Mexico and tequila and are two things that just naturally go together, sorta like West Virginia and incest.
My friend Jeremy remarked that my little group consumed more tequila in our five days in Cancun than he’d managed since moving here eight years ago.
I don’t think he was kidding.
There’s a lot to love about Cancun, and the local tequila surely makes the list. When the hotel waiter on the beach asks you if you want the “good stuff,” however, say no, emphatically, unless $25 shots are in your budget.
These connoisseur tequilas aren’t in my budget, though this failed to occur to me until after we’d downed several rounds.
I’ll stick to cheap tequila, which is, thankfully, plentiful around here (and after a few shots, it all tastes the same anyway!)
Just as all sparkling wine called Champagne must come from the Champagne region of France, all authentic tequila comes from a town named Santiago de Tequila, in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
The red rock in the soil around Santiago de Tequila is ideal for growing the blue agave used to make tequila. In the 1600s Spanish Conquistadors and Franciscan Monks, having run out of brandy, began distilling it in earnest, doubtless after looting the idea from the indigenous people, along with everything else they had. Today more than 300 million blue agave plants are harvested from the region around the little town.
There is a magnificent avenue in the Yucatecan capital of Merida which is the palatial rival of many grand boulevards in Europe. The wide and elegant street is lined with mansions of stunning size and opulence, all built by guys who owned yucca and agave plantations and became essentially “tequila millionaires” around the turn of the last century. Not bad for what is essentially a plain old cactus.
One final note: If it ain’t made with 100 percent blue agave, it’s not real tequila. You’ll see labels that say “100 percent agave,” but that could be any scraggly old version of the plant. The real stuff is from pure blue agave.
We felt it our duty to sample as much of the real stuff as possible.
We also determined early on that we wanted to get outside the touristy areas, away from the glittering high-rises in the Hotel Zone, and get a feel for the real Cancun.
Of course, truth be told, there is no “real” Cancun. It’s an invented city, an artificial place like Canberra or Brasilia or Islamabad. A mere 40 years ago Cancun was little more than an empty stretch of sand along pristine blue waters. The area had three permanent residents, and was frequented more by fisherman from the nearby village of Puerto Juarez than by tequila-swilling beachgoers.
Some enterprising chap in the Mexican government figured they might attract vacationing Americans, and their much-desired dollars, if they threw up a few hotels along the long, wide and spectacular beach, and Cancun as we now know it was born.
Hysterically, investors were so leery of this wild idea that none would participate. The Mexican government ultimately had to fund development of the first nine hotels directly. I think it’s fair to say they recouped their investment, although, since it’s Mexico, the money probably went into the pockets of government officials rather than back into the treasury.
Our friend Lidia was eager to help introduce us to the non-touristy Cancun, which happily included loads and loads of authentic, spicy Mexican food.
On our way to the Mayan ruins of Tulum we stopped at Taqueria El Arbolito, which means “The Little Tree.” It’s a very fancy name for a not fancy place. This wood and metal roadside shack had a scattering of plastic chairs and tables, no running water, and some of the best food any of us have ever had. We scarfed down things I’d probably never order for myself — cactus, onion & cream tacos, spicy chorizo & potato tacos and egg & spinach tacos – then went back for more.
Being a local place, it was also dirt cheap. Five of us ate, and drank, for $14.
It was only our first day and Brian announced the trip couldn’t possibly get any better.
Bellies full, we proceeded on to the ancient Mayan ruins at Tulum, which I’ve seen before, but never fail to amaze, and to Xel Ha, which served as a major port for the Mayans two thousand years ago and remains today as a stunning aquatic natural theme park. (Don’t be too impressed by the “major port” thing – the Maya were not a seafaring people. In fact, Tulum is considered an odd-ball Mayan city because it’s actually located on the ocean.)
Xel Ha (pronounced “shell-HAH”) is a place of almost unimaginable natural beauty, offering just about anything giddy tourists could want: snorkeling, cliff-jumping, tubing down natural-spring rivers flowing out of underground cenotes, swimming with dolphins and all-inclusive access to food and drink, especially tequila.
I’ve been to Xel-Ha many times, and have always loved it. It’s one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth, a shallow-water inlet where an underground spring flows out into the sea. But recently it seems that Xel Ha is trying to be too many things to too many people, trying to attract the adventure-sport crowd with unimpressive zip-line contraptions and mid-level cliffs from which you can jump into crystal-clear waters. They’re also catering to families with lots of kids, and tacky, Disney-esque playgrounds now litter the beautiful grounds.
That’s a shame. Nature did a fine job of creating Xel-Ha. Maybe the developers should stop trying so hard to improve it.
Although Brian might prefer the playground.
This would be the first time Brian had ever snorkeled. It may also be the last time Brian will ever snorkel.
While four of us merrily hopped in the water and took off, Brian cautiously slid on his mask, stuck the end of his snorkel in his mouth, and slid into the water, where he promptly disappeared amid a flurry of bubbles and splashing. He emerged, sputtering and cussing, spit a mouthful of water out and insisted he’d been given a “defective” mask. This scene was repeated several times, with Brian becoming more frustrated by the minute, until I finally gave him my mask to try.
It, too, proved to be faulty.
He tossed it back at me, clambered out of the water, and stomped off to find another mask, which, predictably, failed to turn him in to a graceful snorkeler.
Brian announced that the trip sucked.
After a day in the sun exploring ancient Mayan sites and swimming the gorgeous waters of Xel Ha, we headed back to town for dinner with some other local friends, Lucia and Jeremy, at Restaurante Altamar.
We spent a fraction of what we would have inside the Hotel Zone, and enjoyed scrumptious (and spicy) ceviche, lobster, mole and tacos de arrachera, as well as lots of guacamole, while a street performer wowed us with her twirling fire batons.
We knocked back another boatload of margaritas while we pretended not to notice the spicy food (only our Mexican friends and Soo were truly unaffected), and Brian announced, again, that the trip couldn’t possibly get any better.
As long as there’s no more snorkeling.