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Monday, March 10, 2008

Finding the Unexpected Beneath the Gaudy

By MATT GROSS

ONE Friday evening last December, in a typically modern Cancún condo complex, a party was under way. A motley crew of revelers — well-tanned men with curly gray hair, 20-something tourists, women with children and grandchildren on their hips — crowded around four long folding tables sagging with food, and the turquoise-trimmed white walls reverberated with the sounds of familiar songs sung in unison.

The party’s hyperactive host, his shiny yellow tie flung rakishly over his left shoulder, stood on a folding chair, held aloft a plastic cup of Stolichnaya vodka and proposed a toast — to what, I wasn’t sure; the words were lost in a jumble of languages I didn’t understand. But then a traditional cry rose up, and I recognized it instantly:

“L’chaim!”

Yes, in sultry, sinful Cancún, I was spending my Friday night at Chabad House, the outreach center for the Lubavitchers, the Orthodox Hasidic Jewish sect. But why had I, a long-lapsed Jew, chosen this Sabbath bacchanal to break my 11-year avoidance of Jewish events?

Two words: free dinner.

O.K., it was more complicated than that. Frankly, Cancún scared me. On the one hand, this overdeveloped hub of Mexico’s so-called Mayan Riviera seemed like a frugal traveler’s dream, and the $500 I carried for the weekend could easily install me in a hostel with a refrigerator full of Jell-o shots, but I’m about a decade past my “Gross Gone Wild!” days. On the other hand, the five-star Cancún experience — represented by resorts like the Ritz-Carlton and Le Meridien, with their beachside cabana restaurants and hoity-toity spas — was well beyond my budget. And while I could surely afford all-inclusive bliss in one of the Riu Hotel chain’s pseudo-neo-Classical monstrosities, that sort of utter mindless ease offends my adventurous soul.

No, I wanted all of the above — sophomoric fun, total relaxation, a taste of luxury — plus the alternative, “real” Cancún, whatever that might be.

Before stumbling upon the all-too-real Chabad House, my search led me first to Puerto Juárez, a speck of a town five minutes north of Cancún’s gritty but lively downtown, and the Villa Playa Blanca, a $45-a-night bed-and-breakfast opened last March by Alejandro (Alex) Gutiérrez, 26, and his 27-year-old friend Horacio Viazcán.


A whitewashed four-story home in a quiet subdevelopment, the Villa Playa Blanca is a study in clean, contemporary design — soft fabrics, fresh flowers, tea lights on the staircase — and precision hospitality. Minutes after I arrived, I was standing on the roof deck when Mabelu Pedraza, the housekeeper-chef-receptionist, brought me a chilled towel and a glass of pineapple juice with a splash of vodka. I sipped my drink and gazed at the glittering Caribbean and the distant ridge of buildings that make up Cancún’s “zona hotelera,” 13 unfortunate miles of beaches, hotels, malls and nightclubs.

Not only was the Villa Playa Blanca cool, but its proprietors, Alex and Horacio, were just the kind of friendly, knowledgeable locals I’m always hoping to hang out with. And within an hour of checking in, we were taking a late lunch at Pozolería Castillo, a busy little restaurant that specializes in pozole, a rich pork-and-hominy soup embellished with chilies and oregano. A big bowl cost 55 pesos, or about $5 at 10.99 pesos to the dollar, and 15 pesos more bought me a lemonade. I had begun to think I’d discovered my own private, perfect Cancún.

After a solo late-afternoon walk on Playa Niños, a family-friendly beach just down the road from Villa Playa Blanca, I was at Chabad House — one of thousands worldwide, from Bangkok to the Brazilian rain forest — and totally out of my depth. As bearded men in white shirts and dark pants prayed and swayed, their tzitzit, or tassels, dangling from their waists, I tried (and failed) to follow along in the bilingual siddur, and comforted myself with the idea that my atrocious Hebrew made me seem almost fluent in Spanish by comparison.

When the praying ended, dinner began, and I relaxed. Over baked salmon, challah, hummus, baba ganoush, and a cucumber salad that, I swear, tasted just like my mom’s, I befriended Yardena Landau, a Spirit Airlines employee who’d moved there from Mexico City; we bonded over a love of travel and wariness of zealots. Actually, my wariness of the true believers around me slowly dissipated, and while I wasn’t about to go kosher — certainly not on the Yucatán peninsula, home of cochinita pibil, the slow-cooked suckling pig — I happily raised my cup of Stoli when Mendel Druk, the 26-year-old rabbi, reminded us all, “You can come to Cancún, and you can still pray in a synagogue!”

Well, l’chaim to that.
The next morning, after devouring my breakfast in bed of coffee, orange juice, toast, yogurt and fruit salad, I went beach-hunting. Still reluctant to confront the zona hotelera, I instead hopped a 35-peso ferry to Isla Mujeres, a five-mile-long island whose Playa Norte had been recommended by Jenny, a veteran Cancún visitor who was staying at my hotel.

Playa Norte was indeed quiet and, as Cancún area beaches go, unpopulated. I settled into a lounge chair between a pair of small piers and waited for the inevitable: a waiter demanding I buy an overpriced cocktail to secure my seat. He never came. For hours I had a free, umbrella-shaded spot next to the bathtub-warm azure water. In fact, I soon began to crave a waiter. I was getting hungry. I wound up having to — horror of horrors — walk across the warm sand to order some fish tacos and a Dos Equis (75 pesos total).

By midafternoon, I caught the ferry back to Puerto Juárez, jumped in my car and drove to Cancún’s inland downtown area and the Xbalamqué Hotel, whose clean, low-key spa is known not only for its traditional Mayan and Nahuatl treatments but also for its affordability. Nothing on the menu, from sports massage to mud, algae and chocolate baths, cost more than 550 pesos, a small fraction of the prices at the Ritz-Carlton.

Still, I picked the cheapest option: 30 minutes in the temazcal, a Nahuatl steam bath, for 120 pesos. Essentially a sauna, the temazcal was a small, brick-lined room illuminated by a single yellow filament bulb, the steam perfumed with mint that tingled my lips as I lay on a bench. When I emerged, every toxin had drained away, and my skin glowed.

Thinking there must be something to ancient local traditions, I invited Yardena to Labná, an upscale restaurant that specialized in Yucatecan dishes and came recommended by Horacio. Labná certainly had ambition: modeled on a stepped Mayan pyramid, its ceiling soared 30 feet high, and bulbous lamps hung down like luminous beehives. Serious money, it seemed, had gone into this place.

If only Labná’s owners had been as serious about everything else. For while the food tasted good — I loved my poc chuc, or grilled pork steak, and Yardena’s fish with astringent hoja santa, or sacred leaf — the presentation was disappointing, verging on depressing. The fish came wrapped in tin foil, and my poc chuc was part of a “Yucatecan Tour” that crammed as many dishes — such as papadzules (egg-stuffed tortillas in pumpkin-seed sauce) — on the plate as possible. Our waiter, though friendly, walked by every two minutes to see if we’d finished. Too soon, we had, having spent a reasonable 430 pesos (including drinks and tip).

Just before we left, my phone buzzed with a text message: Horacio, Alex, Jenny and her fellow American, Morgan, were going to Coco Bongo, a mega-club in the zona hotelera (soon to be opening a branch in Las Vegas). They had a V.I.P. card that would get us inside quickly. It was time to face Cancún’s heart of darkness.

It was just as I’d imagined. Gaudy hotels. International chains (Hooters, anyone?). Flashing neon. The idiotic green amphibian head peering down from the roof of Señor Frog’s. Packs of Americans and Mexicans wearing Abercrombie & Fitch. I winced, snobbishly, and found my gang in Coco Bongo’s V.I.P. express lane. Alex asked for the entry fee, and I handed him 100 pesos to cover myself and Yardena.

He stared at it blankly. No, he said, it’s $45, not pesos.

I stared at him blankly, then I handed over the rest. It was hardly frugal, but I could afford it. (Yardena, however, wouldn’t let me cover her, and took a cab home.) Besides, Alex assured me, inside was an open bar and a floor show that would be more than worth the expense.

Again, my hosts were wise. In the cavernous club (capacity: 1,800), we knocked back whiskey, tequila and various sweet drinks in unnatural colors, and soon the show commenced. On a stage high above, gymnasts performed Cirque du Soleil-style feats to a somber classical score, then a Madonna look-alike sang a medley of the Material Girl’s greatest hits, then a guy in white tux crooned “Mac the Knife,” each number accompanied by smiling dancers, each culminating in an orgasmic burst of confetti.

Soon, the themes took a stranger turn, with whirling aerial numbers inspired by “Beetlejuice,” “Spider-Man” and, of course, “The Passion of the Christ.” As I watched a buff Jesus with a pierced nipple extend his arms in a crucifixion posture while dangling from the ceiling by a toga cloth, I was transported elsewhere: to Brighton Beach, the heavily Russian-Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn, where the nightclubs feature floor shows almost as ridiculously over-the-top as this one. The only thing missing from Coco Bongo was a spread of pickled dishes, and those, I knew, were back at Chabad House. I ordered another free whiskey and felt, for the very first time in Cancún, entirely at home.

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