I've been promising this Cancun recap forever – or 3 weeks to be exact. If you're not a fan of lengthy posts or lots of pictures, turn back now. This is not an in-a-nutshell kind of post.
A few days after returning from our trip to Cancun, this quote by author Bill Bryson found me. I'd never heard of him before, never read his books, nor seen him quoted. But this excerpt from Neither Here Nor There summed up everything I had been feeling about Cancun and hadn't been able to express.
“That’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” – Bill Bryson
As soon as you walk out of the airport in Cancun, you can tell you're somewhere different. You're not in America anymore. It sounds obvious – but I was taken aback by how foreign it felt. And I was suddenly so glad for those 7 years of Spanish I took. Thank you, Mrs. Witte.
The Spanish that I still remembered helped me meet Mexicans in the middle when we talked and it made everything easier from the moment we hopped into our first cab. We spoke to the driver about the glorious heat & humidity, where to catch buses, and asked him what his favorite restaurant was – a question whose answer later took us deeper into downtown Cancun than we planned to go and showed us a world we would've never seen otherwise.
The trip was a series of "interesting guesses" that turned into lessons and memories and experiences. We only had 5 days to see what Cancun was all about and we left wanting more.
Day 0 – Yes, day zero. I'm not really counting this day for much because upon arrival at the hotel, we completely vegged out. To be honest, that happened before we landed in Cancun. Before we even left the runway in Indy, we were both unconscious, Clark in the row ahead of me since we didn't get to choose our seats on the way there. Pro tip – do the early check-in thing when it's offered.
In Baltimore, I woke up with a crick in my neck and found Clark fast asleep on a stranger's shoulder. Another pro tip – those U shaped pillows are the best invention since sliced bread – and something we didn't invest in until we were on our way home.
Next flight, same story. We passed out before takeoff and woke up about 20 minutes prior to landing. At one point, the guys who were sitting in Clark's row tried to wake him up so they could use the restroom and he wouldn't budge. The flight attendant even came by to check his pulse. As a last resort, they climbed over him and he never woke up throughout the ordeal.
After a quick cab ride to our hotel, we threw on our swimsuits (and SPF 30) quicker than you can say taco. Cue relaxation.
We resurfaced for sustenance around 9pm and stumbled into 19.5km by Joe, the life-saving 24-hour food shack conveniently located across the road from our hotel. Although I could've done without the deep-fry on our fish tacos, their ceviche was the best we had on the entire trip. As a bonus, the have a wide-open view of the lagoon, the bus stops directly outside, and we never spent more than $20 USD for both of us to eat a ton of food and often, have beers. And, they serve breakfast.
In my opinion, breakfast is always the most important part of the day, but even moreso when you're on a trip. If you're going to be out in the sun or exploring all day, you need to be well-fueled. Find your breakfast spot as soon as you arrive to your destination, wherever that may be.
Day 1 – Still recuperating from traveling and ready to relax, we spent most of our first day in the sun. It was overcast some of the time and windy, but we managed to catch a few rays. Clark was back and forth between frolicking in the waves and flopping onto the chair beside mine. I cooled off in the ocean a time or two, but I'm not as keen on swimming in it as he is. We wore ourselves out enough for a late afternoon nap and decided to go in search of dinner when we woke up.
Here's a pro tip – don't spring for the fancy restaurants, at least not in Cancun. Quite frankly, they are tourist traps that offer Americanized versions of Mexican to make people feel comfortable. We spent over an hour trying to find La Habichuela and in the end, the food was disappointing and way overpriced. The only perk of our dinner was that we dined outdoors, lagoon-side, and were joined by a crocodile who swam right up beside the neighboring dock. That's something you don't see every day and I didn't even have to go to a zoo or the Everglades to see it.
Day 2 – The skies were cloudy and we'd had enough lazing around the day before: it was time to seek out something different. We packed water, sunscreen, passports (keep them on-hand in case you need to exchange USD for pesos), and camera and hopped on the bus right outside our hotel.
At Playa Tortugas, we purchased tickets for the 11am ferry to Isla Mujeres. With a few minutes to kill before our boat departed, we ordered french fries and guacamole – perhaps the best hangover cure in existence – and watched kids play in the calm water around the dock.
For whatever reason, Isla Mujeres allows confused and often drunken tourists to rent golf carts and drive around on the rock all day – few questions asked. Is it safe? Probably not. Is it insane? Yeah. Is it liberating? Oh, yes. You could never get away with that shit in America.
Lesson learned… Mexico does not care what you do.
And so, we rented a golf cart and toured the entire island on our own time and with our own agenda. All while drinking Mexican beer and not worrying about getting arrested.
Despite the beers (and maybe a mojito or two), we returned our golf cart and boarded the ferry at 5pm with plenty of time to spare. We arrived back at Playa Tortugas and relaxed in a hammock until sundown. As we made our way back to the bus stop at the road, a brick paver, half buried in sand, got the better part of one of my toes. I took a seat while Clark went to buy water to clean me up. By the time he returned, a store owner had come out to help me and brought peroxide and gauze from the first-aid kit behind his counter. The sidewalks – or lack thereof – are the most dangerous part of Mexico.
Day 3 – The first few hours of the day were full of bright, hot sunshine and we took advantage of it. We originally planned on venturing to Mercado 23 early in the day but pushed it back until the clouds started to roll in. We left for downtown Cancun around 3pm and arrived at our stop around 3:30. Our bus driver was kind enough to point us in the general direction of Mercado 23 and we found it easily. We stopped for ceviche and beers just outside of the market and then started exploring.
I can't find any concrete evidence to support my theory, but I'm quite sure that Mexicans take a siesta in the late afternoon. Maybe not all of them, but enough of them to cause a tangible stillness around 4pm. We walked around Mercado 23 as this hour approached, drinking glass-bottle Cokes and snacking on dried fish while the vendors cleaned and closed their stores.
We got the hint – they were ready to go home for the day. So we wandered out onto the streets and started exploring the neighborhood that surrounds the market. The colorful homes and buildings showed their age with chipped and weathered paint.
After finding our way back to one of the main avenues, we hailed a cab who had no idea where to take us. We were looking for a restaurant that was recommended by the driver who took us from the airport to our hotel. We asked our driver if he knew where "El Posito" was and he didn't. So he asked a few other drivers and kept going until he found it. 30 minutes in a cab through backstreets and neighborhoods – and we paid less than $8 USD. The same ride in New York City, by comparison, would've been closer to $30.
At El Posito, a tiny, family-run restaurant, we tried lime soup – a common dish in Mexico – and shared a tamale. Our waiter was friendly, but seemed perplexed as to why we were in his restaurant. A little girl who was playing near the counter seemed confused, too and looked at us like we were out of place.
Day 4 – We went back to Isla Mujeres. We couldn't not. But this time, we did it a little smarter. There are multiple ferries that will take you to the island, but the ferry from Puerto Juarez is the only one that will bring you back later in the evening. The first day we went to the island, we had to be back at that particular ferry by 5pm. We didn't want to be restricted by such an early curfew, so we decided to take the Puerto Juarez ferry.
We rode the R1 bus into downtown Cancun and got off at the same location we did for Mercado 23, right in front of an Oxxo convenience store. A Mexican man with an official tourism badge approached us to ask where we were going and we indicated that we were looking for a cab to Puerto Juarez. He let us know that "minibuses" frequently passed through that area and that it would only cost us 8 pesos each, about $1 total, to get to Puerto Juarez. We stood at the stop for probably 5 minutes waiting for the bus, watching each one that passed by for "Puerto Juarez." The destinations of the buses are all clearly marked on the front window. We hopped into the correct van – sounds sketchy, I know – and we were at Puerto Juarez in about 8 minutes.
We explored the island more and returned to a couple of spots we liked. The golf cart had to be returned by 5pm, so we wandered around on foot as the night wore on. Again, it seemed like the town went to sleep around 4 or 5pm and livened back up at about 6-ish. We people-watched at a corner bar that lured us in with Bob Marley tunes while we decided what to eat next.
Instead of trying one of the more expensive and higher-rated-on-Yelp options, a small place called Tres Mentiras lured us in with a chalkboard special. 115 pesos for fajitas, rice & beans, and a soda (which we traded for tequila shots… shhhh.) Another one of our best food choices on the trip and it cost less than $8 – and we were both full from the shared meal.
We walked around for a while more after eating until we heard live music coming from a bar. Who can pass up live music? Not us, that's for sure. The band played classic rocks songs and sang somewhere between Spanish and English. And they took Clark's Pink Floyd request. The bartender and owner was an older, thin guy who reminded me of my dad in the way that he talked with patrons and made killer cocktails. He thanked Clark and I for making an effort to speak Spanish and gave me samples of the drinks that I asked him about. Right place, right time.
Around 9:30, we started thinking about heading back to Cancun. But not before we hit up the strip of street food vendors – 4 carts in total – for another round of fish tacos and an empanada. Do not fear the street food. It is seriously delicious and if there are people serving it up at 10pm, they know what they're doing.
Day 5 – Obviously, this was our last day in Cancun. Sadness. We packed the night before and woke up as early as possible to get breakfast at 19.5km by Joe. As luck would have it, our last day was gloriously hot and sunny, unlike the 3 days prior. With just a few hours left and having only a pathetic excuse for a tan, we got into our swim suits, drug our comforter out onto the balcony of our room, and ditched the sunscreen.
We waited until we had 20 minutes left to checkout to rush inside and shower, dress, and pack our last-minute items. The doormen offered to call a cab for us but we told them we were going to pick something up at the convenience store and caught a ride to the airport from there for $10 less.
Our connecting flight put us in Atlanta, where we were greeted with an unfortunate 2-hour flight delay. But there's a reason for everything and in this case, that reason was pizza. Thanks to the layover, we had time to ride the tram to terminal A and enjoy some of the best pizza we have ever eaten. If you are ever in ATL, you owe it to yourself to eat at Varsano's Pizzeria. From most tables, you can see the pizza bosses as they roll, toss, and bake your pie to perfection. Airport food or not, their pizza was A+ and it was the cherry on top of an incredible trip.
5 days wasn't long enough – it never is when you're traveling. But it was plenty of time to fall in love with a new country, its culture, and its people. So far, Cancun has been the most exhilarating and rewarding travel experience I've ever had. It was unlike any place I've ever been. I've been to Florida and I've been to the Caribbean. But Cancun is the first place where I have felt like a foreigner – and I loved it.
If you're planning a Caribbean vacation sometime soon, I strongly encourage you to consider Cancun. It's not all about spring break anymore – there's much more to do and see than what's shown on travel brochures.