If I had come to Cancun in 1970, when I was eight years old, I would have come to a coconut plantation in which three caretakers lived. Nearby would have been a small fishing village with a little over 100 residents. The virgin forests would have been idyllic, and many of the natural beaches undiscovered.
In a very short period of time, well within my lifetime, this city of Cancun has grown to a whopping 750,000 residents. It started with a vision of the Mexican government. Officials thought that people would visit for the climate and beaches, but they couldn’t attract any investors. So they financed the first nine hotels.
Today, the streets are congested with vehicles. Sidewalks are bustling with foot traffic. And tourism is thriving. The contrast between the hotel strip of pristine buildings and gorgeous beaches and the downtown core of razor-wire enclosed courtyards and crumbling buildings can be startling.
This is not to say that the downtown core is not beautiful. It is. I am only a one-minute walk from an open market that caters to the arts. There is music and dancing every evening, either rehearsals or performances. To sit on a bench in the evening among locals and low-budget travellers to watch these creative Mexican artists in action is to warm the spirit.
And yet, just beyond the perimeter, down the back alleys, the buildings are condemned and crumbling.
There are two different police forces in this area. The local police have a presence seemingly at every corner. Long-term residents I have met say the local police are corrupt and are frequently looking for cash payments for traffic violations. They sit slouched behind a booth in the market playing with their phones and looking bored.
The other police force is the Policia Federal. Their primary purpose, I am told, is to fight the drug cartels. They wear body armour, carry rifles, and always look alert. I haven’t seen one sitting or playing with his phone in public yet. They stay in hotels for one-month shifts and travel in pairs and groups, apparently, I’m told, to make it more difficult for them to be corrupted or bribed by the cartels.
Very few of the locals in the downtown core speak English. I acquired a cold and throat infection, and with only a couple of words in common (‘infection’ and ‘prescription’), through facial expressions, coughs, and gestures, I walked away from the pharmacy with prescription medication without a prescription (the employee made me hide it in my pocket before leaving the pharmacy to avoid detection) and some cold meds with directions in Spanish.
I’ve managed to maintain my vegetarian diet in the market with only knowing how to say no meat (no carna) and pointing at things like beans and rice. I’ve gone to one food stall a few times now, so that when I approach, the girl behind the counter just looks at me and says, “Vegetariano?”
I’ve made a few errors in judgement on the spiciness of some sauces, but there’s nothing like a burning mouth and perspiration-filled eye sockets to never make the same mistake again.
The motto of Cancun is “The Glistening City”. And it’s all of that, particularly in the hotel zone along the Gulf of Mexico. The hotels are beautiful, the shopping malls glistening, the beaches pristine, and the water a warm 28 degrees C. Tourists are happy to pay relatively high prices in the hotel zone because goods are still a bit cheaper than at home. But in the downtown core, where the locals and low-budget travellers reside, you could retire on less than a thousand dollars per month. One gentleman I met from Portugal rents a studio suite nearby. With rent, air conditioning, television, and wifi, he pays about 4,000 pesos, or about $260 CDN, per month.
One of my hostel friends just returned from the grocery store with a high-end bottle of tequila, for which he paid 340 pesos. He said he saw the same bottle in the hotel zone for 600 pesos. Wow.
Of course, I’m just a cheap bastard, so I buy crappy tequila for only 140 pesos per bottle. It lasts me a long time because I can hardly stand the taste of it. But I do try to drink the local beverages. In Crete, I drank ouzo, in Germany, beer and Jagermeister, in the Okanagan, wine. And in Mexico, I drink tequila and some local beer.
And coffee, of course. Lordy, I love this Mexican coffee. Thick like molasses and smooth like butter. I’m drinking some now as I write this, and I’m in heaven.
I feel for my friends back in Canada, especially those in Alberta where it is currently -30 C. It’s +30 C here in Cancun right now and most people are doing what they can to hide from the heat and humidity. The air conditioning goes on in the hostel at 9 pm to make it bearable to sleep because the heat is appalling even at night.
The name, Cancun, is likely based on the Mayan “kaan kun”, the Place of the Gold Snake.
I haven’t seen any snakes yet, but I’ve seen a slew of iguanas in my travels here. Plentiful and intriguing.
I’m off to explore. Later, amigos.