Cancun can be the most cliche word uttered by westerners heading to the Gulf of Mexico. Families saving up for years to afford the flights and all-inclusive resorts on the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone).
Like many resorts found in the much nearer Spain, these hotels dilute the local culture in order to bring western traditions to their guests.
I, however, didn’t fly to Cancun with the intention of fitting in with fellow my British countryman.
I wanted to experience something different, something away from the norm and have something actually interesting to talk about when I got home, rather than how the hotel was.
These are my three main recommendations for where to go, away from the Hotel Zone.
Cancun – Away from the Hotel Zone:
I spent four days staying at an Airbnb in Cancun with Maty – a lovely local lady and her mother. She picked me up from the airport for a small fee and gave me tips on what to eat, where to go, where not to go etc.
I spent most of my time outside of the room but was provided with a Mexican breakfast every morning and priceless advice.
I was made refried beans and spicy eggs for breakfast along with a fruit plate and sugared down coffee made on the hob.
To watch someone grind the coffee and use a copper percolator shows the effort that can go into hosting.
I had use of the shared pool with the other apartments but found I mostly had it to myself, perfect to stay cool after coming back from a long walk and visit to the beach.
These are some of the best elements of both Airbnb and staying with someone local. I enjoyed it much more than I would have done staying in a massive chain hotel.
Chichen Itza – A wonder of the world:
The first stop outside of Cancun was the historic Maya site of Chichen Itza, a two-hour drive to the west in the neighboring Yucatan state.
I made sure I stayed close to the site so I could beat the crowds come morning. The hotel Okaan was where I decided to live for the night because of it’s proximity, not only
to the site but, to the dense forest too.
There are small tracks dotted around the grounds that can take you further into the wilderness, one of the very interesting quirks of the hotel.
After breakfast I got in the car, drove down the road to a site that I used to see on posters at school.
Entering the site, I walked past the many market stalls and into the main clearing which leaves you in awe. I set my eyes on El Castillo. The main pyramid of the site stands tall and secluded. The surrounding grounds have been cleared over the years which only adds to accentuate the gravity of its existence.
The five-kilometre squared site has so much to offer and so much historical significance. After a few hours of walking around, I was caught by the mass of Europeans, Americans and more importantly, the heat. That was the trigger for me to leave.
Chichen Itza is a phenomenal place. Getting there early is really important, especially if you want a good photo without crowds in it. It’s a site of incomprehensible scale and you should take enough liquid and food to last you a few hours.
Bacalar – Maybe the best experience of my life:
A four-hour drive south of Cancun lies the small property of Paul and Kytzzia’s. Nestled down a small track, it sits on the front of Bacalar freshwater lagoon.
I met Paul who showed me around and to my lovely little cabana. He then proceeded to show me the unique point of the property – the lagoon.
We walked out onto the wooden jetty as Paul explained the history of the lagoon. We reached the end and he dived straight in.
It wasn’t a cold night, there were no clouds and the stars shone brightly illuminating the calm water. I jumped straight in not knowing what to expect.
The water was warm, and for once, the water didn’t taste of chlorine or salt.
I spoke to Paul for about a half hour, gazing up at the sky and forgetting about every single thing about the trip. It was a surreal, beautiful bliss away from everything.
The next morning I awoke early to make sure I watched the sunrise while swimming. It was another experience that took my breath away.
I took up the optional extra of paddle-boarding. Over the next couple of hours, Paul and I paddled across the lagoon, through the much deeper waters to the other side where it became shallow again.
It’s safe to say that I spent around half the time on the board and half my time in the water, scurrying to get back on top of it.
My evening consisted of more swimming and just chatting with Paul. There was no need for outside disturbances, no need to really talk to anyone from home and no need to do anything else but enjoy the surrounding tranquillity.
Cancun and Mexico, in general, can be for you, the exact same as every other western person going. It can be a gateway to the exact same questions about hotels, food and activities that you get when you pop off to Spain for a week.
But it can be different. It can be an amazing, eye-opening experience that is completely out of your comfort zone, or it can be within your Hotel comfort Zone.