Xcaret used to be a gem at the butt-end of a sand path off a dirt road in the Yucatan Peninsula. White sand beach. Wild Manatees in clear cenote waters. Now it’s a tourist trap in Mundo Maya. But still paradise, worth a day’s vacation and the bag full of pesos it’ll cost to enjoy the pee-poluted waters. Visitors have brought money to a patch of Mexico that had nothing but natural beauty and poverty when Jack and I towed a 35 foot trailer onto the beach just north of Xcaret back in ‘91.
Back then we’d often drive the sixty miles to Cancun to pick up friends from the airport and haul them down the coast to Paamul, the funky trailer park on the Caribbean where we lived in our aluminum house under a grass-roofed palapa.
It was paradise. For a while.
We heard a lot of xenophobic questions on that shuttle from the airport in the big city, where just a few years earlier you bought meat from a butcher who lopped the heads of chickens on a blood-stained stump and, for a few extra coins, would pluck the fowl for you too.
“Why do these Mexicans pretend they can’t understand English?”
The same reason you pretend you don’t speak Spanish.
“So, living down here, what do you do, just eat canned food?”
We eat everything, just make sure to wash it down with tequila to kill all those nasty Mexican bugs.
My favorite query though was from a couple who had been coming to stay at an all-inclusive in Cancan for years. Jack talked them into staying in a cabana near us instead, promised to show them the real Yucatan.
The woman crossed her high-heeled sandals, peered through the window of our van at the dirt-floored, grass-roofed, stick-huts where the locals lived who worked at the luxury hotels that lined the crescent beach of Cancun and scraped out a living pandering to tourists.
“What kind of animals do they raise in all these sheds?”
The maids and gardeners and waiters who work at the hotels live in those little houses.
“Oh no! That’s not true. The local people who wait on us at our hotel are so clean and super-dooper friendly. They love Americans. No way they live in those ugly little huts.”
Uh huh. Well, see their living, whether or not their kids eat, depends on you feeling comfortable and happy and unafraid when you fly down here for your yearly visit to the all-inclusive, so they kind of have to be real friendly and happy, happy to see you. Smiling brown faces all around.
Our guests were hungry and Jack, true to his word to show them the real Yucatan, bypassed Senor Frogs and took them to one of the very grass-roofed huts they’d asked about. We dined at the home of our boat captain’s mother. From 5 to 9 each night, Gabriela swept the hammocks up and tied them to the pole ceiling and, with the addition of four wobbly tables and a few mismatched chairs, she had a restaurant. Jack and I ate carnitas and tacos until our bellies were full as ticks. Our guests were wrung out after their two hour flight from Atlanta. They didn’t eat a single bite.
The next day we took them to Xcaret where Jack and I swam in the blue cenote and they sweated at the edge of the jungle and begged for air conditioning.
I understand they still go to Cancun. They’ve found a new all-inclusive on the turquoise sea between Hooters and Ruth Chris. Last year they even took a hotel shuttle to the new, improved, paved-over Xcaret where they sipped margaritas, listened to a mariachi band and dipped their toes in waters where just a few years ago, manatees sometimes frolicked and this very couple yearned for smiling brown faces and air conditioning.