Cancun

As US citizens, we’ve been exposed to a lot of bad press about Mexico over our lifetimes. Let’s face it, our two countries have very different origins that haven't always been compatible. Nonetheless many thousands of Americans enjoy visiting Mexico each year, comprising the majority of Mexico's foreign visitors. To be sure, Mexico is a lot of things: There are drug cartels, crime, and poverty. But there is also a delightful climate, a rich indigenous culture, scenic mountains, marvelous beaches, and a fairly prosperous middle class, which is not often mentioned in the US press. So when I arrived in Mexico in December of 2018, I was braced for the worst. In fact I was pleasantly surprised.

My wife doesn’t care for resorts in general, preferring the Airbnb route instead, so it took some doing to get her to go along. I had stumbled upon a deal I couldn’t refuse: A resort vacation package at less than Airbnb prices. It all started on election night 2018. I had just turned on the 6 o’clock new, when I received a phone call. A young voice with a Spanish accent was reading a script about Cancun. I was tempted to cut it short and hear about the elections but I kept listening, in part because I had been hankering to visit Mexico, particularly Oaxaca, which I had been researching. After several hours of back-and-forth with various agents, I ended up booking an all inclusive package for two, including two trips, 5 days and 4 nights each, to a Mexican resort of my choice, for only $550. (I did the math: 10 nights for two people, all drinks and meals included at a quality resort: I was getting at least a 75% discount. Only thing not covered was air faire, which turned out to be a very reasonable $250 round trip from Baltimore.)

If you like to travel to warm climates but are not that interested in Florida or Southern California, then Cancun is definitely a sweet spot. It's exotic, affordable, and not that far away. Cancun has a massive tourist industry, with a modern airport and dozens, maybe hundreds, of hotels and resorts. Round trip flights can be had for as low as $250 from Baltimore and other Northeastern cities, often direct flights that take only about 4 hours. And since Cancun is on the Yucatan peninsula, you have access to some genuine Mexican culture, including the ancient Mayan ruins at Tulum (20 miles south of Cancun), or Chichan Itza and other sites several hours to the west. To be sure, Machu Pichu, the Nazca Lines, or Galapagos Islands are more exotic, but these are considerably farther and more expensive to visit. Mexico is simply loaded with destinations and affordable resorts, although travelers are advised to check with the US State Department for specific travel advisories by region, as there are numerous areas to avoid.

True, that not every traveller has the same tolerance for crime. Many people are simply too afraid to travel to Mexico. In recent years, criminals have become more brazen in their terrorizing of local populations even in tourist areas. But when you meet other tourists in Mexico, many of them are relaxed and not too worried. It's like one Canadian said to me in Cancun: "If you stay away from drugs and prostitution, you'll probably be okay."

Mexico is no doubt bedeviled by drug cartels and organized crime, Acapulco being a good example. Once a booming tourist city, Acapulco today has lost nearly all of its foreign tourism, it being the world’s third deadliest city, a place which the US State Department advises not to visit. Today many of its hotels shuttered or vacant, though it still attracts visitors from Mexico to some extent. Organized crime, in particular a thriving protection racket, which preys upon legitimate businesses, simply took a toll. Much of Acapulco’s tourism shifted to Cancun, now the crown jewel of Mexico's tourist industry. Unfortunately Cancun's murder rate has started to spike in recent years. American visitors note the presence of not just policemen but also military outposts and convoys, as the effort to contain organized crime is obviously immense. Nonetheless, investors in Cancun's tourism industry must be more than a little nervous, knowing what organized crime can do to a prosperous region. There is also every possibility that the Cancun resort market market has simply been overbuilt, with too many miles of luxurious hotels and not enough tourists to fill them. Investors are also feeling a pinch from Airbnb, which has taken a huge bite out of the hotel industry worldwide. All of these reasons have combined to create something of a buyer’s market for tourists in Cancun.

Our trip to Cancun was very much focused on our resort, the Villa del Palmar, which almost everything we could want in one location: sandy beach, five pools, five restaurants, live entertainment. Truth is, there were not a lot of things I wanted to see in Cancun, and cab fares could get expensive as we were 10 miles from the city.  We ventured into Cancun proper only once, visiting the Hotel District with its high end shops and excellent Mayan museum. We also briefly stopped by Mercado 28, a legendary market, which was a beehive of small booths and shops with exotic and well priced crafts and oddities. We also took the ferry to the well-known Isle de Mujeres, which has one of Mexico’s top rated beaches. There I received a wonderful $15 half-hour massage on the beach under a tent. I also bought a Cuban cigar and wandered around the beach, basking in the Mediterranean atmosphere. It was nice to break out of the beautiful but somewhat sterile resort and see some local color, which is in the state of Quintana Roo. The beach there was an amazing azure color, the most brilliantly blue water I'd ever seen.

Our resort was somewhat artificial but nevertheless a thing of beauty, a piece of creative urban planning to be sure. The room was very clean, the staff was friendly and helpful, and we were never concerned about personal safety. Our suite was actually beyond our wildest dreams: one bedroom with a king sized bed, a living room with tables, chairs, couches and cabinets, two baths, a hot tub, a double balcony with a hammock, a full kitchen, a washer and dryer, two TV’s, and marble floors throughout. Total floor space was perhaps 1200 SF, a small villa in other words, of fairly new construction. Ours was a second-floor “garden view,” as opposed to an ocean view. Our balcony overlooked palm trees and jungle plants, with an occasional iguana running loose.

The grounds were manicured by a small army of groundskeepers. Walkways were never in a straight line but always led you through a mock jungle, opening to vistas of pools, restaurants and the beach. Wait staff were polite and numerous, always ready to greet you with a “buenas dias.” It’s always best to acknowledge the staff with a hello in Spanish. Do not greet them with silence, as this is not their custom.

Resorts can make a lot of sense, or not, depending on the location. In Cancun where an abundance of resorts offer all the amenities you need in one place and prevent you from having to traipse about looking for attractions you found on the Internet, resorts are a very good option. (Caveat emptor still applies, as it helps to compare the ratings on Trip Advisor.) On the other hand, in a location like Paris, New York, or London or most European cities, resorts make no sense at all, hence they are not even an option in those places. Airbnb or standard hotels are the way to go.

I had two of primary goals in traveling to Cancun: To snorkel, and to visit Tulum. Neither happened. My best snorkel opportunity was at Isle de Mujeres, but all snorkel tours were cancelled that day due to high winds. Tulum didn’t work out because our time became squeezed and we instead opted for Mercado 28 and the Mayan antiquities museum in the Hotel Zone, a 10-mile peninsula with some of the toniest beaches and hotels in the area. We spent a few hours at the museum, which is undoubtedly one of the best for Mayan artifacts. We arrived at Mercado 28 toward dusk on a Sunday evening when many shops were starting to close, but were still able to navigate through the maize of corridors lined with small vendors, flea market style. Not enough time, however, to locate some exotic chili spices that I hoped for, but we did procure a few unusual t-shirts and food items.

Arriving back home, I began to reflect on why the US and Mexican cultures are so close, yet so far apart. One difference has to do with the way each country treated aboriginal Indian cultures. Both countries had periods of slavery. Early Mexican slave traders were among history’s most brutal, beginning in the 1500s, long before the English gave slavery any thought. Mexico ended slavery in 1829, however, far earlier than the US. In fact in 1829, when Mexico broke free from Spanish rule, it also officially ended the Colonial caste system in which race was all important. In 1829, Mexico was made up of 10-15% European stock in the early 1800s, which today has grown to nearly half the population according to the Mexican government. That leaves about half the population with Native American ethnic identities, with highest concentrations in southeastern Mexico including Cancun. While Mexico abolished slavery and institutional racism far earlier than the US, much to its credit, caste fighting has continued into the present day, when many indigenous Indians experience standards of living far below the average. 

I for one am always heartened when I hear good news about Mexico. I also am pleased to find plenty of other Americans who appreciate Mexico for what it has to offer. Hopefully our two countries will continue partner economically and to control the crime that affects both countries. We are after all part of the same contiguous land mass and cultural influences, particularly when it comes to Native Americans.