Cultures collide in Cancún

Sat, Apr 10, 2010, 01:00

Despite its reputation as a soulless playground for wealthy US students, CONOR POPEfinds much to love in Cancún – not least the area’s Mayan ruins

CANCÚN IS a place of wild contrasts, a real love-it-or-loathe-it kind of town. On the one hand you have tourists paying big bucks to stay in all- inclusive resorts where cocktails are served at swim-up bars from dawn; on the other you have hotel staff paid peanuts to sweep the sand using heavy slabs of wood tied to ropes draped around their necks.

There’s a Cancún with 25km of pristine white beaches, gentle breezes and turquoise Caribbean waters, and another of ferocious hurricanes that tear the place asunder. Mayan ruins sit beside towering concrete hotels, and cool restaurants compete for the tourist dollar with hot bars stuffed with American students off their heads on cheap tequila and watered-down beer.

Cancún, which means Nest of Snakes in Mayan, is not yet 40 years old, but it has already been through a midlife crisis. Not content with damaging many of the hotels and terrifying locals and tourists, the ferocious Hurricane Wilma, which hit in 2005, also swept much of Cancún’s glorious beachfront away. And without its beaches a purpose-built tourist haven like this is nothing.

The finishing touches had barely been put to the replacement beaches when the resort was hit with another sucker punch: swine flu, which arrived without warning last year. Although the epicentre of the H1N1 outbreak was 2,000km away in Mexico City, the country was tarred with a single brush. The resort’s hotels emptied overnight as European governments advised against unnecessary travel, and the local economy fell off a cliff.

Things have improved since, but tourism officials are still furious about the way the crisis was handled and are working hard to bring people back. Even without hurricanes and pandemics they have their work cut out. People in Ireland tend to dismiss Cancún as a soulless playground for wealthy Americans, but, while there is some truth to that, it would be wrong not to recognise its merits. The beaches are beautiful, the water crystal clear, the food frequently lovely and the history fascinating.

Cancún’s big thing now is the all-inclusive deal. And if you pick well and look beyond the cheap deals – which are rarely good value for money, as the food can be inedible and the accommodation depressing – then it’s a wonderfully relaxed way to take a break.

Take the Royal, the jewel of the resort’s hotel district. It has put enormous effort into making people feel great, and caters for the every whim of its well-heeled guests. All the rooms have stunning sea views, and swings and hammocks are dotted throughout the property, should you find yourself in need of a lie down. The rooms have Bose sound systems, flat-screen TVs, sunken jacuzzis and beds so comfortable that the hotel has patented them.

There’s more. The Royal’s private beach has four-poster beds, so guests can sunbathe in maximum comfort, and there are half a dozen outdoor hot tubs. You can even swim into some of the rooms on the ground floor if walking through the lobby is too much trouble. There are also, weirdly, beds in the hotel bar. Then again, in a boozy all-inclusive resort, maybe they’re needed.

Because guests pay in advance, ordering alcohol for breakfast is not considered odd. I resist for 20 minutes before caving in and swimming up to the bar, where I gingerly hop on a swing and order a margarita, telling myself it’s lunchtime at home. The barman whips up a cocktail that would have floored me had I had a chance to drink it. Instead I wobble exuberantly on the swing and tip most of it into the pool.

Mortified, I swim away through the margarita slick, cursing the bright spark who thought swings, bars, cocktails and pools were a good combination.

You can’t write about Cancún without mentioning spring break. For Irish students the highlights of the Easter midterm holiday are bringing the laundry home to mammy, eating chocolate and going to drunken Good Friday house parties. Cancún’s a different world.

Imagine Temple Bar on the night of St Patrick’s Day, turn the temperature up 30 degrees, stir in thousands of twentysomethings in varying states of undress, shouting “USA! USA! USA!” as they shotgun cans of cheap beer and slam heroic amounts of cheaper tequila, all the while bumping and grinding on bar counters, and you’ve got some idea what goes on in this town in the run-up to Holy Week. Caligula would have blushed.

Unsurprisingly, the locals hate spring break with a passion, and although our tour guide assures us it has mellowed, with the federal government recently introducing regulations aimed at curbing some of the drunken excess, there’s still a sense of relief when the three-week period ends and the locals get back to walking to work unmolested by the foolishness.

A world away from the spring breakers are the ruins of the Mayan civilisation, which was pillaged by Spanish conquistadores 500 years ago. The best known of the ancient sites is Chichen Itza, an enormous settlement dating back to AD 900. We visited on the spring equinox. When the sun sets on that day, it aligns perfectly with the steps of the pyramid to cast a shadow of a diamondback rattlesnake down one side of the structure. It has echoes of Newgrange, but while only a handful of people can witness Ireland’s winter solstice in prehistoric splendour, there are no space restrictions at Chichen Itza, so thousands gather to witness the phenomenon.

Near the main Chichen Itza castle is a Mayan ball court where Indians played games of an intriguing hybrid of basketball, football and beheading. Using only elbows and hips, the teams had to get a two- kilogram lump of rubber through concrete hoops placed high above their heads. The winners earned themselves bragging rights over the losers, but also the honour of having their heads lopped off in tribute to their gods. Sometimes the lucky winners got to keep their heads but had to slice open their genitals, so the blood could wash over the court and bring rain. Good times.

If you go to Chichen Itza from Cancún you will most likely pass through the town of Piste, which has been frozen in time. Most of the houses are wooden huts with the thatched roofs typical of the region, and the main form of transport is the donkey and cart. When you hit the outskirts of the town you’re hauled back into the 21st century by a large tourist cafeteria. The buffet food is poor, the “artisan” shop woeful and the women – made up like extras from a David Lynch film, and weaving in and out of the tables – terrifying. These painted ladies do a Mayan dance, then do the same dance with half-full bottles of beer on their heads and, in a thrilling climax, perform the dance for a third time, with a tray, three glasses and two bottles on their heads. Then you give them money to make them go away.

It is estimated that there are up to 2,000 sites of archaeological interest on the Yucatán peninsula, with only a handful properly excavated as yet. One must-see site near Cancún is Coba. Its centrepiece – and, literally, high point – is an incredibly dangerous yet exhilarating 50m climb up the crumbling steps of the main castle. Tourists scramble up every day with not so much as a handrail to break their fall should they slip.

Tulum, on the Mayan Riviera close to Playa del Carmen, is the most visited tourist destination in Mexico. The site itself is underwhelming – possibly because it lacks terrifying climbs – but its location, overlooking the Caribbean, is stunning, and it is easy to get to from Playa del Carmen, a sleepier resort an hour from Cancún.

There are also Mayan ruins in Cancún itself – although ease of access does not make these sites popular with tourists. El Rey was a hive of activity between the 12th and 15th centuries, but it is very quiet when we visit. The ruins, flanked by a golf course and a Hilton, are just 500 years old, but look older than anything you’d find in Athens or Rome thanks to a combination of devastating hurricanes and rampaging Spaniards.

Near El Rey, ferries depart for Isla de las Mujeres, or Island of Women, so named because when the Spanish first arrived it appeared to be populated entirely by women – all the men were on a lengthy fishing trip, and were not best pleased when they returned home. The island has few hotels but is hugely popular among snorkelling and diving day trippers – not far from Cancún is the world’s second-largest coral reef.

Not long after the Spanish first arrived they appointed a Franciscan monk called Diego de Landa as Yucatán’s bishop. One of his first acts was to burn all the Mayan books he could find, because he believed they were the devil’s work. He later realised the error of his ways and came to understand the richness of the Mayan culture and the beauty of the region.

Any tourist who gives the place a chance is likely to reach the same conclusion, without all the book burning, and find they love the place a whole lot more than they loathe it – just so long as they steer clear of spring break.

Go there

Charters fly from Ireland and Britain regularly, but scheduled flights to Cancún’s international airport are much harder to come by. Travellers have to fly via Mexico City, some 2,000km west. The flight from London to Mexico City takes 12 hours; it’s another two-hour flight to Cancún.


 Go there Where to stay, where to eat and where to go

Where to stay

Cancún Palace Hotel. Boulevard Kukulcan,

Cancún, 00-52-998-8813600, palaceresorts.com/Resorts/ CancunPalace. With 601 rooms offering ocean or lagoon views (go with the ocean every time), this all-inclusive resort is nice without being stunning. The rooms are spacious, it has a private beach, the food is good – the Italian and Japanese restaurants in particular, although they could hardly be less authentic – and the pool area is lovely.

The Royal in Cancún. Boulevard Kukulkan, 00-52-998-8817340, realresorts.com/ The_Royal_Cancun. With beachfront swim-up suites, a stunning beach, more than half a dozen gourmet dining options, chic bars and intimate lounges, this all-inclusive hotel really is special, and your heart will break a little when they take the all-important all-inclusive band off you when checkout time comes.

Where to eat

Las Tentaciones. Avenida Sayil, Cancún, 00-52-998-2091363, laparrilla.com.mx. A traditional Mexican restaurant with a modern twist, this place is worth getting a cab to for a leisurely lunch if you can drag yourself from the beach. The salsas are fierce, the prawns amazing and the beers lovely.

Mi Casa. Avenida Acanceh 8, Cerrada Miramar, Cancun, 00-52-998-2510741, casaconfortable.com/ restaurantemicasa.html. With just eight tables, this relaxing and warm restaurant is a must-visit – if only for the chocolate and blue cheese dessert dreamed up by head chef and owner Cristian Morales, who trained for a time under El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià.

Where to go

Five Mayan sites to check out, in descending order: Chichen Itza, Coba, Tulum, Ek Balam and El Rey.

Coca Bongo

cocobongo.com.mx. At the centre of Cancún’s nightlife is Coca Bongo, a club that describes itself as the best nightclub in the world and as much fun as New Year’s Eve, Mardi Gras and St Patrick’s Day put together. If that sounds like your idea of fun, spend $60 getting in – there’s an open bar all night long – and have fun. Let us know how you get on.