Insider's guide to ... Cancun

Get the low down from this southern Mexican region


What's the weather like now?

What's the weather like now?

After an unusual cold snap in January, when Mexicans and appalled tourists alike shivered under layers of blankets at night, the sun has returned to its full force, with hot cloudless days and warm evenings.

What are the locals complaining about?

The bunfight that is "spring break", a two-month takeover of the less discerning parts of Cancun by thousands of American college kids on their annual drinkfest - not a pretty sight even by the hardcore boozing standards of Mexico.

Who's the talk of the town?

The Zapatistas' march on Mexico City. And their opponent, Vicente Fox, the first democratically elected president for 70-odd years, with whom Mexicans are obsessed. Also, George W Bush, who recently visited Fox at his ranch in Central Mexico to compare cowboy boots and discuss improved relations between their countries.

What's the cool drink?

There's only one essential drink in Cancun and that's a Margarita: tequila, Triple Sec and lime. Mexican beer - Corona, Sol and the local brew Montejo - is also downed by the crateload. If you're abstaining from alcohol the tastiest thirst-quenching drink is agua de jamaica, flavoured water made from hibiscus flowers and sold from street vendors' carts or in the food markets downtown.

What are people eating?

Tourists, who are mostly North American, are eating pretty much what they would at home - Big Mac and fries all round, hold the habanero (Mexico's fieriest chile and native to the Yucatan peninsula) or the least exciting of Mexican antojitos or snacks such as quesadillas, tortillas with melted cheese, salbutes or panuchos, toasted tortillas topped with lettuce, strips of meat and cheese. More adventurous visitors are trying ceviche, raw fish marinated in lime (absolutely delicious) or pollo pibil, chicken marinated in oranges, wrapped in banana leaves and baked.

What's the latest outrageous stuff on TV?

Las Cosas de la Vida, an Oprah-type talk show where Mexicans sob, shriek, and generally wash their dirty linen in public. Recent outbursts include: "I will die because they've stolen my son and I don't know where he is." More hysterical than anything Jerry Springer could have devised, and genuinely affecting.

Where wouldn't the locals dream of going?

On one of several different lobster dinner cruises, where an "authentic 18th-century Spanish Galleon" takes you out to sea so that you can gaze back at the unlovely sight of Cancun's Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone), 10 miles of wall-to-wall 500-room hotels, all of them hideous, while you wrestle with indifferent lobster at £40 a go.

Where are the locals going that tourists don't know about?

Away from the fleshpot hotel strip, downtown Cancun resembles a rather cheerful Mexican town, and particularly pleasant is Plaza de las Palapas, a large central square inhabited by the balloon sellers who are ubiquitous in Mexico and furnished with taco stands and a small local cinema. On Saturday evenings large loudspeakers are set up and couples, both young and old, come to dance cheek to cheek the old-fashioned way, or just stroll among the almond trees in their weekend best.

Where are the chic people shopping?

There are very few really chic people in Cancun (they're cooling their heels with a spot of culture in inland Merida or eating gourmet Italian cuisine in down-the-coast Playa del Carmen) but there is plenty of shopping. Both pesos and dollars can be spent at a lightning rate in one of several enormous shopping malls in the Hotel Zone, which contain all the most popular American clothing labels, designer and high-street, and have the added advantage of being rigorously air-conditioned. As the publicity for the newest mall puts it, "somewhere you can spend the day without going out into the sun".

What's the trendy place to escape to for the weekend?

Isla de Holbox is a peninsula several hours north of Cancun and a million miles away culturally, with sandy streets, genuinely friendly locals and a wonderful lack of laid-on entertainment, although there is one, modest disco. The three straightforward hotels may soon be swamped by a big development scheme. Go now, by persuading a fisherman to take you along for the ride.

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