Eli and I are on our way home from 8 sun-soaked days in Cancun, both of us excited to be back in Portland. Cancun was a mixed bag for us, with unexpected (but completely predictable) downsides as well as some amazing highlights. It was a great trip and we had a lot of fun, but in the same breath I don't think we'd ever go back. Live and learn.
We realized on arrival that Cancun is all about traffic and tourism. There are some redeeming experiences: a meaty taco tour, gorgeous beach walks, delicious horchata. Here's what we did while not on Spring Break:
Despite taking off at 5 am our Portland -> Seattle -> Cancun flight was not just tolerable but relaxing. I luxuriated in multiple crosswords, finished all the podcasts I'd been meaning to for months, and finally read the NYT article on minimalism I'd had open since January. There were no screaming babies or serial sneezers. I didn't even regret the absence of a seat-back screen or mid-flight meal.
Once we landed and got through customs we decided to bus to our hotel, like all neurotic Portlanders must. We got tickets for an ADO bus that would get us to downtown Cancun, where we'd catch another bus that would take us to our hotel. It sounds like a lot, but was actually an enjoyable adventure through a new landscape. On the trip into downtown Cancun we watched a Spanish movie about a devastating earthquake on the bus ride in, and we got to see the less-toured side of the city.
The rest of the day was boring: checking in, unpacking, finding water, getting dinner. We fell asleep after bingeing Bon Appetit videos, as one should.
Sunday: The North Strip
I slept in until 8:30 am (cue gasp). We spent most of the day walking, first along the beach (gorgeous), then along "The Strip" just off the beach (aggressively capitalist), then eventually back to our hotel (hot and sticky). We delighted in novelties from Mexican bodegas, stopped somewhere nondescript for lunch, and basked in the late-stage capitalism of la Zona Hotelera. While walking we talked about how uncomfortable it was to be in such a touristy place, and what else we might like to do with our vacation time in the future. It's not that this vacation was bad, but that we realized we prefer relaxing in places where walking and biking are easy, and where there's more to do than buy things.
Once home we lazed on the beach until sunset, then went to La Joya for dinner. I had found this restaurant online, with middling reviews among the slue of in-hotel sit-down restaurants. We went expecting about the same experience you'd get at a Chili's and were so delightfully wrong. First came the 'compliments of the chef', which put Olive Garden's unlimited breadsticks to shame. We were brought free tortilla chips with three types of dipping salsa, a platter with 4 types of rolls and 3 types of butter, and the most adorable cups of fresh ceviche. About 20 minutes into our meal an 8-piece MARIACHI BAND came out and serenaded each table (including ours!), singing to awkward and enchanted diners alike. While I think being sung to is generally uncomfortable (evidenced by every wait-staff rendition of 'Happy Birthday' ever), this was somehow lovely - there was so much to take in with the mariachi costumes and instruments, and the songs were beautiful. It was more romantic than I expected. We lingered over drinks for a while after dinner, then were brought fresh churros with vanilla and chocolate dipping sauces along with our check before floating home to bed.
Monday: Downtown Cancun
We spent Monday in downtown Cancun, walking and bussing around the city. I was on a mission from God to find pastel de platano (since New Seasons tragically discontinued theirs), so we started at the delightful but cake-less European-style bakery El Globo. Conchas in hand we walked about 30 minutes south to breakfast at Cafe Antoinette, a bougie French-style cafe, before continuing to Parque Urbano Kabah. We meandered the loop trail through the 100-acre nature reserve, enjoying the exotic flora and fauna as well as the coolness of the shaded path. One of our least favorite things about Cancun was the prevalence of fast traffic in both the Hotel Zone and Downtown, so it was also relaxing to not deal with cars for a while. After tiring ourselves out on the trail we made our way back to home base to rest up for the main event: A TACO TOUR.
Our guide, Cayetano, picked us up at our hotel where we met our fellow touring couple, a med school student and civil engineer from Richmond, Virginia. No shade to Cayetano, but I had as much fun talking to Sonia and Connor as I did listening to his fun facts about Cancun (which is to say: a lot). We started the tour in a rough neighborhood north of the city center at a literal concrete bunker turned restaurant, Loncheria El Pocito. Despite the disquieting location and lackluster atmosphere, the food was phenomenal. The pork had been slow roasted all day, and was mouthwateringly flavorful. Hands down my favorite taco of the night (though....I was also the hungriest for this one).
Next we patroned Taqueria Coapenitos, whose signature taco featured crumbled chicharrón and avocado atop it's pork filling. Our least remarkable stop, but still a tasty taco.
Our third stop was Tacos Rigo, a bright and colorful place serving variety meat tacos. This is where I learned that "variety meat" doesn't mean multiple meats, but parts of the animal other than skeletal muscle: tongue, liver, eye-socket, brain, etc. Everyone else ordered a taco with connective tissue from between the lungs and ribs. To me they all sounded equally gross, so I ordered the 'mixed' meat which looked most finely minced and therefore unrecognizable, not realizing this order would elicit a disgusted "Oh" from our guide. He said, verbatim "I can't wait to see your face when you take a bite". Anything once, right? The taco honestly didn't taste that bad but had an extremely unsettling texture, which resulted in a one-bite visit for me. But it was honestly something I would never have tried if not on the tour, and was certainly a unique experience!
The last restaurant was La Parilla, where we had tacos al pastor then got to head back to the kitchen to make a few tortillas. This was declared the favorite by Cayetano, Connor, and Eli, so I guess it's good? But by this point I was still queasy from my offal taco and couldn't stomach more meat. We walked a few blocks to a Mexican ice cream chain and desserted before being driven back to our hotels, happy and very full.
Tuesday: Playa del Carmen
On Tuesday we took an ADO bus an hour south to Playa del Carmen, a small coastal town that we ended up loving. Our bus stopped right on the main street, which is closed to cars 🙌. We walked a few minutes to the Frida Kahlo Museum, a small but aesthetic and well-curated collection of facts, stories, prints, and best of all work by other artists about or inspired by Frida. There weren't any originals, though allegedly they had one when they first opened but had to move it because of the humidity. We got there just as a tour was starting in Spanish, which was so much more informative and interesting than just going through the museum.
A brief detour on Spanish. My Spanish is maybe 6 out of 10, and like everyone with non-fluent languages it's easier to understand than speak. One thing I realized on this trip was that so much of language comprehension is just parsing (if only life could have subtitles). Luckily the tour guide spoke clearly and loudly, so even though the Spanish was more complex than your everyday interactions it was actually way easier to understand than the mumbling bodega clerk.
I knew the broad strokes about Kahlo before the museum: her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera, her perpetually broken body, and something something communism. The finer details are incredible though, and I learned so much from this tour. Did you know she kept monkeys and other exotics animals as pets in her courtyard garden, and believed they shared her spirit (similar to the idea of familiars)? Did you know she made Rivera sign a contract before they wed, stating that she would maintain full ownership of her house? Or that they got divorced and remarried in the same year? Or that she allegedly had an affair with LEON TROTSKY? From gory details of her injuries, to her compassion for people and animals, to her fashion choices, and of course most of all her evocative art, Frida was a larger than life figure and I loved learning about her.
Once we'd seen everything in the museum twice we lunched before heading to the 3D Optical Illusion Museum, which was honestly one of the strangest experiences I've had (this, after eating cow tongue the day before). The museum is located in what looks to be an office park, though once inside it takes on a more grandiose quality. The first part of the experience is a looping 15 minute video circa 1989 about 3D chalk art and it's down-trodden creators. The strangest part was not watching full-grown adults curse at the rain but being the only two people in a hundred-person amphitheater. We left the video early and were met by our guide, who we learned would be taking our picture in front of every single illusion. She was incredibly nice and slightly goofy, and it was equal parts fun and awkward stage and shoot each picture with her. She was a pro photographer, and a lot of the shots came out great, but it was bizarre to experience something that was only for the eyes of instagram. There wasn't anything particularly neat about the illusions on their own, and striking the same poses as everyone else felt so blatantly unoriginal. It wasn't bad per se, but weird.
After our photoshoot we wandered back down main street to the beach, where we hung out people-watching until we got hungry and decided to head home. The ADO buses play movies for each trip, and for our 90 minute ride back we got to enjoy the entirety of Goosebumps 2 with Spanish dubs 🤌.
Wednesday: Isla Mujeres
We took a ferry to Isla Mujeres, a thin island just off the coast. Unlike Playa del Carmen we weren't entirely sure what there was to do on the isla, but we figured we would get there and just wander around. After a quick snack we found a paved waterfront path along the north coast, which was picturesque and nearly empty. It ended too soon though, and we decided to walk inland and south to try to find a brewing company we'd heard about. After a short, hot, terrifying walk along the side of the road then a long, hot, terrifying taxi ride to the brewery we discovered it was in fact an American ex-pat selling homebrewed beer out of a small shack. You had to get at least four bottles and could not drink it on the property. We left and tried to justify our trip south, but after a bit of wandering found that this was not an area intended for tourists. We taxi'd back to the downtown area, gave one last attempt at wandering around before giving up on the island and ferrying home.
Thursday: The South Strip
We rose bright and early Thursday morning to take ✨engagement photos✨ at sunrise on the beach. It was a gorgeous morning, and taking photos was both more fun and more awkward than anticipated. It was fun because most things with Eli are fun, and we got to just be goofy together on the beach. It's also so different from most picture taking endeavors, where you smile and pose for 60 seconds instead of 60 minutes. Our photographer, Jorge Rodriguez, was amazing - he was kind and good at posing us without doing too much directing. He even brought champagne for us to pop 🥂! We also weren't expecting to lay down in the sand, so left the shoot soaking and coated in tiny rocks.
After going home to change and eat we went to the Mayan Museum. We expected this to be a small, underfunded endeavor meant to satisfy dad's dragged to Cancun by their families (apparently we have really low expectations for most things??). Instead it was a gorgeous facility, reminiscent of the Malibu Getty museum. Most of the museum by area is an outdoor Mayan archaeological dig, while most of it by content is inside. We started outside, basically walking through a blissfully quiet and shady park and looking at real Mayan ruins and archaeological digs. The ruins were cool, but the lizards were awesome. We saw at least 4 different species of lizard, a handful of each species. There were owls and other neat birds too, as well as hundreds of gorgeous mangroves. Once we'd seen everything outside we headed into the museum, an expansive and incredibly well-preserved collection of Mayan artifacts with detailed information. We learned that the Mayans predated the Incans and Aztecs by about a thousand years, that they were incredibly advanced, and that they loved sports.
Another tangent: one thing we noticed in Mexico was how alive and vibrant native cultures are. Native cultures are completely normal and highly respected throughout the community, and there's clear and consistent efforts to preserve native land and traditions. Seeing people in elaborate native costumes on the street was rare but not a big deal, and many people talked about Mayans and other native tribes in the present tense, as neighboring communities. It wasn't perfect by any means, and I'm sure we missed a lot of nuance. But since Mexico has a much more homogenous population, with most people descending from native tribes, there's an entirely different attitude towards native culture than in the US. It helped me imagine what the world could be like if that was the case in America, and gave me a small taste of just how poorly we treat our own native Americans.
After our excellent museum adventure we lunched at a muy fancy restaurant, Porfirio's, a runner up to my pick for my birthday lunch. It was about 2 pm so we literally had the place to ourselves, and sat on the patio overlooking the lagoon. It was very fancy and very delcious, right down to the grasshopper guacamole (crunchy).
Friday: My Birthday
Finally, the raison d'être for the entire trip: my birthday! I had spent months daydreaming about what I wanted to do, and while it might sound mundane to most it was overall an ideal day. We started out downtown in continued pursuit of banana cake, and made a pit stop at Krispy Kreme for a free birthday do[ugh]nut. We had breakfast at the mall food court which sounds terrible but was surprisingly good, including the Christmas music that played through the whole meal. After exhausting possible cake locations at the mall we made our way across town to a cute coffee shop, then on to a bookstore.
I've realized recently that I love bookstores. Of course I'm completely spoiled by Powell's, but even visiting the local bookstore in Napa I was enchanted and spent hours there. I think it's the potential in them - you could learn so many things in a book store, and I love finding both new and old books to add to my TBR (to be read) list. Visiting a bookstore in a country with another language is strange though because you're expected to be fluent. What is there for a tourist in a bookstore? Not only would you not be able to use anything past the coloring books and kids books, but if you did you'd have to lug it on a plane ride with you. This bookstore was well designed but, as I discovered, had the above fatal flaws of a foreign bookstore.
After exhausting our todos downtown we went to my chosen birthday lunch spot: Casa Rolandi. While not the first or even third fanciest meal we had in Cancun, it was a great choice. A mid-range Italian seafood joint with a patio overlooking the Nichupte lagoon, our food was delicious and the atmosphere was chill. It felt both special and comfortable, and the free [birthday] tiramisu didn't hurt either. I feel like free birthday desserts are one of the last truly free things in this world, and it makes them taste even sweeter.
We got home earlier than expected and felt conflicted about what to do that night. I had only planned through my birthday lunch, knowing that I'm not a "night person". But it felt sad to stay in on Valentine's Day and just watch TV. We also were definitely not up for staying awake until 10 to go to a club. We ended up seeing the Sonic movie with Spanish dubs, which was a blessing and a curse. Without weed the only thing that could make the Sonic movie interesting enough to sit through was the challenge of watching it in Spanish, which was honestly great. Dumb jokes are funnier in foreign languages, as if speaking at a 2nd grade level also gives you a 2nd grade sense of humor. The downside was that didn't get to hear Jim Carrey's voice for his portrayal of Docotr Robotnik though, which...may require getting high and rewatching.
So, with the other 5th graders we headed home around 9 to fall into the rabbit hole of people who don't have internal monologues before hitting the hay.
Saturday: Underwater Museum
We had planned to visit the Underwater Museum, but due to a Google maps mix-up ended up missing our boat. We were refunded the tickets, but were seriously bummed that we missed such a special place we had really been looking forward to. Tears were shed, but we walked it off and spent the rest of the day going from pool to ocean to pool. I was only upset until I did Zumba on the beach with the other moms at our resort, after which it was physically impossible to be anything but joyous. Needless to say we were ready to go home like...yesterday.
Sunday: Homeward Bound
And finally, our last day had come. Eli and I both have anxiety around international airports, probably because we grew up just post-9/11 when you got to the airport at least 90 minutes before your flight took off. We also had 2 buses to take to get there, so we basically woke, ate, packed, bussed, and then boarded our plane.
While we enjoyed the sun, the Spanish, and each other's company, we also learned a lot about what we don't like in our vacations. I'm writing this AC (after covid), and honestly doubt I will even remember this trip as it's overshadowed by covid, our wedding, our (hopeful!) trip to Tokyo in the fall, and other birthday trips to come.