Cancun is really 2 cities
Cancun is really 2 cities as far as I’m concerned. There’s Cancun which is a pretty regular Mexican city, lacking in character but bustling and vibrant. And then there’s the Zona Hotelera which is what foreigners call Cancun. The 2 places couldn’t be any more different. Cancun exists to service the Zona Hotelera. Much of the city’s commerce is based directly and indirectly on tourism. And while most of the city is typically Mexican, the presence of corporate America is present throughout but then becomes more concentrated the closer you get to the Zona. There’s nothing particularly special about Cancun however. No must sees, nothing that really stands out.
For the Zona however, things are very different. The Zona is an incredibly thin Peninsula that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico flanked on one side by the Caribbean Sea and on the other by an alligator infested lagoon. As you can imagine, this means one side of the Peninsula is covered with hotels and the other side has nothing. But a bit of time on the sea side of this little strip of land makes it very clear why Cancun has the reputation and popularity that it does. The beaches are spectacular. Bright, white, fine sand that slowly falls away into the bluest and clearest water you can find. It’s truly gorgeous. One look and you get it. Everything makes sense. You understand the insane development, the prices, the droves of tourists year long, the condos, the boats. It all fits.
But a bit more time spent walking along the beach also sheds light on why everyone says to avoid this city. It’s cold. Not weather wise of course but in terms of vibe, the entire length of the beach lacks any real inviting warmth. The amount of development and the presence of many hotels make you feel like your only welcomed if you’re willing to spend money, and lots of it. Sure the actual beach is public but 60 feet from the water’s edge is all private condos, hotels, boutique resorts etc. There’s no place that seems to say, “hey you’re welcome to come by sit here, meet some people, have a drink, or just laze about”. And that’s quite a shame for such a wonderful coastline.
Of course that’s the day time. Night time is a whole other story. The Zona explodes at night into a Las Vegas style bonanza of ridiculously loud music, open-air clubs all straddling each other on the same intersection and competing on the basis of which has the largest number of paid, half-naked female dancers on raised platforms. It’s quite a site to be honest. It’s reminiscent of what I imagine parts of Thailand to be like, though likely cleaner and more “western”. But the party zone is quite small, cramming all the drinking and dancing within a few hundred feet. The rest of the Zona slips into an awkward silence, with mainly just taxis and buses moving about, shuttling the Mexican labor force off of the wretched peninsula back to the sanity of the mainland.
They told me not to go to Cancún. They were wrong. I enjoyed it, just not for the reasons expected. It was absurd, but it was an experience. I stayed 6 days there in the actual city, not in the Zona, trying to create and maintain a routine of exercise, learning and practicing my Spanish, and just trying to experience a bit of Mexico. Given that I landed here, I thought it would be a good place to start and I wasn’t wrong.
The truth is, we’re all different. Most people I meet try to avoid tourist areas. But it doesn’t make all that much sense to me. The truth is all the travelers I meet do the same route as everyone else. So I guess it all depends on what you mean by tourist. I think everyone likes to see themselves as travelers and not tourists. I can appreciate that but let’s face it, if you’re doing all the same towns and sites as everyone else what really separates you from being a tourist? If you’re touring one or many countries, then you’re a tourist. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m a tourist, a traveler, and a nomad. I’m fine with any of those names. I don’t necessarily avoid tourist hot spots solely for the reason that they are popular with foreigners and in fact some of the “don’t go, it’s overrun with tourists” areas I’ve found to be much more pleasant than some of the more “acceptable” destinations on the traveler’s hit list.
All this to say, make your own decisions. Follow what your heart and head say. Sure you can take others’ advice, and take things into consideration but in the end this is your trip and cross off your destinations, not others ‘.
A FEW SHOTS OF CANCUN AND LA ZONA