It may be home to Margaritaville, Señor Frog's, and frat house spring break traditions, but Cancún can also be a hub of great food and great adventure. We recently spent a long weekend playing in the waves and road-tripping to Tulum and back, finding fantastic dishes, drinks, and fun along the way. Avoiding American chains and full-tilt party spots like Coco Bongo couldn’t have been easier, and in their place we enjoyed small taco stands and unforgettable dinners.
We were met with Cancún’s endless warm winds upon arrival, which were a welcome departure from New York’s more brutal variety. Driving down the main drag of the Zona Hotelera, the Disney-fication of the city is obvious. Very few parts of the country, if any, look anything like Cancún, with its wide streets (complete with green grass separators) and stacks of easy-to-read street signs. We checked into our hotel, where the lobby was so filled with English speakers that we all knew we could speak English to one another without asking first. Not a great merit for a trip to a foreign country, but we pressed on.
The first half of day two was spent largely ping-ponging from lounge chair to ocean and back again, but finally, hunger struck and we went off in search of good, authentic tacos. The tiny, hole-in-the-wall taco shop we’d been pointed toward, Habanero’s, sits across the street from Bubba Gump Shrimp but was so good, we went twice in four days. It has wildly high ratings on TripAdvisor, too, and for good reason — if you eat any real tacos in Cancun, head to Habanero’s and order fish, chicken tinga, and chorizo tacos, and a chicken tostada. You will want to personally thank me — it’s a tiny taco oasis in the midst of half-off margarita deal billboards. (Photo courtesy of Jon Jackson)
We swung and struck out on a couple of restaurants on the main hotel drag, which seems inevitable, but found shockingly good food at the Argentine Puerto Madero. It sits in a small strip mall like most restaurants and bars on the road, with rented BMWs and Audis sitting next to the valet out front. And inside there are plenty of tourists, but here they’re mixed with locals. One dish not to be skipped here is the empanadas — they are what deep-fried pocket dreams are made of (the spiced meat and tuna were our personal favorites). We followed it up with a halibut with white wine sauce and tenderloin with creamed spinach and caramelized onions. They were perfectly seasoned, manly portions, and served as the biggest surprise on our trip.
In the morning, we rented a car and slowly made our way to Tulum. We’d been advised to stop in Puerto Morelos, which is a small seaside town. Even here, we hungry travelers had to be wary of tourist traps — the places along the main square served chicken fingers along with, and I quote, "Mexican tacos," while the small, dusty side streets offered welcomed, authentic relief. We were told that La Playita had the best fish in town, but it wasn’t open for lunch yet by the time we’d arrived. Instead, we took a gamble on the sweetly named Fountain of Flavor, which sounds much better in Spanish. It paid off in spades — we ordered fish, chicken tinga, and cochinita tacos, along with freshly made pineapple juices, and were endlessly rewarded by the bright freshness and simplicity of it all.
We hit the road again toward Tulum, where we played in the waves some more and explored the ruins, piggy-backing onto English tours so we could learn little tidbits from the guides. If there is one regret from this road trip, it’s that we didn’t leave enough time to get our adrenaline going on a zip line course at one of the many cenote parks that line the road between Cancún and Tulum. We arrived just after the last tours had gone out, and were out of luck. (Photo courtesy of Jon Jackson)
So, we found solace in a cocktail on the pedestrian streets of Playa del Carmen. We arrived in the town just as the sun was setting, so we spent a few minutes watching a beachfront hotel set up for a wedding that evening before deciding on The Glass Bar for a quick interlude.
That we crammed a not-so-quick trip back to Habanero’s in between checking out of our hotel and heading to the airport should say it all. It’s not intrepid and certainly not the road less traveled, but I’d go back for Cancún's food and more anytime.