Turtles to Tortillas in Cancun by Andrew Der

The baby sea turtles tickle my hand as they squirm to paddle against real or imagined currents, and upon release onto the quiet beach, they all spread out en masse like a reptilian carpet disappearing into the sea, leaving nothing but a cool breeze and smiles behind. An easy outstanding must-see opportunity for anyone to be in their own NatGeo special, I realize this is not your parents’ Cancun – nor to be viewed as only a party destination. To do so is a disservice to its exemplary conservation and resource appreciation, regional Mayan history, community service, premium beaches, scuba diving, outstanding food, and an easy low maintenance pampered family stay at bargain prices.

Who would have thought Cancun’s Marriot Casa Magna Hotel would be a leader in the area’s innovative local voluntary rare sea turtle conservation program? Coordinating with government and non-governmental protecting organizations, the hotel facilitates the collaboration of other beach front properties with their nest relocations and conservation. When visiting in the late summer or fall, upon arrival go see their protected nest hatching area and ask the managing staff to call you when they plan a turtle release.
First, the nests that have been relocated to Marriott’s beach-side hatchery shelter for protection and are due to hatch will be excavated by hand by Marriott volunteer staff and the hatchling turtles put in coolers and buckets for later beach release that evening under the cover of darkness. Unlike in the USA, one is allowed to touch and play with these cute but endangered creatures to promote public awareness and appreciation. The highlight is the evening beach release where guests help the little tykes into the water while the kids get to choose a turtle to hold, name and let go.

Cancun, Mexico’s most popular resort city and keystone gateway city to the Yucatan, is the area visitors know as mostly an island connected by a road way through the “hotel zone” – and may well be best to see off season in the late summer or fall to cure naive perceptions. Be ready to do anything, refrain from planning too much, flop on the best beaches, pick one main activity for the day and add the rest as you go – you can’t lose.

As for the tortillas, forget everything about what you think is Mexican dining in the USA and try everything – this region does seafood and native dish styles especially well. Some of it is a bit milder than one might expect and uncertain if it reflects actual regional cooking tastes or is “milded down” for possible wimpier American tastes, but if you are like me and demand borderline painful spiciness, ask for the fresh made habanero hot sauce on the side – a little dab will do ya (that was a sixties commercial). While the Marriott has an outstanding restaurant (try their breakfast buffet), local samplings of eateries is where the rubber meets the road if one has any affinity to authentic Mexican foods.
The hotel zone has a proactive water filtering and hygiene initiative, and visitors need not worry about intestinal problems of the old days – Cancun wants you to come back as well as tell your friends. I drank plenty of water and ate produce without incident, but it is still a good idea to bring some antibiotics (Cipro) in advance just in case. Restaurant choices are bountiful, so check your favorite travel guide book and follow up with the hotel staff for recommendations as they are too numerous to do them justice here.

For an extremely unusual dining experience, peruse the waterfront restaurants across from the hotel on the bay side and checkout the pier areas behind the eateries near the end of the day. In addition to spectacular dinner sunsets, watch for actual saltwater crocodiles (yes, as in Crocodile Dundee) feeding on scraps. In fact, some staff might warn you against dangling your legs over a pier if enjoying a sunset view near the water edge.

Cancun is also a comfortable home base for exploring the Mayan Riviera to the south for a myriad of beach and community experiences; all-inclusive resorts; archeology; the “hip” and luxurious Playa del Carmen; and the world renown scuba and cruise-ship hotspot Cozumel with huge reefs made famous by Jacques Cousteau in the 1960’s. Throw in astounding nature preserves and up and coming Tulum – an edgy offbeat yoga-centric green community with Mayan ruins and a biosphere reserve next door for the complete experience.

Take advantage of the competitively priced region with non-stop (a huge time saver) low cost U. S. carrier flights to Cancun from many gateway cities accompanied by bargain rate hotel packages for the pampering you deserve. The hotel zone is the way to go with family and the common and prevalent accommodation choices. All-inclusive and Spa resorts are also very popular in and around Cancun. The Marriott, or any hotel, makes a strategic one-stop-shop starting point to access any activity including ground transportation to other areas, ferry stops, and the best stores and restaurants.

Interaction with hotel staff and the community reveals the undiscovered Cancun we don’t see – an amazing one that permeates the air, promoting community and environmental stewardship where sustainable tourism is a win-win situation to the residents and visitors alike. As a leader among the hospitality industry, the Marriott for example, has spearheaded charitable training and career opportunities as well as environmental educational experiences for challenged local residents – the real backbone of why Cancun works so well.

Lest we forget, the main activity in Cancun is to just hit the beach – they are free in Mexico – and for a bit of variety, try the public beaches Playa Delfines and the calmer Playa Tortugas. If the kids come along, drop them off at Marriott’s famous Kids Club for supervised and stimulating activities and enjoy the decadent Spa services which include things I am not even familiar with (but I am a guy). I recommend the myriad of singles and couples massages indoors or on the beach in huts while listening to the surf. Mix it up with hotel beachfront and pool time in one of the largest and bluest pools, winding around walkways and open space in a river-like fashion. Finish off in the largest pool size hot-tub ever while drinks and snacks are served at poolside.

The exemplary hotel staff and concierge are effective guides on how best to experience Cancun including how to utilize taxis, buses, and “hawkers” services. Many vendors will approach you and mean well as they try to make their living through the opportunities visitors and tourism offers, but beware of some of the less well-meaning by making arrangements directly with the hotel. My first experience actually occurred as soon as I walked off the plane into the airport, where I was directed by uniformed staff to a formal airport information booth, only to be given an aggressive timeshare condo sales pitch before finally advising me on how to get the shuttle to the hotel zone – wow!? Fortunately, my post-airport mood softened quickly as I blended into the lesser known off-season Cancun experience.

A great place to start planning water activities is the hotel’s poolside water activity booth to arrange anything from sailing, kayaking, dolphin swims, snorkeling and diving. I took advantage of the easy low maintenance scuba diving they can arrange at Aquaworld in walking distance, a popular Caribbean vendor that also arranges dolphin swims and boat rides. The Marriott also offers resort scuba certification right at their pool for the easiest way to try it out. Resort courses are short classes allowing anyone without experience to dive for the first time with a certified guide and a great way to see if a full-fledged permanent certification is for you.

If a bigger and dedicated dive experience is not necessary, then save Cozumel Island – a top diving destination in the hemisphere – for another time as there are ample diving spots nearby with short boat rides and easier access to see corals, sea turtles, dolphins, rays and myriad of colorful fish. I not only saw that at a couple of popular dive locations close to Cancun, but for something really off the wall, a new and recently completed underwater sculpture garden with statues and VW Beetle replica for a touch of submerged art. Don’t feel like you are up to that yet? No problem. Just have the staff teach you to snorkel and see a lot without a tank.
The best way to see Cancun city is by the #2 bus or a taxi past the glut of malls to the commercial center starting with Mercado 28 – the popular open air shopping market for some real authentic goods. Clothes, bags, and leather boots are hot items. Be prepared to bargain and politely say no to the vendors, but, if done right, you can score some deals followed by an excellent meal.

Yes, there are shopping centers and Plaza Kukulcan, an American style mall, if necessary, but then guys can give in to their inner child if the shopping day gets long by visiting an actual genuine Harley Davidson dealership that not only sells Harley paraphernalia and bikes – but also rents them (stay calm). It is also a great place to get a Harley T shirt gift at a lot less than at the airport. OK – I am digressing and this may not be a big deal to some, but if you ride, then there is no better way to see the Mayan Riviera than a day drive along the coast. However, all the rest of you easy riders need not despair as motor scooter rentals are plentiful and anyone can drive them as an alternative.

Cancun is not apologetic, so acknowledge it as the party destination we grew up on and do an evening experience at the popular clubs – they are all in the hotel zone. Try Daddy O’s and The City followed by Azucar, Ultra Club and Terrace, Coco Bongo, and Daddy Rock. For something different, try Pac-Na Hostel on Isla Mujeres (see below) for a throwback beachfront hippie bar with bonfires. Actually, be even hipper than the Cancun crowd by opting for Playa Del Carmen on the Mayan Riviera after midnight. This is not only the most popular see-and-be-seen beach for the scantily clad but also considered the best nightlife zone where Cancun is so…well…yesterday. Try Blue Parrot Bar, Fah, and very edgy Playa 69 for liberal audiences only.
The best part of undiscovered Cancun is the severely under-publicized jewel of the region – the nearby smaller island of Isla Mujeres (Women’s Island) only a short ferry ride from Cancun, but in another entire world of remote serenity. Consider it perhaps “Cozumel light” and what the area was like years ago with a low-key rural flair. Secluded beaches with hammocks, oceanfront dining, and snorkeling are all available for a great price – free. Spectacular limestone cliffs, a sea turtle farm, lighthouse, and a small Mayan ruin at the remote end surrounded by a modern art sculpture garden provide an additional extraordinarily surreal mix for one place.

This island is amazing, so much so that I explored it twice. The ferry ride is fun and smooth with entertainment leaving from Cancun in two different locations from the hotel zone and one from downtown Cancun. When returning after sunset, that will be the only one running but spring for the cab at the arrival station back to the hotel. As a general rule, do not accept cab rides on the street in Cancun but only from the hotel and ferry hubs. The hotel staff can give you details on how and where and what rates to expect.
Popular Isla Mujeres attractions include the dolphin swim and Garrafon water park for family snorkeling, tankless scuba with a hose, zip lines, pool, and eateries, but can be a bit commercial and overpriced if all that is desired is beach and snorkel time. I prefer exploring on my own as an adventure with a rented golf cart. Scooters are fun also but a roof for the sun and occasional downpour is an advantage. Make sure to rent directly from one of the popular and visible shops as you get off the ferry. Don’t rent one in advance from the Cancun ferry ticket agent at the departure station. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but they steered me to a lesser known vendor with dilapidated carts and bad service.

Good mid-day stops are the local public beach access areas at no cost. My favorite is quiet and secluded Playa Indios with beach chairs, showers, hammocks, a snorkeling pier and docking area with a caged nurse shark, delicious beach side food, and drink service from a local eatery. This island is actually superior to Cancun on many levels and considered by many to have the best laid back beaches in the Yucatan offering serene surroundings and a midday siesta.

The southern-most tip of the Island at South Point is also the Eastern most point of Mexico and where the sunrise is seen first as noted on a sign along a spectacular limestone cliff hiking trail. Isla Mujeres “town” at the north end of the Island and the main community has ample local interests and many shops and walking areas including restaurants – and even very competitively priced clean and modern beachfront accommodations for those who reverse their stay to be on the island while ferrying to Cancun occasionally instead.

Don’t miss the less obvious local and historical cemetery of cultural interest with intricate and lavishly detailed headstones and monuments – folk artwork all on their own. I challenged myself to find the grave of a Mundaca the pirate from an obscure guide book and actually found his headstone crammed away between others – but this one is supposedly empty. Longing to discover my own off-the-beaten-path adventure not readily known to many visitors, my curiosity and research revealed a quirky history of the how this tomb came to be.

The Spanish named the Island upon learning it served as the sanctuary for the Mayan goddess of fertility with many female shaped idols of her daughters and daughters-in-law. After an uninhabited three century stretch of only pirates leaving their women on the island “for safekeeping” as well as alleged treasure, Mundaca arrived from Spain in 1858 acquiring his wealth from Mayan slavery in Cuba. His actual degree of pirating is unclear and may have been one of the more legitimate businessmen of his day, but Mundaca enjoyed his pirate reputation.

He also apparently turned out to be one of history’s few sensitive pirates, having fallen in love with an indigenous woman called “La Triguena” (the brunette) and dedicated to her his construction of the overlooked large hacienda now in ruins, named “Vista Alegre” (Happy View) near Playa Lancheros. With areas once used for livestock, birds, orchards and exotic gardens, this makes a pleasant stroll, but bring the bug repellant. When the Brunette married another, legend is Mundaca went insane and died in Mérida about 200 miles away never making it back to the now empty tomb he carved in memory of her. Find it in Isla Mujeres’ colorful, crowded cemetery, one street before Playa Norte at the north end with the headstone symbols of the skull and crossbones along with his carved goodbye note to the Mayan girl who never left saying “As you are, I was. As I am, you will be”.

Playa Norte is also the best place to for dinner and drinks for the most spectacular sunsets over Cancun itself at several outstanding beachfront restaurants. My favorite is Sunset Grill. The food is supreme (try their fresh fruit cocktails) and have a special deal for all day use of their beach, two chairs and shower along with food and drink. A favorite service is arranging for a romantic privately served table for two the staff puts right on the beach at the water’s edge for sunset dinner with evening lighting, breezes, and even serenades – a perfect way to end the last day of any stay.
Day trips from Cancun make great exploration opportunities for famous and not so famous regional sites including the Mayan Riviera, Cozumel, and Tulum, but the two staples are Chichen Itza and Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Inland from the coast, Chichen Itza has the most famous Mayan ruins in the world best representing pre-Columbian archeology and culture. Start with the visitor’s center followed by the famous 1500 year old Kukulkan Pyramid from TV and movies, and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Check out the Ball Court where a game called pok ta pok blended a form of soccer and basketball with religious significance and sacrifices. The Court is surrounded by temples with amazing statues and sculptures and for those following the Mayan prediction of world’s end on Dec. 22, 2012, the great warrior serpent Kukulkán is supposed to rise from beneath the playing field to end the world. Sian Ka’an (Mayan for Birth of Sun) Reserve, in another direction along the coast next to Tulum, is an ecotourism must-see featuring 1.3 million acres of water and wildlife nestled in rain forests, mangroves, lagoons and Cenotes. Created in 1986 and the pride of the State’s environmental conservation efforts, the opportunities are limitless as the number of animal and plant species. Ask your hotel about daily bus tours directly from Cancun to either destination, as well as referral to ecotour operators for guided exploration that is easy and safe. Better yet, allot a one night stay to reduce the day travel burden at one of Chichen Itza’s or Sian Ka’an’s inns or hotels or for a more rustic retreat, spend a night at Sian Ka’an’s beachfront jungle lodge run by its environmental group where proceeds fund conservation.

A Getting-There Cheat Sheet:

Being one of the most popular destinations in the hemisphere, airline choices to Cancun are vast. Therefore, always go for the non-stop flight even if a few dollars more as a connection can eat up a whole travel day that can be spent on the beach. Depending on your departure city, I prefer the independents for competitive pricing like Airtran, Spirit, JetBlue, Sun Country, or Southwest. Delta, United, American, Continental, and USAir also work as they may have some competitive specials.

Remember to add on Mexico cell phone service to your plan temporarily for both calls and texting.

Pesos are easy to change everywhere.

For North Americans, passports are mandatory but visas are not.

Generally, this area of Mexico is not at risk but best to be up on inoculations and malaria tablets especially if planning a rain forest excursion.

Water is no longer the problem it used to be in resort areas like Cancun, but take along the antibiotic Cipro and over-the-counter antidiarrheal medicine just to be safe and not mess with your trip investment, especially if making day excursions to more remote and inland locations.

A USA driver or motorcycle license and credit card are sufficient for renting motor vehicles.

Tipping is highly expected in tourist areas but usually well earned.

Crime is generally limited to theft and recreational drug traffic (do not even think about it) away from the hotel zone, and some areas in the town of Cancun are best avoided, but there is no need to worry more than back at home. Just use common sense regarding remote locations alone at night – more so for women.

Most police will watch out for you and care about visitors enjoying Cancun, but the reality in outlying and rural areas is the occasional pressure for their “la mordida”, or “little bite”, especially if driving, of about $20 to $100. Subtle bribery is a part of customary life for a few away from tourist centers so add it to your trip budget and move on.

Avoid cab rides off the street, but they can be reliable and efficient when obtained through your hotel staff or at major transport centers.