Cancún The Cartel, Ancient Ruins, and Smiling Tourists

It’s June 2010 and I’m stepping off a plane into some seriously oppressive heat. The humidity is soaring but the shock of warmth hasn’t let that register yet. Within minutes we’re through Customs and following a short man toward a van. He’s wearing pleated khaki slacks and a peach colored button down. In one hand he’s carrying a beat up flip phone. In the other, a sign printed with some zany WordArt font circa 1995, hastily taped to a paint stick. My name swings, upside down, past his thigh in stride.

It’s my first time on this side of Mexico. In recent weeks, reports of Cartel activities seem to have ramped up in the area. A few days prior to our arrival, just 30km from the buffets and club scene of the bustling zona hotelera, a bloody mattress is discovered near homes in the town of El Roble. Underneath, in a pit, six bodies are unearthed. These men, all believed to have been linked with the Cartel, have been tortured. They are bound at the hands and feet. Their hearts have been removed through a slit in the side of their chest. They are victims of an unfortunate reality of Mexico. A reminder of the remarkable juxtaposition of interest when a region is shared by an organized crime syndicate and smiling tourists.

The resort is expansive, exotic, alluring, and tranquil. The grounds, set against the gulf of Mexico and accented with jungle vegetation, are reminiscent of a childhood fantasy. Jurassic Park comes to mind. Lively swim-up bars are scattered among the connected pools. Their thatch-roof shelters and blended drink offerings, tiny umbrella and all, is inviting under the scorching sun. The door to our room is wet to the touch, caught in a standoff of extreme humidity outside and blasting AC inside. Condensation drips generously onto the welcome mat each time we enter. Everything made of glass fogs up immediately upon exit. The manicured grass and pathways teem with large iguanas. As I move to pet one on a back leg it takes off, clearly uninterested in human interaction. I will watch from afar. Resort staff members speed by in golf carts, pausing briefly to ask if we would like a lift somewhere specific. We choose to walk most times.

We’re in Cancún for a wedding which was called off a couple months prior to arrival. It’s better for both of them but at the time this may not be obvious. We have four days to enjoy a slower pace and to explore architectural ruins on the Yucatán Peninsula. Work schedules being what they are recently, this is a much needed getaway.

As we exit the bus outside the captivating ruins of Chichén Itzá, our guide, a short man of Mayan descent, wipes sweat from his brow and tells us quietly that The Cartel’s influence stretches into the park. The army of vendors within, hawking miniature Mayan calendars and other trinkets, are not supposed to be here. He alleges that they pay their way beyond the gates. Though I can’t verify his claim I walk away recalling the first time I visited Mexico (Tijuana) as a teenager. There was a dead body in the street that was still there when I left later that night. Nothing surprises.

The vendors do their jobs extremely well. They’re witty, and fluent in enough languages to easily navigate sales. Between moments of awed silence and clicking shutters, we watch some French tourists negotiate a price for a cross-stiched handkerchief depicting the majestic El Castillo behind them. At one time these ancient structures were painted white with red roofs. There are no remnants of those colors now – just sun-bleached stone. It begins to rain as we board the bus back to the hotel.

Tulum is much the same. An assemblage of lethargic iguanas, crafty vendors, and fanny-pack clad day-trippers milling about the astounding seaside ruins. This walled city was once a bustling seaport. Mayan civilization was flourishing when most of Europe was still in the Dark Ages. So far, 11,000 Mayan villages have been uncovered from centuries of jungle growth. It is believed there are many more still undiscovered.


The trip continues with, to some extent, the typical Mexican resort experience. We enjoy warm nights spent by the pool, Cuban cigars in hand, reflecting on the historic immensity of the region. In the daytime we listen to people ask where the pizza and french fries are located amidst a fresh, colorful spread of delicious Mexican food. On the bus we watch people cringe at the sight of a Mexican-made Blizzard purchased from a Dairy Queen at a ruin site. They voice concern for my safety, insisting the milk might be rotten. This ignorance infuriates me, but I just smile, choosing instead to gaze out the window where the dense, seemingly endless jungle races by. Turning back I notice the water closet on the bus is out of order, and our guide is asleep as Catch Me If You Can blares on the TVs overhead.

Andrew Callaci

Andrew Callaci is an IT professional, travel enthusiast, and soccer fan who prefers burritos wrapped in yellow paper. He lives in Portland, OR with his girlfriend and their blue heeler, Roma.

One comment

  • Really nice write-up. As someone who’s never been to non-resort parts of Mexico, I’m itching to find someplace with good, unspoiled ruins.

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