On the Town - Cancun
Living La Vida Locale
Venture outside the tourist-filled Hotel Zone to see how the citizens of Cancun really live.
BY ROD O'CONNOR
PHOTOGRAPH BY DON COUCH
For those craving an authentic Mexican experience, Cancun seems an unlikely vacation choice. It is, after all, a city that didn't even exist before the 1970s, when it was built to help Mexico compete with other tourist destinations on the coasts of the crystal-blue Caribbean. But over the past decade or so, a vibrant downtown scene has emerged.
Locals joke that nobody is really from Cancun-citizens are a hodgepodge of migrants from all over the country who arrived to work in the thriving tourism industry. But as the first generation of native "Cancúnenses" push into their 20s and 30s, a youthful energy can be felt in Cancun City, or simply "Centro." Here's a city of more than 600,000 whose early chapters are still being written, and whose proud people welcome the chance to share the treasures of their urban oasis. Centro was designed as a series of large city blocks with smaller streets inside, and the resulting maze provides a frenetic, but pleasantly Old World atmosphere when you venture off the main boulevards. The lack of tourists is striking: Here, a burgeoning middle class is asserting its own cultural identity.
The best place to find this civic culture is bustling Parque las Palapas, downtown's sparkling central meeting place, and in many ways, its beating heart. A bright, ranch-style church-usually packed with lively worshippers-anchors one side. And a massive stage with a hulking triangular glass roof is visible from all over, offering perfect sight lines for the weekly free concerts; on Sundays, a band plays the Mexican folk music known as son, and older folks dance to the rootsy, rhythmic beats.
Once considered dangerous at night, the newly renovated park-complete with benches and paved stone walkways-is now enjoyed well past dusk. Colorful vendors hug the periphery, some hawking artisan crafts, but most tempting passersby with classic Mexican street food like esquites, corn off the husk with butter and salt, or marquesitas, rolled-up crepes filled with salty white cheese and sweet Nutella.
While the street food won't disappoint, there are plenty of sit-down options. In fact, until fairly recently, even locals would head to the Hotel Zone for high-end dining. But today, hip bars and restaurants dot the small avenues surrounding the palm-treelined park. The lounge-y Iki Resto and Bar (Alcatraces 22) is a fine choice for Caribbean/Mexican cuisine with an Asian flair, its small front patio typically filled with crisply dressed Cancúnenses sipping wine as they savor their town's nascent café scene.
But for real-deal Yucatan cuisine, dodge the soccer-playing kids and strolling couples and head across the square to Labná Restaurant (Margaritas 29). The faux-Mayan temple décor may look kitschy, but this place is serious about food. The wide open dining room-with its majestic, high-arched ceiling-is a popular spot for festive multigenerational gatherings, so follow their lead and order family style. Go for the lime soup and the sampler platter with orange juice-marinated pork and egg-filled tortillas in pumpkin seed sauce.
After dinner, wander down tiny Calle Tulipanes and follow the music to Roots Jazz Club (Tulipanes 26), a dimly lit, openair venue with photos of legends like Miles Davis and Bob Marley hanging from stone walls. A seat at the bar is the perfect place to feel a Caribbean breeze, sip a few León Negra beers (a beloved Yucatan dark brew) and enjoy a soundtrack heavy on blues and jazz standards while talking shop with music-savvy locals. (Keep an eye out for a mustachioed regular handing out business cards reading "Mr. Jazzman.")
There's no shortage of other music to be found downtown most evenings. The roving mariachis at La Parrilla (Avenue Yaxchilán 51), a boisterous Mexican grill on crowded Avenue Yaxchilán (the other primary nightlife district, along with Parque las Palapas) don't limit their serenades to the handful of adventurous tourists; even the natives clap along, as they enjoy their steaks prepared tableside.
A few doors down at El Pabilo (Avenue Yaxchilán 3), you can stroke your chin alongside Cancun's coffee-swilling bohemian class-women in long, flowing skirts who sit pensively alongside men sporting fashionable facial fuzz-and listen to acoustic singer-songwriter types in the Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan mold. This café, art gallery and bookstore features several small rooms packed with shabbychic décor; its shelves are filled with antiques and charming knickknacks, and the walls are covered with paintings and photography from local artists.
If you're looking for authentic art, or just a cheap souvenir to bring back home, there are two primary markets: Market 28 (on Avenue Xel Ha), is a huge commercial bazaar for (mostly) Mexican-made pottery, as well as inexpensive dresses, hammocks and T-shirts. And while the pushy vendors can be exasperating, it's easier to endure the come-ons when you know the prices here are a fraction of what you'd pay elsewhere in Cancun.
Directly next to Market 28 is Plaza Bonita, a more relaxed, outdoor pedestrian mall with a huge atrium that protects shoppers from the intense midday sun. Designed to resemble a Mexican village, its dual-level, multicolored stone buildings house jewelry, clothing and fine art.
But by far the most genuine shopping experience is Market 23, a meandering series of modest stalls along a few dusty blocks near the main bus station on Avenue Tulum. Before the big grocery chains opened, most residents came here for produce, meat, fish and other staples. The customer base may have shrunk, but the food vendors are still open, stocked with overflowing sacks of piquant spices and hot chiles, bounties of fresh flowers and glistening chorizo hanging on hooks.
There are also some craft shops at Market 23. This is the place to buy mammoth piñatas shaped like everyone from Elmo to a Luche Libre wrestler, as well as trinkets like plastic fruit, hand-carved figures of Mayan gods, and baskets of endless shapes and sizes, which locals snatch up for inexpensive decorations and serving food.
As you ramble from stall to stall, notice the fishmonger in knee-high waders displaying the day's catch and a man and his young son standing proudly in front of a wheeled cart filled with wrapped tamales. Perhaps more than anywhere else downtown, it is here where one can get a look at the "real" city hidden in the shadows of one of the world's premier tourist destinations.
While most visitors stick to the Hotel Zone, consider soaking up the more authentically Mexican Centro vibe by staying at one these properties.
The unassuming façade of this resort and spa hides a sprawling interior complete with bubbling fountains, palatial gardens and replica Mayan sculptures. And the affordable rooms (suites cost about $100) and services-from traditional temazcal steam rituals to yoga and Pilates-are a bargain.
EL REY DEL CARIBE
This boutique hotel boasts a traditional colonial façade, quiet courtyard with a swimming pool surrounded by tropical gardens, a legit green philosophy (a solar clothes dryer!), and friendly owners who live on the premises and attend to your every need. Doubles start at $65 and include breakfast.
True to its name, this 36-room hotel (walking distance to just about everything you'll want to do downtown) is done up to resemble a grand Mexican estate. While the rooms are simple, you'll feel like a wealthy aristocrat while hanging out under a shaded palapa near the back pool. Doubles cost $60 during high season.