After living here in Cancún over a year, I’ve come to the conclusion that Cancún is not so much a traditional Mexican city as it is an international city with strong Mexican overtones. Though it retains its Mexican flavor, the influx of tourists and the city’s young age have seen it develop into a vibrant, modern, and sophisticated city with a lively nightlife.
Spanish is the official language here but many folks speak at least a little English. My wife, Diane, and I do our best to speak only Spanish when we’re chatting with locals, but it’s not uncommon to receive responses in English.
This part of Mexico’s Caribbean Coast is referred to as the Mayan Riviera. It runs south from Cancún all along the coast to Tulum and is world renowned for its spectacular sugar-sand beaches and warm, cobalt-blue water. You’ll find the world’s second largest reef system here; second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The reef can be seen just offshore and provides a multitude of recreational activities.
Unlike much of historic Mexico, Cancún is a new city that expanded from a tiny settlement in early 1970 to the city it is today. It’s well served by a large international airport with service to nearly all major airports on the planet. A trip back to the U.S. is quick with Miami less than two hours away.
But while Cancún is a modern city complete with large malls, hundreds of wonderful restaurants, contemporary infrastructure, great hotels and resorts, dozens of attractions, several major hospitals and more activities than one can possibly do both day and night, there are other, less touristy options to explore.
Catch one of the plentiful and cheap buses cruising all the main streets, and you’ll be away from the tourist areas in short order. There, you’ll find thousands of small, family-owned shops and restaurants with authentic foods and crafts available for far less money than you would spend in the tourist areas.
The open markets at Mercado 23 and Mercado 28 are two of our favorites with hundreds of stalls and booths seemingly arranged as a maze that winds through several blocks. We recently watched an artisan hand-make piñatas in all shapes and sizes applying layer upon layer of wet newspaper and glue to wire frames.
Colorful fresh fruits and vegetables spill from bins and baskets next to pail after pail filled with aromatic dried chilies. Large mesh bags of limes are everywhere—limes are as common on local tables as a shaker of salt in the U.S. Crates filled with live chickens sit surprisingly close to charcoal grills roasting not-live chickens.
The wonderful aroma of fresh hot tortillas, grilled chicken, and simmering soups draw customers in for hearty and inexpensive meals. For only a few dollars, you can get three large tacos with rice and beans, sliced avocados, and tomatoes. The most traditional tacos are made with cochinita, a slow-roasted pork that is of Mayan origin and it is delicious.
There’s a lot to explore farther down the coast, too. Along the Mayan Riviera, you’ll find other big cities, such as Playa del Carmen, as well as small, quaint villages like Puerto Morelos with its famous leaning lighthouse, or the historic city of Tulúm with its spectacular ruins set right on the beach.
Cenotes (say-note-tays) by the hundreds dot the Yucatán’s landscape. Cenotes are underground lakes and rivers of crystal clear water accessed by sink holes at the surface. Swimming in a sink hole filled with stalactites, peering into the clear depths below is an unforgettable experience.
These days, when tourists ask, “Why Cancún?,” I don’t rush to answer. Instead I take them to a leisurely lunch with Diane and explain all of the reasons above—and many more—over cochinita tacos and guacamole with one of the local cold beers.
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