Travel

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The glitz and pomp of Cancún’s corporate-sponsored Zona Hotelera — a resort development so bold and glassy it earned the grandiose nick-name of ‘The Glistening City’ — merely represents the shiny outer shell of a much grittier and less pretentious destination. Downtown Cancún (or Cancún Centro) is a sprawling and tireless urban powerhouse that began life in 1970 as a collection of humble workers’ shacks. Built as part of the so-called Cancún Master Development Plan, the city grew up in parallel to the raucous tourist zone of public imagination.

Today, the city of Cancún is a vast transport and residential hub complete with its own schools, hospitals, plazas, and municipal buildings. According to the 2010 census, it is home to 628,306 inhabitants — a figure that represents a near doubling of the population from a decade ago. Like any large and haphazard city, Cancún suffers the challenges of a straining infrastructure, poverty, and crime. But it also enjoys a sense of community and camaraderie that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time exploring Mexico. Few package tourists ever make it beyond the sterile cloisters of the Zona Hotelera and their impression of Cancún remains one of carefully engineered artifice. By way of contrast, I present this short video — a brief collection of impressions from the mundane and everyday places where Cancún’s inhabitants work and play.

Believed to have originated with the Nahua, Huastec, and Otomi peoples of central Mexico, the Danza de los Voladores is a very ancient ritual dating to the Pre-Classic era of Mesoamerican civilization; a formative phase of development commencing more than 4000 years ago.

It consists of one musician time-keeper and four dancers or ‘flyers’ who ascend a thirty metre pole, tie ropes around their waists, and then spiral back down to earth. In ancient times, participants wore elaborate feathered costumes to resemble eagles or other birds. One myth suggests the ritual originated during times of drought when five men sacrificed themselves to earn the favour of the gods of rain. The present-day version of the danza does not involve sacrifice, has been significantly simplified, and is maintained chiefly by the Totonacs of Veracruz.

Today, metal poles have replaced tree trunks, but the dance remains laden with symbols, including multi-coloured streamers representing rainbows and mirrored hats symbolizing the sun. The rotations of the flyers correspond to ancient calendars (13 rotations x 4 = 52, the number of years in a Mesoamerican century). The dance group featured in this video comes from the Totonac town of Papantla. They perform for tips every day on the plaza in Playa del Carmen.