CANCUN, Mexico - We did a double take when we checked into Hotel Plaza Kokai and found the lobby full of people wearing business rather than bathing suits. We shouldn't have been surprised. Rather than book into a beach resort on Isla Cancun - the 13.8-mile barrier island transformed into a resort in the 1970s - we had chosen to make our bed in the adjacent city by the same name.
Translating Mayan meals for the modern diner. E5.
We had traded the beachfront tourist ghetto for the markets, night spots, and restaurants of a real Mexican city of almost 500,000 people. Our room had been built for road warriors, right down to a good work desk and a wireless Internet, and the price (a little more than $50) was right. As it turned out, it was also a perfect base for excursions to sand and surf while reserving the cooler half of the day for city streets.
Eleven public beaches are shoehorned among the high-rise hotels of the resort district, separated from the mainland by a pair of causeways. A 55-cent bus runs from downtown along the main road, Boulevard Kukulcan, stopping every half-kilometer.
Mothers trailing boisterous offspring often jump off at beaches close to the mainland, where gentle waves roll into sandy coves. The problem with the north-facing strands is that seaweed tends to clog the shoals. Currents steer weeds away from Playa Tortugas, a little more than 6 kilometers along the route, making it the best of the short-ride beaches for swimming.
It can take up to 40 minutes on the bus to reach Playa Delfines, across the road from El Rey, an arch eological site at kilometer 17.5. It's worth the wait. The view from atop the dunes is the vision of Cancun that has sold this resort around the world: a ribbon of white sand stretching north and south and a turquoise ocean reaching to the eastern horizon.
It is also the people's beach: free and easy. On most days, you'll find David Hernandez at Delfines with a stack of surfboards that he rents for $20 for two hours. He also gives learn-to-surf lessons for $35 for two hours.
``By that time,'' he assured us, ``you'll be able to stand on the board. After that, it's just practice, practice, practice.''
With the surf whipping up in big breakers, we demurred in favor of catching some rays and buying lunch from the wandering vendors: a mango, a coconut, and slices of cucumber and jicama doused with a squeeze of lime juice and dusted with powdered chile pepper.
Public buses also head north of town to Puerto Juarez, where converted fishing boats ferry day-trippers to Isla Mujeres, simply called ``Isla'' by most locals. The island offers a taste of what Cancun might have been like if multinational hotel companies had been kept away. The sole village bustles with restaurants and shops, but development here has favored small, private homes rather than resorts.
Isla's primary attraction, Garrafon recreational park, lies at the southern tip of the island, and half the adventure is getting there from the village by rental bike, moped, or golf cart. The slow road undulates along the spine of the island, alternating views of ocean and scrubby jungle. The park's prize asset is the coral reef that lies just offshore, and park rules are designed to protect it. Anyone on or in the water must wear a life jacket - ensuring that humans stay on the surface, where they can't touch the coral. We found it a fabulous place to snorkel, with thousands of parrotfish and sergeant majors.
Near the south point lighthouse, a tiny arch eological site clings to the rocks, although hurricanes have nearly finished it off. A trail cut into the limestone cliffs below the site offers striking views across the bay back toward Cancun. We skipped the craft shops of Garrafo n's hokey simulated village in favor of real shopping in the city markets.
One long afternoon is enough time for all but the most dogged shopper to exhaust the crafts markets at Ki Huic on Avenida Tulum (opposite C alle Claveles) and inside the compound of Mercado 28, named for its numbered city block. With the exception of women selling embroideries, crafts indigenous to the Yucatan are few. In general, the finest work in the markets is painted carvings from the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero and silver jewelry from the city of Taxco. (With a little bargaining, the cost of a bracelet dropped to 10 percent of its opening price.)
The largest of the city's food markets, Mercado 23, located behind the main bus station, is more exotic and more fun.
We stocked up on dried chilies and bright-flavored Mexican cinnamon, and examined a mysterious array of herbs. The marketplace sells almost everything a family wants or needs.
Ciudad Cancun comes into its own around sunset, when the air goes still before it shifts from onshore to offshore. After work, locals gather in cantinas around the bullfighting ring to hoist beer and nibble on cheese and sausages.
Mariachis materialize on Avenida Yaxchilan, smoking small cigars and polishing the buttons of their costumes. With the heat of the day subsiding, families fill the streets around Parque Las Palapas, and the aromas of chiles, roasting meat, and grilled fish waft across the patios. Vendors light charcoal fires and form quesadillas. The street lights flicker on. The mariachis strike up a tune.
After a day at the beach, a night in Mexico begins.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon write from Cambridge.