Mexican Toga Party
Probably my first rule of restaurants is to avoid places where the staff is dressed in costumes. And this guy’s outfit was embarrassingly bad: his epaulets were floppy, his Adam’s apple was poking out above a maroon polyester tunic, and his glasses were smudged. I sat down, warily, and was immediately attended to by a waitress clad in a bedsheet toga, tricked out with some ribbons and little plastic coins. The first thing she put in front of me was chips and salsa. The only sign of hope was that the staff appeared to be Italian.
The restaurant was deserted, so there was nothing to distract me from all my critical thoughts about theme restaurants and what a sucker I was. But in the next half hour, two things happened. The place filled up with a couple of giant Mexican families. And my food arrived—and it was fantastic: perfectly toothsome spaghetti with fresh clams and piles of garlic.
That was when it dawned on me that I’d been getting it all wrong—not just in Cancun, but in Mexico, and probably in my travels in general. I’d thought I was packing light, nimbly tripping along toward the undiscovered and un-touristy. But I’d really dragged along a whole bulging suitcase full of travel snobbery. I’d written off restaurants, tours, even a whole city that didn’t fit my aesthetic of what Mexico was, all because I’d assumed that waiters in togas, for instance, were stunts to get tourists’ attention.
But here were Mexicans loving every second of the pageant, while eating some of the best Italian food I’d had on my travels. These people were having a meal, but they were also going out to have fun—and there was nothing inauthentic about that. After slugging a teensy, perfect espresso, I slunk out, happy in my stomach but somewhat embarrassed. I’d been so self-centered as to assume every garish show in Cancun was to get my attention as a tourist. And because I thought I was too cool for that, I was missing out on the real local party.
To be fair, I wasn’t completely wrong to assume every garish show in Cancun was played out solely for me. The Mexican government planned the city in the early 1970s precisely to capture tourist dollars on the previously deserted east coast of Mexico, to build a new Acapulco or Mazatlán. The legend is that the city was planned by computer—which really just meant that some engineers crunched a lot of data about weather, flight times from the United States and beach quality to pinpoint this previously empty spot on the Caribbean. If you look on a map published before 1975, Cancun isn’t even marked: the barrier island that’s now the hotel zone, where some 2 million tourists cavort each year, was just a coconut plantation.
A Mexican City with No Historic Baggage
But over four decades, Cancun has grown into a self-sufficient city—a city that just happens to have an astoundingly beautiful beach. Its main industry is tourism, but it’s not a tourist trap. With more than 750,000 inhabitants, it’s a city where it makes sense for a business to cater to local tastes as well as foreign ones. People have grown up here and built lives here, and they live them just like people in other, more “real” parts of Mexico.
The park outside my hotel window tonight, the center of downtown Cancun, is the best example. At dusk, families head out to the plaza to chat, stroll, eat snacks and watch their kids tootle around in little electric cars that a woman rents out, 10 minutes for 20 pesos. Couples canoodle on park benches. Sometimes a band plays, and sometimes children sing “La Cucaracha.” It’s just like any other Mexican town--though the kids’ toy cars are flashier, to match the higher income here.
In fact, because there are no distracting historical trappings in Cancun, it’s easier to see what’s essential to Mexican culture. Everything is here by choice, not by historical habit: the park entertainment, the taco stands by the bus station, the shopkeepers who greet every passerby with a warm Buenos días.
People make the place, but it’s easy to lose sight of this as we travel. We often choose destinations based on physical appeal: colonial villages with cobblestone streets, dramatic waterfalls in remote canyons, beaches dotted with palm trees and empty of everyone but a handy guy to cook us a fish dinner. We independent travelers think we’re making difficult trips to the end of the earth—but we’re often heading to places that are easy to love because they’re pretty. And they typically have fewer people around to complicate our ideas about the place.
Cancun’s charms may be harder to see—they’re disguised in a purple velvet sombrero and a T-shirt that reads “It’s not a beer belly, it’s a fuel tank for a sex machine!” But they are there for any visitor who’s willing to give up the dream of an empty stretch of sand (which you can’t even get in Tulum these days) and enjoy Mexico as Mexicans do.
A New Yorker by way of New Mexico, Zora O'Neill is the author of The Rough Guide to the Yucatán and an iPhone app, Cool Cancun & Isla Mujeres, among other travel guides, as well as a cookbook, Forking Fantastic!. She maintains the blog Roving Gastronome about her travels and what she eats while she's at it.
Hot Times in the Riviera Maya by Zora O'Neill
Eating a Personal Pig by Zora O'Neill
Don't Eat Low-lying Berries, and Other Lessons Learned in the Wales Countryside by Amy Rosen
Unbalanced in the Sinking City by Tim Leffel
Other Mexico and Central America travel stories from the archives
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