The freshly hatched sea turtles tickle my hand as they squirm to paddle against real or imagined currents, then spread out en masse on the beach like a reptilian carpet disappearing into the sea, leaving nothing but a cool breeze and smiles behind. This is not your parents’ Cancun, nor only a party destination. To view it otherwise is a disservice to its exemplary conservation and resource appreciation, regional Mayan history, community service, premium beaches, scuba diving, outstanding food and an easy low-maintenance pampered family stay at bargain prices.
Who would have thought Cancun’s Marriot Casa Magna Hotel would be a leader in the area’s innovative local voluntary rare sea turtle conservation program? Coordinating with government and non-governmental protecting organizations, the hotel facilitates the collaboration of other beach front properties with their nest relocations and conservation. Experience this in the late summer or fall, and, upon arrival, go to see their protected nest hatching area and ask the managing staff to call you when they plan a turtle release.
The nests are relocated to Marriott’s beach-side hatchery shelter for protection and excavated by hand by Marriott volunteer staff. Under their supervision, one is allowed to touch and play with these cute-but-endangered creatures to promote public awareness and appreciation. The highlight is the evening beach release where guests help the little tykes into the water while the kids get to choose a turtle to hold, name and release.
Cancun, Mexico’s most popular resort city and keystone gateway city to the Yucatan, is the area visitors know as mostly an island connected by a road way through the “hotel zone” – and may well be best to see off-season, in the late summer or fall, to cure naive perceptions. Be ready to do anything, refrain from planning too much, flop onto the best beaches, pick one main activity for the day and add the rest as you go – you can’t lose.
As for the tortillas, forget about what you think is Mexican dining in the USA and try everything; this region does seafood and native dish styles especially well. Some of it is a bit milder than one might expect, and I’m uncertain if it reflects actual regional cooking tastes or is “milded down” for possibly wimpier American tastes, but if you are like me and demand borderline painful spiciness, ask for the freshly made habanero hot sauce on the side; a little dab will do ya (that was a sixties commercial).
The hotel zone has a proactive water filtering and hygiene initiative, and visitors need not worry about intestinal problems of the old days; Cancun wants you to come back as well as to tell your friends. I drank plenty of water and ate produce without incident, but it is still a good idea to bring some antibiotics (Cipro), just in case. Restaurant choices are bountiful, so check your favorite travel guide book and follow up with the hotel staff for recommendations, as they are too numerous to do them justice here.
Cancun is also a comfortable home base for exploring the Mayan Riviera to the south for a myriad of beach and community experiences; all-inclusive resorts; archeology; the “hip” and luxurious Playa del Carmen; and the world renown scuba and cruise-ship hotspot Cozumel, with huge reefs made famous by Jacques Cousteau in the 1960s. Especially trending are astounding nature preserves and up-and-coming Tulum, an edgy offbeat yoga-centric green community, world famous Chichen Itza Mayan ruins, and Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
Take advantage of the competitively priced region with non-stop (a huge time saver) low cost U. S. carrier flights to Cancun from many gateway cities, accompanied by bargain rate hotel packages for the pampering you deserve. The hotel zone is the way to go with family and the common and prevalent accommodation choice. All-inclusive and spa resorts are also very popular in and around Cancun.
Interaction with hotel staff and the community reveals the undiscovered Cancun we don’t see, an amazing one that permeates the air, promoting community and environmental stewardship, where sustainable tourism is a win-win situation to the residents and visitors alike. As a leader among the hospitality industry, the Marriott, for example, has spearheaded charitable training and career opportunities, as well as environmental educational experiences for challenged local residents, the real backbone of why Cancun works so well.
Lest we forget, the main activity in Cancun is to just hit the beaches. They are free in Mexico, and for a bit of variety, try the public beaches, Playa Delfines, and the calmer Playa Tortugas. If the kids come along, drop them off at Marriott’s famous Kids Club for supervised and stimulating activities and enjoy the decadent spa services, which include things I am not even familiar with (but I am a guy).
Hotel staff and concierge are effective guides on how best to experience Cancun, including how to utilize taxis, buses and “hawkers” services. Many well meaning vendors will approach you as they try to make their living through the opportunities that visitors and tourism offer, but beware of some of the less well-meaning by making arrangements directly with the hotel. My first such experience actually occurred as soon as I walked off the plane into the airport, where I was directed by uniformed staff to a formal airport information booth, only to be given an aggressive timeshare condo sales pitch. Wow!? Fortunately, my post-airport mood softened quickly as I blended into the lesser known off-season Cancun experience.
A great place to start planning water activities is the hotel’s poolside water activity booth, to arrange anything from sailing, kayaking, dolphin swims, snorkeling and diving. I took advantage of the easy low maintenance scuba diving they can arrange at Aquaworld, within walking distance, a popular Caribbean vendor that also arranges dolphin swims and boat rides. The Marriott and others also offer resort scuba certification right at their pools, the easiest way to try it out. Resort courses are short classes allowing anyone without experience to dive for the first time with a certified guide and a great way to see if a full-fledged permanent certification is for you.
If a bigger and dedicated dive experience is not necessary, then save Cozumel Island – a top diving destination in the hemisphere – for another tim, as there are ample diving spots nearby with short boat rides and easier access to see corals, sea turtles, dolphins, rays and a myriad of colorful fish. I not only saw all that at a couple of popular dive locations close to Cancun, but for something really off the wall, a new and recently completed underwater sculpture garden with statues and a VW Beetle replica for a touch of submerged art. Don’t feel like you are up to that yet? No problem. Just have the staff teach you to snorkel and see a lot without a tank.
The best way to see Cancun city is by the #2 bus or a taxi, past the glut of malls to the commercial center starting with Mercado 28 – the popular open air shopping market for some authentic goods. Clothes, bags and leather boots are hot items. Be prepared to bargain and politely say “no” to the vendors, but, if the transaction is done right, you can score some deals followed by an excellent meal.
Yes, there are shopping centers, as well as Plaza Kukulcan, an American-style mall, if necessary, but then guys can give in to their inner child if the shopping day gets long by visiting an actual genuine Harley Davidson dealership that not only sells Harley paraphernalia and bikes, but also rents them (stay calm). It is also a great place to get a Harley T-shirt gift at a lot less than at the airport. OK – I am digressing and this may not be a big deal to some, but if you ride, then there is no better way to see the Mayan Riviera than a day drive along the coast. However, all the rest of you easy riders need not despair, as motor scooter rentals are plentiful and anyone can drive them as an alternative.
Cancun is not apologetic, so acknowledge it as the party destination we grew up on and do an evening experience at the popular clubs in the hotel zone. Try Daddy O’s and The City followed by Azucar, Ultra Club and Terrace, Coco Bongo and Daddy Rock. Actually, be even hipper than the Cancun crowd by opting for Playa Del Carmen on the Mayan Riviera after midnight. This is not only the most popular see-and-be-seen beach for the scantily clad, but it is also considered the best nightlife zone where Cancun is so…well…yesterday. Try Blue Parrot Bar, Fah, and very edgy Playa 69, for liberal audiences only.