Claude Walker | Bicentennial-By-Buttons

Avenida Yaxchilán: Downtown Cancun's OTHER Hot Spot

(Excerpts appeared in Cancun Tips magazine)

Mention Downtown Cancun (El Centro), and most visitors think Tulum Avenue. But a very different commercial strip beckons adventuresome travelers: Avenida Yaxchilán, fast-becoming one of El Centro's hottest spots.

Just a five-minute stroll from Tulum Avenue past the gritty zocalo (town square), the four-block stretch of Yaxchilán between Avenidas Uxmal and Sunyaxchen (all named for ancient Mayan cities) has an energy unlike any other place in Cancun.

In contrast to Tulum Avenue's broad boulevards and T-shirt shops, Yaxchilán's narrow cobblestone sidewalks and local commerce add to the bustle. I've been visiting this neighborhood for decades; one recent evening, I watched happy revelers spill onto the street amid tantalizing smells from the many open-air eateries and brassy sounds of live mariachi music.

And we're talking about many sounds of mariachi, all at once. Dueling mariachi bands congregate at El Jardín del Trovador (sort of a Musicians Union hall) at Yaxchilán and Calle Micchehabin. From there, the competing troubadours sally forth seeking audiences, playing a dizzying range of songs and styles, often within earshot of one another. It's jarring to hear one band doing Cielito Lindo and another doing Them Old Cotton Fields Back Home a few steps away. I'm a sucker for the mariachi classic La Negra, so if a band can belt that one out, I'm a happy guy. A roving battle of the bands lasts till the wee hours.

Diners can find genuine Yucatecan hospitality and cheaper food tabs in this part of town. Dozens of restaurants appealing to all taste buds and budgets do a brisk business.

Restaurante La Parrilla has always been my fave. It calls itself a "Cancun Institution Since 1975"; hey, don't laugh...Cancun barely existed before 1967. La Parrilla is an open-air neighborhood joint with only a smattering of turístas (although during my recent visit, three models doing a Playboy shoot were in the house). Its ambience is perfect, featuring Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera prints, tiled fountains and gentle ceiling fans under a thatched roof. The gracious staff serves up grilled specialties like beef tampiqueña and a creamy cilantro salsa verde that nearly made me weep with joy.

A block away is La Placita, another open-air joint with a different yet wholly agreeable mood. Lush ferns and palms lit from below produce a dreamy green cushion between diners and street din. Lounging at picnic table under umbrellas, La Placita's patrons enjoy an affordable meal (try the grilled tequila shrimp) and great people-watching. Just strolling by La Placita after dark is a refreshing delight.

The newest culinary kid-on-the-block is Tren y Tropa, offering traditional Mexican cuisine in a courtyard setting adorned with a terrific wall mural. Other nearby El Centro mainstays include Perico's and La Habichuela (the latter of which has a killer array of local and Mayan liqueurs), as well as Swiss, Italian, Japanese and French cuisine.

Some dining establishments offer live music of all kinds (to compete with the roving mariachis). Discotécas like Bum-Bum's and Sabor sizzle all night long, although the legendary reggae club - Cats - has sadly relocated to the Hotel Zone. Live jazz can be heard nightly at Roots, just off the zocalo on Avenida Tulipanes.

A wide selection of hotels can be found here, too, with rates from $20 to $120. Many hotels provide shuttle vans to the beaches, although the municipal bus system is cheap and frequent (about 65 cents and 30 minutes to Playa Chac Mul). Cancun's smoky, wild main bus station is just around the corner, with buses daily to Chichen Itza, Mérida and Mexico City.

Avenida Yaxchilán is not just for night-owls; it's an intriguing side-trip by day as well. Take a stroll, starting at the Brancusi-like sculpture ("La Madre") in the traffic circle near Sunyaxchen. Walk in any direction. Check out the pleasant boulevard walkway down the middle of Sunyaxchen or colorful skyline wall mural by Bum-Bum's. Explore the neighborhood spreading out from Yaxchilan to see a face of Cancun most turistas miss, perplexing and circular streets with names like Jazmines, Gladiolus and Barracuda. Roosters nonchalantly walking on sidewalks, onions sizzling on outdoor grilles, people hanging laundry on roof-tops.

You want beaches, glitz and Taco Bell? Go to Cancun's Hotel Zone. But for authentic and cheap eats, a lively street scene and dueling mariachis, head to Avenida Yaxchilán.

(Claude Walker is a free-lance writer based in Chicago)


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