I worried that we planned too much for the trip. It’s vacation. You don’t want to be tied to some schedule. You want to relax and just do whatever you feel like. As it turned out, we should have planned even more. I forgot, I guess, that it was us involved in this vacation thing. “Do whatever you feel like” tends to go like this:
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
“No, you can’t answer my question with a question. You have to answer it with an answer.”
“Whatever. It’s up to you. I want you to have fun.”
“Don’t put all that responsibility on me! I’ll have fun if I don’t have to choose!”
“I’m good with anything.”
“So am I.”
And then we sit in the hotel room and watch The Simpsons dubbed in Spanish.
On the first day, we didn’t have anything planned. I figured we’d wander around, get our bearings, relax, have tequila. And it did work out that way, but we were not without our moments of indecision.
We checked our tour book (which ended up being crap, by the way, but at least it had maps) and decided to check out downtown Cancun — the real Cancun. By which I do not mean the one featured in that MTV movie, but the actual Cancun where people live. Because what we realized right away about Cancun is that it’s exactly like Vegas. It’s a strip of extravagent hotels, surrounded by theme restaurants, and tourists are meant to stay within its borders and never even notice they’re in a foreign country. (Well, depending on how “foreign” one considers Outback Steakhouse, The Rain Forest Cafe, and Senor Frog’s.)
We decided to take the city bus. Turns out, learning how to ride the bus came in very handy throughout our trip as we ended up taking it everywhere. It works like this: You find a bus stop (helpfully noted by a sign with a picture of a bus on it and a number, which signifies the stop). You watch as the buses fly by you and you look for one that says it’s going to the place you want to go. These places are indicated in huge letters on the windshield. For instance, if you want to go downtown, you look for a bus that says “downtown.” If you want to go back to your hotel, look for “hotels”. And, well, if you want to go to Wal-Mart, just look for the bus that says, yes, “Wal-Mart.” I am not kidding.
When we were there, a bus ride was six and a half pesos. The exchange rate was hovering around 11, but if had American dollars, you had to make due with the easier-to-calculate rate of 10 and pay 65 cents. If you have to transfer to another bus, you pay another six and a half pesos. We heard a woman asking how she could get a transfer. “I don’t think this driver gives transfers” came a reply from another tourist on the bus. She looked like she was feeling ripped off.
From the curb, you wave at the driver who you want to stop. You get on, give your money to the driver, take the ticket, and then you hold on. The holding on part is important. Many tourists felt as though the driver should wait until they tucked their change back into their wallets, and put it in their backpacks, wandered down the aisle looking for a good seat, and finally sat down before driving on. The driver doesn’t do this. The driver guns it. If you’re not holding on, you fall over.
If you need change, don’t hold up the line. Step aside and let other people on. If you are in a group of eight and one person is paying for everyone, the non-payers should not congregate at the front of the bus and block anyone else from getting on. They should go find seats. And hold on. The holding on part seemed to take the longest for people to get.
P. seemed amazed that at everything I get scared of, I seemed to have no fear of the bus with its high-speed maneuvers and abrupt stops and starts and weaving in and out of traffic. I just figured the bus drivers knew what they were doing. And then one day, we walked out of our hotel and down the road to the bus stop and saw a bus, completely totaled, having apparently run into and completely sheared off a light pole. The front was smashed in, windshield shattered, and one tire was folded under the bus. We just waited for the next bus to come. They come about every three minutes.
The other important thing about riding the bus is that you have to know where you’re getting off. In the hotel zone, this is easy. Every stop has a map, helpfully numbered with the stop of each hotel and restaurant. So, you have to pay attention to where you are and what stop you just passed. When your stop is coming up, just stand up and start making your way to the front (holding on, of course). Otherwise, if no one is at that stop waiting to get on, the driver will just speed on by. And you might end up like the tourists on one of our buses who yelled out: “El stopo el buso!” Which is of course, Spanish for “I am a huge American idiot and my aim in life is to make every other American on this bus pretend to be Canadian for the rest of the trip.”
If you’re not in the hotel zone, or you are but are still confused, you can always ask the bus driver. Despite their apparent hurry, they seem to have no problem answering questions, telling you before you get on if it’s the right bus, telling you which stop you want, actually stopping at the place you’ve said you want to go.
Anyway, we learned all of this our first day getting into downtown Cancun. Once there, we weren’t quite sure what to do. We didn’t want to go to Wal-Mart.
We ended up at Market 28, which appears to be a local flea market, but is actually just another tourist trap with exactly the same very limited selection as every other store geared for tourists, at amazingly high prices. One problem is that the handicrafts aren’t made locally. They’re made in other parts of Mexico and then shipped to Cancun where most of the tourists are. You end up paying more for cups and shirts and various trinkets than you would at home. And unless you find something you really love, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend a lot of money to go somewhere far away, buy say, a set of four shot glasses, and then trudge them home when you could go to oh, Cost Plus, and buy the same glasses for half the price. It would be fine if you could find something unique that you really liked, but that proved difficult.
We wandered into a tequila store. The guy told us about the tequilas he liked, we tasted a few, then bought two bottles. One was a tequila almond liqueur that was really interesting. We were told you could drink it over ice or in something like apple juice. We also got an anejo tequila that we hadn’t seen locally. The trouble with buying tequila there was that 90% of the brands were ones we can buy locally. And they were more expensive in Cancun. Maybe Washington just has a killer tequila selection and we haven’t appreciated how good we have it. Anyway, we spent $80 on tequila and figured we’d gotten the important shopping done.
Then, we stopped by a taco stand and I got this really great taco with beef and potatoes inside. And then we tried to figure out how to find the bus again. Which was really difficult since we had not yet figured out the system. I probably haven’t relayed the frenetic atmosphere, what with all shop keepers yelling at us to come in, and the timeshare people asking us “honeymooners” if we wanted to take any trips, and all the dogs, oh the dogs, running around everywhere, and the cars weaving around the streets, and the music blaring (oddly, mostly not Mexican music, but American easy listening 80’s hits), and horns blaring, and the heat and humidity (that caused us to remind each other quite often how stinky the other was getting) and more “come in honeymooners!” and “do you want your hair braided?” and so on like that. It was crazy! And really fun.
We headed back to the hotel and didn’t do much of anything for the rest of the afternoon. We went out to the beach and swam with the jellyfish. Probably that is not the best idea actually. The jellyfish were tiny, maybe quarter-size, nearly black. They gathered together in groups, forming black holes, floating on the surface of the water. We swam around them. Ridiculous, I know. You’re on vacation. Nothing can go wrong! Fortunately, we did not get stung.
The water is fabulous: so warm, so clear. P. said, “this is just like the wave pool at a water park! We could have stayed home and gone there!” But only of course it couldn’t be more different.
That night, we went to La Distilleria. They give tours on Monday and Wednesday nights. It’s best to make reservations, which we did at some point on Monday afternoon. They brought us each one of their house drinks, which was really good. It was various fruit juices and tequila (of course). Pepe, the “tequilier”, took us on a private tour, and told us all about the history of tequila, how it was discovered (originally, Mayans fermented the leaves of the agave plant, rather than the heart), how it’s made, and how to drink it.
We learned that the tequila-making process is not unlike the wine-making process, down to aging in oak barrels. At the end of the tour, we had a tequila tasting. We tasted three tequilas: a blanco, a reposado, and an anejo. We got both lime with salt and the traditional sangrita.
After the tasting, we headed over for dinner. We had margaritas, which were excellent. Along with chips and salsa, they give you a mix of black and pinto beans, seasoned with red onions, tomatoes, jalapeno, cilantro, and lime juice. We tried making some when we got home. It was good, but not quite as good as they make it. Dinner was delicious. We stuffed ourselves full. We took the bus back to our hotel and managed to get off at the right stop (which was only two stops down).
“I love the bus!” I said to P.
“I think you just had a lot of tequila, honey.” He patted me on the head.
“Yes! But I still love the bus.”