The Many Colors of Cancún
Let’s get to the big secret of the most brilliant star of Mexico’s Riviera Maya: Cancún still has secrets.
Here’s the gay one: Not even existing 50 years ago, Cancún made quick work becoming the LGBTQ anchor of Mexico’s Caribbean. It has its own gay beach at Playa Delphines, its own Gay Pride (Memorial Day weekend), and is pushing hard to attract gay businesses as much as gay tourists - it hosted the 2nd International Expo & Business LGBT Event in 2012.
In what could be considered a general rule, most of the communities stringing the Riviera Maya count as gay friendly; certainly the hotels are - my home base, the JW Marriott goes so far as to have a "Pride in Cancún" package. Ironically, Cancún’s dominance in the sector seems only to have sparked a serious "get the gays" competition, particularly with high-octane Playa del Carmen, 45 minutes south. Visiting in January, I made it in time for an all-nighter at Playa’s beachside Blue Parrot club, part of the larger Arena circuit event, a 6-day/15-party gay bacchanal held all over the city.
In what is one of the most prefabricated tourist-scapes in Mexico, the JW refreshingly, bucks the faux-native trend, seducing guests the ol’ fashioned way: with one beach, three infinity pools and beds with thread counts that go on forever. Even better, it is connected to the Casa Magna Marriott next door, whose Spanish Colonial styling is tastefully paired with the JW’s monumentalism. Guests can dart between Marriotts and their restaurants with impunity, including the JW’s Gustino and the Casa Magna’s La Capilla steakhouse, a carnivore’s holy of holies.
But I’m never one to stay in a hotel, no offense to the filet mignon.
Across the Ocean
A sweep of titanium-white sands 45 minutes off the Yucatan coast, Isla Mujeres got its name ("Isle of Women") courtesy of incoming Conquistadores for the multitude of idols the island’s Mayans carved honoring Ixchil, goddess of fertility. Those same Conquistadores then proceeded to destroy every last idol, and more than a few Mayans. While qualifying as a "shaky start," you would see little such drama today: Isla Mujeres, is dotted with candy-colored houses, cobblestone lanes, and Caribbean joie de vivre.
Kicking back on the beach or in a restaurant (Las Casuelas M&J is tops) with margarita in hand was the initial plan, but this is one of those places where getting there is half the fun. The Caribbean is a glorious stained glass window of blue, and ferrying to Isla Mujeres is a voyage over aqueous meadows of crystalline aquamarine, navy, cyan, cerulean, indigo - no wonder Enya couldn’t shut up about it.
After days crawling over ruins, beachcombing islands, and haggling for just about anything, it was time to put the JW Marriott to the test, for what makes a luxury hotel truly luxurious? The spa. So when I was instructed to meet my masseur, Alejandro (yes - Lady Gaga instantly played in my head), in the spa’s inner sanctum, there was a little trepidation of ending up a granny knot at the hands of a dude who started out life as a tank.
Instead, I got a particularly radiant example of Mayan good looks. But aside from aesthetics, Ale-Alejandro is a master of "balché massage", a Maya-inspired 2-in-1 rubdown where fragments of bark from the balché tree (an intrinsic ingredient in Mayan rituals) are added as an exfoliating agent to the oil. Eighty minutes later, I was relaxed to the point of anesthetized and polished to the point of Greek statuary. I left that table dopamine-giddy; the man hit every part that was legal.
My New Friend, Tequila
To keep the good times going, I naturally turned to that other Mexican tradition, but to come to Mexico was to find out just how far off the mark I was with tequila. The American style of tequila consumption - salt, lime and shot glasses - makes a Mexican’s soul curdle. Tequila has a culture equal to anything France or Italy produces from their vineyards, and as such, a sublime ritual of enjoyment.
Lina Lopez Magdaleno of the Museo Sensorial del Tequila says the idea of a shot glass should be, well... shot. While you could probably get away with it if blanco is your go-to, the big three, reposado, añejo and extra añejo, are most enjoyed in a champagne flute. This allows aromas of agave, honey, and vanilla to come through, be savored, and noticed in the first place.
Then there is the drinking, and this is a three-step process. Tequila should be sipped (not slammed), swished about the mouth, and then swallowed. This cleanses the palate for the second sip, where the tequila is allowed to pool on the tongue, and one takes a quick inhale-exhale though the mouth.
The third and final stage is like the second - allowing a pool to form on the tongue, but then you do what a linguist calls an "alveolar click," what one does when making the tsk-tsk sound, only for tequila, it should be a triple tsk-tsk-tsk before swallowing.
After the sipping, pooling, breathing, and clicking, I was allowed to enjoy my tequila responsibly, without a lime or saltshaker in sight.
Age Before Beauty
The Riviera Maya is so modern that it can be easily forgotten the entire region is actually very old. The Mayan Riviera is positively spangled with ancient cities, villages, temples and palaces - Cancún included. Today’s Cancún is a whippersnapper, but the Mayan one goes back thousands of years, and a short walk from the JW is a most curious building, the Museo Maya de Cancún.
Supported by columns, the museum is literally built over the Mayan town of San Miguelito. Walking along the pathways, the air tremulous with songs of sanate birds, it’s an "Indiana Jones" screenplay: I am in an emerald rainforest, surrounded by mysterious mounds clearly covering something massive and man-made. The trees part. I emerge into a tropical grotto, and before me stands the bleached-white remains of a grand temple, brilliant in the sun. Cue eerie soundtrack.
And 15 yards away is the freeway. Stone Age and Space Age constantly tussle for facetime in Cancún, but for a total time warp, to the south beckons the City of the Dawn.
Get to Tulum before the crowds, around 7 a.m. Atmospherically elegant and stoutly muscular, the Mayan "City of the Dawn" rises less than two hours from the futuristic spires of Cancún’s hotels, and represents a shining moment of the ancient Maya.
Overlooking the sapphire seascape of the Caribbean, and for all its terrestrial impregnability, the city is inextricably tied to the ocean. The jewel of the ruin - the iconic El Castillo complex of temples - faces inland (an example of ancient hurricane-savvy architecture), save for two tiny windows on the shrine atop the Pyramid, the tallest of Tulum’s buildings. The second largest coral reef in the world lurks just off shore, but when fires flicker within, those windows act as a lighthouse, guiding ships safely into harbor.
Tulum, whose original name, Zama, means "City of the Dawn," is remarkably intact, for the simple reason it was one of the last Mayan cities to fall, persisting into the Spanish conquest. What ignited the Mayan collapse confounds experts, but for its silence, I saw hints in Tulum of how such a luminous monument of humanity vanished. Perched on cliffs, the backs of El Castillo and Temple of the Descending God as barriers, it is unassailable from the sea.
A protective wall rings the city - a fortification earlier metropolises like Tikal and Chichen-Itza famously lacked. Tulum rose when people, driven by war and drought, were on the move...downward. The City of the Dawn rose even as it faced its dusk.
And yet the spirit of the ancient civilization never died; Mayans are alive and well today, and if you listen closely, you’ll hear their fluid language spoken. Rampant capitalization of Mayan motifs by every bar, hotel, road sign and gumball machine in eyeshot may make it a tough call telling Mayan from McMayan, but as "touristy" as parts of Mexico’s eastern coast can get, there is still a lot to it I never suspected. I can’t wait to go back and find out what I missed. Like Alejandro’s number...