Blog # 1: Cancun

November 29, 2012

In 1970 the long, hook-shaped, sandy coastal island just east of the knuckle on the thumb that is the Yucatan Peninsula had three inhabitants, caretakers of a coconut plantation owned by a hacendado who lived on another island a little further offshore. The 117 citizens of the nearby metropolis of Puerto Juárez mostly fished for a living or worked at a miniscule army outpost a few kilometers up the coast. Mexico’s tourist industry centered on the spectacular Aztec ruins around Mexico City, the silver emporium of Taxco, and —for beach lovers— the Pacific port of Acapulco, all of which I visited in 1960 during a few days of playing hooky from Oberlin’s summer program in Mexico City. I remember staying for a couple of nights in Acapulco’s only high-rise hotel that in my recollection must have had four or maybe five stories.

In 1970 the planners in FONATUR, the ministry charged with developing Mexico’s tourist industry, chose the sandy hook as the optimum site to develop a mega-resort. It had sun, sandy beaches, a spectacular reef with colorful fish, nearby Mayan ruins, and a chance to build from scratch without having to negotiate with powerful entrenched local magnates. Private sector investors were skeptical, so much so that the government had to subsidize the construction of the first half-dozen hotels. But the project succeeded far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Today behemoth hotels clog every inch of the 20-kilometer long sandy hook, water parks and golf courses have been carved out of the jungle across the lagoon to the west of the beach, and the village of Cancún —whose Mayan name seems to signify “nest of snakes”— houses 750,000 people.

Disclaimer: Linda and I are not fond of Cancún. We marvel at it, but we don’t love it.  For us it is the terminus of cheap flights, and a good starting point for a ramble through the dry jungles and remote ruins of the south-central base of the Yucatán thumb and the denser jungles that fringe the palm of the hand that borders Belize and Guatemala.

We arrived late yesterday afternoon, after getting up at 0-dark-30 (thank you, Valerie, for the phrase), to ride with my liver-in-law Dan Carpenter who had graciously offered to take us to the RI airport. It had snowed during the night, which would no doubt delight our two adolescent kittens, Levi and Kedi, once the sun came up. The air was nippy and the roads were slippery, underscoring at least one of the reasons we were on our way to Mexico for the next 3 or 4 months. The flight down was perfectly uneventful. We broke through the cloud cover as we began our descent over the Yucatan thumb. The city on the edge of the sea sprawled below us like a tropical Chicago. The fringe of beach that lined the wall of hotels glowed tawny against the Caribbean, the water intensely blue where it was deep, intensely green where the barrier reef rose close to the surface. When Linda and I flew to Cancún in the late 1970s our plane had to circle the airport a couple of times while somebody herded the cows off the runway. Today’s airport, much enlarged into the jungle south of the hook, has three massive terminals: one for international flights, one for national traffic, and at third for private planes. The reception center for passport control is as cavernous as the one at New York’s Kennedy. The snaky queue easily accommodated the three or four planeloads of tourists who arrived at the same time ours did.

We picked up our Europcar, sorted through the deals and come-ons that the staff dangled as priceless opportunities, telephoned our broker in the States to have him toggle the gizmo there that would allow us to access our accounts on the Mexican ATMs (we thought it had been taken care of, but … thus is the way of massive organizations), stopped at a bank to withdraw a handful of pesos, and checked into our hotel at the bend of the hook, chosen as being the best deal we could find on the internet. Perfectly adequate, with a view of the waves beyond the quarter-acre of rooftop air conditioning units. 80 degrees. A stiff wind roiling the surf and whipping the tops of the palm trees in the street.

An hour to relax, and then out to a restaurant within walking distance for dinner, a place touted by both Trip Advisor (# low teens out of 700 ranked restaurants in Cancún) and Lonely Planet. Unfortunately, between the date of ranking and last night it had vanished, and there seemed to be nothing else in our immediate area except overpriced hotel dining rooms and sleeze joints on the main road. We were too exhausted to hike further, so we chose one of the latter: Carlos n’ Charlies (

The hostess, whose eye-popping qualifications for the job were readily apparent, escorted us to a table on the periphery. She set two massive, many-page menus in front of us —one for food, one for potables— and wrote our server’s name, Raúl, on our butcher-paper tablecloth with a magic marker. Linda and I put on our invisible anthropologist hats, the ones that hyphenate participants-in and observers-of.

Dark wooden tables stretched far into Charlies’ shadowy interior. As is common in lowland Mexico, the restaurant had a roof and a floor but no walls: it was open to street and plaza on all sides. Some TVs in the distance flickered with soccer games. The wall behind the bar, to our right, was covered with plaques bearing cute sayings, mostly in English, but with a smattering in Spanish and German, mottos like “Beauty is skin deep, but ugly goes to the bone,” and “Dreaming is half the pleasure in life; the other half is eating.” Raúl’s tee-shirt said “The mother of margaritas.” Raúl was one of about two dozen waiters, all apparently in their twenties, all dressed similarly, all buff, and all smiling. They all had colored scarves tucked into their belts as decoration, presumably a vague ethnic reference, a hint of Mayan exoticism. They all had whistles on lanyards around their necks.

While we squinted at the menu in the dim light, the guacamole cart rolled up. The chef (tee-shirt “I learned guacamole in Cancún”) in a very low key imitation of a Japanese steak-house showman, halved a couple of avocados, and blended the cilantro, tomato, chile, and limon, in a pumice-stone molcajete, and put it on our table with a bag of chips. We ordered our mains and a couple of limonadas, which after a while were delivered to our table in meter-high plastic flagons that we had to hold at down floor level to be able to get the straws to our lips.

The place was filling up, mostly with groups of from 8-10, half of whom were couples, half parties of women in their thirties and forties. All were speaking English (server’s tee-shirt: “I don’t speak English, but I promise not to laugh at your Spanish”). Our mains arrived, and as we lifted our forks the music cranked up to a rumbling roar and simultaneously all the waiters blew on their whistles, formed a circle around two of the large tables, pulled the women out of their chairs and began to dance. A simple line dance, step forward, step back, sway the hips, arms linked, some clapping and shouting and hooting. After five minutes of this the music faded to a gentler cacophony, the women sat down, and with the mood having been skillfully lightened, more drinks were ordered. Every ten minutes the ritual was repeated: music, whistles, table-surround, women hauled to their feet, men snapping photos with their smart phones, hilarity, clapping, and back to food. And drink: longnecks of icy Corona, margaritas in glasses as big as baptismal fonts, stained blue and pink and green with one tropical additive or another, the salt on their rims glistening like diamonds. A young lady tequilera, bottle of José Cuervo in hand, wound from table to table offering shortcuts to blotto.

The level of noise, which had started high, continued to increase: busses and taxis honking, waiters whistling, increasingly inebriated patrons shouting witticisms at each other over the din. Our dinners weren’t bad, somewhere between mediocre and good, and we were stuffed to the eyebrows. Raúl materialized at our table with a trivet-size rubber stamp in hand, which he thumped down on the butcher paper at our table, the menu of deserts, entitled “Calorías”: Pay de queso, Crême brulé, Brownie Especial, and four or five similar temptations. Our boat was foundering, and any of them would have swamped it. We paid the bill and staggered back to our hotel.

Hard to imagine what this would be like during spring break!

David & Linda