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La Cucaracha in Cancun

To be truthful, Cancun is not my sort of place. What sort of place is it? One begins to understand what sort of place it is when one learns that it is a large complex, planned and developed by the Mexican government over the last 25 years, the objective being to bring large quantities of tourist dollars (and marks, and yen and pounds and francs) into Mexico. So it is a tourist trap. It is safe, it is convenient and, ultimately, it is boring. It offers the tourist the sun, playing in the water, gim crack shops, fashion shops, restaurants of all levels, and clubs wherein one may party. It is devoted to the good time. (Not a bad thing, that.)

The Cancun complex is built around a box shaped lagoon, about 5 miles by 10 in size. One edge is the Yucatan peninsula, the other edges are long, skinny, low lying islands, connected by causeways as needed. The outer edge is called the hotelzone and is festooned with approximately 100 luxury hotels, 250 retaurants, several elaborate shopping malls, and numerous bars and night clubs. The strips of land that form the box are wide enough for a four lane divided highway down the middle and a money extraction complex to its side, said complex being a hotel, a condominium development, etc.

It is not just mindless consumption and water sports. There is culture. There are tours of the Mayan ruins which are really quite remarkable. Did I say that there were tours? Yes? Very good, That takes care of culture. Not quite. The convention center boasts a museum of Mayan artifacts which, if one walks very slowly, may consume ten minutes of your time. There are, of course, no bookstores. On the other hand there are numerous shops wherein one may purchase a wide variety of, ah, cultural artifacts manufactured by Mayan peasants (many of them apparently residing in China.)

Being not quite avid in my pursuit of culture I betook myself on the tour of Chichen Itza. For those of my readers who have not familiar with the place, Chichen Itza was a Mayan city state, some of whose ruins have been restored.

For those who might be wondering, I met no sloe-eyed archaeologists with whom I had a brief and desperate affair. The tour very definitely is a matter of packaging tourists into groups which are passed through the complex. I did, however, pass some of the time on the bus trip by mildly flirting with the young japanese woman who was my seat mate. I fed her Mexican sugar candies and we compared our mutual Mayan birthday glyphs. I was also quite charmed by a very engaging six year old japanese-american girl who ingenuously chattered about her school and her school mates, somewhat to the embarrassment of her mother. Among other things I was informed by this little charmer that her teacher was very nice but a little fat.

Chichen Itza is quite remarkable. The city state was approximately ten square miles in size – most of this is covered by scrub jungle and is not restored. Much of the central complex, which is several hundred acres in size, has been restored. The central complex is not at ground level; the entire area was covered by stone to a depth of about eight feet and carefully leveled. The famous ruins, religious and adminstrative edifices, sit on this plaza (two plazas, actually).

Along with most (but not my japanese friend who feared the height) I climbed the great pyramid. I am given to understand that, starting next year, this will no longer be permitted. Since I have also walked through Stonehenge before it was closed to the public I suppose that my timing in these matters has been good. How fortunate for me.

The great pyramid is approximately 100 feet high with 91 steps up each of the four sides. It is a nice little climb. The steps up the four sides plus the top plaza constitute 365 in all; this is no coincidence – the Mayans were obsessed with calendrical numerology. Quite remarkably there is another pyramid inside the great pyramid, some 70 feet in height, the great pyramid being a shell around the inner pyramid.

There is a sports arena. It consists of a playing field somewhat larger than a football field surrounded by stone walls about 30 feet high. It was not, strictly speaking, an arena since the common folk sat on top of the wall to watch the game; the nobility and priests had their own reserved box as a special complex.

The game was interesting. The ball was a rubber ball about three pounds in weight. The rules were more restrictive than soccer – the players could bat the ball with their backs and their upper arms but not the rest of their anatomy. High on each side of the playing field were two large stone rings, one for each side. The object of the game was to pass the ball through the stone ring on your side. This was a sudden death game; the first side to score a point won. When I say sudden death I mean it literally – the winning team decapitated the losing team. (There are some who feel that American football would be greatly improved by adopting this custom.)

Chichen Itza is about 200 kilometers south of Cancun; the entire tour takes all day. I recommend it highly.

The hotelzone terminates with the city of Cancun proper which is on the mainland. Cancun, the city, has a population of about 400,000 people. There is a downtown area which is an extension of the grand tourist trap and the rest of the city which is about what one might expect. The whole is dedicated to the art of extracting money from the tourist. It is, by the way, quite safe. The water is safe to drink everywhere. The tourists are, by the way, very international. There are large numbers of Germans, Japanese, Brazilians (I passed a couple of hours shooting pool with a young Brazilian lad), Central Americans, and Mexicans as well as gringos.

There are, of course, the beaches and swimming pools and, as a collateral benefit, multitudes of shapely young women scantily clad in bathing suits. And that is not a bad thing either.

As I say, it is not really my sort of place. I read a lot and did some writing – something that goes nicely with sitting in a cabana beside the beach sipping a cool drink. I walked a lot for the pleasure of taking long strolls. I sat in coffee shops. I wandered through malls and invested some time in getting lost. I expect I would have preferred to rent a car and drive through the country, stopping in small towns and wandering the back ways – I am facile at getting lost in interesting ways. However my Spanish is not quite sufficient – I can say “No hablo Espanol” with the accents of a native but this is not quite sufficient in a region where Spanish is a second language, Mayan being the first.

Mexican food is unnerving. There is a plenitude of good fruit but they often do things with meat that I deplore. The water in the hotelzone is standardly potable – elsewhere one had best buy purified water in plastic bottles. I can commend the Zuppa in the Flamingo plaza. It is a gourmet Italian restaurant. The chef is Mexican but many a fine Roman restaurant would be proud to have him. I discovered a quite nice little Mexican restaurant called the Altamar in downtown Cancun. I ate there several times and struck up an acquaintance with one of the waiters.

One arrives, one enjoys the sun and the ocean, one does the tourist thing, and one leaves. Such is Cancun.

This page was last updated Jan 1, 1997