A Dose of Dos Cancúns in Mexico

Cancun, Mexico

When we learned that we were heading to Cancún, Mexico, we proceeded to do our usual pre-travel investigation and discovered that the thriving tropical resort destination is made up of two distinctly different districts.

It is also the perfect starting point for a visit to the Mayan ruins just down the coast at Tulum. This can be an easy day trip by taking a shuttle in the morning and returning that afternoon.

Another good option is to rent a car in Cancun and make the short drive yourself.

Of course there are many fun day trips in Cancun, so be sure to plan several days for a visit.

Cancun, Mexico

The real estate along the narrow strip of beachfront on the island that the Mayan people called Kankun, meaning nest of snakes.

This area is almost exclusively hotels and resorts, with a smattering of beach bars, restaurants, and tourist traps sprinkled in.

The bulk of the city — the part where people live — is onshore.

Mango vender on the beach in Cancun, Mexico

This was by design; the entire development was planned by the Mexican government.

Just over forty years ago, there was nothing but jungle and sand along this isolated stretch of Caribbean shoreline.

In 1970, as an economic engine for the new state of Quintana Roo, the Cancún project began. At the time Isla Cancún had only three residents and the nearby port on the mainland, Puerto Juarez, had just over one hundred.

David explores the tourist area of Cancun, Mexico, GypsyNester.com

Resorts along the beach in Cancun, Mexico

The idea to build luxurious, high-end resorts along the water and bridge them to a city providing services and employees was by all accounts wildly successful.

Cancún is now home to over half a million residents and welcomes over four million visitors a year.

However, the huge majority of those tourists never venture off of the island into Cancún City, known locally as El Centro.

We wanted to break that habit and experience both Cancúns.

Resorts along the beach in Cancun, Mexico

We spent our first three days in one of the all-inclusive, walled-off resorts along the beach, and it would be preposterous to pretend that it wasn’t beautiful, and didn’t cater our every possible need.

It’s no wonder so many vacationers come. Who doesn’t like total relaxation in an exclusive and elegant setting? We thoroughly enjoyed our stay.

Veronica relaxes in a hammock in Cancun, Mexico, GypsyNester.com

Still, something seemed to be missing – authenticity. It occurred to us that we could have been almost anywhere that has beaches and tropical weather. There was nothing particularly Mexican about it, not even the food.

Headed to El Centro

So we decided that spending a few days in what we came to call “the real Cancún” was in order. A fellow traveler, longtime expat in Mexico, expert on all things Yucatan, and new friend, Tim Anderson, filled us in on the hot spots and we headed into town.

Tacos Rigos in Cancun specializes in tacos de cabeza or head tacos, , GypsyNester.com
Tacos Rigo in Cancun specializes in head tacos; David needs a moment to adjust to the idea.

There are buses and taxis that run back an forth, but renting a car in Cancun can be easy and great way to see everything without the worry of a schedule.

We had been lamenting the resort’s lack of local food with Tim, so the first of his recommendations was Tacos Rigo.

Once he explained that they specialize in tacos cabeza, head tacos, we knew where we were headed.

It was practically a dare.

Preparation involves steaming a whole cow’s head and removing certain parts.

Cheek, tongue and eyeball tacos in Cancun Mexico! GypsyNester.com

Most common are Sesos (brains), Trompa (lips), Cachete (cheek), Lengua (tongue), and Ojo (eyes), adding a little onion and cilantro, and filling corn tortillas to make these traditional tacos.

We ordered the tongue and cheek (though we were serious about this – no tongue in cheek for us!), confident that these would be perfectly palatable, and were not disappointed.

Eyeball taco in Cancun Mexico! GypsyNester.com
Are you looking at ME?!

However, we were reasonably reluctant about the eyeballs, and rightly so… let’s just say they were not a pretty sight.

With a few off-handed remarks such as “watch this,” and “we should watch what we eat,” we managed to consume a fair amount of the serving, but jeepers, creepers, we won’t be ordering any more bovine peepers!

See more about the food in this region of Mexico!

Dolphin statue in Parque de las Palapas, Cancun, Mexico

Another of Tim’s suggestions was the Parque de las Palapas, which just happened to be directly behind our hotel.

The park is named for the palapas, or thatched roofed huts, that encircle it and served as Cancún’s first town square.  It has become a central meeting place for the city’s citizens.

As evening approached we walked the two blocks over to the park and happened upon what looked to be a street fair.

Kids driving electric cars at Parque de las Palapas in Cancun, Mexico

Dozens of kids were driving electric cars every which way, mostly managing to dodge the bulk of the crowd that was mostly ignoring them.

Attention was instead focused on a dance demonstration, or perhaps contest, in progress on the big stage that dominates the plaza.

Dancing at Parque de las Palapas in Cancun, Mexico

Cooking street tacos in Cancun Mexico

Booths selling food and craft items lined the edges of the grounds, and larger tents with open-air cooking and seating filled a large section.

Grabbing a snack, we took a seat and watched the couples whirling and twirling across the stage.

The difference between this community celebration and the well-rehearsed performances we encountered in the hotel zone was stark.

Traditional dancers in Cancun, Mexico

That’s not to say that the talent, or entertainment value of one is superior to the other, it is just that they are coming from entirely dissimilar points of view.

In the city, both the performers and the audience seemed to be having an equally good time.

Back at our hotel, we could hear the festivities carrying on until well into the night, providing a happy musical lullaby to drift off to sleep by.

The next day we explored the city on foot and began to notice a very interesting — and unique — aspect of the mainland municipality.

A cart selling lamps in Cancun, Mexico

We had never before seen a city where nothing is over forty years old.

All of the traditional locations exist — churches, government buildings, monuments, and squares — but everything is modern. None of them are historic.

We ended up back at the Parque de las Palapas and, just as the night before, a party was in full swing.

Traditional Mayan dancers perform in Parque de las Palapas, Cancun, Mexico

Tacos al pastor in Cancun Mexico

This time traditional Mayan dancers were on stage and the crowd was loving it.

We mingled and wandered, grabbing some tacos al pastor from one vendor, and esquites, a regional version of elote with the corn cut off of the cob, from another.

Elote from a street vendor in Cancun, GypsyNester.comSee more about the food in this region of Mexico!

You didn’t think we’d not try some REALLY weird food, did ya?

Chapulines, or crickets is a street delicacy in Mexico

Feeling frisky, we even tried the delicacy of chapulines, which are crickets.

They are common in the nearby state of Oaxaca, where many residents of Cancún came from, so several vendors had large buckets of them at the ready.

David eats a cricket in Cancun Mexico, GypsyNester.com

We passed on buying a big bag for all night snacking, instead opting for a small scoop just for tasting, and popped a couple in our mouths.

Because they were fried with plenty of spices, it was easy to overlook the fact that we were eating bugs, but as with consuming the eyeball tacos, it helped if we kept our eyes closed.

WATCH: We eat our way through the Yucatan – calorie count not included, for your guilt-free viewing pleasure!

See more about the food in this region of Mexico!

Back to the beach!

On our last day in Cancún, we hopped on a bus back out to the hotel zone. While the two districts feel completely different, there is some population crossover.

Playa Tortugas beach in Cancun, Mexico

A couple of the beaches intermingled among the private resorts are public and have become popular with the residents from the mainland.

Playa Tortugas beach in Cancun, Mexico

We chose Playa Tortugas, Turtle Beach, for our afternoon hangout.

Much more than a sandy swimming spot, the Turtle sports a huge bungee jumping platform (that no force on heaven or Earth could have compelled us to jump off) along with a pier and marina providing ferry service to nearby Isla Mujeres.

This little island, meaning the Island of Women, is just off the coast and can be a destination in its own right. The Mayan temple at Punta Sur Isla Mujeres was dedicated to Ixchel, the Goddess of the Moon, who was the wife of the Sun. She was also a goddess of fertility and healing so this is an amazing spot to catch the sunrise.

For a bit more adventure and underwater action Snorkel Tours at Isla Mujeres offer incredible views of the coral reef that are easily accessible.

And for a truly unique experience it is hard to beat swimming with dolphins cancun. These friendly marine mammals make for a memorable day in the water.

David enjoying a cerveza at Playa Tortugas beach in Cancun, Mexico, GypsyNester.com

But we were content with just getting our feet wet in the surf and sitting with an ice cold cerveza… dos por favor.

Looking out over the blue Caribbean it was easy to see why people from near and far flock to spend their vacations in these two Cancúns.

It doesn’t suck.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

See all of our adventures in Mexico!

YOUR TURN: We found that both sides of Cancun have their merits, which one is YOUR cup of tea?

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25 thoughts on “A Dose of Dos Cancúns in Mexico”

  1. I’m not sure where I first learned of “BluffWorks” but I know it was you!! Thank you, Thank you! Thank you! I now have my first pair of Bluffs and happier than I have been in years (About Pants). These pants are genius! Comfy too, as they actually fit. Hats off to you!

  2. I don’t suppose you hired a car and drove in Mexico at all. We both want to go but D insists on driving everywhere and I am really nervous about driving in Mexico. Cancun is on our bucket list but because of the pyramids not far away not the beaches – looks like you had a great time.

    1. We took busses, so we didn’t drive but we were on the roads. They seem quite good around Cancun. New, wide highways. We have driven our RV in Sonora, up north, and it was fine there too.

  3. Our first visit to Cancun was in 1990 and since then we’ve made several trips to the Yucatan Peninsula and Quintana Roo and watched this area grow at an astounding pace. You’ve reminded us that even though Cancun lacks an historic or cultural background it is indeed a fun and beautiful place to relax in and sample some fabulous food (no eyes please!)

  4. I visited Cancun in 1994 and the beach was a welcome change from my overseas job in Radhuzny Russia (Siberia) I took a ferry to Cozumel to do some diving – wonderful!
    I have eaten scorpions but not crickets – I would like to try them, but I am not so sure about the eyeballs!

  5. I’ve never been to Cancun, although the resorts are popular with Canadians wanting a brief escape from winter. I think I would enjoy seeing the other Cancun, but I’m not eating crickets!

  6. Epic stuff 🙂 So glad you enjoyed your time, and looks like you got the most out of it!

    Flying out to Spain tomorrow (speaking at TBEX tomorrow, not sure if you two will be there!), but one way or another we’ll meet up for some beers and chat 🙂

    Safe journeys!

    1. not SPEAKING tomorrow, my bad 🙂

      But we are there until May 27th doing some bloggers-in-residence programs, so if you two are in the area, look us up!

      We’ll be in Barcelona until the 22nd of April, then in Girona until 11 of May, then off to Madrid!

  7. I was in Cancun in 1980. I don’t remember that much about it except that it was HOT and the water was VERY blue! I don’t think we ventured into the town. I’m wondering how much of a town would have been there in 1980. What I liked the most about that trip was going Chitzen Itza (could be bad spelling). At that time you were still allowed to climb up. I remember getting to the top, and have to come back down on my bum! 🙂

  8. Gosh, your post was timely! I just returned from Cancun today after attending the Cancun Riviera-Maya Wine & Food Festival.

    Cancun makes for a wonderful beach getaway and as you suggest, you can find some authenticity if you dig deep enough.

    It is becoming a mecca for gastronomes, combining the local ingredients and cooking traditions of the Yucatan with nouvelle touches!

  9. I’ve never been to Cancun, but I can understand why it and places like Riviera Maya are popular. We have family members who go just about every year; they take comfort in the familiarity and predictability of an all-inclusive experience. You are very brave trying eyeballs and crickets!

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