36 hours in Cancun

Working in the travel industry is not, unlike a lot of people seem to think, a non-stop holiday.  Over my time in the industry, travel perks have shrunk drastically and the actual “travel” part of the job has been reduced for many to the short walk between  desk and coffee machine.

Early on in my career, however, I was privileged to work for a company through which I got to travel to 14 countries.  I did more travelling in 6 years than most people do in a lifetime!  Work trips are no picnic though – between trade fairs, conferences and training seminars, there is usually very little time to fit in regular tourist stuff.

An example of such a trip was in 2006 when I attended airline systems training in Mexico City.  Staying at an airport hotel and being shuttled back and forth with the other delegates to a training centre near the airport left little scope for much of anything else other than the course work.  I had something to look forward to though – at the end of the week I was doing a whirlwind stop in Cancun before returning home.

The area was devastated by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and I had been sent specifically to understand the extent of the damage and the impact on it was having on tourism.  I was there to do what we in the industry call “hotel inspections” and evaluate the progress of the recovery effort.

Hotel inspections entail being escorted around by a manager of some sort and shown the various facilities on offer – every room type, spa, restaurant and gym – all while trying to appear excited (wow! Your toilet roll holders are lovely) and making casual small talk with the person you’re walking around with (is it always this humid here?), all the while knowing that the beach is a few metres away and you’re not going to get there.  If ever there was to be a travel-related cult, the hotel inspection would be the ideal way to program its members.  After doing hundreds of them, the ritual has become so ingrained in me that to this day upon entering a hotel I get the urge ask if I can see the conference facilities.

After landing in Cancun quite late on Friday night, I had an early start on Saturday – there was a lot of ground to cover with loads of hotels to see.

The hotels we were inspecting were dotted all around Cancun, from the touristy resorts situated in the “Hotel Zone” (a 25 kilometre long sandbank in the shape of a “7” which juts out into the ocean) to some budget options on the mainland.  As we rushed from one inspection to the next my guide pointed out “Mercado 28”.  Situated in the downtown area, she insisted that if I wanted any souvenirs that was the best place to get them.  I made a mental note of its location, hoping to return there later that afternoon once I was off the clock.  My directions went something along the lines of “main road, hotel, weird fountain, straight for a while, hotel, wow look how blue the ocean is, buggery – I’m supposed to be taking note of this… bullring, “is it always this humid here?”, hotel…”

Cancun Map
Map showing the location of the Hotel Zone, Mercado 28 and the approximate location of my hotel

It was all quite depressing.  The clean-up and rebuild effort was still underway along the main tourist area and a lot of hotels were still a long way from being able to fully reopen.  What remained of the beaches was all being held together with sandbags.

Cancun Beach 1
Sandbags and boobs

I got back to my hotel at around 4pm that afternoon.  The plan was to get to Mercado 28 for a look-see before heading down to the Hotel Zone for dinner, capped off by a gentle stroll back along the coastline.  I was hoping to get back to the hotel at around 9pm so I could pack and get ready for my early departure on Sunday.  I imagined it to be a nice relaxing evening.

I headed out on foot as walking is really the best way to discover a destination.  You’re moving slowly enough to take in the things that would otherwise be missed and that’s really what travel is all about – finding those off-the-beaten-track hidden gems which can only be discovered when not speeding by in a car.  The downside of walking though is that it makes getting lost a slow and rather painful process.

I had just left the hotel when I realised that my map was jumbled up with the work stuff I had dumped in my room.  These were the days before smartphones, so I didn’t have a navigation app to fall back on.  What I did have were my mental notes, so in an effort to save time I decided against going back to fetch it.

Naturally, it didn’t take long for things to start unravelling.  “Ah yes – the weird fountain.  Was it left or right here?  I think it was left?  Or did I already reverse the directions as we were driving, so that would make it a right.  That other road curves around and looks like it re-joins this one further down, so I’ll go straight because it’s most likely a short cut”.  About an hour after my internal debate at the crossroad I was standing on the highway outside of Cancun thinking “Well, this doesn’t seem right…”

Weird Fountain
The weird fountain

It’s really quite difficult to get un-lost when you already have no idea where you are or where you’re supposed to be going.  I had no other choice but to keep walking.  Miraculously I found myself in a parking lot which played host to 1 lonely bus displaying “Mercado 28” in the window.  Victory!

The miracle bus

The feelings of triumph were short-lived as once I’d finally arrived, I was at the market for all of 20 minutes.  I’ve never had a penchant for shopping and it seemed as though all of the curio shops were selling the exact same thing.  After all of that walking, Mercado 28 was not for me.  Already behind time, I cut my losses and took a taxi down to the hotel zone.  A quick burger and beer later I was back to pounding the pavement as I headed back to my hotel, hoping to soak up some of the Cancun vibe along the way.

Mercado 28
Mercado 28…

I have no idea how far down the “zone” I had asked the cab to drop me but by the time I started to worry about it, I had done so much walking that it felt as though I had nothing more than 2 pieces of cardboard strapped to my feet.  My shoes had even changed colour.  My relaxing after dinner stroll had turned into a full on competitive speed-walking event, complete with weirdly swaying hips. I was officially stressing about the distance I still had to cover, all the while stubbornly refusing to hail another cab because “I’m only here for 36 hours and I refuse to not see stuff!”

I limped into my room just before 1am.  C’est la vie, I guess.

My shoes had been reduced to discoloured cardboard

Another character building trip, here are my top tips from this experience:

  1. It is highly likely that Fleetwood Mac’s hit song “Go Your Own Way” was written after they travelled to Cancun, didn’t carry a map and took a shortcut.
  2. Don’t ask for help or directions and don’t hail a taxi – that’s cheating.
  3. The Cancun hotel zone is a lot longer than you think. Wear comfortable shoes.
  4. I suggest a little more than 36 hours in Cancun in order to fit in all your hotel inspections, find the highway on-ramp and still do something from your bucket list (like visiting Chichen Itza, which remains on my bucket list).

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