going local in cancun
i don’t have anything against cancun. it arguably has some of mexico’s most beautiful beaches. the hotel infrastructure is on point, and if all you’re looking for is a chaise lounge, some sun, and a bucket of beers it is a great vacation.
but it’s not mexico. at least, not where you’re going.
it’s hard to think of cancun as mexico when english is spoken over spanish, dollars are accepted in lieu of pesos, and locals are usually outnumbered by tourists on buses traveling from their all-inclusive to coco bongo. that said, there are people who actually live in mexico. and they are actual mexicans. they’re the ones working at your hotel, picking you up at the airport, taking you on your excursions, and feeding you shots at señor frogs. add to that a major expat population from europe and south america, along with descendants of the mayans and affluent mexican businesspeople, and you have a cultural melting pot. so it’s always been a goal of mine to track down this cancun.
at the end of june i was down visiting the hideaway at royalton riviera cancun, a mega all-inclusive resort about 15 minutes south of the airport. this resort has thought of it all, from themed restaurants to a massive spa to daily and nightly entertainment. there’s no reason to leave. but the hotel also has a handy hertz rental car kiosk right in the hotel lobby, so i took this as my opportunity to do what no tourist has done before in cancun…leave the hotel.
i drove 45 minutes north to cancun centro, the downtown city portion on the opposite side of the famed hotel zone. my destination was mercado 28, a massive handicraft market that is widely popular with the locals. row after row of vendor stalls make up a small village of nearly 1,000 shops. the market sells everything from ceramics and glassware to hammocks and clothing. admittedly a lot of what you see at mercado 28 is straight factory-made crap, though the vendors will assure you that it’s all handmade. but a little spanish goes a long way and if you can convey that you don’t want to be messed with, they will take you to the stalls that are truly selling unique finds. haggling is also widely accepted at mercado 28. always offer half of the asking price and settle somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of the original.
if you’re feeling peckish, head to the center of the market, which is ringed with lots of little mexican restaurants. there are a ton to choose from, but the most popular is el cejas, which serves seafood accompanied by live music from veracruz.
anyone coming to mexico is going to want a solid taco. in cancun, these can be found at barbacoa de la tulum on avenida tulum, close to city hall; los de chihuas on avenida bonampak, near the kukulkan roundabout; carnitas michoacan on avenida las torres; and tacos los perrones on avenida donaldo colosio. most street food in mexico is safe, but still proceed with caution: some stomachs may not be used to street food, and it could result in an unfortunate rest of your trip. also, if your quest is tacos then forego sleeping in. tacos are only served in the morning, and stands usually run out by 11 a.m.
for nightlife, you aren’t going to find the cancunenses (locals from cancun) tearing it up at coco bongo. instead they will be at plaza infinity, located in the center of cancun and packed with bars and live music. the ones to know are pizza del perro negro, beer box, black pub, mambo cafe, and muleiros lounge.
truthfully if you’re going to cancun then you probably don’t really care about what the locals are doing. and that’s fine. we all need a great beach vacation now and again. but if you get the urge to dig a little deeper or, you know, it’s raining, then consider strapping on your sandals and taking a walk where the locals go. the beach will be waiting for you right where you left it.
**a version of this story appeared in travel weekly