Cancun Is the New Tulum
Story and photos by Zora O'Neill

The case for the wet T-shirt capital of the world, and for a new definition of traveling off the beaten path.

Cancun Hotels

The shuttle van crested the small hill, and in an instant, there was the beach: glimmering white sand sloping down to water so perfectly turquoise it looked artificial, a color you’d find in some plastic Caribbean souvenir. I gawked out the window, but in the next instant, we’d descended into the thick of Cancun’s hotel zone, and my view was resorts shaped like ersatz Mayan pyramids, party-colored concrete malls and sunburned, fanny-packed tourists trudging alongside the buzzing four-lane road.

Eventually the van emptied out, all the vacationers deposited at their respective resorts along with their matched luggage sets. I watched them grow smaller out the rear window and congratulated myself for being far worldlier. I was here on a noble mission—to update a guidebook to more interesting, less tacky places than Cancun.

The driver turned to me. “Where are you going?”

“The bus station!” I gasped. If I’d known how to say “And step on it!” in Spanish, I would have.

As I write this, seven years later, I’m sitting in my Cancun hotel room with the windows wide open, listening to the music from the park outside. A Cuban band is set up amid the food stalls, and couples are dancing. I’m in Cancun by choice, and I’m delighted to be here.

This isn’t because Cancun has changed. It’s because I have: I became a better traveler.

A Resort City Built from Scratch
In 2002, on that first visit, I had a small assignment for a guidebook publisher whose readers are educated, adventurous travelers interested in culture and history, not just seaside hedonism (though a suspiciously large portion of my chapter was devoted to Tulum, that backpackers’ paradise-on-sea two hours south of Cancun). I earnestly devoted my time to the back roads of the Yucatan Peninsula.

At the end of the trip, I returned to Cancun and spent one night at a cheap all-inclusive, a stolid block of 1970s-era rooms wrapped in bright-pink paint. Sunburned Brits lolled poolside in Speedos and gold chains, drinking watery cocktails and reading biographies of mobsters. The text I filed for the book barely changed a word from the previous reviewer’s cynical take on the city—he’d dubbed it “remorseless”—and warned any savvy reader away from the place.

Cancun Beach

The next year, I was commissioned to write a book focused on the Yucatan—a dream gig. And I was asked to write a dedicated guide to Cancun—substantially less dreamy. I would be in the belly of the tourist beast. To fortify myself, I stopped in a bookstore just down the coast in the much mellower town of Puerto Morelos, where the owners sympathetically pointed me to a self-published book called Cancun User’s Guide.

I thought I was getting a guidebook from which I could crib a few inexpensive restaurant recommendations, but it turned out to be my key to the city. The author, Jules Siegel, was an American journalist who’d written for Playboy and Rolling Stone in the 1960s, then sidestepped into work for the Mexican tourism commission that planned Cancun. He was present for the city’s early boom years in the 1980s, and had lived there ever since. The back half of the guide did indeed have restaurant listings, but the first half was an impassioned rant in defense of the author’s adopted city.

Anyone who hates Cancun for lacking charm is completely missing the point, Siegel argued. The city was built from scratch, and that’s what has made it a marvel and a modern Mexican success story—and as much “real” Mexico as any pretty colonial town. To appreciate the place, you have to ditch your standard tourist prejudices at the door. In just a few pages, he completely flipped my idea of Cancun on its head.

Cancun Between the Cracks
When I got to Cancun, I felt like I’d put on a new pair of glasses. The plastic signs of the Hard Rock Café, Señor Frog’s and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville clogged the skyline, but now I saw the buildings in between. I visited Cancun’s most historic building, from all of 1975: the first hotel that opened, on the rocky outcropping that’s the easternmost point in mainland Mexico. Designed by Ricardo Legorreta, Mexico’s star modern architect, it looked like a bland beige monolith from the outside—but the interior spaces glowed with vivid Mexican hues.

Cancun Modern Maya After that, I also looked at those ridiculous faux-pyramid resorts more carefully. In light of Cancun’s accelerated life cycle, they now seemed like strangely noble architectural relics, passé fantasies from the frenzied 1980s. I strolled into the Gran Meliá Cancun, where the atrium was a jungle of hanging plants, extending to a glass ceiling in a near-infinite way that photographer Andreas Gursky would love. Off in a corner, a man played a grand piano. Cancun had been the Dubai of its day.

Another sore point for Siegel was how Cancun is often depicted as segregated between locals and tourists. I had made this assumption myself, when my shuttle van first sped through the zona hotelera, a 20-mile-long barrier island chockablock with resorts, and into the more practical “downtown” on the mainland. But once I started looking, I saw that cancunenses weren’t shy about using the hotel zone. Schoolgirls in uniform gobbled fish tacos at a hip seafood restaurant, and Mexican families spread out by the sea in front of another “historic” hotel, set on one of Cancun’s most scenic beaches. And one day around sunset, I peered over the edge of a bridge to find a small park, where people had slung up their hammocks in the gazebos along the lagoon. Cancun was the opposite of segregated, really—here people relaxed in full view of the palaces where they worked, in a way I’d never seen in an American city.

What bent my mind the most was following Siegel’s lead to a restaurant hidden amid the hotel zone’s lagoon mangroves—though the word “restaurant” implies more structure than this place had. It was basically an encampment: plastic tables and chairs next to a wood fire where fish, plucked recently from the lagoon, was grilled. The roof was a plastic tarp, and the floor was sand. Sunlight glimmered through a wall of mangroves. There was no electricity. Here was every independent traveler’s beach fantasy (well, except for the fact that it didn't actually look out on the sea), exactly the kind of place you hope to find when you take the bus to the tiniest dot on the map along the coast. And here it was in Cancun, with the nearest landmark a hotel called the Bel Air Collection.

Not long after I had my mind blown at the fish camp, I had a deeper epiphany in another hotel-zone restaurant. One day while taking a tour of a resort, I’d asked the marketing woman where she liked to eat. “Oh, there’s this wonderful authentic Italian restaurant!” she told me. “And so casual—you can put your feet in the sand!”

I hadn’t come to Mexico to eat Italian food, I grumbled to myself, but she’d been so enthusiastic that I set out to find the restaurant that night. It was off in the relative middle of nowhere, not connected to any hotel (“Turn by the giant Mexican flag,” the woman had told me). The entrance was down a long hallway, so when I saw that the host was dressed in a centurion costume, there was no gracious way to flee.

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Forking Fantastic!

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