The Other Cancún

In Mexico, Uncategorized on May 16, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Photograph of Mexican youths, side street, Cancun.

The Ark Podcast: The Other Cancun

Each evening, Juan opens the bar, switches on the lights, and waits for customers. But it’s not a bad place to work – the third-floor terrace has no ceiling, because the air is almost always warm and dry. Breezes whisk across the floorboards and playfully lift the plastic tablecloths. Most nights are relaxed and easy, and even if that doesn’t mean much tip-money, he doesn’t have to scrub dishes in the scullery or push a mop.

And there’s the view – the lounge overlooks a wide plaza, and every single night of the week this square floods with families and merchants, teens and policia, taxi drivers and buskers. A half-shell stage looms over the scene, and every night there plays an endless, hours-long variety show – mariachi singers, modern dancers, a woman singing the Mexican national anthem, a fashion-show, a torch-singer, an acrobat – nearly any act imaginable. Juan serves drinks, then he goes to the bannister, listens to the music, and yearns for a cigarette.

“It’s good,” Juan says, shrugging. Juan is so petit and skinny that a shrug requires most of his bodyweight. “But what I really want to do? I want to be a tour guide.”

Juan is a full-time student and a full-time waiter. He and Carlos work nearly every night, no matter how busy or how void, because you never know when customers might show up, and they need all the hours they can get. Juan paces the deck, passing empty tables and long couches. Music videos are projected on the wall, like a 12-foot television set, and the music of Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera blasts through the open-air, but it doesn’t take long to ignore the flash and volume. Juan is busy dreaming.

His family still lives in Guadalajara, in a little house by the river. This river, Juan says, is the color of turquoise. “It looks exactly like the Gulf of Mexico,” he says, swollen with pride. When pressed to explain the color, Juan looks reluctant. “There are many stories,” he says. His grandfather used to say that there was a great battle fought at the river’s source. One army built a fort out of unusual stone, and when the fort was blasted apart, the sediments in the rock stained the water sky-blue. “I don’t know if this is true,” says Juan. “But that is what my grandfather says.”

When Juan came to Cancún, he arrived by bus. For the first time in his young life, Juan watched the Mexican landscape scroll past. He studied the arid hills for hours, slept a little, then studied them again, until he arrived at El Terminal Centro, right in the heart of Cancún.

The other Cancún, that is. Not the tiny slice that tourists know. Not the beaches or all-inclusive hotels. Here, Cancún is an actual, functional town.


In order to appreciate the other Cancún, you have to know La Zona Hotelera. This is the Cancún advertised in brochures. This is the Cancún that every American thinks of – a long peninsula of beaches and high-rise hotels, where every street is freshly paved, the lawns are manicured, and even the sidewalks are spotless. In the heart of La Zona, a colossal shopping complex houses a Hard Rock Café and a variety of food-court restaurants. Sombreros cost $8, and customers can pay with U.S. currency. A man charges a small fee to take pictures with his boa constrictor, and his competitor is another guy with a monkey.

The streets are lined with every kind of bar and dance-club, and the only hint of actual Mexican culture is the “flea-market,” which is actually just a large building full of permanent stalls and kiosks. The merchants are some of the pushiest in the world – first they offer their wares, like sandals and sunglasses, then marijuana, then cocaine, and finally chicas. La Zona is enormous and commercial and in no way represents the country it inhabits. Tourists must pass through customs at the airport, but they spend their time in an existential bubble – hotel shuttles carry them to hotel lobbies, every entertainment in La Zona is reachable by foot, and if visitors need a special amenity, they can reach Wal-Mart by bus (marked DOWNTOWN-HOTELS) for nine pesos, or 90 cents.

In this dualistic world, there is no sharper sign of segregation than the DOWNTOWN-HOTELS sign. These two words tell a big story: Yes, everybody can ride the bus, but locals have no business in La Zona. Unless they rent a stall, or work in a laundry room, or run a front desk, or tend a bar, few Cancúnos have any reason to visit La Zona. The stores and restaurants are far too expensive. After work, even the wildest bachelor doesn’t spend time in the Dos Equis Bar or take in the show at Coco Bongo. Miguel, a greeter at a place called El Sombrero, always goes home with an airport bottle of hard liquor and a container of fruit-juice. He surfs the Internet, plays music, and goes to sleep – every night of the year. His co-worker Martin does roughly the same, exactly that Martin has no computer, drinks malt liquor out of 40-oz. bottles, and he dreams of his wife and daughter, who live in Eastern Pennsylvania. Martin has not seen them in two years. Meanwhile, Miguel’s parents live in Texas. He hasn’t seen them in seven.


“I want to show people my country,” says Juan. “I want to show them the Mayan temples, and the land, and the food, and everything.”

Like many Cancúnos, Juan is all too happy to start conversation with tourists about women and booze. Inebriation and sex are the two major pastimes in La Zona, and that attitude filtrates into the rest of the city. But once he starts talking about studying hospitality at the university and learning English from American TV and his lifelong passion for history, Juan can’t stop talking. He is positively passionate about Mexico. Juan has no need to live in the United States. He’s just happy not to live in Northern Mexico, where kidnappings and murders are daily tragedies. Juan doesn’t love Cancún the way he loves his home in Guadalajara, but he feels a momentum to his life. He can imagine, with perfect clarity, talking through a microphone to a busload of tourists. He can envision a future.

This is what’s peculiar about The Other Cancún: The city isn’t poor by Mexican standards. Locals call the town “ugly,” but it’s also safe – women walk the alleyways at night, cabbies can be trusted, and the streets are guarded by truckloads of Federales – a dozen police in Kevlar vests and helmets, armed with AK-47’s, ride through the streets in search of trouble. Hotels are cheap and offer a setting for trysts, which are constantly happening. Far from the theatrics of the La Zona flea market, shopkeepers are modest and friendly. In The Other Cancún, there is an actual post office, an actual supermarket, an actual car-dealership and public park. When the plaza opens for evening festivities, everybody is welcome; there is no ticket booth, the rows of wooden chairs are available to anyone, and children wrestle in an inflatable tent.

Juan watches from his perch in the cocktail lounge, where martinis sell for 90 pesos – roughly the same as in the U.S. Juan makes his money and goes to class, makes his money and goes to class, over and over – but unlike his compañeros in La Zona, Juan plans to finish school at the end of the calendar year. Then, he might do anything. He could still wait tables here. He could look for a job. He could return to his beloved Guadalajara, as he did last year, and admire his ancestral river.

Life is not perfect in Cancún – most people would rather live in La Playa del Carmen, the beach-town located an hour south, where the streets are just as commercial but everything is scaled down, the atmosphere is calmer. La Playa is the new Cancún, and before long, even La Playa will probably be trumped by Tulum, an even smaller beach town that also boasts Mayan ruins. Visitors can still climb the steps of the Tulum ruins – unlike Chichen Itza – and the nightlife is less anarchic. Juan can picture himself in Tulum, working for a travel agency, guiding people around the village.

“I just have to improve my English,” he says, over and over, like a mantra. “I speak okay, but I want it to be perfect.”


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