A couple years ago when we were all feeling restless from quarantine, I started thinking about a trip to Mexico. My mom was going through cancer treatment, so I knew that I didn’t want to go anywhere for more than a long weekend, and I started thinking about affordable options. At first, I thought about destinations within a day’s drive of our home in New Orleans, but all of the options were places I’d been before, and none of them felt exciting to me. So I browsed flights instead and realized that a direct flight to the Yucatan Peninsula from New Orleans takes about 2 hours—less time than any road trip I’d considered—and tickets were cheap. I found an absurdly cheap Airbnb and Michael and I booked our flights. As I mentioned in my previous post, I knew I wanted to return to Mexico one day to truly experience it instead of getting a quick and limited glimpse. This seemed like the right time. But then a new Covid strain made everyone pause, our foster dog got sick, and my mom’s surgery schedule changed. We postponed. Then we postponed again. And again. And then it was so close to my Europe trip that I postponed it indefinitely.
After returning from Europe, I started plotting my next international trip. I got a new job offer in the fall, and I figured I could squeeze a trip in before starting it. I knew that this trip would be entirely different than my Europe trip had been. I’d need to work remotely for part of it. I had barely any money saved. But still, I was determined to go. And what I initially planned to be a long-weekend turned into something a bit longer.
Michael dropped me off at the bus station at 4:00am so I could take the public bus to the airport for my 6:00am flight. It was the day after my 34th birthday. I thought about how it was just after my 30th birthday that I flew to Morocco and Portugal and how much the world (and I) had changed since then. That trip had been a three-week trip—the longest trip I’d ever done just for myself instead of for a job. I’d had to ask for 11 days off work to do it, and it felt like an outlandishly brazen request. I was going to Mexico for three weeks, as well, but this time three weeks felt like a casual little jaunt.
I think I’m braver when I’m alone, so I decided I’d stand a better chance of not panicking if I didn’t let Michael drive me to the airport. (He didn’t join me for any of this trip because he was working and taking classes.) And I didn’t panic. I think early flights in a half-delirious state are much easier than flights that I’ve had hours of the day to think about. The short flights made it easier, too. I didn’t have a direct flight, but it was just an hour to Atlanta and then a two-hour flight from there. It was the first time in years (YEARS) that I haven’t felt panicked before a flight.
The Mexican part of the Yucatan Peninsula is comprised of three Mexican states: Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and Campeche. I decided I wanted to base myself in Merida, the capital of the Yucatan state, but international flights to Merida are limited, so it can be expensive. Flying into Cancun (in Quintana Roo, the Yucatan’s neighboring state) saved me over $200. And that’s how I ended up flying to a city that I not-so-secretly imagined I’d hate.
When I told people I was traveling to the Yucatan, a mark of how well they knew me was whether or not their response was, “Oh, to Cancun?” Because since my first awareness of Cancun back when MTV Spring Break was a thing, I assumed it would be a place that I’d despise. Cancun didn’t exist until the 1970s, and it was created as a planned city for the purpose of fostering tourism. Nothing in Cancun is culturally “authentic” because the town came into existence solely for tourism. Long hours of beach-sitting and resorts are not things I have any personal interest in, and I’d far rather hide somewhere with a book than engage in loud nightlife. But I needed to spend one night in Cancun before my bus to Merida the next morning.
It was an odd welcome. Outside the airport, there were probably 100 taxi drivers aggressively haggling with tourists. Perhaps they thought whoever was loudest would succeed at the chance to cheat tourists of their money? It must have worked enough times for them to keep doing it. I took a bus for $7 into the city instead.
To be fair, I was barely in Cancun for long enough to have a real impression of it. All I saw of downtown Cancun was the 5-minute walk from the bus station to my hostel. It looked far more run-down than I imagined it would look, like there haven’t been any updates or repairs since downtown was built in the 1970s. (This is not where most tourists stay in the city—the resorts are a few miles away on a stretch of beach called the “Hotel Zone.”) It felt chaotic. Downtown Cancun is NOT a place I’d walk around by myself late at night. It was dark once I checked into my room, so I didn’t even go see the beach (a short shuttle ride down the street). I stayed in the hostel the rest of the night.
I didn’t see Cancun again until arriving there three weeks later the evening before my return flight home. This time, I was determined to see the beach. I took the public bus to the Hotel Zone and finally got a glimpse of the Cancun that people go to see. It looked like what I imagine Los Vegas looks like, but on a beach. Every resort was massive and flashy. I saw four or five malls, each of them larger and fancier than the next. We passed Hooters, Bubba Gump Shrimp, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, the Hard Rock Café, and it was very clear that this was not Mexico. Tourism had just created a (perhaps slightly less expensive) version of America in the Hotel Zone. It is possible for American tourists to visit Cancun and never experience one moment of culture that is not entirely and intentionally crafted for their comfort, and it made me overwhelmingly sad.
Sometimes I get nervous and feel that I need to self-censor. I worry that I may come across as one of those insufferable travelers who feel that “tourists” are inferior to them (as if all of us who travel aren’t, by definition, tourists). That’s not how I feel. There’s nothing wrong with taking vacations for the sole purpose of relaxing. There’s nothing wrong with lying by a pool for a week and never leaving the resort grounds if you don’t want to. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying luxury. There are many people for whom the resort towns of Quintana Roo are absolute paradise. What pains me is when people have been tricked into believing that this is the ONLY kind of vacation one can have in Mexico, and that leaving the resort grounds isn’t “safe.” It pains me that there are people who feel they have traveled internationally to Mexico (or any other resort destination) and never encountered one local resident apart from their resort staff.
In the Hotel Zone I walked about a mile down the sidewalk past giant circle drives of resort after resort. The walls of most of them were too high for me to see over. The beach is blocked unless you’re a resort guest. I stopped at a public beach area in the dark for five minutes. And then I took the public bus back to downtown and ate tacos across the street from my hostel. So I really might be the least trustworthy person to give you any opinion or advice in regard to Cancun. But my thoughts are these: unless you’re going with the sole purpose of enjoying an all-inclusive resort, Cancun is not the place you want. If you want to see local culture, Cancun is not the place you want. (Though you CAN do lots of neat day trips from Cancun, so it might make sense if you want to use it as a base for days trips in the region.) Do not let Cancun paint your perception of what Mexico or Yucatan culture is.
But my hostel was lovely! And the travelers I met there were lovely. Most backpackers in Mexico make their way through Cancun for a brief stop at some point, and everyone has good stories to tell. My hostel roommate was solo-traveling through Mexico and America from Australia. We met two new friends while eating dinner at the rooftop bar. One used to be a foreign correspondent in war zones and now has a tech job he can do from anywhere. One is a geophysicist who was in town for a swing dancing festival. My intended early bed-time turned into us chatting for 3 hours. It was the perfect way to start my trip. Through the wall of my hostel room, I could hear music from The Nutcracker playing. It must have been a dance school rehearsing for their Christmas show. I fell asleep and woke up before the sun again for my bus ride the next morning. From my research, I thought Merida would be very different than Cancun, and I hoped I was right.