From day one I realised that my life would never be that of an extra in a Peter Stuyvesant cigarette commercial. No waterskiing with Ken lookalikes or sharing of cigarettes with trust fund kids from Santa Barbara wearing pink golfers. I’m just not cool enough. And I start to hyperventilate when my feet can’t touch the bottom of the swimming pool/dam/ocean, which pretty much puts me straight into the loser camp, with my collection of library cards.
And that’s why Cancun was such a non-event for me. And unfortunately, we had to spend a lot of time there, due to its transportation hub status. Or whatever. We also had to dorm it, and I’m still struggling to erase the stale boy breath that somehow never left our rooms from my memory. We stayed at one hostel, but slept in 4 different dorms – the first dorm we shared with my Brother, a Chinese lady who couldn’t speak a word English or Spanish (and who had a fondness for boiled eggs), a handful of emotionless gawky German teenagers and a girl with smelly feet. We all shared a bathroom and a shower inside the dorm. Then we moved to a private room for two nights (for our own sanity), but we still had to share a bathroom and a shower with two guys who shaved a large dog in the shower every morning. Then we moved to our third dorm the night the Bearded Wonder’s brother flew in from the Great White North, and there we met a super friendly guy with ginormous snow boots, for in case a snowstorm hits Cancun. He didn’t leave the room once. I think he was waiting for the storm to hit. Or something. There we shared a bathroom with a couple from across the hall. She threw up every morning. Then we moved to another dorm before we left for Cuba. By then, all our fellow travellers started to look (and smell) the same. It was like a Melrose Place for people with stinky feet and unplanned pregnancies.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a quick look at Cancun, seeing that this is a travel blog.
A tale of two cities
So Cancun is basically made up of two parts. The first part is the infamous Hotel Zone, with 300 odd hotels and other things one would expect a Hotel Zone to have. Like massive malls with international brands (yawn), clubs (not cool enough), and rows and rows of informal traders selling those neon CANCUN CANCUN CANCUN shirts (not drunk enough).
But the beaches on that side are spectacular (if you’re not travelling during hurricane season).
Then on the other side – the dodgy end if you must – lies, well, the other side of Cancun. The normal side. The side where real people live, eat and do their hair. And because we spent our days wandering the streets, we got to know this side really well.
Hello downtown Cancun
When travelling (on a budget), you tend to check out things you won’t normally check out back home. Like cemeteries, plain Jane neighbourhoods and markets selling socks and nail clippers. And to some this might sound boring as all hell (not that hell is a boring place), but I’ll forever be intrigued by the way in which people in foreign countries live their lives. Even though everyday life abroad is very similar to the everyday life back home, there is a foreign je ne sais quoi that I love. Take for example the ever travelling school child. In every country we’ve been to, school kids are always on their way to school, no matter the time of day. Do they start at different times? I don’t know. Did 20 moms forget what time school starts? I don’t know. Did they all get lost on their way to school and so they spend the rest of their days wandering hopelessly, trying to find the school? I just don’t know. And it’s this not knowing that’s absolutely wonderful.
All these unanswered questions can make one hungry, so we spent most of our time at the local food market – a big square lined with loads of food stalls and a happy gaggle of churro and marquesita trucks. Oh marquesitas! When we first saw these cheese-and-Nutella crispy pancakes, we were both seduced and repulsed by it. But when we got to know these troopers a little better, we were hooked. See, a marqueasita is a crispy waffle, rolled up like a pancake and stuffed with Nutella/jam/caramel sauce and cheese -not the gooey quesadilla type of cheese, oh no. A nice sharp little number, grated and feathery. My goodness. It’s the perfect sweet crunch, earthy cheese and heavenly chocolate combination. And of course, the churro trucks didn’t escape our patronage. So after we’ve surrendered ourselves to cheesy quesadillas, meaty nachos and mouthsful of torta, we went straight for the sweet, comforting arms of Mother Mexico’s desserts.
So here’s a list of things to do/not to do when you’re stuck in downtown Cancun because you need to catch a ferry or plane or catch someone who just got off a ferry or plane.
- Avoid Mercado 28 – the mothership of all things touristy and CANCUN CANCUN CANCUN shirts,
- Don’t avoid the food market (but avoid the pickled cactus quesadillas),
- Take the bus to the hotel side of Cancun, but don’t get off. It’s not worth it. The bus loops, so you can just sit and stare out of the window and imagine what it must be like to sleep in a proper hotel bed, with proper sheets and your very own shower, a nice thick robe and a continental breakfast with fresh croissants,
- Go to the hairdresser. After 6 months of not blowdrying my hair, I needed a bit of TLC. Post-blow dry I felt (and looked) like a pedigree Afghan hound.