An enjoyable trip to the Cancun area (incl. Merida, Yucatan) (long)

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shahrukh.s.merchant

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Jan 15, 1991, 5:34:17 PM1/15/91
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I visited Cancun, Mexico, recently, and thought I'd give my opinions
and recommendations, both as an update for those who were kind
enough to send me information on Cancun, and also as information
for others considering a trip to that area.
We flew into and out of Cancun and travelled to Merida,
with stops at Cozumel, Valladolid and Chichen Itza. This article
is based upon this 9-day itinerary.
The summary is: (1) If you want to spend your time at the
resorts and beaches, and not much else, this article will tell you
very little. Press "n" (or the equivalent on *your* newsreader)
now. (2) I would highly recommend renting a car and getting out of
Cancun and touring the Yucatan region also, including Merida. (If
it weren't for the fact that most flights from the US to that
region of Mexico go into Cancun, Merida would seem a much better
base for seeing the region than Cancun.) (3) We really enjoyed
ourselves!
Below are some more details on specific places and some
random "useful information." Would appreciate feedback on these
suggestions after your trip. Have fun!

CANCUN: The "Hotel Zone," on Isla (Island) Cancun, is *very*
touristy and basically has a row of hotels (mostly the
International chains) and some condos. If you like beaches, this
area certainly has nice beaches (very fine, white sand) and deep-
blue waters, but if you want cultural, as opposed to solar,
exposure, this will give you zero.
The downtown area, which is Cancun proper, is also quite
touristy but at least is also a real city. It has markets at which
the residents shop, good restaurants where you can get good food
inexpensively and the hotels are much cheaper.
Recommendations for restaurants:
(1) El Tapatio and (2) Las Tejas, both on Uxmal Ave (near Palmera
Street, just a block or two from Tulum Ave). El Tapatio is a local
restaurant and not fancy, so you won't see many tourists there.
The staff will know less English, too, but will make you feel
welcome. Las Tejas seems a mixed local/tourist restaurant--a good
compromise if you want bilingual menus and a better decor, without
feeling like you're in a tourist trap. (3) El Huachinango Feliz
(The Happy Snapper) in Puerto Juarez, just a few kilometres from
downtown Cancun, and easily reachable by a less-than-$2 taxi ride.
Try their delicious Shrimp (Camarones) Ceviche (a regional
specialty, but I especially liked theirs). It's on the main street
as you're coming from Cancun, on the left (yes, these vague
directions are quite sufficient to find it!).
If you want the touristy kind of restaurants with "happy
hours," items like hamburgers and Surf & Turf on the menus, etc.,
you'll have to get recommendations elsewhere (but there's no
shortage of them, even in Downtown Cancun).
Recommendation for hotel: Hotel Parador on Tulum Avenue.
Central location, decent rooms, good prices (off-season rate till
December 15 of $25 for a double), free(!) local phone calls.
Next door to the tourist office.
Speaking of the tourist office, do stop by there and pick
up a copy of Cancun Tips and Cancun Scene, if someone didn't
already give you one at the Airport. Useful maps and practical
information in them.

MERIDA: Unexpectedly, our favourite place! Unlike Cancun, this is a
real city--the largest in the Yucatan but very charming. Yes,
there are tourists, but they intermingle with the residents--I don't
think we saw any "tourist attraction" that wasn't attended by as many
local residents as tourists. The wide and cosmopolitan "Paseo Montejo"
has been likened to Paris's Champs Elysses. It is very pleasant to
stroll down, stopping at one of the many sidewalk cafes for dinner.
The "Downtown" area has quite a different feel--narrower streets,
less affluence, still charming.
Stop by the tourist office at Calle 60 x 57 y 59 (reads "60th
street between 57th and 59th streets") when you get in, and
pick up copies of Yucatan and Yucatan Today. It has lists of cultural
events, hotel listings, shopping tips, etc. The tourist office
also has a rate sheet with current prices on all hotels and will
even call up one of your choice to see if they have a room.
A note on the daily cultural events: These are in different
locations in the downtown area, and apparently done by different
groups. I would highly recommend going to one or more of these shows,
which are like a variety-show entertainment of regional dances,
guitar trios, operettas, etc. These are all free and are attended by
residents as well as tourists. It's not just a tourist show--the
performers all seem to have a real pride in what they are doing,
and in the fact that they are preserving a cultural tradition.
These shows are in Spanish but very enjoyable for non-speakers too.
We spent a day longer than we had planned to in Merida, and
walked around without a specific agenda and just experienced the city
for the most part. From all the places we went to, Merida was the
most conducive to doing this. For example, during the 3 days we
were there, we happened upon (1) book fairs (2) street artists and
(3) a political rally, among other things, in the main square
(Plaza de la Independencia) alone!
Streets are numbered systematically, with even-numbered
streets running North-South and odd-numbered streets East-West.
Parking is theoretically not allowed on the downtown streets
(we never did quite figure out the rules...), especially at night.
The hotel clerk seemed quite sure that there would be no problem
with ticketing or towing if we did, though. He proved to be
right. We parked on the street just outside the hotel for the
whole time we were there with nary a problem. No guarantees that
it will work for you....
Restaurants: (1) The prominent "Las Brazas" on Paseo Montejo
was fun for outdoor snacking; say "Hello" to Daniel--he's the one
at the rotisserie, making the delicious "Tacos al pastor" and "Las
gringas" (is that a dig at Americans? it was my favourite dish
there, at any rate). (2) Los Almendros at Calle 50A x 57 y 59 was
recommended to us as a result of a request I had posted on this
newsgroup several weeks ago and lived up to its recommendation.
It's a somewhat fancier restaurant than most we'd been to, with
air-conditioning and linen tablecloths, but by that point in our
trip we didn't really mind discovering that we didn't have to seek
out little out-of-the-way holes-in-walls to get authentic regional
food (most of the diners there seemed to be local residents, though
the place was set up to accommodate tourists also). It didn't even
cost much more than the plainer places.

TOURIST OFFICES: Worth a stop there to pick up literature and get
hotel information. They tend to be open for longer hours than I'm
used to in the US (e.g., 8 a.m. - 8 p.m. daily) and give you free
maps, etc. We found them very pleasant and helpful, but don't
expect fluent English--they seemed to be staffed by trainees much
of the time. Also, the tourist office, in the towns that have
them, is often the only place you can get Hotel rates. You can get
hotel listings from any number of places, but for one that includes
rates, you have to go to the Tourist office, where they'll let you
look at their copy upon request.
The one in Cancun is located at Aves Tulum & Uxmal, near
the Hotel Parador. Pick up Cancun Tips and Cancun Scene there.
The one in Merida is at Calle (street) 60 between calles 57 and 59.
Pick up the quarterly "Yucatan" and the monthly "Yucatan Today"
(both these bilingual publications are free) there.

CAR RENTALS: Expensive in Cancun. Typical daily rates are ~$65
for a VW Beetle + $10/day insurance (w/ $1000 deductible) + 15% tax
on the whole thing. Discounts for longer rentals are typically
"7th day free with 6 days' rental." Above rates are for unlimited
mileage, and can be quite a bit less if you want to pay by the mile
just for the convenience of having a car locally (hardly necessary
for local transportation since taxis are inexpensive).
My advice is: DON'T rent at the airport. Instead, do some
shopping around after you get into town (it's only an $8 taxi ride
into town). Check out the ads in Cancun Tips and Cancun Scene,
available free at the Tourist Information office on Tulum Av (also
at the airport and some hotels). After a fair amount of shopping
around, we found Elite car rental, which charged us $310 for a
weekly rental including unlimited mileage, tax and insurance with
NO deductible. It was significantly better than anything else we
could find (comparable rate $540). We had to pay cash (at the end
of the rental) for this price, but even the credit-card price of
$380 was much less than others. Strangely enough, though Elite has
several branches in Cancun, only the branch in the Club Vista hotel
in the Hotel Zone (Phone: 3 08 55 Ext 501, ask for Demetrio) would
give this special rate. The other offices quote the standard rate,
and if you press them will refer you to the Club Vista office and
even get Demetrio on the phone for you for you to check prices and
availability! These prices were his standard prices that were
published on his rate sheet; we did not try to bargain them down,
since they were already significantly lower than anything else, but
that may be an option, especially for the higher-priced companies.
Another thing to consider: We read that Hertz has an
"Affordable Mexico" program with rates lower than those we got, but
you have to do this way in advance from the US (get a confirmation
voucher to present at the non-computerized local office!). I
suspect other major US rental companies will have good rates if you
reserve in advance. I'd suggest getting the best rate you can from
Avis, Hertz, National or Budget, make a reservation, and if it's
not much better than the standard rates quoted above, try to better
it locally.
There seemed to be more competition amongst rental
companies in Merida (320 km from Cancun) as it seems to be more of
a buyers' market, but most flights go into Cancun.
All in all, I'd definitely recommend renting a car; one has
access to so much more!

CHICHEN ITZA: Falls into the category of "touristy-but-for-good-reason."
The most impressive archaeological site in the area and justifiably
famous. A few suggestions here:
1) Skip the guides at $25 for 1-1/2 hours. They tell you all the
standard stuff and make up a bunch of other stuff. Everything they
say is available in one of the books that the on-premises bookstore
sells for about $6. I don't like burying my head in a book while
sightseeing either, but the descriptions of each of the structures
is short enough that you can read it in a couple of minutes and
then enjoy seeing it. We found the guide book very satisfactory.
The one that we got was a little red one called "Descriptive Guide
Book to Chichen Itza--Updated, Easy, Complete" by Prof. Gualberto
Zapata Alonzo, an archaeologist.
2) If you read any guide book or tourist literature, it will tell you
"Go early and avoid the rush" at Chichen Itza. I would endorse
that; it was such a depressing sight going into the parking lot
at 2 in the afternoon and seeing it filled with 50 tour buses, that
we just went away and came back the next morning. The good news is that
"early" does not mean waking up at 6:00 a.m.! Though the site
opens at 8:00 a.m. (I think) we got there at 10 and there was only
one bus and the site was quite uncrowded and pleasant to walk
through.
3) For meals, the town of Piste, just 2 kilometres away, has several
nice restaurants serving local specialties along the main road.
Your admission ticket to the archaeological site lets you come back
later in the day (though you have to pay your $2 parking fee again)
and I would recommend going to Piste rather than eating the
westernized Mexican food at the on-site cafeteria-style restaurant.
4) Most books say that you need at least 2 days to do justice to
the site. That's probably true if you have a special interest in
archaeology and Chichen Itza is one of the main reason for your going.
If, as for us, it is one of many things you want to see within
limited time, 1/2 day would be quite satisfactory. I would suggest
going in the morning and returning after lunch if you feel you'd like to
see more. There is a sound and light show in the evenings too that
we didn't see as they were having electrical problems. I didn't miss
it, but it may have been nice.
5) The information [sic] desk at the site has very little. They
don't even have maps of the site or even a crude information
sheet and will reply in monosyllables if asked questions (even in
Spanish). It seems to be a pretty blatant attempt to give the
bookstore/souvenir shop and tour guides extra business. To be
fair, the bookstore doesn't seem to take too much advantage
of their position--their prices seem fair enough. Just so you
know, though. By the way, if you do get a guidebook, get one that
mentions the acoustics of the Ball Court--very interesting, and if
there aren't too many people or a strong wind, you can try it out
yourself.
6) Do see the nearby Balankanche Caves (see separate description)!
It's close to the Chichen Itza site.
7) All national historical sites are free on Sundays. If saving
the $4.50 admission price (similar prices at other sites) or
seeing Mexican families on an outing is important to you, you can
consider this.

BALANKANCHE CAVES: This is just a few kilometres east of Chichen Itza.
It's mentioned in guidebooks and well marked from the main highway,
but for some reason is ignored by most tourists and tour groups
going to Chichen Itza. Even the tourist office in Cancun did not
have information about it! This is a series of caves originally
inhabited by the Mayans and several Mayan artifacts have been
discovered there and are now displayed inside the caves. The caves
themselves are quite impressive with their stalactites and
stalagmites, rock formations, etc. An underground spring runs
through a portion of the caves and, at the guide's encouragement,
we sipped the water from the spring--*very* good, clear, water.
It's hot and humid in the caves, so it's not for the
claustrophobic, but otherwise I would recommend it. It takes about
an hour or less to get through. Only by guided tour at appointed
hours, some tours in English, others in Spanish. They will only do
the tours for between 6-20 people. If there are fewer than 6, as
there were when we went, they cancel it, but give you the option of
buying the extra tickets yourself. So two other people and we
paid an extra 50% each and took the tour anyway. Call ahead or
drop by and find out when the English tour is so you can plan your
day accordingly.

VALLADOLID/DZITNUP: Valladolid is a town that probably has more to
offer than we availed of; we only used it as a convenient stopping
point between Cancun and Chichen Itza. On the main square is a
restaurant area, comprising an open-air courtyard seating area,
surrounded by many small (and competing) restaurants serving snacks
and meals. Pick your favourite and have the delicious "Panuchos"
(an open-faced soft corn tortilla topped with chicken or pork,
onions, tomatoes, salsa).
We stayed at the adequate "Maria de la Luz" hotel on the
main square. A note of caution: The main thoroughfare through the
town runs right through the main square. If you are a light
sleeper, find a hotel in a quieter part of town, otherwise rumbling
trucks may keep you up much of the night!
In Dzitnup, just a few kilometres west of Valladolid, stop
by the Cenote Dzitnup, an underground cavern/well, with the usual
cave formations, an opening in the middle through which sunlight
streams at midday, and a water pool in which blind salamander and
other fish swim. You can swim too. Good for an hour or two
diversion. Two adorable 7-year-old brothers will, for tips,
"mind your car" and take you through the cave. The "guide's" story
of the cave is sufficiently interesting and the delivery
sufficiently cute that one is quite willing to overlook one's
suspicion that it might be somewhat embellished; and even though
the car really doesn't need minding, 1000 pesos (35 cents) will
thrill the "car minder" and not dent your budget at all. (He'll be
even happier with little knick-knacks like ball-point pens and the
like!) Remember to take a swimsuit and towel if you plan on
jumping in.

COZUMEL: An island south of Cancun. A popular destination for
some tourists. We just stayed there overnight, and didn't explore
it. If you go there, try to include a Sunday evening, when at
9:00 or so, residents get dressed up and are joined by tourists at
an open-air "party" in the main square, near the ferry dock.
A band will play in the gazebo and food and soft drink vendors will
sell their wares. Fun to mill around and watch people having "good
clean fun."
Warning: The 40 min-to-1 hour "jet" boat ride from Playa
del Carmen is in an enclosed modernistic boat, but the seas can get
a little choppy. Take travel sickness medication if you're *at all*
susceptible, or take the slower and larger (but better ventilated
and presumably less rocky) regular ferry over. If you choose to
take the jet boat all the way from Cancun, remember: you were
warned!!

XEL-HA: Between Cancun and Tulum, on a day trip down the coast from
Cancun. This is an unusual natural lagoon, with very clear water
and lots of fish. You can rent snorkelling gear and swim right
amongst the fish. There are lots of them, and they'll bump against
your toes and look you in the eyes--quite an interesting
experience! (If you don't go in the water, though, there's not
much to see.)

COCOANUTS: I was surprised to find them less widely available than
I would have thought. I'm referring to the large green cocoanuts,
from which one can drink the sweet water and then scrape out the
delicious soft "flesh" or "meat." Finally located them in Tulum,
on the coast, south of Cancun. Tulum is known for a small
archaeological site and a large assortment of tourist shops
surrounding it, but it was late when we got there so we
skipped the ruins (since we would be seeing the big one at Chichen
Itza later) and drank lots of cocoanut water at the shop next to
the ticket counter instead! After you drink the water, make sure
to return the shell for the man to slice in half, providing access
to the white flesh on the inside. He will slice you an improvised
scoop from the outer shell, with which you can scrape off and eat
the delicious flesh. (Why does "COCOANUTS" justify as much space
in this article as "COZUMEL"? Because I *love* them! You may
too!)

DRIVING: The books recommend not to do inter-city driving at night.
I agree! The roads are narrow, the lanes unmarked, the oncoming
headlines blinding, suicidal pedestrians and bicyclists are trying
to share your narrow lane and the cars drive at 100 km/hr and
more. During the day, this was no problem at all, but it was quite
harrowing and very stressful at night for one who wasn't used to
it. For short distances and within the cities, of course, there's
no problem. (See information on gas stations under SAFETY/CRIME.)

SAFETY/CRIME: Generally, we felt very safe walking around any of the
places we visited, even in secluded places at night. Also, with
one notable exception, we did not feel that people would overcharge
or try to take advantage of us. (Of course, at stores where prices
are not marked, and a few where they are too, bargaining is
expected, and the first price quoted is much too high, but I'm
referring only to *illegal* cheating:-)) The exception was the
attendants at the government-operated "Pemex" gas stations. We
filled up our car about 5-6 times during the trip.
On *every one* of those times, an attempt was made to cheat us.
The gasoline price is fixed by the government at 710 pesos/litre
(at the time). The most common attempt was "rounding up," not just
to the nearest 100 (3 cents), which is standard practice, or even
1000 pesos, but often much more. Others included charging $4 for
half a litre of oil (just previously, we had paid $1.50 for a full
litre), not zeroing out the pump before starting, etc. The amounts
were small by US standards--just a dollar or two--but it was very
annoying on principle. My suggestions: Get out of the car and
make sure the pump is zeroed before they start, ask for gas only by
a number of litres rather than a fill-up (and precompute the
price), and find out the price for auxiliaries (oil, etc.) before
he adds any. It is customary to tip a few hundred pesos for the
usual "full serve" services--a lot of times they will add it on
themselves and give you a price several hundred pesos higher.
Again, do the calculations yourself, so *you* can decide whether
you want to give a tip.

PRICES: Hotel rooms about $25 off-season for a double with bath in
Downtown Cancun ($15-20 elsewhere) for "3-star" hotels. This is the
Mexican classification--would probably translate to about 1-star in the
US. They were adequate--some more than others--and clean (though
perhaps a little dusty in spots). For another $10, you could go up
a noticeable step. All hotels are required to keep an official
price list. Note that this is the maximum price and while you
cannot haggle over these prices the same way one might at a
souvenir shop, the prices can be negotiable. One would just use a
different approach: you wouldn't say "That's too high--I won't pay
a peso more than 40,000," but perhaps "Hmmm, my budget was only 50,000
pesos. Could I possibly get it for that?" If they have a surplus
of rooms, or if your stay is longer than 1 night, or if the manager
is in a good mood, you could get a small break. Doesn't hurt to
ask.

MONEY: Rate was about 2900 pesos per US$ when we went. The airport
bureaus gave 2750, so change a little there to get into town and
the bulk at a money changer or bank. The posted rates may not
include a commission, so make sure you ask about that. There is no
difference between the cash and travellers' cheques' rates in the
places that we changed money at. US$ are accepted at the tourist
places quite readily, and at some not-so-touristy places, but
everyone accepts pesos, so you would be well advised to change
enough for your needs. At smaller towns, US$ may not be accepted
at shops and restaurants, and you may be forced to change them at
an unfavourable rate if you don't have enough pesos. Also, keep
some of your US$ (perhaps $100+) in cash, as it is easier to change
than travellers' cheques in out-of-the way places.

GUIDE BOOKS: Few guide books seem to offer much in the way of
information about the out-of-the-way or non-touristy places that
can often offer the most rewarding experiences on a trip. After
some browsing through a few books on Cancun in a Cancun bookstore,
the one that looked like it had more than most was "Cancun
Handbook" by Chicki Mallan, published by Moon Publications,
Inc. (Phone: 800-345-5473 in the US). It is also very good in the
"practical information" department, with hotel listings, maps,
ferry timetables, etc. I recently also noticed (after our return) a
book on "Yucatan" in a US bookstore by the same author and
publisher, which also seemed good.

WEATHER: Mornings were regularly clear and afternoons just as
consistently cloudy or partly cloudy. So if you want to get sun on
a beach, do it in the morning. Daytime temperatures in December in
Cancun were 70-80 F and it got as cool as ~60 F at night with a bit
of a breeze. Merida was slightly warmer. So a sweater is
necessary if you go in winter. We were told that it was cooler
than normal for the time of year, but we weren't complaining, since
we were also told that the week before we got there it had rained
all week!

HEALTH: Books give you the usual cautions about food and water. We
didn't get too paranoid about it, and didn't have any problems.
Perhaps we were lucky, but the general standard of hygiene seems
fairly good--better than many other countries I've been to!

SUMMARY OF RECOMMENDATIONS: There are 2 columns, one a "cultural
exposure" rating and the second an "overall" rating (which may be
quite different from the "cultural exposure" rating). All IMHO, of
course.

"Cultural" rating guide:
-----------------------
1=Indistinguishable from Miami (disclaimer: I've never been to Miami!)
3=Tourist-oriented, but provides some exposure to culture
5=Gives true insight into culture of region

"Overall" rating guide:
----------------------
1=Go if you've nothing else to do
3=Go if you're in the area
5=Worth planning your trip around.

RATING
Cultural Overall Comments
Cancun (hotel zone) 1 1 But good for ocean/beach
Cancun (downtown) 3 3
Cozumel 3 2 Based on very short stay
Merida 4 5
Chichen Itza 3 5
Valladolid/Dzitnup 4 3 Based on very short stay
Xel-Ha 2 4
Balankanche Caves 3 4


iBuen viaje!
Shahrukh Merchant
merc...@mvuxn.att.com

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