By Andrew T. Der
Staring into the azure ocean in front of my hotel’s sea turtle hatchery next to a massive river-like swimming pool with the pleasing odor of fresh tortilla dishes permeating the air, I realize this is not your parents’ Cancun – nor to be viewed as only a spring break party destination. Presented here is exemplary conservation and resources to appreciate, regional Mayan history, community service, premium beaches, scuba diving in underwater sculpture gardens and sink hole freshwater caves (Cenotes), accented by outstanding food, and all for a low maintenance but pampered family stay at bargain prices.
Cancun, Mexico’s most popular resort city and keystone gateway to the Yucatan, is the area most visitors know as an island connected by a road way through the “hotel zone” – and may well be best enjoyed off season; late summer or fall. Be ready to do anything, refrain from the vacation curse of planning too much, flop on the best beaches, pick one main activity for the day and add the rest as you go – you can’t lose.
Interaction with hotel staff and the permanent community reveals the undiscovered Cancun we don’t usually see – an amazing one that promotes community and environmental stewardship where sustainable tourism is a win-win situation of opportunity for residents and visitors alike. Cancun is also a comfortable home base for exploring the Mayan Riviera. Head south for awesome beach and community experiences; try staying at an all-inclusive resort; there is archeology; the “hip” and luxurious Playa del Carmen; world renown scuba and cruise-ship hotspot Cozumel with huge reefs made famous by Jacques Cousteau in the 1960’s; astounding nature preserves; and up and coming Tulum – an edgy offbeat yoga-centric green community with Mayan ruins and a biosphere reserve next door. We can take advantage of this competitively priced region with direct (a huge time saver) low cost U. S. carrier flights to Cancun from many gateway cities accompanied by bargain rate hotel packages.
This is also the time for all the pampering you deserve, and with or without family, my favorite is the Marriot Casa Magna, an all-around home base at rates you would not believe. The hotel zone is the way to go with kids along and the common and prevalent accommodation choices, but all-inclusive and Spa resorts are very popular in and around Cancun. Most important, your stay here will support the modestly under publicized and exemplary environmentally sustainable initiatives the Marriott has spearheaded. As a leader in the hospitality industry they are providing select training and career opportunities as well as environmental educational experiences for challenged local residents – the real backbone of why Cancun works so well.
If the kids come along, drop them off at Marriott’s famous Kids Club for supervised and stimulating activities while you enjoy the decadent Spa services which include things I am not even familiar with (but I am a guy). I recommend the myriad of singles and couples massages indoors or on the beach in huts while listening to the surf. Mix it up with hotel beachfront and pool time in one of the largest and bluest pools ever, winding around walkways and open space in a river-like fashion. Finish off in the largest pool size hot-tub ever while drinks and snacks are served ´inches” away.
Of course the main day activity in Cancun especially in the hotel zone is to just hit the beach – they are free in Mexico – and for a bit of variety, try the public beach Playa Delfines and the calmer Playa Tortugas. Follow this with the best way to see Cancun city by taking the #2 bus or a taxi past the glut of malls to the commercial center starting with Mercado 28 – the popular open air shopping market for some authentic goods. Be prepared to bargain and politely say no to vendors but, if done right, you’ll score some authentic native goods followed by an excellent meal. The Cancun area has a proactive water filtering and hygiene initiative for this region and generally visitors need not worry about intestinal problems of the old days – Cancun wants you to come back and tell your friends. It is still a good idea to take some antibiotics (Cipro) in advance just in case. I drank plenty of water and ate salads without incident.
The Marriott is strategically located starting point for the newcomer offering a one-stop-shop ability to guide you efficiently through any activity you desire in the region. This includes ground transportation to other areas, ferry stops, and the best stores and restaurants. One of the ways the Marriott is a leader in the local community and a main reason I visited, is their innovative local voluntary rare turtle conservation program in cooperation with the government and non-governmental protecting organizations. They facilitate the collaboration of other hotels and beach front properties to coordinate nest relocations and conservation with hatching schedules and nest protection.
If visiting in the late summer or fall, upon arrival go see their protected nest hatching area and ask the managing staff to call you when they plan a release. First, the nests due to hatch will be excavated by hand from Marriott’s designated hatching shelters near beachside and the hatchling turtles put in coolers and buckets for later release that evening under the cover of darkness. Unlike in the USA, one is allowed to touch and play with these cute but endangered creatures to promote public awareness and a buy-in appreciation. The highlight is the evening beach release where guests help the little tykes into the water while the kids get to choose an individual turtle to name and let go. The tickling turtles are constantly squirming to paddle real or imagined currents even when held and upon release spread out en masse like a reptilian carpet disappearing into the sea leaving nothing but a cool breeze and smiles behind. This is an easy low maintenance must-see for anyone and an outstanding experience worth the trip alone.
The Marriott’s staff and concierge’s ability to guide us on what is best to see and the means to get around is exemplary. They’ll clue you in on what main bus line will serve your destination and how and how not to utilize taxis and “hawkers” services. Many vendors will approach you and mean well as they try to make their living through the opportunities visitors and tourism offers, but beware, some are less well-meaning and make arrangements directly with the hotel. My greatest shock was when immediately upon departing the plane and entering the airport, I was directed by uniformed staff to what looked like an information or required check-in booth only to be given an aggressive timeshare condo sales pitch before giving me the information I needed to get the shuttle to the hotel zone?! Wow – fortunately, my post-airport experience softened quickly as I blended into the lesser known off-season Cancun experience.
A great place to start planning water activities is at the Marriott’s poolside water activity booth to arrange anything from sailing, kayaking, dolphin swims, snorkeling and diving. Unfortunately, nice waves don’t seem to like hanging around this area of the Yucatan so this is not the place to learn surfing. I took advantage of the easy low maintenance scuba diving they can arrange at nearby Aquaworld, a popular Caribbean water activity vendor that also arranges dolphin swims and boat rides. The Marriott also offers resort scuba certification right at their pool for the easiest way to try it out for the first time. Resort courses are quick temporary beginner courses allowing anyone without experience to dive for the first time with a dive guide and a great way to determine if a full-fledged permanent certification is for you.
There are ample diving spots nearby with short boat rides and easy access to corals, sea turtles, dolphins, rays and myriad of colorful fish. At a couple of popular dive locations close to Cancun, I saw most of those and for something really off the wall, an underwater sculpture garden. Don’t feel like you are up to that yet? No problem. Just have the staff teach you to snorkel and see a lot without a tank. If you get hooked and a bigger dedicated dive experience is desired go to Cozumel Island – a top diving destination in the hemisphere – with diverse and dedicated opportunities.
While the Marriott has an outstanding restaurant (try their breakfast buffet), local samplings of eateries is where the rubber meets the road if one has any affinity to authentic Mexican foods. Forget about what you think is Mexican in the USA, and try everything – this region does seafood and native styles especially well. Some of it is a bit milder than one might expect but if you’re like me and demand borderline painful spiciness, ask for the fresh made habanero hot sauce on the side – a little dab will do ya (that was a sixties commercial). Choices are so bountiful, check your favorite travel guide book and follow up with the hotel staff for recommendations as they are too numerous to do them justice here. If perusing waterfront restaurants across from the hotel on the bay side, checkout the pier areas behind the eateries near the end of the day not just for spectacular sunsets, but watch actual saltwater crocodiles (yes, as in Crocodile Dundee) feeding on scraps. In fact, don’t dangle your legs over a pier if enjoying a sunset view near the waters edge.
Later, feel free to acknowledge the commercial strip and evening party places Cancun is well known for. Yes, there are shopping centers and Plaza Kukulcan, an American style mall if you must, but then guys can give in to the inner child if the shopping day gets long and visit a genuine Harley Davidson Dealership in the area. They not only sell Harley paraphernalia and bikes – but also rent them (stay calm). It is also a great place to get a Harley T shirt gift at a lot less than at the airport. OK – I am digressing and this may not be a big deal to some, but I missed my Harley and if staying longer, I might have even rented one. If you ride, then there is no better way to see the Mayan Riviera than a day drive along the coast. However, all the rest of you easy riders need not despair as motor scooter rentals are plentiful and anyone can use them as an alternative.
Cancun is not apologetic, so if you can take it, acknowledge it as the party destination we grew up on and do an evening experience at the popular clubs – they are all in the Hotel Zone. Try The City and Daddy Os followed by Azucar, Ultra Club and Terrace, Coco Bongo, and Daddy Rock. For something different, try Pac-Na Hostel on Isla Mujeres (see below) for a throwback beachfront hippie bar with bonfires. Actually, for those wanting to show up the Cancun crowd, opt for Playa Del Carmen on the Mayan Riviera. This is not only the most popular see-and-be-seen beach for the scantily clad but also considered the best nightlife zone where Cancun is so…well…yesterday. Try the Blue Parrot Bar, Fah, and very edgy Playa 69 for liberal audiences only. Interestingly, the nightlife in other surrounding communities is relatively subdued but may be a nice change of pace.
The best part of undiscovered Cancun is the up and coming, and severely under-publicized jewel of the region – the nearby smaller island of Isla Mujeres (Women’s Island) only a 30 minute ferry ride from Cancun, but entirely in another world of remote serenity. Consider it perhaps “Cozumel light” of what the area was like years ago. A low-key rural flair of secluded free beaches with hammocks and oceanfront food, snorkeling, spectacular limestone cliffs, a sea turtle hatchery and farm (a bargain), Punta Sur lighthouse, and a small Mayan ruin at the remote end surrounded by a modern art sculpture garden – an extraordinarily surreal mix for one place.
This island is a must-see, so much so that I explored it twice. The ferries leave from Cancun in two different locations from the hotel zone and one from downtown Cancun. When returning after sunset, that will be the only one running but spring for the cab at the arrival station back to the hotel. As a general rule, do not accept cab rides on the street in Cancun but only from the hotel and ferry hubs. The hotel staff can give you details on how and where and what rates to expect. The ferry ride is fun and smooth with entertainment.
Popular Isla Mujeres attractions include the dolphin swim and Garrafon water park for family snorkeling, tankless scuba with a hose, zip lines, pool, and eateries, but can be a bit commercial and overpriced if all that is desired is beach and snorkel time. I prefer exploring the beaches and sites on my own as an adventure with a rented golf cart. Scooters are fun but a roof for the sun and occasional downpour is an advantage. Make sure to rent directly from one of the popular and visible shops as you get off the ferry. Don’t rent one in advance from the ferry ticket agent at the departure station. It sounded like a good idea at the time but they steered me to a lesser known vendor with dilapidated carts. A good stop in the middle of an Island trekking day is the under advertised local public beach access areas with beachside restaurants and no cost chairs. My favorite is Playa Indios, quiet, secluded, with beach chairs, showers, hammocks, a snorkeling pier and docking area with a caged nurse shark for tourists, and delicious beach side food and drink service from a local eatery. This island is actually superior to Cancun on certain levels and considered by many to have the best laid back beaches in the Yucatan offering serene surroundings and a midday siesta.
The Isla Mujeres “town” at the northwest end of the Island and the main community have ample local interests and many shops and walking areas including restaurants – and even very competitively priced clean and modern beachfront accommodations for those who prefer their stay to be on the island while ferrying to Cancun occasionally. Don’t miss the less obvious local and historical cemetery of cultural interest which will awe you with the intricate and lavishly detailed headstones and monuments – inspiring folk artwork all on their own. I challenged myself to find the grave of a Mundaca the pirate from an obscure guide book and actually found his headstone crammed away between others – but this grave is supposedly empty.
Longing to discover my own off-the-beaten-path adventure not readily known to many visitors, my curiosity revealed a quirky history of the how this tomb became to be. The Spanish named the Island upon learning it served as the sanctuary for the Mayan goddess of fertility and had many female shaped idols of her daughters and daughters-in-law. After an uninhabited three century stretch of only pirates leaving their women on the island “for safekeeping” as well as alleged treasure, Mundaca arrived from Spain in 1858 acquiring his wealth from privateering in Mayan slavery in Cuba. His actual degree of pirating is not clear and he may have been one of the more legitimate businessmen of his day, but Mundaca promoted his pirate reputation.
He also apparently turned out to be one of the few of history’s sensitive pirates having fallen in love with an indigenous woman called “La Triguena” (the brunette) and dedicated his construction of one of the lesser appreciated and overlooked sites on the Island – a large hacienda now in ruins, named “Vista Alegre” (Happy View) near Playa Lancheros with areas once used for livestock, birds, orchards and exotic gardens making a pleasant stroll. When she married another, legend is Mundaca slowly went insane and died in Mérida about 200 miles away although he carved the now empty tomb in memory of her. Find it in Isla Mujeres’ colorful, crowded cemetery, one street before North Beach with the headstone symbols of the skull and crossbones and carved goodbye note to the Mayan girl who never left saying “As you are, I was. As I am, you will be”.
The northwest end is the best place to have dinner and drinks at several outstanding beachfront restaurants while watching the most spectacular sunsets over Cancun itself. My favorite is Sunset Grill. The food is supreme (try their fresh fruit cocktails) and they have a special deal for all day use of their beach, two chairs and shower along with food and drink. A favorite service is arranging for a romantic privately served table for two the staff puts right on the beach at the water’s edge for sunset dinner with evening lighting, breezes, and even serenades – a perfect way to end the last day of any stay.
IF YOU GO
Day trips from Cancun make a great exploration opportunity for famous and not so famous regional sites including the Mayan Riviera, Cozumel, and Tulum but the two staples for many is Chichen Itza and Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Inland from the coast, Chichen Itza is considered by most to be the most famous Mayan ruins in the world and best representation of pre-Columbian archeology and culture. Although crowded at times for that reason, no one complains the effort wasn’t worth it. Start with the visitor’s center then see the famous 1500 year old Kukulkan Pyramid most are accustomed to from TV or movies and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Follow that with the Ball Court where a game called pok ta pok blended a form of soccer and basketball with religious significance and sacrifices. The Court is surrounded by temples with amazing statues and sculptures and for those following the topic of the Mayan prediction of world’s end on Dec. 22, 2012, the great warrior serpent Kukulkán is supposed to rise from beneath the playing field to end the world. Sian Ka’an (Mayan for Birth of Sun) Reserve in another direction along the coast is an ecotourism must-see featuring 1.3 million acres of water and wildlife nestled in rain forests, mangroves, lagoons and Cenotes. Created in 1986 and the pride of the State’s environmental conservation efforts, the opportunities are limitless as the number of animal and plant species. Ask at your hotel about daily bus tours directly from Cancun to either destination, as well as referral to ecotour operators for guided exploration that is easy and safe. Better yet, allot a one night stay to reduce the day travel burden at one of Chichen Itza’s or Sian Ka’an’s inns or hotels. For a more rustic retreat, spend a night at Sian Ka’an’s beachfront jungle lodge run by its environmental group where proceeds fund conservation.
A Getting-There Cheat Sheet:
Depending on your departure city, try Airtran and Delta.
Remember to add on Mexico cell phone service to your plan temporarily for both calls and texting.
Dollars/Pesos are easy to change everywhere.
Passports are mandatory but visas are not for North Americans.
Generally, this area of Mexico is not at risk but no reason to not be up on inoculations and malaria tablets especially if planning a rain forest excursion.
Water is no longer the problem it used to be in resort areas like Cancun, but take the antibiotic Cypro and over-the-counter anti diarrheal medicine just to be safe and not mess with your trip investment, especially if making day excursions to more remote and inland locations.
A USA driver or motorcycle license and credit card is sufficient for renting motor vehicles.
Crime is generally limited to theft and occasional aggressive hawkers and recreational drug use (do not even think about it) away from the hotel zone, and some areas in the town of Cancun are best avoided, but there is no need to worry more than back at home. Just use common sense regarding remote locations alone at night – more so for women.
Most police will watch out for you and care about Cancun being enjoyable for visitors, but the reality in outlying and rural areas is the occasional pressure for “La Mordida”, especially if driving, to help an officer with their “little bite” of about $20 to $100. Subtle bribery is a part of customary life for a few away from tourist centers so add it to your trip budget and move on.
Generally, do not obtain cab rides off the street, but they can be reliable and efficient when obtained through your hotel staff or at major transport centers.