Cancun, Mexico. To the vast majority of U.S. travelers, it is a tropical paradise more well-known than Cabo or Mazatlan or even Puerto Vallerta. Movie stars, Spring Break parties, MTV’s Real World, beach clubs, turquoise waters and white sandy beaches stretching as far as the eye can see coupled with more 5-star resorts than Las Vegas, Nevada make this one of the ultimate all-inclusive beach destinations on the planet. And Mexico promotes it as such, with the vast majority of its tourist income coming from this singular city.
What most tourists don’t know is that Cancun is a city with barely 40 years to its name, and is much, much more than simply the stretch of sand that makes up the Hotel Zone where the resorts are located. There is a living, breathing city beyond the walls of the all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffets, an intoxicating blend of Mayan and Mexican and Yucatan traditions and foods and people that create the bohemian atmosphere which first drew me in and turned my initial three-month stay into what is now rapidly approaching the two year mark (September).
The Hotel Zone has a good and bad side. To the vast majority of Americans coming in from the U.S. it is a stuff-your-face-and-drink-till-you-pass-out paradise of all-inclusive resorts along with Spring Break parties and plenty of sex, drugs and fun in the sun. On the flip side of that, for the vast majority of Mexicans living in Cancun it is where the best jobs can be found (if your English is at least at a basic 80% fluency)…but it is also where all the grossly overweight, arrogant and consumption-addicted tourists lounge around poolside demanding their menus in English, their room-service in English, their taxis in English and their vacation in English, all while sucking on the teat of Western media that has them believing that anything beyond the walls of their resort is a dangerous world of cartels and thugs who are just waiting to rob, kidnap, rape and molest Americans. Mexico is, after all, according to Western media, one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
It is for that reason that most of the Mexicans who live here do not actually go to the Hotel Zone for anything other than work and the occasional party. When they want to go to the beach, they opt for Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Akumal, Puerto Juarez, Punta Sam, Isla Blanca and beyond: the private places that aren’t filled with hordes of arrogant tourists completely ignoring Mexican culture and acting as though they are still back in the United States.
It is an unfortunate reality that has been bred by years of Mexicans being the lower-working-class of the United States; most Americans view Mexicans as nothing more than yard workers, landscapers, brick layers, masons, trash men, farm workers, janitors, maids and second-class people. They come here with an entitled attitude about how they are superior to the brown-skinned servants of the United States and, as a result, the majority of Mexicans have a reactive attitude towards the typical tourist who comes to Cancun and treats them as though they are uneducated, backwater, brown-skinned people meant to be servants to the supreme white American.
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.” – James A Michener
They won’t say it to your face, especially considering they need your tips to make more than the minimum wage in Mexico, but if you come to Cancun with the typical superior attitude that most Americans have, a lack of Spanish and no desire to actually interact with the people or experience the true culture of Mexico and the Cancun beyond the Hotel Zone and respect the people on equal terms, you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of the painted face that is the Hotel Zone promoted in the tour guides and pamphlets…and consequently you’ll be missing out on the real Cancun which exists beyond the all-inclusive resorts.
But if you speak Spanish and go beyond the pristinely-manicured golf courses and man-made beaches of the Hotel Zone, respect the culture and actually make an attempt to immerse yourself in the real Cancun you will uncover a bohemian city that is much more than simply beaches and resorts and bloated, arrogant American tourists and week-long parties on the beach. There is a living, breathing culture that makes up what Cancun actually is, and it is a place full of the warmth and passion of the Latin people that most tourists never take the time to experience.
We have two rooms available for rent in Cancun for those of you in the market for something quick and easy.
The first, and major, difference between the Hotel Zone and the rest of Cancun is the cost of living. Whereas a two-bedroom place will cost you on average 1,500 to 2,000 USD a month to rent in the Hotel Zone, the moment you cross the bridge and get into Centro and the residential areas west of the downtown area the rent dramatically drops. The average cost of a two-bedroom condo or apartment near Plaza Las Americas, for example, is around 1,000 USD, and the further west you go the lower the prices drop. I have a good friend of mine who rents a very nice two-bedroom apartment in Centro just three avenues west of Plaza Las Americas and her rent is 6,000 pesos per month; at the current exchange rate that’s about 430 USD.
Now, granted, I’m not directly on the beach, but I can get to any beach I want to visit within 30 minutes on a bus…and for me, the fact that I’m saving around 1,500 USD a month above what I would be paying in the Hotel Zone is worth the 30 minute bus ride, or the “hassle” of getting on a bus and using public transportation. If I go further west into the older residential areas, you can find two and three-bedroom houses and apartments renting for as little as 4,000 pesos a month, fully furnished and with all utilities + amenities included. And as much as I love the beach, I’d much rather be putting that 1,500 bucks a month back into my pocket for my eventual property purchase here.
The second difference between the Hotel Zone and the rest of Cancun is the fact that most of the people living in Centro and beyond might speak basic English…but almost everything outside of the resort district caters to the Spanish-speaking residents, with the exception of the main avenues of Yaxchilan, Tulum and Bonampak. These are the three eastern-most avenues running north and south along the mainland just west of the bridges that connect to the Hotel Zone. There are a lot of restaurants and plazas that cater to the more adventurous tourists, and you can still find menus in English and English-speaking staff. But once you go west beyond Yaxchilan you enter the Spanish-only barrios.
My apartment, for example, is in a residential block of middle-aged pioneer families who arrived here 40 years ago when the city was first being built. Most of the houses are the parents (now in their 60s) along with their kids (late 30s, early 40s) and their children (grandchildren), and most of them do not speak English. I was definitely a rarity when I showed up, and it took about six months of me living here and saying hi and communicating with them in Spanish before I broke past the “damned gringo” mentality that permeates the culture. (Go back to the typical fat, arrogant, superior-attitude tourist description from above to understand why.) But now that I’ve been here at this particular place for a year now, everyone knows me. I get discounts at all the local tiendas, ranging from where I get my juice several times a week to the pizza joint to the place where I get my laundry done and beyond. I regularly stop and chat for 30 to 45 minutes every day with the shop keepers on my daily walks, and I’m an accepted member of the community…but only because I speak Spanish.
Another benefit is the discounts. Discounts are a way of life for the Mexican people, and if you don’t communicate in Spanish, ask for them, or know about them, you will always get nailed with the gringo tax…which is basically the tax for you being an ignorant, white, entitled American who comes here with your dollars and your superior attitude and your absolute lack of a desire to see or experience anything beyond the English-speaking resorts and zero respect for the local people or culture. Most of the restaurants outside of Centro and the Hotel Zone, for example, have a specific discount night when you can get food for 30 to 50 percent off. The movie theater at Paseo Cancun (now La Plaza Outlets) offers movie tickets for a mere 44 pesos compared to the 60+ you have to pay at Plaza Las Americas, and on Tuesdays the tickets are 2×1, which means I can go with my girlfriend and see a new release and we only pay 44 pesos for the both of us. That’s just over three dollars for two people to see a movie. In 3D or regular; it’s a completely modern movie theater. Meanwhile, the average movie ticket in the United States costs 10 USD for a single person as of 2012, and you can forget about popcorn and drinks.
Where it costs a tourist 600 pesos for a dinner at many of the restaurants in the Hotel Zone (that’s about 50 USD; for a couple it’s around 100 USD) outside of the all-inclusive restaurants within the resorts, the moment you hit the mainland prices halve or more. I know numerous restaurants, many of which are mentioned in my guide for the city, where I can sit down and have a meal with a bottle of wine for around 200 pesos. For two people.
The perfect example of the gringo tax is my recent jaunt down to Playa del Carmen a few weeks back for some video shooting. As I’m walking along the main avenue one of the guys hanging out on a street corner sees me coming and asks me in English if I want to buy some grass for only 700 pesos. I laughed and replied in Spanish, “Por que iba yo a quiero pagar 700 pesos cuando mi amigo en Cancún lo vende a mí por 300 pesos?” In other words, why would I want to pay 700 pesos when I get it for 300 pesos back in Cancun. He laughed and replied, “Ah in that case, it’s only 300 pesos for you as well!”. That turned into a 30 minute conversation about prices on rent, safest places to live in Playa, best restaurants, etc. But the thing of it was, if I had been just another English-speaking tourist there for a party, I would have paid more than double for a service that costs locals less than half the price. That is the beauty of living like a local versus just backpacking your way through or only skim-reading a destination while on vacation.
The same goes for taxis. Many is the time they try to tell me the price is double or triple the actual rate, and it’s only when I reply in Spanish that they realize I’m not some idiot tourist but in fact a local resident and everything changes. Bus drivers will do the same thing; the Hotel Zone buses only cost 8.5 pesos to ride into Centro, but they tell all the tourists “one dollar”, which is actually anywhere from 12 to 15 pesos, depending on the exchange rate. Every day, all day, they are pocketing that extra change because the tourists don’t know any better. Another example of this is an American family getting on a bus in the Hotel Zone. Mom, dad, two kids. They handed the bus driver four tickets from a prior bus, not realizing that the tickets which are sold per-bus are just that: for each individual bus. They tried to argue with the driver and eventually it came down to them explaining how the previous bus driver had told them that for 50 USD they could buy bus tickets which would be good for their entire vacation and could be used on any of the other buses throughout their stay.
While the tourist getting ripped off will curse the Mexican for being a dirty, thieving cheat…who is really at fault? The intelligent entrepreneur taking advantage of an opportunity, or the entitled tourist who expects everyone to cater to them and give them the best deal on everything simply because they come from a “superior” country? I give a thumb’s up to the taxi drivers and bus drivers every day of the week. After all, it’s not their fault if the tourists and newbies don’t want to take the time to educate themselves on the inner workings of the local culture.
Real estate prices are ridiculously cheap for expats as well. Three and four-bedroom houses in the older subdivisions average around 400,000 to 500,000 pesos, which is between 30k and 35k USD. The same houses along Bonampak or in the newer subdivisions cost you 60k to 80k USD, and you can forget about finding anything in the Hotel Zone for less than 250k unless you get extremely lucky. These are no different than any subdivision you’ll find in the United States; the middle class Mexicans who make up the bulk of Cancun live here. They drive modern cars, they have mortgages and they live life just the way most people in most other developed do; they work 40 hour work weeks or more and both spouses are pitching in to help provide a good life for their kids. But for us expats who are working on Western salaries, it creates a unique opportunity where you can very literally pay for a house in cash with just a year or two of saving your money, assuming you make at least 35-40k a year.
As far as safety goes, Cancun is just about one of the safest places on the planet. The murder rate for the entire state of Quintana Roo, which Cancun is located within, is only 2 in 100,000. That translates to only 2 out of every 100,000 residents die from some type of a violent crime. You’ve heard me mention it before, but Washington D.C. has a 31 in 100,000 rate. Which means you are 29 more times likely to die from a violent crime in the capital of the U.S. than you would here in Cancun. The cartels are non-existent, and while there is still drug trafficking it mostly happens on the sea and along the coast, far from the residential areas where people live. And no matter where you live in Cancun you are only about 30 minutes away from the beaches of the Hotel Zone, or the highway north and south to any section of the Riviera Maya you want to explore.
On top of all of that, Cancun is a natural starting point for those who want to explore the Mayan culture. Known as the Mayan Heartland that extends from here into Central Mexico, then south into the state of Chiapas, south-east into Guatemala and then north again into Belize, you can visit dozens of ruins within a half-days’ drive from Cancun. Beyond that, you can drive for several day’s in either direction and stumble across Mayan ruins, as well as the Mayan people themselves, very much alive and thriving despite most people assuming they are a dead culture. While they mostly exist as indigenous tribes removed from the city life, their shamanic culture is still at the heart of this part of Mexico, and it’s certainly a part of the city itself once you take the time to experience the city beyond the resorts.
The reason I practice immersion travel is because I believe in The Human Experience. We are all of us One People sharing One Planet. None of us are better than anyone else; we are equal, the same, regardless of where we happen to have been born. Only through immersion travel can you experience the culture, the warmth, the passion of the people. Only through speaking the language, through interaction with the local people, through participation in dinner parties, events, conversation and beyond will you ever begin to understand who the Mexican people are.
They are not backwards, inbred, uneducated brown-skinned people born to serve the white-skinned, superior American as the manual laborers of the world; they have only garnished that reputation because the average, everyday, privileged American has relegated the Mexican to performing the tasks that they themselves don’t want to get their hands dirty doing, so they allow someone else to do it for them. This has gone on for so many years that the average American has unwittingly become conditioned to view any Mexican as being inferior to them, which is absolutely not the case. They are just as human as anyone else on the planet, and deserving of the same level of respect.
Mexicans are a proud people with a rich and diverse culture. They are a passionate people, with a love of good food, good beer and good tequila. They love their fiestas with a passion I have never come across before. I was told a joke one time that if you sit a Mexican down with a beer and point your finger at something they will come up with a reason why there should be a festival day for that particular person, place or thing. Day of the fire hydrant. Day of the taco. Day of the fireman. Day of the dog print in cement. So on and so forth. The men are incredibly protective (even overly so; the machismo attitude can actually be a little aggressive sometimes), and the women are incredibly jealous, which also makes them that much more passionate because they want to ensure that your eyes don’t stray.
Cancun is a city full of opportunity. It is still relatively new and construction is continually ongoing, not only here but up and down the Riviera Maya. High-rises and condos are going up all along the coastline, and there are numerous eco-reserves as well, ensuring that the jungle and the cenotes are preserved even as the development continues. Modern amenities abound, the hospitals here are top-of-the-line, medical services are dirt cheap (they have a universal healthcare system that only costs about $250 a year for unlimited prescription medication and free doctor visits, on top of a private system as well) and every creature comfort you’ve ever had or wanted exists.
The city has an extremely relaxed attitude; prostitution is legal in Mexico, personal drug use is decriminalized and everyone has a “live each day to the fullest” attitude. I have yet to meet a Mexican who is stressing about their mortgage or their credit card bills or their fancy car or their “things”. For the most part they simply shrug their shoulders and go on with their lives on a day-to-day basis. Work hard, play hard, that’s the Mexican way of life.
There is a reason this is called the “land of tomorrow”, and it’s not simply because no one pays attention to the time. It’s because they realize, as a culture, that it’s not worth stressing about five years into the future when all you really need to be worrying about is what you are doing today and what you are doing tomorrow. Calmate. Drink your beer, enjoy your tequila and relax in the shade of a palm tree while the ocean laps up over your feet. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Smoke a little mota. Enjoy a little swim in a fresh-water cenote. Relajate. It’s Mexico, man. Stop stressing and just enjoy life. There’s plenty of sun, sand, cenotes, tequila, ceviche and cervezas for everyone, 365 days a year.
Want to learn more about the reasons I chose to live here after initially only planning on being here for three months? Pick up my Live Like a Local guide for Cancun, Mexico. It’s jam-packed with all the information you could ever need or want to know about living here in one of Mexico’s premier beach destinations.
Regardless if you are just going to come here for a vacation or you want to stay for a few months or a year or more, the guidebook has anything and everything you need to know in order to enjoy Cancun, Mexico just like the locals do…using their prices and their knowledge. Not to mention, you get access to my personal list of contacts ranging from bankers to immigration lawyers to real estate agents to restaurant owners to local fixers and beyond. And if you show up in 2012, I’ll be here until the end of the year to act as your personal tour guide around what has become one of my many homes around the world.
For more Mexico-specific posts, don’t forget to check out:
If you are looking for more information on Cancun or Mexico in general, you can pick up our Live Like a Local Cancun guide, packed with other restaurant recommendations, apartment and condo referrals, tips on navigating the public transportation system, local negotiation tips and strategies, market and discount day overviews and more!