As I sit in my guesthouse room in Belize City, waiting both for the rain to pass, and for my next bus to Guatemala City, I thought I'd take a second and summarize my experience in Mexico.
I chose Mexico first for a few reasons: 1) In my travels, I'd never been there, and it seems silly not to have visited a neighbor 2) it made sense geographically with my desire to head into the rest of Central America, and 3) in my mind, it would allow me to ease into the trip without going through massive culture shock. While my Spanish is rudimentary (ok, pretty much non-existent), my travels through Spain with friends have granted me the basic skills of not starving and finding the bathroom.
Now, a more interesting question is why Cancun? I had originally planned to go to Mexico City first. After all, it's the capital, the largest city in the world, and has some pretty good Aztec ruins near it. However, at my going away party, a good friend of mine suggested Cancun - it's on the beach, it's near good Mayan ruins, and is really close to Belize, my next stop. After about 20 minutes of research into plane tickets, crime rates, pollution and bus routes into Central America, I was sold.
Now, one could argue that Cancun isn't really Mexico - it's basically Panama City or Destin, Florida with a little more Spanish. I would agree to a point - like every other city, it depends on where you go. There are definitely the areas of town that you've seen on MTV's spring break (a time which i have either wisely or stupidly avoided - jury"s still out on that one). Parts of the city have become so very americanized, it's hard to imagine I'm actually in Mexico. However, it's not true about the entire area. Cancun is really two cities. There's the "Hotel Zone" part of Cancun, and there's Old Cancun.
Old Cancun: Old Cancun is more like some of the smaller cities and towns I've visited in Spain. My hostel was in this area. People are pleasant and helpful, the restaurants are relatively authentic, the pace of life is a little slower, and there were fewer foreigners. It's separated by about 2-3 miles of road from:
"Hotel Zone" Cancun: the "new" Cancun is a growing urban area much like Panama City, Florida (Sorry - it's really the only American "beach" town I've been to, so that will be my point of reference). It's becoming full of huge Vegas-style hotels, shopping malls and restaurants. All the comforts of any major American metro within walking distance of the beach and your hotel. It's also just like being back in the states. Needless to say, I didn't spend much time here.
Overall, Cacun was fine. Theres really not a ton to see unless you have a hotel on the beach. Plus, it rained like an SOB while I was there. The highlight of my stay was a day trip to Chichen Itza - a relatively famous set of Mayan ruins in the center of the Yucatan Peninsula. We had a great guide named David. He'd apparently lived in the states for a while, and even had an American wife at one point. He reminded me of a Mexican Gomez Addams from the original Addams family. He didn't move very fast, and was pretty deliberate in his explanations, but he knew his stuff, and had a good sense of humor.
The site itself was impressive. The ruins are in good shape, and David did an admirable job of telling us about its history. The main Pyramid was really cool, though we're no longer allowed to climb the steps. (a side note - i had just seen Mel Gibsons "Apocalypto", which are set in Mayan country. I kept envisioning heads rolling down the steps...).
I especially enjoyed the bit on the "ball court" They had a little arena where they played an early form of soccer/football/basketball. They had to get a little 4 pound ball through little stone rings about 20 feet off the ground using only their thighs and shoulders. How this would happen, I have no freaking idea. Apparently the games would last for a very long time, and would end on only one goal. And, the prize for the winning team - their captain was sacrificed right after the game. Sweet. Probably good we don't play American football this way. Imagine everyone watching the post-game coverage and trophy presentation - followed by the decapitation of the MVP.
All in all, Mexico was a good place to start. I was ready to move on though.