Cancun is no doubt a rite of passage for anyone’s trip to Mexico, though any Mexiphile will scoff if this is the only Mexico destination on your travel list. Call it elitist, but lovers of Mexico are quick to disregard Cancun as “America South,” where English is spoken over Spanish, dollars are accepted in lieu of pesos, and locals are usually outnumbered by tourists on buses traveling from all-inclusives to Coco Bongo.

But believe it or not, there is a huge local population in Cancun. They’re the ones working at your hotel, picking you up at the airport, guiding you through the cenotes, and feeding you shots at Senor Frogs. Add to that a major expat population from Europe and South America, along with descendants of the Mayans and affluent Mexican businesspeople and you have a cultural melting pot that is both international and decidedly Mexican.

So, where do they go? Where is the “real” Cancun? We reached out to several locals and destination experts to find out where the locals in Cancun hang out. Spoiler alert: It’s not at Senor Frogs.

“Cancun, according to the official governmental numbers of 2014 counts with 760,364 inhabitants, a city that was built from scratch back in 1970 has therefore grown into the largest city in the state of Quintana Roo,” says Matteo Luthi, COO of Journey Mexico and a resident of Cancun. “Cancun therefore has inhabitants from every state of Mexico and is multicultural; however slowly but steadily the people of Cancun are getting their very own mindset and belonging to this marvelous corner of the Mexican Republic. The locals call themselves Cancunenses."

“Contrary to what people think, the city is not located on the beach, but inland,” says Ana Gon, director of resort sales for Grupo Posadas and a 20-year resident of Cancun. “Keep in mind that Cancun is one of the ‘youngest’ cities in Mexico, so the oldest Cancunense can’t be older than 45 years old. The perception that we live in paradise, where so many people come from all over the world to vacation, does not precisely apply for the locals who live here. We don’t live in the ‘hotel zone.’”

“Different from any other Mexican city, Cancun doesn’t have a zocalo, or main square. The City County offices are located in one of the main avenues, Tulum Avenue, and across the way is Parque Las Palapas, which is the main plaza where families gather every Sunday for entertainment and very affordable local snacks from street vendors and inexpensive fondas, or restaurants,” she added.

Popular artist performances take place on informal stages set up either at the bullfight ring, Plaza de Toros, or in the soccer stadium, Estadio Beto Avila.

For breakfast and morning coffee meetings, both Luthi and Gon recommend Cafe Nader, one of the very first coffee shops in Cancun. Today it is a working restaurant and has several locations around Cancun. This is the best option for a typical Mexican breakfast, which usually consists of eggs, meat, tortillas and beans. Serious coffee drinkers will want to try Tradiciones Art Cafe. The main attraction here are the cappuccinos and the coffee that comes from Veracruz.

Tacos are trendy these days, so when exploring “local” Mexico, travelers will want to get their hands on the best. In Cancun, these can be found at Barbacoa de la Tulum on Avenida Tulum, close to City Hall; Los de Chihuas on Avenida Bonampak, near the Kukulkan roundabout; Carnitas Michoacan on Avenida Las Torres; and Tacos Los Perrones  on Avenida Donaldo Colosio. Luthi advises, however, that diners proceed with caution: Some tourists’ stomachs may not be used to street food, and it could result in a stomach ache. Also be advised that tacos are only served in the morning, and stands usually run out by 11 a.m.

For indoor dining, Luthi, Gon and the Cancun tourist board all speak highly of Los Aguachiles, a seafood restaurant where you can get the best pulpo a la gallega, or octopus, on the barbecue, served with potatoes, ceviches and tostadas. Julia Mia is a gourmet Mexican restaurant that is popular with affluent Cancunenses.

Other restaurants worth a visit are Bovinos, Irori, La Parilla and Flamingos.

Bovinos is a Brazilian churrascaria considered to be one of the best in Cancun. For Japanese food, including sushi, locals and tourists love Irori. La Parrilla serves traditional Mexican food like tacos and enchiladas and usually has live mariachi music. And for seafood on the water, locals like Flamingos, which is a bit out of town but worth the trip for the roasted fish and paella.

Chances are tourists staying in Cancun will opt for the beaches at their own hotels. In fact, it is difficult these days for locals to use the beach, as most of the beaches now are accessible only through hotels. But locals can buy day passes to use these beaches. Locals will also take the ferry to Isla Mujeres to use the beaches there. Beyond beaches, locals will frequent the local market, Mercado 28. There are a lot of little restaurants in the market, as well, but the most popular is El Cejas, which serves seafood accompanied by live music from Veracruz.

For nightlife, you won’t find Cancunenses on the dance floor at Coco Bongo. Instead, they will be at Plaza Infinity, located in the center of Cancun and packed with bars and live music. Luthi says the ones to know are Pizza del Perro Negro, which serves creative pizzas and has a rotating roster of live bands playing heavy rock. Beer aficionados will love the Beer Box, offering international beers as well as locally brewed, artisanal cerveza. The Black Pub also has live music and draft beer and is a favorite place among locals. For dancing to a local beat, try the Mambo Cafe or Muleiros Lounge for jazz.

The people of Cancun are also avid sports fans, especially when it comes to baseball, soccer and basketball. The local baseball team, the Quintana Roo Tigers, were Mexican League champions last year; current players include former U.S. major leaguers Jorge Cantu and Daniel Cabrera. The local soccer team, FC Atlante, is at the moment in the second division but used to be a contender for the national championship. And the local basketball team, Los Pioneros, is always in the running to win the national league crown. 

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