WEDNESDAY, FEB. 20 – CANCUN, MEXICO
I am going to Cuba to get in touch with my inner Marxist. After one night in this Mexican theme park called Cancun, I feel like donning a Cossack hat and becoming the first person to hop in a small boat and sneak into Cuba.
Confession: I hate Cancun. I’m the type of person who sees the negatives in people — blame journalism’s cynicism — but the positives in cultures. When it comes to Cancun, however, I need a microscope and some Extra Strength Excedrin to focus on the positives. This is my third time here and no place in Mexico is less representative of the Mexican culture than this phony, miserable tourist trap. About 4 million visitors come to Cancun annually. The vast majority are Americans. The vast majority of those Americans can’t pronounce “Gracias.”
I get the lure. The beach really is nice. The resorts are big and modern. The margaritas are strong. But the Cancun government has angled this place so far to the American market that you feel like you’re in one of Pancho Villa’s worst nightmares. One night in Cancun is like being stuck on a cactus with a mariachi band poking me with machetes.
The drive in from the airport perfectly puts Cancun (pop. 530,000) in perspective. When you reach Zona Hotelera, you have one endless strip of chock-a-block resorts on your right and an equally long stretch of cheap Mexican souvenir stands, American chains (Planet Hollywood, Bubba Gump, Hard Rock Cafe) and hordes of pasty or sunburned tourists. It’s one giant strip mall. From the road you don’t see one speck of sand. Between Zona Hotelera and downtown Cancun, you actually have a sprawling open-air complex of street stalls where you can find a sombrero that hasn’t donned a Mexican’s head since the 1950s.
I stayed downtown where the locals live, eat and drink. My airport shuttle drove 20 minutes past Zona Hotelera and the harbor to the first place I saw real Mexicans. I’m at the Hotel Antillano, a dark, three-story building right off the main drag of Avenida Tulum. The lobby and tiny bar were empty. My third-floor room had a nice red-tile floor, two double beds, a step-up bathroom, TV and a big picture window. It was perfect for $50.
Frankly, I planned a real quiet night. I wanted to be clear-headed when I reached Cuba which, from what I’ve read, will jangle your senses like few of my previous 90 countries ever did. That plan for a clear head went out the window after one margarita.
The nice elderly hotel manager recommended I dine at La Habichuela, an indoor-outdoor Mayan restaurant behind the big town plaza. Built in 1977, it has been around since before the tourist boom which means it’s as close to authentic Yucatan food as you’ll find in Cancun.
But one of the biggest reasons I love Mexico is the margaritas. They are as powerful as a cannon shot. Unlike in the U.S. where (outside the Southwest) you need a National Geographic-financed expeditition to find a strong marg, Mexico has them on almost every corner. The margaritas in Cancun’s all-night clubs, which are more like vomitoriums with house music, are as weak as the Mexican peso. But at La Habichuela, I sat at the tiny bar on one of the five seats and nearly fell over after one. It was on the rocks and the tequila shot down my throat with every sip. Before I was halfway done I figured I’d better take a table.
La Habichuela is a gorgeous restaurant. It’s real airy with white tile tabletops and stucco architecture. Brilliant white furniture adorned the patio outside. I love Mayan cuisine. The Mayans were a growing intellectual culture in the 3rd century and one reason was their innovative ways to make food. They were among the first to cook food in the ground and to use a multitude of seasonings to rub into meat and fish.
It’s the one Mexican food that combines fruit with the dishes. I ordered a pollo katarina, a chicken breast filled with banana and prosciutto covered in a mild tomato sauce. It was spectacular. The banana and prosciutto were a nice ying and yang and a perfect complement to my second margarita.
Afterward I had a beer at a dive outdoor bar near the plaza. I told the scruffy, pot-bellied manager I was going to Cuba today. He became the second Mexican who responded the same way: “Bonita mujeres!” (Beautiful women). He told me the baseball team was good but the women were better. He’d never been there. I sense Mexicans have the same fear of communism as South Koreans although I never heard a South Korean talk about the bevy of beauties roaming Pyongyang.
I’ll find out soon enough. I leave in six hours.
I was thinking about the most challenging places I’ve ever been: Albania, Nepal, the Amazon. Cuba could top it. Because of our embargo, credit cards and ATM cards in U.S. banks do not work anywhere in Cuba. You have to haul in all your cash – preferably euros – and change it for a “tourist peso” called a convertible (con-ver-TEE-belay). Cuba takes a 10 percent commission on dollars but minimal for euros. And your money had better last. If you run out or lose it, you’re screwed. You’re done. You’re through. Hop on the plane and return to Cancun.
So I have in my money belt 740 euros, about $1,000 for eight days. This is the most I’ve ever had on my person in 35 years of international travel. I’m not worried. With money belts, they have to knock me out and strip me to take my money.
Cuban women don’t like Americans that much, do they?
TUESDAY: THE ARRIVAL — IN THE HOME OF A CUBAN FAMILY STILL SUFFERING FROM THE FALL OF THE SOVIET UNION IN 1991