Mexico - Cancun

Mexico - Cancun

Date sent: Wed, 3 Sep 1997

Cancun. Land of enchantment, of conquistadors and Mayans. Land of...

Holiday Inn, Planet Hollywood, Hilton, Hard Rock, Fridays, Outback Steakhouse...

It's very built up.

Either out of ignorance or just lack of research, this all came as a bit of a surprise to us. We went to Cancun in March 1997, as part of our annual "We're up to our cake holes in snow! Take us somewhere warm!" excursion, and we're determined not to go to the same place twice. In the past, we've gone to Grand Cayman, St. Lucia and Jamaica. This year Mexico got its shot.

But Cancun isn't REALLY Mexico. It has a long, colorful and bloody history stretching clear back to 1967, when the Mexican government hired a consulting firm to look at the Caribbean coastline and pick the best spot to snatch up land and build a haven for gringos to bring all their springtime money, and a place to send all their old Volkswagens. Every conceivable US hotel and restaurant chain is represented here, proving that the "malling" of America doesn't end at Harlengen, Texas. You'll think you stumbled into Tampa.

Now, that's not to say there's anything wrong with that. Your dollar will go farther here than just about anywhere else. It's clean, easy and cheap to get around-if a little spread out-and there's no shortage of services and things to do. Taxis and cheap buses are both plentiful. Everyone speaks English, and it is a very comfortable destination. And if you're a little adventurous, you can rent a car and head for the rest of the Yucatan and find a less Americanized Mexico.

  • The Omni Cancun
  • The Local Irritant
  • Things To Do - Shopping
  • The Caribbean Carnaval Booze Cruise
  • Isla Mujeres - Swim with the Dolphins
  • Horseback Riding/Swim with your horse
  • Chichen Itza
  • The Hotel Mayaland

    Omni Cancun Hotel

    We stayed at the Omni Cancun-not the biggest nor the smallest Cancun resort hotel, and our choice was mostly price oriented. We had an excellent experience with Sandals-Montego Bay in Jamaica, and felt that all-inclusive resorts were good deals, particularly if your primary field of study was drinking, and if the resort was a fairly isolated place. The Omni offered an all-inclusive deal, and we took it.

    Wrong move. Not a BAD move, just a wrong one.

    Cancun - let me reiterate this - is JAM PACKED with places to eat, ranging from the dirt cheap to the good deal, feed bag type places to the very expensive. An all inclusive in Cancun is a waste, unless you are so far out of town (such as the Club Med-50 minutes from downtown, and really 30 minutes from the heaviest concentration of eateries).

    Specifically, the Omni is an average Cancun property. Painted in the most hideous possible shade of pink inside and out, you'll think you're staying in Barbi's action hotel playhouse. It sits high on a hill overlooking the beach, and rooms face either the ocean or the lagoon. Our first room was at the north end of the building on the corner--visually, a great room. We faced the lagoon, but the balcony also was open at the side with a good view of the ocean. Unfortunately, the noise from the next hotel's rooftop air conditioners was so loud, you couldn't hear yourself think over the din with the door open, and sitting on the balcony was intolerable. Pick the ocean side if possible. We moved.

    Beds are comfortable, rooms are a good size, and the bathrooms are fine. All rooms and hallways are tiled with beautiful native stone tile. There are 2 large pools, and a water sports center is available just up the road, with transportation provided. The Pina Colatta Restaurant is on the beach and open for breakfast and lunch. The wait staff is excellent, attentive and very friendly. The same is not true upstairs in the main restaurant-they seemed distracted, pissed and otherwise busy doing something other than waiting on you. Bitching about them takes your mind off the lackluster food. The other nice restaurant is an Italian eatery, DaVinci's. The food here is excellent, the staff is good and quite pleasant, and the atmosphere is intimate and romantic. Hope you're with someone whose company you enjoy, because dinner will take 2-3 hours. Nothing particularly elaborate is going on, and I was never really able to figure out why glaciers move faster than dinner here, but everyone we spoke to had exactly the same gripe.

    All of this is to wave you off the all-inclusive plans at any Cancun resort, particularly if they offer it as an add-on. You'll be signing for every drink and you're stuck at their restaurants when the world is available to you with a 30 cent bus ride.

    There is a shop in the hotel with overpriced bottled water, sun tan lotion, snacks etc., and there is another shop by the beach for that all-important souvenir beach wear. Everywhere else in town is cheaper. The tiny store at the bottom of the hill by the gate is apparently in cahoots with the ones in the hotel, pricewise. Cross the street. There is a small grocery, a drug store (microscopic in size, yet stocking one of everything you'd ever need), a liquor store, and if you're really that desperate, a Domino's and a McDonald's.


    Circling Sharks

    In Jamaica, it's selling ganja. In St. Lucia, it's selling bamboo hats. In Grand Cayman, it's selling secret bank accounts. The number one industry in Cancun seems to be duping tourists into wasting a day of their vacation by conning you into sitting through a timeshare condo sales presentation. You may see an official looking information desk in your hotel, or ask what looks like a tour operator for some help, or ask the stock boy at the grocery where the bottled water is-THEY ARE ALL SELLING TIMESHARE CONDOS! This is no exaggeration. It is the bane of your existence in Cancun, and the pitch will be thrust upon you at the damnedest times, by the unlikliest people. The Omni is, in fact, half made up of timeshare condos. The chirpy Americans at the 'Information Desk' who want to know if you just checked in and 'could you come back down so you can get your free welcome gift' are actually timeshare pimps, and one bullet should send them scattering.

    "What bus do I take to get to Senor Frogs?"

    "Oh, when are you going?"


    "OH! Well, we've got a special little thing going on this afternoon at the hotel..."



    Now, on the other hand, if you are the sort of person who IS interested in this sort of thing, this may not bother you and you should be killed right along with them.


    Things To Do


    Take the bus into the town center from your hotel, and keep an eye open all the way in. If you're a shopper, you've come to the right place to wallow in it. The Kukulkan Mall is the biggest shopping mall of the two in the area. The other to my mind looked more expensive and upscale. These are high priced, Yankee-style malls, and jewelry is the hot item here.There are also lots of restaurants around both malls. The Cancun Arts & Crafts Center is a little more like a street vendor style marketplace, and haggling is the order of the day. (I am, by virtue of my hirsute visage, recognized around the world, from Istanbul to Hong Kong to Cairo in places such as this as "Mister Whiskers"). There is also another area like this beside TGI Fridays.
    Hats, tee-shirts, Mayan-themed trinkets, and especially silver and stone jewelry are the primary items. The jewelry is sold by weight. Look even remotely interested, and it will be scooped up, set on a scale, surrounded by a flurry of maniacal calculator pounding lunatics who will shout to the manager, and a price will be ceremoniously quoted to you. Shake your head, talk among yourselves about the better deal in town, and walk away. The game thus begins...
    In el centro of Cancun you will find a slightly quieter place, but only slightly. This was once a small village, with lots of businesses for the locals, but it has become a touristy area with lots of bargain shopping. There is a major supermarket here, so stock up on cheap bottled water and Pringles (the staple diet of the world traveler). Don't ask where anything is from the lady at the information desk-it's a timeshare scam (no lie!).

    If you're looking for that really authentic Mexican restaurant where the locals go, try Rosa Mexicana's. Half of the staff from our hotel was there on their night off. Ask to sit in the courtyard--the inside is a little Bonanza-ish. And if you're into this sort of thing, there's pot roast on the hoof at the Bull Ring, not far from el centro.

    Virtually every hotel has a tour desk with 7 or 8 different companies represented, and while the skeptical curmudgeon (that would be me) might feel a scam coming on, they are legitimately offering a huge array of things to do in the area. We were there for a week, and did the Caribbean Carnaval Booze Cruise, a trip to Isla Mujeres to swim with the dolphins, a bus trip and tour of Chichen Itza, and horseback riding on the beach. Luckily we were there to rest. If we had REALLY tried to do a LOT, we'd be dead by now.


    Caribbean Carnaval

    The Caribbean Carnaval Booze Cruise lives up to every inch of its moniker. Booze? You've got it, since that's what Caribbean vacations are really all about. A double deck boat takes you on a 45 minute trip to Isla Mujeres, the majestic "Island of Drunks," where you are treated to a lavish Mexican buffet. As the evening moves along, the action switches to a large outdoor stage, and the music begins.

    A 7 piece band plays their heart out as the cast of characters grows. A dozen dancers throughout the evening do a high energy revue of Caribbean dance routines, interrupted by a large, jovial Catskills-by-way-of-Mexico City standup comic's rapid fire, multi-lingual act, encouraging audience participation and humiliation. I'm usually the first guy to hate these things, but you ARE on vacation, no one here knows you or will ever see you again, and there wasn't one single attempt to hawk a timeshare condo. AND only once did the band break into the Macarena.


    Isla Mujeres

    During the day, Isla Mujeres is one of two places in the area where you can swim with the dolphins. Now, if you are the sort of person who feels that these are majestic, intelligent mammals imbued with a special life force, perhaps even descended from an extraterrestrial race and put on this planet to guide and help us and lead us to true enlightenment, then you'll probably find this sort of thing humiliating to these gentle, highly civilized beings. You're also probably some kind of kook.

    These particular dolphins have been trained to deal with the general public-something I'M hard pressed to do. They swim up to you and brush against you. Hold their fin and they'll pull you along. Float on your stomach, spread-eagled, and two swim up behind you, put their noses on your feet and push you at high enough speed to get someone thinner than I was airborne. It is a truly one of a kind experience.

    The particulars are, $100 per person, and you're in a group of 5 or 6 people. You get a 30 minute briefing (don't hit their noses, don't kick their genitals, and don't think for a minute they'll come for that Model T Ford horn that 'Flipper' kid used to use), then you're in the water with them for about 30 minutes. They do an excellent job of covering you on videotape, and at $20 you might as well buy it, since as you can see our priceless $10 underwater Kodak got virtually nothing. Learn from our experience-the dolphin session ended 45 minutes later than they claimed, and you have to wait almost 30 minutes while they edit your tape. Ours was the last boat leaving the island, so virtually no one in the group got their tape-we all had to blast back to the harbor before they were finished. Try for a morning or early afternoon session. The dolphin area is a 10 minute cab ride from the harbor.

    For lunch, try the Buccaneer Inn. EXCELLENT food, a friendly staff, and open air (but covered). Isla Mujeres is a far sleepier place than Cancun. It has a densely packed town center, and as you walk along the road next to the harbor, you'll likely see fishermen quietly mending their nets. There is an arts and crafts shopping area (we didn't get there), and lots of small shops selling the identical shirts, sandals, and Mayan-themed knickknacks you've already seen in the Cancun shops. And there is certainly no shortage of snorkeling excursions being offered. Even if you aren't going for the dolphin swim, the island is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.



    Horseback riding

    Horseback riding on the beach was done through Rancho Loma Bonita. Their ranch is about a one hour drive from the center of the hotel zone, and they pick you up by bus at a local bar/restaurant. When you're finished they return you to your hotel. Their horses have been trained to swim, so take your suit and have a ball. You'll ride for about 20 minutes down to the beach, so be smart and wear PANTS!

    At the beach, they'll take the swimming horses, remove their saddles, and you'll take turns riding in the ocean.

    There's a reason John Wayne never sported Bermudas on a horse.

    This little experience is not really for the beginner, and they're not great about pairing up inexperienced riders with gentle horses (and the cowboys often think it's hilarious to get a totally inexperienced rider off in a ball busting gallop--standard stuff for tourist areas...) Mine rolled over on me as soon as we hit the beach (Hey, Trigger! Watch me roll the fat guy!).

    Overall, it appeared that they really couldn't handle a full bus load of tourists. After an hour long bus ride, when a dozen women headed for the ladies' room, they were rousted out by shouting gaucheros a minute later before most had the opportunity to use the one holer. Somehow we were all responsible for holding up the works. At least 30% of riders had sliding saddles or stirrups that needed adjusting for the entire first half of the ride-and if you've never been on a horse, all you know is that you're falling off and you don't know why. You'd think they'd have this routine down a little better. Even experienced riders were astonished at the way things were handled.

    Dinner (or lunch if you go in the morning), beer and a round of donkey soccer are all included.




    Chichen Itza


    Chichen Itza is well worth taking the day to go and see. We went with Mayaland Tours, and the shame of it was that a potentially wonderful day was marginalized by some remarkably stupid behavior on the part of the tour company. Doing it again, I would have just rented a car. So, the high points...

    Chichen Itza is about a two hour drive from Cancun, mostly on an excellent, well marked highway. There is a large visitor's center with shops, and it is overrun with bus loads of people just like you! More important, this is where to link up with a guide or glom onto another group. (If you're on your own, hang out and listen for a guide you think you like, then follow that one. Tip them when it's done.) Our guide, provided by Mayaland, was possibly the worst guide I have ever had in a place like this. He probably knew the information, but he was so hung up on architectural minutiae and wandering anecdotes about everything other than Chichen Itza, we came away knowing nothing about the site other than what we read in the book we bought after the tour. And, he kept us on so fast a track that we were unable to linger anywhere to try to listen to other groups. Bad experience.

    I won't bore you here with a massive description of the site. Buy a book before you go. Suffice it to say it will take you three hours to see it all with any depth or understanding. This was a large city with dozens of ceremonial buildings, temples, observatories, and a large ball court. No tender gentle tree huggers were the Mayans-sacrfices, beheadings, slaughters of enemies, and the ultimate 'loser pays' judgments in sporting events are all sprinkled throughout their colorful history.The area is very spread out.

    I climbed the pyramid (not to be undertaken cavalierly), and the view is spectacular from the top, since the land is heavily wooded but totally flat. The drowning pit is humbling. All in all, the entire site is remarkably well preserved, due mostly to its being hidden in the jungle far from Spanish mischief until modern times.

    If you're looking for Mayan souvenirs, buy them here outside in the arts and crafts building. They are 1/4 the price of what you will find in Cancun, since many of the pieces are made right here. We were hustled in, hustled out, berated for lagging behind, then forced to wait in the parking lot, unable to wander, for 45 minutes because our bus broke down (not Mayaland's fault, but it further contributed to our rising anger).

    Our tour did include lunch at the Hotel Mayaland, and despite its somewhat Disney-esque name, it turned out to be the surprise of the trip. Nestled in the jungle about 3 miles from the entrance to Chichen Itza, the Mayaland Hotel has that 1930's "Indiana Jones-Hemmingway-Bogart-another gin and tonic if you please Pedro" feel to it. Doing it again, I'd drive out and stay the night at the Mayaland. The food was superb, and the staff was very friendly and kind. The grounds are beautifully landscaped, and the pool looked very inviting. Didn't see any of the rooms, so it could all be window dressing, but it is an impressive place, and very well hidden.

    If you ignore my warnings and take the Mayaland Tour, there are two classes: the deluxe tour includes a danish and a banana for breakfast, as well as a cooler with not enough beer for the trip home.

    Copyright ©1997 by Chris Hodapp. All rights reserved. Unauthorized reproduction strictly prohibited. Violators will be hunted down and forced to suffer through windy legalistic diatribes by a fierce looking lawyer named Fingers, who's a little hazy on where exactly he got his law degree-and he seems to have a lot of self-inflicted tattoos.

    Chris Hodapp

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