Unlike in Playa del Carmen, where our stay at a resort hotel was almost by accident, in Cancun, we stayed at one on purpose. The huge resort, the Royal Sands, is located on a 20-kilometer stretch of coast just south of the city that is packed with more than 75 wall-to-wall resorts (not including 50 or more just south, along the Maya Rivera, which stretches from Cancun to Tulum). The hotel was very nice (except, when is the last time you stayed in a large hotel that did not provide shampoo?). Aside from this, our one bedroom suite (with kitchen for those who don’t eat all their meals out) was lovely with a large balcony overlooking two of the resorts pools and the ocean.
Zona Hotelera to Do
What is there to do in Zona Hotelera? From our limited exposure to the area between kilometer markers 13-16, you can visit upscale shopping centers (although you have to watch out for the ubiquitous “information” booths), you can visit what appears to be an interesting aquarium, where you can swim with dolphins.
There are also innumerable opportunities or learn about and taste tequilas. The La Europea wine store provides a straight tasting at its tequila bar. Meanwhile, the ultra-touristy “Tequila Museum” at the upscale Kukulkan shopping mall provides a display of the tequila-making process with no explanation.
If you really want to learn about tequila and the tequila making process, cross the street to La Destileria, which provides tequila tours from 1:00-5:30 every day. This very thorough tour, which costs only $7 per person, begins with an introductory drink (orange juice, lime juice, pineapple, and white tequila) that you drink while leaning the tequila-making process. It explains:
- The propagation and nurturing of the agave plant, which takes 7-10 years to mature;
- The five states in which tequila can be produced, the volcanic soil that characterizes four of them (and the political reasons for the designation of the fifth):
- The tools with which the agave “pineapple” is harvested;
- The type of ovens in which they are baked (48 hours at 110-degrees Centigrade):
- The difference in taste between crushing the pineapple with stone versus metal;
- The fermentation and distillation processes (either two or three distillations to 37-40% alcohol;
- The relative roles of French and American oak barrels (all new oak), the amount of toast (generally heavy) and the number of times they are reused (typically five or six); and
- The four types of tequila that are produced–white (unaged), gold (2 to 12 months), aged (12-36 months) and extra aged (3-7 years, or, for one Don Julio tequila, up to 10 years).
It is then time to sit down and apply what you have learned. You are served an appetizer plate (chicken taco, chicken taquito and cheese empanada) and a tasting of three el Jimador tequilas–one white, one gold and one aged. This begins the next phase of the tour, where you learn:
- What to look for in the label (100% agave and the “NOM” government verification stamp) and in the color, clarity and taste (harshness for whites, smoke, sweet and floral tastes);
- The recommended ways of drinking different tequilas: salt before and lime after, especially for white; followed with a Virgin Mary mix for gold; and straight sips (like cognac, for aged and extra aged): and
- What each of the three types of tequila actually taste like, how they compare and which you prefer to drink which way, and why.
Or, you can do what most people appear to do: Spend virtually the entire time within, or on the strip of silk smooth, pure white sand or the concrete behind, your hotel. To be fair, the pure white sand is like silk and the pools, many with convenient in-pool bars, are lovely and inviting. But, although we certainly enjoy strolling along the beach and swimming laps, we are not exactly beach or pool people.
We had always been under the impression that Cancun is all about the beaches, side trips to out-of-town attractions (like Tulum, Cozumel, Chichen Itza) and increasingly the type of all-inclusive resorts and attractions (XCARET, XEL-HA, XPLOR, etc.) that provide little spill-over to local businesses. This was all confirmed by a walk through downtown Cancun, which we managed to to stretch into a half hour. About the only thing that may have even the most remote interest to some tourists (although definitely not to us) was Mercado 28, a largely empty outdoor market place that is filled with standard tourist fare.
There were, however, a couple options we decided to forgo. One of the hot things to do from Cancun is to take the ferry to Isla Mujeres which is known for, guess what–its beaches! It does, however, also house a turtle sanctuary and a sculpture garden consisting of art donated by different countries.
There is, however, one thing that we absolutely would have liked to do from Cancun. Although the snorkeling and diving is generally less interesting than that around Tulum, or especially Cozumel, Cancun recently created a special attraction to capture at least some of the diving revenues. It commissioned an Underwater Museum of Art consisting of more an 400 eerie human figures 30-feet below the surface. But, since we hung up our scuba tanks a few years ago, we wouldn’t have gotten much of view from the surface.
Zona Hotelera Restaurants
Although the strip, the resorts and the two big shopping malls offered all types of restaurants, from basic tacquirias through upscale Mexican restaurants to every type of ethnic food you could ever desire. We concentrated primarily on upscale Mexican restaurants.
La Habichuela was a particular treat. We sat outside, on the huge patio overlooking the lagoon and the coast of mainland. We began the. Evening with a Mexican delicacy-Huotlacoche (a black fungus that grows on corn) wrapped in a crepe with Hollandaise sauce, which softened the earthiness of the “Mexican truffle.” We then experimented with two entrees: a traditional Grouper Tikin-Xik (fish marinated in a sour orange sauce with a mix of local peppers and spices, that is served with grilled peppers and onions, guacamole, refrained beans and pico de gallo, which you wrap in a tortilla) and a particularly delicious Grouper Amaranth (lightly fried grouper crusted with amaranth seeds and slivered almonds with a mix of Mexican spices atop a sweet mango sauce and a sour tamarind sauce. While the site was lovely and the food delicious, we were particularly impressed by the service. Our server was very knowledgeable, helpful with recommendations and extremely patient with all our questions about fine Mexican ingredients, foods and preparations.
Hacienda Sisal is a large, two-part Mexican restaurant: one side is a traditional tourist restaurant (as virtually all in Zona Hotelera are) and the other a large glitzy floor show. We did the restaurant. After two of its huge, signature margaritas, we split two dishes: guacamole with carnitas mixed in and shrimp fajitas. Since our dishes were so standard (as most of the dishes on the menu are), we couldn’t really judge the quality of the restaurant. The food and service, however, we both fine.
La Destileria is a tequila bar that just happens to have a restaurant: and to our taste, a good restaurant, with good food, helpful service and an atmospheric deck that overlooks the lagoon. We ordered two entrees: the Shrimp Molcajete is a stone bowl filled with boiling chipotle sauce with a mixture of shrimp, cheese, avocado, nopales (cactus leaves), beans and salsa, which you wrap in a tamale. The beef tenderloin in avocado sauce is served over. Black bean sauce with rice, refrained beans and chicharria (fried pork rind). While Joyce ordered what seems to be becoming her standard super-sized margarita, I sought the help of our server to select a tasting of Herridura tequilas—a white, a gold (which, aged for nine months, is more mellow) and a smoother, more subtle 18-month aged version that is intended to be sipped, rather than mixed or slugged down with salt and lime.
La Fish Fritanga, while right next door to La Habichuela, couldn’t be more different. While La Habichuela is very upscale and formal, La Fish Fritanga is the height of informality. From the road, it looks like–and in fact is–a taco and torts stand. But, if you happen to look behind the stand, you see a small set of stairs going down to the beach. There you find a charming, and again, totally informal, outdoor restaurant on a sandy beach overlooking a marina and the lagoon, with a reasonably full seafood menu. Since we just stopped for a light lunch, we resorted to some of our favorite Mexican light lunch fare–two tacos (one shrimp and one octopus) and a mixed ceviche (with fish, shrimp, scallop and octopus). There w ere, however, two important similarities with our previous night’s dinner restaurant–very good food and good, friendly service.
If you like beaches, pools and ideal weather, you will probably love Cancun. If not, you will probably find much not to like. The area, especially around the hotel zone appears to be undergoing some changes. As one of our cab drivers told us, there is a growing influx of, and existing properties’ conversion to all-inclusives, where tourists have little incentive to, and increasingly do not, venture out of the confines of their resorts.
There is, however, one thing you can count on in Cancun. From the moment you step off the plane, you are continually surrounded by people who want to sell you something. This is particularly evident in the timeshare and fractional ownership resort and attraction shills (posing as sources of tourist information), and the tourist shop and restaurant owners who try desperately to lure you into sales presentations or shops in which everything is “almost given away.”
Do you get the impression that we aren’t particularly impressed with Cancun? Damn, I so tried to hide it.
This having been said, the the beach was beautiful, the hotel and restaurants good and the people wonderful (even those whose primary mission is to sell is extremely friendly and very helpful–even when it was clear that you were not a prospect for a sale. We also enjoyed the restaurants).
If we were beach people, we would have probably enjoyed the experience. This being said, Zona Hotelera is simply not for people who like to be continually on the move and continually exploring new things.