Beyond the Bubble: why Cancun is Far from the Most Beautiful Place in Mexico

by Lauren Voelker

As I packed to head to Mexico in December, I had no idea what to expect. Obviously, I looked through the syllabus at the places we would visit, but they were names I was unfamiliar with. I remember thinking, “Oxkuztcab? How do you even say that?!” As I looked over names of places, I began to imagine what this trip would be like. I thought of beautiful stretches of white sand, palm trees and fruity drinks in coconuts. I pictured the things that my friends who had cruised to Puerto Vallarta, Cancun and Playa del Carmen had told me about Mexico.

In Cancun, as we drove through an area filled with miles and miles of hotels, the place started to lose some of its magic. Cancun is overdeveloped; not one space on that beach feels special or unique. Everything happens beneath the specters of the large hotels that fracture the landscape.

Now, when I reflect on my time spent in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, it is not filled of flashbacks of white sand beaches or drinks with umbrellas in them. While all of these things are beautiful and amazing experiences, I treasure my adventures throughout the peninsula so much that I forgot that places like Cancun even existed. Looking back, I have realized the “Cancun ideal” is an offensively stereotypical view on Mexico as a whole. We cannot classify such a culturally diverse land only by what is considered beautiful to a select group of people. When we do so, it’s like looking at the United States and only imagining California (or New York, or Mississippi). We have so much more to offer, and so does Mexico.

Mexico and the Yucatan are so much more than Cancun. I got to travel all throughout this area, from huge city centers such as capital city Merida and Valladolid, to small huts where I slept in a hammock such as Oxkutzcab. I got to see the ruins of an ancient people and explore their past, climbing temples, seeing artwork that has lasted 2.000 years, and I developed an understanding of Maya people in a whole new way—all the while learning about a Maya culture that persists in the present. I roamed through cities, seeing people, architecture and traditions that I had never experienced. I jumped into a cenote and free-fell through the air. I drank hand-ground chocolate and ate local dishes that I miss to this day. I watched the rain fall in the jungle near the Millsaps archaeological research center in Kaxil Kuic. Any thought of Cancun melted away—it was not even relevant to our trip.

Even as you read some of these names, some of you have no idea where or what I’m talking about, because the common thought of Mexico existing only as beaches like Cancun prevails. I learned so many things about Mexican culture, but I still have so much more to experience. The Yucatan peninsula provides so much more than Cancun and, even though I have seen so much, it really is only a small fraction of what this land has to offer to me. We all owe it to ourselves to step outside of the Cancun mentality that advertising and cruise lines have instilled in our brains, because Mexico is truly so much more than a stretch of beach or a stay in a fancy hotel. It is full of excitement, adventure and beauty that I have never experienced before in my life.