Down Mexico Way
It would be wrong to give the impression that Downtown Cancún is a classic example of authentic Mexico, but it’s a lot less touristy. It’s also a good place to eat — and not just in the friendly, family-run restaurants and cafés.
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he colourful stalls in Parque La Palapas seem abandoned during the day, but in the evening the vendors sell simple but tasty street food. Some of it falls into the category of ‘non-descript fried stuff’, but you’ll also get the tastiest burritos and tacos in town for a couple of dollars.
There’s always some kind of fascinatingly bizarre community event going on there, too, whether it’s marching army cadets, dancers on the big stage in the middle of the plaza or junior footballers playing keepy-ups.
An even better option is to get to the ferry terminal and take a boat to Isla Mujeres. This Caribbean island hasn’t yet gone the same way as Cancún. There are signs of development, but it’s still possible to wander down a dusty road and be entranced by a huge iguana.
While gawking at lizards could happily fill a day or two, the real animal magic on Mujeres comes courtesy of the turtle farm.
La Tortugranja is a noble attempt at conservation in an area violated by the urge to make as much money as possible.
Turtle eggs are collected from the beach on the other side of the island, then allowed to hatch in safety. After a few days, the baby turtles are released back on the beach — where they’ll return when they lay their own eggs.
About 80 per cent of the eggs that go through the farm will hatch. In the wild, that figure is only 1-2 per cent — poachers and predators snaffle up the rest.
As part of this laudable mission, the recently hatched turtles are kept in a big swimming pool before they’re taken to the beach. And looking into that pool is enough to make the most mean-hearted dog-kicker go a bit like ice cream in a microwave.
If there’s a cuter sight on earth than hundreds of tiny turtles swimming around, looking at you with playful eyes, Disney should pounce upon it quickly.
The farm also has adult turtles that due to injury or laziness wouldn’t survive in the wild. The albinos have a good gimmick, and are thus the most popular.
It’s easy to cycle or walk around Mujeres in a day, but there’s no point in hurrying. The joy of the island is its slow pace — smiling at locals, watching kids fly across the skyline on zipwires at Parque Garafon, and perching on a cliff with a view of the blue Caribbean.
At Punta Sur, the bottom tip of the island, you can look out over the sea. The megahotels can be spotted on the horizon, but it’s a world away.
Just ask the iguana shuffling up next to you.
If you really must. . .
OK, so Cancún’s Zona Hotelera is as authentically Mexican as a group of frat boys wearing sombreros.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be good fun.
You can slag off all-inclusive resorts as much as you like, but there is a certain allure to having access to free food and drink all day, a selection of pools to jump in and various activities to take on.
What’s more, package deals to the resort can work out to be extraordinarily cheap — often costing not much more than the flight itself.
The other highlight of Cancún’s hotel strip is the giant clubs, such as The City, Dady O’s and the notorious Coco Bongo. These are the sort of places where people communicate with each other in whoops.
The general principle here is that you pay a cover charge, after which all drinks are free.
The bar staff will generally force all manner of dirty shots upon you while dancers grind on the stage and Michael Jackson and Madonna impersonators put on surprisingly high-quality shows. Things tend to get very, very messy, and the clubs are the complete antithesis of a quiet pint in a pub.
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There’s no shortage of resorts lining the Yucatán Peninsula, but there’s still the occasional beach where peace can be found.
Playa del Carmen is a popular alternative — it’s a lot more laidback than Cancún, but is growing rapidly and inevitably heading the same way.
Perhaps the right balance is struck at Tulum. It’s more a case of hammocks and having a go at parasailing than full-on activity programmes and giant buffets.
Tulum is also home to a substantial set of Mayan ruins, which line the clifftops over one of the most gorgeous beaches you’re ever likely to see.
The temptation is to run straight through and jump into the sea, but it’s worth taking a guided tour, even if the guides do like to over-egg the human sacrifice bits.
But even taken with a pinch of salt, the tales of ceremonies and what the buildings were used for are fascinating.
Little windows are pointed out that may not seem so spectacular, but they were designed so sunlight would shine through and line up with temples at specific times on certain days of the year.
But getting a culture fix can be sweaty work — and once the tour is over, the sea is even more inviting.
The waters are warm, smooth and clear. It’s easy to see why the Mayans built a city there.
Aside from the beaches, the other drawcard to the Yucatán Peninsula is the ancient Mayan civilisation.
Indigenous Maya people still live in the area, but before Europeans arrived their ancestors reigned supreme, with a penchant for building big temples.
The most famous of these Mayan sites is Chichén Itzá — an easy day trip from Cancún.
It was a major city between the 6th and 14th centuries, and some of its buildings are enormous.
Most famous is the Temple of Kukulkan (also known as El Castillo).
The giant pyramid was recently named as one of the seven new wonders of the world.
On the days of the spring and autumn equinoxes, large crowds of people gather round the ancient temple as it casts a shadow in the form of a serpent.
The Temple of Kukulkan is by no means the only thing worth seeing at Chichén Itzá — there are plenty of other temples and ceremonial and civic buildings that have been uncovered and restored.
To go beyond the ruins, head to Chetumal, which hosts the Museum of Mayan Culture. Split over three levels, it has artefacts from all over the Yucatán region and explains the belief systems, language, calendar and history of an entire civilisation.
Most impressive, however, is the statue of a cigar-smoking god. Any religion where a deity’s prime characteristic is puffing away on big Havanas has got to be a winner.