A visit to Cancun, whether it is your first or a return trip, is a window into the past; and a window onto a bold experiment in the travel and tourism industry.
This experiment began with a vision and a determination that helped raise the international community’s awareness of one of the richest cultures and one of the most historical destinations on the planet.
Cancun is also the point of departure for exploring an ancient and highly sophisticated civilization — the Maya — and the nature of civilization itself.
This may well be the primary lesson of Cancun.
Another lesson is that, despite what you may think, there is no single Cancun. This is a multidimensional destination in which you can make choices, adapt as you will, have a thoroughly good time, find peace and tranquillity, and — as we say at Travelosophy — travel wisely and tan your mind.
The ebullience of Cancun
There is a vibrancy in the landscape of Cancun that is obvious when you first arrive; but when you start to look closer at the city and its environs; at its people, its architecture, its social history, and its art, you begin to connect with Cancun on a much deeper and multidimensional level.
Cancun is not just a tourist destination; it has many stories and is coloured by many hues and shades of human experience.
Cancun then and now
As a travel and tourism destination, Cancun has stood the test of time, both as a national and international success story.
But time does not stand still. Nor does Cancun. This is a destination that is always looking forward, always a work in progress, and always a culture unto itself in which history matters.
As you will hear Bijan and I discuss in this Travelosophy Talks podcast, Cancun is very much an organic travel experience, an ideological destination, and zeitgeist.
This is a physical location that embodies the spirit of several eras in Mexican history, as well as an inherent spirit in the more than 5000 years of human history in Mexico’s Yucatan.
Although the term zeitgeist implies elements in a culture that relate to intellectuality, culture, ethics, and politics; it usually connotes looking back. As we so often say, “Hindsight is easy.”
But time has many dimensions and the blend of the past, present, and future of Cancun especially poses universal questions and teaches profound lessons about the nature of culture, travel, and civilization — particularly for the enlightened traveller.
While we were in Cancun, we were given access to an archival book titled Fantasia de banqueros (Bankers Dream) about the early days of Cancun; an intriguing story in itself of how the vision of Cancun was formulated and became a reality despite the fact that many said the enterprise was doomed to failure.
But, as history has shown, Cancun became an important economic engine for the Mexican travel and tourism industry as well as an important case study in the largest industry on the planet. Some of the images from this book are included in this Travelosophy Talks podcast. Particularly evocative and meaningful is the first tourism poster ever produced (in Spanish), which advertises this bold initiative.
While a single pair of footsteps in the sand beside a turquoise sea suggest an almost ethereal presence, the text issues an enticing invitation to the traveller:
“This is Cancun where the Maya ‘vacationed’ a thousand years ago. Now you too can experience this world.”
It is not surprising therefore that Cancun is also the kind of destination in which you can let your imagination soar. To a great extent it is a destination for mythologists, amateur or professional. It is certainly very fertile ground for all those who love storytelling.
An engaged and participatory visit to Cancun and its environs is also an experience in unavoidable cross-cultural conflicts, but also an opportunity to rebalance one’s frame of reference on life and consequently one’s worldview. This is especially true when you take the time to study and appreciate Mayan culture. And the great Mayan sites are not far away; as a matter of fact two of them (often overlooked by visitors to Cancun) are right in the heart of this city.
As the brief videos linked below suggest, the Zona Archeológica “El Rey” and El Meco are in many ways the purest and most eloquent expression of Mayan Civilization that I have experienced.
In 1972, my wife and I came to the Yucatan on our honeymoon. This was before Cancun had been developed and this region of Mexico was relatively off-the-beaten-tourist track.
We visited such glorious sites as Chichen Itza and Uxmal when they were more or less remote archeological sites hidden away in the wild landscape of the Yucatan.
Visiting Cancun more than 35 years later — and the exquisite sites of the Zona Archeológica “El Rey” and El Meco — I was once again caught up in a sense of wonder and astonishment.
The fact that both of these sites are relatively undiscovered (by travellers), and oases in modern Cancun, give them a serene sense of really “being there.” Here you can feel the presence of the Mayan people from ancient times. And you can find private moments and private spaces in which to contemplate the classical civilization that flourished here.
It is not so much a sic transit gloria mundi moment; rather it is an affirmation of our species to strive for balance, harmony, and wisdom.
And this too is Cancun.
Images and imagery of Cancun
Take a virtual tour of Cancun.
This archeological site which dates from the late post classic period (1200-1500 AD) corresponds architecturally to great Mayan sites like Tulum. This pre-hispanic settlement is astonishing in that it is comprised of 47 structures, and the principal civic ceremonial centre includes two plazas. The imported materials excavated here also show how advanced the Mayans were in terms of a commercial trade base that extended via sea routes along the Caribbean coast.
El Meco means “bow-legged,” because, as the story goes, it was named after a man who once owned the land, and who also happened to be bow-legged. Dating from the 10th century, it is believed that El Meco played an important role as a port of call and “community centre” for Mayan sailors; as well as a key reference point for coastal navigation. Of the 14 structures on the site, the main temple-pyramid is especially remarkable.
Culture is all about food and the land. The culinary heritage of the Yucatan is not to be underestimated, and if you want to get a “taste” of why Cancun and the Yucatan are also an agritourism destination, you might start by learning how to chop onions the Mexican way.
Not to be missed in Cancun
As mentioned above, these quiet, out of the way Mayan sites are important focal points for getting a broader appreciation of Cancun.
On a quiet street in downtown Cancun, away from the hotel zone, you will find an amazing restaurant that is a cultural experience in itself. The ambiance of La Habichuela is one of artistry and authenticity, as is the menu which teaches as much as it tantalizes. (I personally recommend the “famous” Cocobichela, lobster and shrimp cooked in a curry sauce and served in a coconut shell.). What is a Habichuela? Well it might be a limabean, or a pea, or a string bean. Above all it is a true Yucatan experience. And if you want a quick lesson in the Mayan language the menu will also give you that.
For those in the MICE market (Meetings, Incentive travel, Conferences, and Expositions) Cancun is an excellent choice.
The Mayan “experience” will give you a much deeper appreciation for Cancun as an alternative, indigenous travel experience, and as a hub destination for doing so. If you are an amateur (or professional) historian, cultural anthropologist, geologist, geographer, ethnologist, or environmentalist, the indigenous Mayan experience is for you.
For more information, see www.kanche.org
Cancun is well-known as a destination for the senses. As you can see, it is also a destination for the mind. Art lovers especially will also enjoy the Museo de Arte Popular
Mexico and Cancun are also becoming much more involved in the sustainable travel movement as witnessed by this media release.
Cancun as a music and musicologist’s dream destination
J.D. (Jonathan) Katz is a Canadian citizen who is married to a Mexican. He is also the Musical Drum Director of a wonderful organization called Mystic Drumz: World Music Safari Adventures. He and his team perform in Cancun and the nearby Riviera Maya. The Mystic Drumz organization is run by Lorne Lampert who is also the CDO (Chief Drumming Officer). Lorne lives and works in the Toronto (Canada) area and is the individual who appears in the first video below.
Fluent in English and Spanish, J.D. also speaks the language of children, especially musically. He also operates “Drums in Paradise” in Mexico which provides interactive drumming experiences for groups of all ages.
For an introduction to Mystic Drumz, J.D. and his adventures in music for children, see the following videos:
Here are the contacts for Mystic Drumz:
Jonathan D. Katz B.Mus R.D.D. (Regional Drum Director)
Phone: +011 52 998 251 4977
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