may hand you a copy of Cancún Tips, a booklet offering maps and detailed instructions about how to get to just about everything of interest on the Yucatán Peninsula. If you dont receive this at the airport, the latest issue will still be on your bed in your hotel, even the economical ones. It is easy to access all that Mexico has to offer ancient Mayan ruins, colonial architecture, and all manner of natural wonders. Right in the Hotel Zone, at the southernmost tip across from the Royal Maya Beach Club, is Ruinas el Rey, a small but interesting Mayan ceremonial center built by the fishermen of the area early in Mayan history. I found it interesting to stand on the temple platforms and see the hotels between the stelae.
The most impressive ruin closest to Cancún is Tulúm, a short two-hour ride south down the Caribbean coast. You can take a tour bus that will pick you up and deliver you back to your hotel for about $42US that includes entrance fees and a guided tour of Tulúm, as well as several hours at the natural lagoon at Xel-Ha. Or you can hop on a bus for 35 pesos, get off at Tulúm and walk around unguided. (On Sundays in Mexico, all archaeological sites suspend their entrance fees.) Maps of the ruins are available at the market outside and a shuttle runs continuously for a dollar. Tulúm is a small ruin, but interesting in that it is a walled city and the only one directly adjacent to the Caribbean. It is thought to have been a city of commerce rather than a religious center. While tourists can no longer climb its small pyramid, there are many spectacular views out over the ocean and a small beach where you can swim. Xel-Ha is a park built around an area where salty ocean water meets clear spring water, creating a marvelous natural aquarium. Visitors can rent goggles and swim among colorful tropical fish but skin lotion is banned in the water. There are restaurants in the area to fit any budget.
A little further on, deeper into the jungle, is the ancient city of Cobá, which archaeologists believe is going to be one of the largest of the Mayan cities once it is completely excavated. At this point in time the excavation has barely begun, but it is still an interesting site to visit. Cobá is unique in that there are several lakes in its vicinity, instead of ceynotes, and because is has sixteen sacbes (causeways). Most sites have an occasional causeway, but Cobá has many of them connecting the central ceremonial area to villages and cities surrounding it, one of them as far away of Chichen Itza.
Some people consider it too grueling a day, but tour companies also go to Chichen Itza for around $50US. This includes transportation to and from your hotel, lunch, a stop in the colonial city of Valladoid, entrance fees and a guide to take you around the ruins. Some of the more adventurous souls rent cars and take themselves. I have done it both ways and honestly have found the tour less taxing and more informative.
You can even do Uxmal in a day trip from Cancún, and though the day I did it is one of my fondest memories of traveling in the Yucatán, I cannot honestly recommend it. We left Cancún on a 6:00 a.m. bus to Mérida, arrived at 9:30 a.m., walked the five blocks to the zócalo, wasted an hour asking directions to a travel agency, finally found one, got on a 1:00 p.m. tour to Uxmal, drove for one and a half hours in a packed Suburban, toured the site, had dinner, went to the light and sound show, drove back to Mérida, caught a midnight bus back to Cancún, saw a Stallone movie in English, and got back to our hotel at around 4:00 a.m. The entire day cost about $75US for two people, but it was well worth it. I have since gone back at a more leisurely pace, but the people we met and the fun we had found our way around has never been duplicated.
Dzitnup and Blankanche
A less taxing day can be spent taking a bus to Valladolid (you cant get to this adventure from Cancún), have the bus driver drop you in the zócalo, and find a cab to take you to Dzitnup, or Cenote X-Keken. This is a sinkhole in the limestone slab with stalactites around the sides of it and only a small opening in the earth which lets in sunlight. It is at its most spectacular around noon when the light turns the water turquoise. The water is clear and warm, very pleasant for swimming, although the dressing rooms are not terribly clean. On the same trip you can hire a driver to go to the caves at Balankanche. The driver will wait while you take the tour into the caves and then bring you back to the center of Valladolid. At Balankanche you can take stairs deep into the ground while listening to a recording of the history of this site. Discovered by a tour guide in the late 1950's, this cave was a ceremonial Mayan center reserved for the worship of the rain god, Chac, who, according to Mayan legend, lived in the cave. Deep in the earth there is a spectacular stalagmite surrounded by the same artifacts originally left there 800 years ago. It is a long walk over slimy stairs with very fetid air that becomes hard to breathe, but there are Mexican guides along the way to help if it gets to be too much. We paid about $25US for the cab, six pesos for entrance fees at both sites, and about $4.00US each way for the bus to and from Cancún. This is a tour best done during the week since these sites are very popular with Mexicans and are apt to be crowded on the weekends.
Another fun day can be spent taking the bus early in the morning to Mérida, the largest city in the Yucatán, and spending the day seeing the city. Again, you have to do this yourself since there are no guided tours from Cancún. There is no much to see and do in Mérida that I would recommend a more leisurely visit. If you only have a day, you can still pack in a lot. Around the zócalo there are many travel agencies that can hook you up with a city tour. There is a two-hour, open-air bus tour with an English-speaking guide that hits all the highlights of Mérida (the cost is about $5.00US per person). Fascinating to see is the Paseo de Montejo where many colonial mansions have been converted to offices, along with newer palatial homes. Mérida is a city studded with monuments, colonial churches and small, shaded parks and the tour will take you to many of them. Ive especially enjoyed the way the drivers will slow down for pictures to be taken.
The afternoon can be spent in and around the zócalo, where many of the most interesting sights in Mérida can be found. There is the cathedral (magnificent on the outside, but somewhat sparse inside), Casa Montejo (the colonial home of conquistador Francisco Montejo built in 1549, now a branch of Banamex), the Palacio Municipal (or city hall, where, if you are lucky, you can see an exhibition of folkloric dancing), and best of all, the Palacio de Gobierno. On the second floor of this magnificent buildling you will find the Hall of Murals, painted by Fernando Castro Pacheco, depicting the history of the Yucatán. On Sunday afternoons there are free concerts in this hall featuring excellent orchestras and vocalists of the region.
A couple of blocks from the zócalo is Parque Hidalgo, a small park of monuments, shops, hotels and outdoor restaurants, my favorite of which is Georgios (the best spaghetti, Mexican-style, and gin and tonics, all for about $5.00US). This little park is a great place to sit and people-watch and in the evenings there are often impromptu concerts. Within this park is everything I feel to be most delightful about Mérida. A block of so away is Teatro Péon Contreras, modeled after La Scala. The building itself is something to see, but I have also seen marvelous dance programs and concerts there for less than $4.00US a person. Primero clase buses run every hour on the hour to and from Mérida and Cancún you can be back in your hotel in Cancún by 9:00 p.m.
A Final Plug for Cancún
As an unabashed fan of Cancún and the Yucatán, I particularly like the fact that Cancún is for tourists and makes no bones about it. The Mexican people there know that their economy depends on the norteamericanos and they dont seem to have a problem with it. Some of the vendors are not above trying to fleece the tourists, but I have always found the people there to be cheerful, friendly, and helpful, as well as extremely responsive to any interest in their country. The class distinctions so signature in other parts of Mexico are less prevalent in Cancún. It has been my experience that middle class Mexicans are much friendlier and more informative in Cancún. Since no one is native to Cancún, I am able to get much more information about peoples home regions. I have had Mexican people I have met in shops and on buses take me on wonderful side trips to places I would never have known existed, as well as direct me to marvelous artisans I would not have been able to find by myself.
Last but not least, because Cancún was built specifically as a tourist mecca, there is little language barrier and no need to worry about food or water. This is not an issue to me, but I have talked to a number of Americans who wont even consider a trip to Mexico because of these two factors. Cancún has been a great way for me to introduce my friends and relatives to the country in the hope that their interest will be piqued and that they will want to venture further. In several instances this ploy has worked. My husband was one of them. While he will probably never be as crazy about the country as I am, he now goes willingly into all parts of the country after years of refusing to even try and it all began in Cancún! So, my fellow Mexicophiles, next time you are beat and need some sun, try Cancún. You might like it, and after all, you never have to tell anyone....