¡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.