Cancun Beyond the All-Inclusives


Cancun gets a lot of publicity for its coveted strip of white sand, water so blue the Bahamas would be jealous, and a party street of clubs and restaurants that make you feel like you escaped reality. But that’s not the Cancun we were looking for and we were pleasantly surprised with what we discovered.

A couple weekends ago, my new friend C (a friend I met through O) and I got tired of Toronto’s plummeting temperatures and in an effort to find a temporary escape, we spun the globe and landed in Cancun. Yes, the port of cruises and the hub of every vacation airline. Upon arrival, we exited the airport and got in line for the local transit with some like-minded travelers. Within minutes the duty free bags came undone and the fiesta had clearly begun. We transferred at the downtown Cancun bus terminal, trading our air-conditioned coach for a more local styled bus. The kind you’d see locals take to work and the kind that costs 12 pesos. I was surprised how easy and convenient transit was there as it dropped us off directly in front of the driveway of our hostel. It was dark by the time we arrived late after work on a Thursday. The air was warm and humid and the sky threatened to release a downpour at any second. After a quick check in and costume change, it was about time to sample the local culture.

The thing about said local culture in popular tourist destinations is that it takes some inquiring to locate and after a brief interaction between C and the convenience store cashier we were rewarded with just the place! We turned the corner to an outdoor plaza arranged in two semi-circles around an island of palm trees. It was an open-air, tiny hole in the wall family restaurant, Taco Rigo, with the most authentic vibe we’d get all weekend. Christmas-looking twinkly lights were strung over its wide entrance. The kitchen was tiny and off to the side yet still open that you could look inside. A family of about eight sat at one of the bright red tables sharing a meal of what appeared to be everything on the menu and after seeing the menu for ourselves, it wasn’t long before we did the same. And dos margaritas, por favor. 

After dinner we walked to the beach. The moon was bright and though it was windy, it felt very peaceful. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath of this familiar salty air, and squished the sand between my toes. Then we ventured to the entertainment strip. It was a short zone starting with a low-key tourist establishment called Monkey Business and ending with a Hard Rock Cafe and a matching Fat Tuesday’s facing each other across the street. C and I opted for a couple of drinks at Monkey Business which came with the proportional tourist price tag.  The band played popular rock covers and while they were very good, the “Mexico vibe” didn’t quite make it that far. 

The next day was spent venturing through patchy periods of rain to Mercado 28, a flea market which loosely translates to “tourist trap for non-Spanish speakers.” Upon entering the market we were overwhelmed by vendors approaching us with handmade and mass-produced souvenirs as well as an offer of sale of “marihuana, cocaina” which had us veering in the opposite direction. I did not need assistance with translating that line. I guess we emanated a stronger gringo vibe than I anticipated. Under the protection of C’s Venezuelan accent I managed to skate by on my high school level Spanish vocabulary as we made our way around the market.

That evening, after another filling spread at our “go to” taco joint, we revisited the strip, but mostly ironically at this point. We discovered the value of 17-peso cervezas which came with the freedom to sip and roam and so after some Monkey Business we made our way to the beach with a couple of Sol tall cans. We sat down in the sand and drank the wild, salty air. The water was warm like a hot tub and I could feel it slowly thawing my frozen state of mind. 

The next day we finally made it to the beach during daylight after a morning rainstorm. The day was as hazy as the disgruntled sea which was still warm and blue as ever. The salty breeze tangled my hair in the most Instagrammable way I could only dream up myself. C and I both knew it was time to put our flip-flops on and face the reality but neither of us was willing to make the first step in that direction. And so to ease into it, we compromised with a final dinner at our local taco stop. 

After we finished packing (throwing all the wet clothes back in our bags) we headed out into anther torrential downpour. At this point we decided it was time to put aside the thrill of local transit and we opted for a taxi just a couple blocks away from the main strip to lower costs. As we took our final sips of Sol in the back seat of our taxi to the airport, I zoned out to think about this incredible adventure. In a short 48 hours, which were mostly spent in the rain or eating tacos, I managed to rekindle the sense of spontaneity that I was afraid was slipping away. I watched the rain pour over the windows of the cab with its usual tropical force. The kind that reminded me of home. None of these resorts we were passing could measure up to the weekend we just had and not many people could understand that feeling. We were tired, drenched from the rain, but full of adventure (and cervezas.) And as we drove beyond the all-inclusives, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the Cancun we had discovered.  

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