Cancun is divided into 2 very distinct sections – the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone), which is where the vast majority of vacationers spend their time, and the Zona Urbana (Urban Zone), which is where the city dwellers, backpackers, and Kathy and I live for the time being. The 2 zones are separated by a couple miles, or an 8.5peso bus ride, and the differences between the two are dramatic!
The Zona Hotelera
When Kathy and I first visited Cancun several years ago, we stayed in a fancy hotel just like most of the people who come to Cancun. The hotel sat right on the white sandy beaches, and we could see the moon reflecting off the water from our room. If you’ve visited Cancun chances are you stayed in the Hotel Zone too.
The Hotel Zone looks a bit like a number 7 attached to the mainland at the top and the bottom. Between the Hotel Zone and Cancun proper lies a huge lagoon – the Nichupte Lagoon, which contains real crocodiles that occasionally try to take a chunk out of a tourist, but mostly want to be left alone.
The primary activities in the Hotel Zone involve sunning yourself on the beach and drinking. The Hotels even help out by having DJ’s at the pool encourage people to pound drinks and shake some booty in bizarre drinking contests. Seriously. If that sounds a lot like spring break to you, that’s because Cancun is still one of the most popular spring break destinations, and unfortunately many of the locals think we’re all here for the spring break experience.
If you start to feel motivated there are jet skis that can be rented, and if you like heights you can go para-sailing. For the highly ambitious there are malls – like La Isla – that have higher-end stores and decent restaurants. Of course don’t expect any of this to be cheap. Meals and drinks in the Zona Hotelera are just as expensive as Meals and Drinks wherever you live now – if not more so.
There are 2 casinos in the Hotel Zone. Playboy just opened one, and the other is called Play City. Both are small, and both function a little strangely – probably due to the fact that gambling is still largely illegal in Mexico. We went to the Playboy casino and were told that there’s a $20 US cover charge each to get in. I was under the impression that it was a casino, not a strip joint, but apparently it’s a casino that operates like a strip joint. Either way, we left.
Play City is a charming little casino, with little being the operative word. It’s primarily slot machines, and you have to buy a card with credits on it in order to gamble. Somehow not being able to put money directly in the machines seems like a real drawback. I mean it’s a lot to ask a drunk guy to get up, go to a window, buy credits to put on their card, and then make their way back to a machine and keep gambling. Seems like they’re more likely to stumble right out the door, but I guess that’s their problem, not mine. Either way the place was almost completely empty.
The only other thing worth doing in the Zona Hotelera is trekking over to the El Rey Mayan ruins. It lies toward the bottom of the big 7, and you can take a local bus there – R1 or R2 bus for only 8.5 pesos – or about 70 cents.
We haven’t been to El Rey yet on this trip, but will head over there this week. It’s a great spot because it’s full of ruins and iguanas. The ruins are nothing compared to Chichen Itza or any of the bigger Mayan ruins, but they’re still notable, but the real stars of the show are the iguanas. Some of those guys look positively primeval. They are the largest iguanas I think I’ve ever seen. If you have kids they’ll absolutely dig em (or be terrified).
Zona Urbana aka El Centro
At the polar opposite to the Zona Hotelera you have our temporary home, the Urban Zone also called El Centro. Cancun is a good sized city at 700,000 residents, and is growing at a healthy clip and as such is in a constant state of change and construction. The central part of the city is broken up into supermanzanas, or super blocks, which are giant trapezoidal blocks surrounded on the outside by the main streets, but on the inside are bisected by walking and bike paths, markets, libraries, and parks. They make the city very walkable – which is handy as we have no car.
Each of these blocks is numbered, and the markets are generally named after the block. For example, the main outdoor grocery market is Mercado 23 – right at the center of block 23. Another popular tourist attraction is Mercado 28.
Mercado 23 is an interesting market. It’s full of open air stalls selling everything from fruits and veggies, to fish, chickens, spices, toys, haircuts, and so on. I’ve found that it’s a challenge to shop in Mercado 23 as nothing has prices. You pay whatever they ask for – although you’re expected to barter. This sounds easy in theory, but is challenging if you don’t speak Spanish well. As a result, the prices always start high, and it takes effort to get them lower. It’s considerably easier to go to the grocery store.
Mercado 28 is a huge open-air flea market. If you’re looking for ‘authentic’ Mexican or Mayan arts and crafts, then Mercado 28 is for you. I personally find it challenging to walk anywhere near the market, as literally every single vendor tries to get you to go into their stall. On a single trip through the Mercado I heard the words “Senor, I have what you’re looking for” at least 87 times. Maybe even 88 times. I lost count.
In all fairness to the Mexican people, we’re visitors in their country. They know full well that we’re only going to be there a limited time (some of us more limited than others) and it’s their job to extract as much money from us as absolutely possible before we head back to our wealthy country. Believe me when I say that they try hard!
If you’re looking to have fun in Cancun without spending a bunch, then Ave Yaxchilan is your scene. Not only are there plenty of nightclubs and bars all down the Ave, but it’s all cheap too – although some clubs are cheaper than others.
For example, on the first night Kathy and I were here we went to dinner – including 5 drinks – for a total of $30. That included a 3 beers for $50 pesos deal – or 3 beers for about $4.25. Like I say, if you want to go out on the town and have cheap eats and cheap drinks then Ave Yaxchilan is your spot!
By the way, the Tamales from the street vendors here are excellent! This one vendor sets up on the corner of Ave Yaxchilan and Ave Rosas at around 6:30pm, and has the best Tamales I’ve ever had. They’re the texture and flavor of moist cornbread wrapped around chicken in mole sauce – yummy! And they’re only about $1.50 each. Perfect for fueling your night out on the town.
Parque de las Palapas
Situated only a block or so from Ave Yaxchilan is the legendary Parque de las Palapas. This park has permanent food kiosks as well as portable vendors that setup in the evening and sell some of Mexico’s finest, including my favorite – churros! These are nothing like the sad imitations you get at amusement parks in the US – real churros are wonderful!
Enough about the food though, what’s cool about the Parque de las Palapas is the events they hold there. I’ve seen flamenco dancers, singers, drummers, movies and more. Situated around the park are vendors renting big wheels – those battery operated plastic cars – to kids so they can drive around the park. Hundreds of people are at the park every night for on reason or another, and it’s fun to stroll around.
Other Cancun Observations
- Downtown Cancun is in a state of decay. Many of the buildings are run down or crumbling, and the sidewalks are broken, uneven, and full of mysterious holes that extend far into the darkness. The city is still full of vibrant natives and plenty of hustle and bustle, but either due to poor construction standards or the occasional harshness of the weather (hurricanes!), the infrastructure appears to be breaking down.
- Crossing streets in Mexico is an adventure. The drivers here accelerate with all the power that their tiny 4-cylinder cars can muster, and red lights, stop signs, and crosswalks have little meaning. I’ve learned to cross streets the way Mexicans do – which is to say as soon as there’s a break in traffic, RUN!
- Normally when looking for a restaurant I have dining apps on my phone to steer me in the right direction. Since I’ve been in Mexico I’ve been stripped of such tools, and as a result have fallen back on plan B, which involves looking for restaurants full of locals, as locals tend to know the best cheap eats in any given area. The problem with this theory is that I have yet to find a busy restaurant in Cancun. It seems that most of the restaurants have been built for tourists, and yet the majority of the tourists have abandoned downtown. It took me a few days, but I finally realized that most of the locals eat food from the street vendors.
- Street vendors in Mexico are like fast food restaurants in the United States – only much, much better. Most of the food is native, freshly made, hot, and extremely cheap. Not only that, but it’s not all bad for you! My personal favorite are Tamales con pollo y salsa verde – chicken and green salsa tamales. They’re wrapped in corn husks and heavily steamed, so you don’t have to worry about getting sick, and most cost 10 pesos – or about 85 cents. 2 Tamales makes for a great (and cheap) meal!
That’s it for now, we’ll write more after we do some exploring in the Yucatan. Until next time, safe travels!