We’re on our honeymoon. Perry and I got married last month at an art gallery in Chicago; we had a Southeast Asian theme and served lemongrass Kamikazes and Singhas and everyone got drunk. Perry said, “Let’s go to Mexico.” Neither of us had ever been. We bought the all-inclusive plan at Caribbean Village, maybe the homeliest hotel on Boulevard Kukulkan, Cancun’s zona gringo. It’s cheap. There’s a swim-up bar and a cluster of country boys with the jug-eared look of U.S. military.
The swim-up bartender has a nametag: Eloy. Eloy sets up the drinks in plastic cups that hold a lot of ice (they say the water goes through some big filter they bought for the tourists so nobody gets sick). You’d need to drink a lot of Eloy’s margaritas to get drunk, maybe more than you could take (Perry says they’re watering down the booze). The country boys are unfazed, they’re chugging. I want to chug but feel bad bothering Eloy so I pace it. I think I’m starting to feel a little wasted, then I don’t—it’s like the tequila’s on a Slip ‘N Slide that goes dry near the end, just before the alcohol can go skimming into my brain.
That night Perry and I take the hotel shuttle as far as it goes, to the very end of Boulevard Kukulkan. We walk the rest of the way into Cancun City where the hotel workers live, including, probably, Eloy. I smell the charcoal grills of the taco vendors on the street, the savage scent of tallowy beef grilling over carbon, of corn masa blistering on portable comals in the darkness. I’m afraid to eat (I don’t want to get sick). We end up at Señor Frog’s, where I lay back in a dentist’s chair as a girl pours tequila in my mouth. Hey! I’m buzzed! But the ghost smell of meat on charcoal—that dogs me like a hangover.
PUERTO VALLARTA 2001
Perry finds this gay guesthouse (a guy named Craig owns it—he’s from San Francisco). It’s in the hills above town, beyond where the paved road ends, a beautiful old adobe casa with cupulas and a pool, views, and a monkey raiding the mango tree that hangs over the terrace. It’s off-season and we’re the only ones here besides Craig, who’s always on his laptop. We take a swim.
Craig comes asking if we want mango margaritas; we feel like we have to say yes. Meanwhile I’m thinking How much are these going to cost? but they taste good and we order a couple more. Next day we decide to go to a gay beach-bar and hangout you have to take a boat to; it’s called Paco’s Paradise. We get to the beach and a boatman looks at us and says, “Paco’s Paradise?” I think It’s that obvious? He drops us off on a rocky inlet where a couple of boys with a net are catching small fish. An old man has a pair of bigger fish he’s split and impaled on sticks in the sand, roasting over a little fire.
Paco’s place is up the beach: a few lounge chairs and a tattered volleyball net. There’s a wide-open casa that feels abandoned, except Mariah Carey is blasting and a couple of girls are mopping the floor. They look up and smile. We decide to bail—down to the beach and across an outcropping of tumbled slabs jutting into the sea. Beyond, where the stones end, we can see another beach; there are people there. When we get to it, we realize it, too, is an isolated place you get to by boat, except this one’s not gay. I think it’s some eco theme park. You have to pay to get there and everything’s included, only we didn’t pay, we crashed it.
A woman in an embroidered campesina costume waves us to the lunch buffet, a waiter in a straw hat brings us beers. There’s no bill, no cashier when we leave to go lay on the beach. Bells clang. “Are you part of the green group?” a man asks. “Your boat is leaving now.” We file onto the boat. I’m thinking When they figure out we are not part of the green group we are so busted but we don’t get busted. We help ourselves to more beers from the cooler on deck—we have no clue where we’re getting dropped off until we see it: the cruise ship pier! We’re laughing.
After a long ride in a taxi on unpaved switchbacks we’re at Craig’s again, but no longer alone: Two Latino guys are sitting by the pool, holding hands. They’re from LA. “Get the mango margaritas,” I say. “They’re good.” We tell them about Paco’s, and right about then it hits me: Why didn’t I buy that old man’s roasted fish?
Roberto, our one-armed driver, is taking us down the narrow highway on the way out of Merida, languorous capital of the Yucatan. He’s driving us to Tulum, a 3-1/2–hour trip by road, through long stretches of dry tropical scrub. Perry and I have reservations at Adonis, a gay resort with a name that kind of embarrasses me when I have to repeat it to Roberto but whatever; we’re going for it. “Ahhh, A-DOAN-isss,” Roberto says, his inflection signaling that he gets what’s up, as if we’d asked him to take us to a brothel and don’t worry, amigos, because he’ll be totally discreet about it.
Roberto is an enormous man in a crisp white guayabera, the redundant sleeve pinned to its tunic. He has a deep, sonorous voice, and sings while driving—I think the entertainment is considered part of the ride service. After a couple of hours we approach a town, actually a pretty little colonial city, Valladolid. “I’ll take you around so you can see it,” Roberto’s voice booms in the cramped headspace of his Jetta. “Then perhaps we can eat.” The car creeps through streets of narrow sidewalks and high stucco walls, past machine-gun federales with faces like Mayan temple glyphs, to pause before the 16th-century Convent de San Bernardino de Siena, jagged and fortress-like. “I know a little place where we can have a sneck,” Roberto says. “Nothing fancy.”
He parks on the street, leads us to a covered arcade with tables in the middle, ringed with tiendas and loncheras. The one he stops at is a sloppy counter peppered with flies, with a line of plastic buckets holding sauced meats and salsas in shades of red and amber. Perry gets a couple of tacos. I follow Roberto’s lead and get panuchos, craggy corn-masa purses filled with refried black beans of a mineral potency and a lardish gloss, piled with pink pickled onions and shredded, achiote-stained turkey with the deepest flavor you can imagine. They’re amazing. I go get another, and one for Perry.
A couple of hours later we’ve said goodbye to Roberto and dropped our bags in our room at the Adonis, which is enormous and austere, all hard stone surfaces and AC nobody knows how to turn off. We retreat to the pool, where everyone’s eyeing the pair of fleshy-looking French guys with tattoos, Russian lesbians are chain-smoking, and the big American bear and his buddy will not get out of the churning spa pool.
By the end of the night we’ll have paid San Francisco prices for a mediocre dinner with the other tourists at Hartwood, which offers a little bit of Brooklyn on a boutique stretch of beachfront. In the dark, as we’ll try to flag a taxi to take us back to the frigid charms of the Adonis, we’ll wonder why we aren’t in Valladolid, drunk out of our minds on panuchos and bottles of beer. Maybe next trip we’ll learn.
Photos by John Birdsall