After three nights at The Mayan, the well-reviewed hostel in the perfect spot in the city center next to the best park in Cancun—well away from the dreaded Hotel Zone—I start to itch.
I recognize the flat, round red blotches. I’ve been attacked before. This isn’t a bottom-of-the-barrel hostel. Neither was the hotel wherein I got nibbled on in another country. It just happens. They don’t carry disease; nonetheless, I’m a little tired of my five other roommates in our six-bed dorm—not counting the bugs—so I decide to splurge on an upgrade.
One block east and three north on the main drag, Avenida de Tulum, is Hotel Meson de Tulum. I blow an extra $18 per night, for a grand total of $28 for a private room, though I’m sharing a women-only bathroom.
The building is newer than The Mayan, the facilities are modern and well-kept. And it seems that nearly all of the other guests are Mexican. Score. Which is why it seems so incongruous that I find myself playing the night away in a place called Plaza Hong Kong.
The two-story strip mall located in the plaza is home to the cavernous Grand Mambo Café. It’s a pleasant 20-minute walk down Avenida Yaxchilan from the new hotel, though the green-and-white cabs are everywhere. I’ve joined a few people I know from The Mayan and we spend the evening salsa dancing with locals while the tourists pack the clubs in the Zone.
Like most spots in Cancun, there is an open bar for a small-enough cover charge, though the drinks get weaker as the night progresses. That turns out to be a blessing however because the dancers are excellent and I could easily get dehydrated from all the exercise.
The members of the eight-piece salsa band look like a cross between Nsync and the cast of Jersey Shore, but no matter. They’ve got chops and keep everyone on their feet on the ample but crowded dance floor.
Grand Mambo is a staple of local salseros and just when I’m feeling rather proud of myself for keeping up with my leaders, I have a fatal failure in judgment. I accept a dance from a stranger, not realizing he’s had more from the open bar than most. We make it halfway through the song before he trips, tumbles backward and takes me with him. Everyone around us scatters like mosquitoes in bug spray leaving me to scramble up off of my bruised knees in plain view of the whole room. There goes my pride.
“Playa Delphines; that’s where we go,” said Oscar. “It’s a longer ride, but that’s the best beach.” I’m searching for a place to relax and recover from the tumble the night before.
“We” means Cancun natives. Oscar works the front desk at Meson so I take his word for it and hop on the R1 right outside the hotel on Avenida de Tulum. Cabs are great for buzzing around the city center, but the bus system is just as good and easy to use.
The R1 runs the length of Tulum and the Hotel Zone ‘round the clock. A ride costs about 80 cents. I take Oscar’s advice and head toward the south end of the Zone, past most of the big hotels and their beaches to Playa Delphines—or Dolphin Beach.
I step onto the sand with some trepidation. I know it’s going to burn my skin off when the grains pop into my sandals. But it doesn’t burn. Though warm, it’s not hot even though the day is a scorcher. It’s comfortable and soft. Brilliantly white against the aqua and sea-foam of the endless Caribbean Sea. I have the beach nearly to myself in the middle of a Wednesday. There’s a light breeze blowing as I settle into the sand and doze the day away.
I ask Victor, my new friend and owner of El Callejon in Mercado 28 where I should spend my last evening without the possibility of a heavy workout like at Grand Mambo.
He steers me to Avenida Yaxchilan, a couple of blocks from the hotel. Yaxchilan is a middle ground of sorts; a place where the townies mingle happily with the tourists now that they aren’t serving them in hotels down the way. The avenue is lined with restaurants, sports bars and clubs for karaoke—a pastime that is wildly popular here. I choose La Parrilla, a large restaurant mostly for its atmosphere. I can hear the ubiquitous mariachis crooning away from the street.
However, I’m thrilled with the food. In just moments there’s a huge, simple margarita in front of me, followed by a platter of tacos. Real, honest-to-goodness, Mexican tacos: fish, shrimp, chicken, pork and beef. I couldn’t decide which kind I want so I end up with one of each. I’m going to vomit tonight; I know it. Just like the drunken spring breakers down in the Zone.
I order a song from the band, and surrounded by blaring trumpets and tinny-sounding violins, my waiter waltzes me around the softly lit floor wearing a big, kind, toothy grin.
This is Cancun.