¡Viva La Mexico! Or What I Learned on Spring Break
"Don’t drink the water." "Don’t rent a car." "Don’t go out at night." "Don’t eat from street carts." "Don’t put anything valuable in your luggage." And so the list went on and on-from family and friends to colleagues and strangers following me on social media - warning me at all costs to avoid Mexico. It was as if an itinerary of two relaxing weeks exploring the Mayan Riviera was equivalent to donning a leisure suit with printed Tom of Finland images to travel in Pakistan.
I went anyway. And I am here to report that, not only am I safeand sound, but also I’m glad I didn’t listen to the naysayers. I took it all in and learned a few valuable travel (and life) lessons along the way.
Rescue & Respite in Cancun
Mexico’s easternmost gulf coast is easy to traverse via Highway 307 (in a rented car, if you dare the uneven roads). Cancun’s trendy Hotel Zone, Playa del Carmen’s shopping district, and Tulum’s Mayan ruins and hippy beachfront each capture a unique aspect of Mexico’s cultural heritage. The destinations are all within a three hours’ drive, in spite of the many topes - massive speed bumps installed to apparently assist los federales in thwarting the drug cartels.
My Mexican adventure kicked off within moments of nestling under a beach palapa at the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa. The property is at the epicenter of the Hotel Zone, a 14-mile peninsula that targets travelers who revel in pristine beachfront and luxury amenities.
No sooner had I gulped down my first Mai Tai when I heard an older gentleman screaming "Hey! Hey! They need help out there!" Following the direction of his trembling hand, I saw three heads bobbing in the distance, periodically swallowed up by the crashing waves of the Caribbean Sea. The overconfident vacationers had swum too far from shore, ignoring the red warning flags, and now the forceful current was keeping them at bay.
Tanned from the ever-blazing sun but not quite as lithe as I would have preferred if I was drowning, the lifeguards dove into the rough waters, donned flippers, and pulled the vacationers to safety as easy as if they were netting spiny lobsters for a beach cook off. And that was that.
The lifeguards trudged back to their posts. The rescued swimmers, swarmed by their hysterical bikini-clad girlfriends, hunched over themselves and gasped for air. I half expected Ricardo Montalbán to emerge from behind a palm tree with some heavy-handed repartee about the power of the ocean and wrath of the Mayan Gods. That didn’t happen, so I ordered another cocktail.
Beachfront Luxury at the JW Marriott
In spite of the almost-death experience of my fellow beachcombers, the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa proved the perfect respite for my time in Cancun. The 448-room property features a sleek yet warm contemporary design, two free form pools, a Mayan-inspired spa and six on-site specialty restaurants. Luxurious but without the attitude, the hotel staff didn’t miss a beat.
Chris Calabrese, Vice President and General Manager of the Marriott’s Cancun properties, says, "Cancun offers an incredible range of activities that appeal to a wide range of visitors-from swimming with whale sharks and exploring nearby Mayan ruins to ziplining, snorkeling, and eco-parks. We have water so perfectly blue it almost glows and white sandy beaches that stay cool to the touch regardless of the sun’s heat. Cancun also offers truly outstanding service in general and the Mexican nationals are warm and friendly by nature."
The resort complex also includes the neighboring Marriott CasaMagna (a bit too Don Quixote for my taste but more affordable than the JW and with equally as friendly staff). Combined, the properties feature six specialty restaurants ranging from Mediterranean to Thai. "Each restaurant was built from the ground up," says Calabrese, "Chefs either originate from, or are trained in, whichever region that restaurant represents."
Feeling lazy after my long days at the beach, I took advantage of several of the on-site offerings. Dinner at Gustino was a Mediterranean feast that included pear carpaccio with red beet and fig and Caribbean lobster poached in a saffron broth that momentarily transported me to the Spanish coastline. For Asian flavors with a kick, SASI THAI is a charming outdoor enclave that dishes out authentic curries and potent cocktails, including a lychee martini that was a welcome alternative after my marathon sessions with the more prevalent tequila and rum drinks.
If you want to explore downtown, a taxi from your hotel will get you there in air-conditioned comfort or a diesel-tinged ride on the R1 or R2 bus line will also do the trick. For designer labels, head to La Gran Plaza located on Nichupte Avenue. If you are more of a bargain hunter, the outdoor markets like Mercado 28 are a vibrant part of the city’s culture. Be prepared to bargain and keep a keen eye for scams and cheaply made products. If you know what you’re looking for though, there is an array of pottery, leather items, pewter, clothing and other traditional Mexican goods.
Playing in Playa del Carmen
After a few decadent days sequestered at the JW, I was ready to head south for a new adventure. In 2006, Playa del Carmen was rated by the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest growing city in the world. You can see evidence of this along Highway 307, as imposing arches and entryways give way to lush oceanfront properties, golf courses, and time shares galore.
I shacked up for a week at The Royal Haciendas, part of the Royal Resorts collection. Although this is a timeshare property, you can usually find a room online for as little as $100 per night. Of course, everything has a price. This is a family-friendly destination, and not the kind of family from the Castro or Christopher Street.
Although the staff and guests were extremely hospitable, I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable had I been traveling with a partner. Think of it more as a destination for friends or a spring break reenactment with a ten o’clock curfew. The restaurants were surprisingly good and affordable, especially Los Murales, a contemporary Mexican restaurant with gorgeous mosaics adorning the walls and mouthwatering tableside preparations such as gulf shrimp with chiles and brandy. The two poolside bars offer a daily happy hour and whip out tacky-fabulous concoctions like chunky monkeys and rum punch.
A Night on the Town
The resort offers free shuttle service downtown during the day and a taxi at night will only cost you ten dollars. Fifth Avenue is the main drag where you’ll find shopping, restaurants and nightlife. It’s a great stroll and there are a number of independent boutiques, galleries and silver shops amid the "I’m in Playa del Carmen, Bitch" t-shirts.
Avoid nachos entrapment and instead head to La Cueva del Chango for an authentic Mayan meal. The open-air restaurant is a block from the ocean and the maritime breeze will cool off your palette from the array of complex salsas and sauces. Standout dishes include almond soup with chipotle, ancho chile stuffed with shrimp and pistachios, and grouper with a rich mole sauce.
There’s not much gay nightlife in Playa del Carmen, but if you must, the one spot to check out is Bar 69 (located on Fifth Avenue between 4th and 6th Street). It doesn’t open until 9pm and is deserted until after midnight, but you’ll find an enthusiastic crowd on Friday and Saturday nights. Sometimes too enthusiastic-be cautious of prostitutes, drug dealers and pick pockets.
After a week at the picture-perfect grounds of the Royal Haciendas, I was ready to see something a bit more authentic. Hello, Tulum. Not quite as well known as Chichen Itza, the Maya ruins at Tulum are spectacular in their own right. El Castillo (the Cliffside tower that is the area’s focal point), The Temple of the Descending God, and the Temple of the Frescoes each showcase the ingenuity of this pre-Columbian civilization.
Tulum also offers the only gay accommodations in the region, the Adonis Tulum Riviera Maya Gay Resort and Spa. Originally built as an exclusive enclave for elite travelers, the property only recently became a gay destination. The 94-room resort is tucked away on a rocky coast with lush foliage surrounding the multi-suite villas. While there is no direct ocean access, the Adonis does feature the only legal clothing-optional beachfront in the Mayan Riviera, as it sits on private property. There is also a spectacular on-site spa that offers a variety of treatments including couples massage, Vichy shower, Jacuzzi and sauna.
The hotel is still working hard to find its niche and on my visit I was one of only a handful of guests. The staff, overseen by General Manager Michell Da Void, creates warm and welcoming environment. Da Void says, "I fell in love with the property from the moment I saw it. People let their guard down here and it’s so easy to socialize because of the property’s layout. And we’re on the power grid with back-up generators, which is no small feat in Tulum."
The resort is all-inclusive, which may or may not work in your favor depending on your expectations. The main dining room offers three menus: Mexican, Italian, and Asian. Some items are obviously freezer-to-fryer and even local fare like chilaquiles (tortillas with salsa, egg and cheese) lack flavor and flair. Cocktails are free flowing, but I stuck to draft beer (Corona or Modelo Especial) since the mixed drinks were cloyingly sweet. There are plenty of food options to explore by hopping on one of their free bikes or calling a taxi.
The Adonis has some minor kinks to work out, but Da Void’s determination is evident in the meticulous care of the property. He has recently started offering day passes, so even if you decide to opt for other accommodations, it’s still worth spending a day at the Adonis and supporting gay business in the region.
One of the most glaring warnings I received prior to traveling to Mexico was to avoid ceviche, the marinated raw fish dish prevalent throughout the region. Would I go to New York City and pass on a slice of pizza? Morocco without pigeon pastilla? Hardly. Ceviche was on my "must eat" list but that didn’t mean that I stopped at every dingy shack with a painted sign out front. Instead I asked the locals and trusted my instincts. If a place looked less than sanitary on the outside, I didn’t need to find out what was going on in the kitchen. Here are three great finds worth seeking out:
El Camello - Keep your eyes out as you drive south on Highway 307. There’s no address but you’ll easily pick it out on the left hand side of the road just before you hit the outskirts of town. Sit outside and enjoy an ice-cold Corona and complimentary snapper hash and then dive into a heaping portion of chopped tomatoes, octopus and shrimp with a generous squeeze of lime. $13 serves four.
Los Aguachiles (?calle 34 & avenida 25, Playa del Carmen) - is off the beaten track from the bustling Fifth Avenue district, but your short walk will be rewarded with ceviche, deconstructed style. This outdoor café’s classic ceviche is presented in a shallow bowl of macerated tomatoes and topped with an architectural wonder of shrimp, crab, pickled red onion and cilantro. $12 serves two.??
Oscar & Lalo (Highway 307 at Km. 241) - Be sure to seek out this culinary oasis between Tulum and Playa del Carmen. Outdoor seating proves entertaining as a diapered pet monkey is bound to pay you a visit. If you can get over the unconventional dining companion, their ceviche is minimalist perfection. Leaving the tomatoes behind, this ceviche lets the seafood be the star. $14 serves two.
Adventures By Land & Sea
All within striking distance, the Mayan Riviera is packed with ecological adventures and natural wonders.
Xcaret - an archaeological park featuring tropical jungle trails, regional wildlife, and Xcaret Musical Espectacular, a 300-person live performance extravaganza.
Xplor - Tackle two zip line courses, amphibious 4-wheeling, underground rafting, and a stalactite river swim.
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve - This UNESCO World Heritage site is the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean. These are more personalized experiences that minimize ecological impact, but still offer adventure and education.
Te Adoro, Mexico
What I loved most about Mexico was not the beach, the tequila, or the sprawling 2-hour afternoon naps under a palapa (although it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of weeks, trust me). It was the people. There was an innate hospitality from everyone I met. Whether I was buying avocados from a roadside stand in Tulum or haggling for a silver bracelet on the streets of Playa del Carmen, I was greeted with a smile and left with a genuine gracias. So whatever the news may say, my Mexico was one of laughter and celebration, ancient culture and new discovery, and above all-genuine warmth stronger than the Mayan sun.