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Apart from the white, sandy beaches and turquoise waters of the Hotel Zone in Cancun, what could you possibly want to do in your down time? If you plan on spending any length of time in the city, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the local haunts, and there’s no better way to do that than by exploring the parks of the mainland.

When most people hear “parks in Cancun”, their instant reaction is the theme parks that line the highway south of the city along the way to Tulum: Xcaret, Xplor and the like. And while those Disneylandesque attractions certainly have their appeal, the city parks and plazas are what bring the Mexican culture to life in the downtown district. It’s at these local hotspots where the culture truly comes alive and gives you a chance to explore the festive nature of the Mexican people.

Most of the parks are fairly empty during the daytime hours. You’ll find the random few hanging out underneath the shade trees during the heat of the afternoon, or passing through on their way to work, but if you really want to see what’s going on you have to come after the sun goes down. Especially on the weekends.

Mexico is still a mostly cash-based society, which is why the local parks continue to thrive as they do. This isn’t an X-Box or Playstation culture; rather, families still spend their free time going out and doing things, spending their hard-earned cash on activities for the kids and the carnival-like atmosphere that springs into place once nightfall comes and the temperature cools down.

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Parque Las Palapas is the main park in the heart of downtown Cancun, also known as the zocalo. It’s also the busiest, and during the daytime hours the food stalls stay open with antojitos for any random person passing by. On weeknights it’s the same, but Friday, Saturday and Sunday is when you want to be here, because that’s when it transforms into a carnival of food vendors, local artists and performers and beyond.

From local bands and school groups on the main stage, to the Mayan vendors selling clothing in the wheeled-carts on the outskirts, to the ice-cream vendors, the children’s playground, the mimes and clowns and beyond, there is always something to see here. And during official festival days, like Independence Day and Mother’s Day or Halloween/Day of the Dead and the like, the zocalo is shoulder-to-shoulder packed with local families.

 

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Just around the corner past the church is the Parque del Artesano, or Hippy Park to the locals. It’s a mostly dreadlock-and-patchouli crowd that make up the vendors here, but if you are into hand-crafted clothing, pipes, incense or street piercings and tattoos and recreational, under-the-table stuff, this is the place you want to come.

Slightly down from there is the Parque Bohemia, also known as the Salsa Park due to the fact that every Sunday there is a gathering of salsa enthusiasts who take up around the gazebo and spend the evening hours dancing away. During the weekday afternoons and evenings you’ll also find local students using the park as one of the primary practicing areas for their own dance presentations.

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If the market scene isn’t to your liking and you just want to get away from it all and kick back with nature for a few hours, the Parque Urbano Kabah is across the street from Costco. With outdoor exercise equipment as well as jogging and walking paths plus plenty of local flora and fauna, you can get a taste of nature even within the city landscape. Bear in mind that the park is only open from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m., and there aren’t any vendors inside, so bring plenty of water or a pack lunch if you want to have a picnic or spend more than a couple of hours wandering around.

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There are dozens of other parks spread throughout the overall urban sprawl that makes up Cancun, such as the Jardin del Arte and the Parque Folklorico just south of Las Palapas, and most of them share the same aspects of the Parque Las Palapas in the sense that during the daytime hours not much is going on, but at night they transform into open markets and carnivals with activities for the kids and numerous street vendors.

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The big difference you’ll note between here and many other countries of the world is that the Mexican culture is all about getting out of the house in the evening hours and enjoying  festivities with friends and families, not staying indoors and logged into the Internet or a console game. Cristina can tell you that if there’s one thing Mexicans enjoy more than anything else, it’s beers and festivals at the local park, any chance they get.

If you really want to blend in and experience Cancun the way the locals do, you’ll be spending most of your downtime at the parks of the city as opposed to some random nightclub. The real culture is here.