Brand-new palm trees line the median strip along Boulevard
Kulkucan, the main road through Cancun’s Hotel Zone. Fluttering
plastic signs announce “Cancun Is Still Standing.” On Isla Mujeres,
homes and shops on the waterfront sport fresh coats of green and
yellow paint. Cruise ship passengers browse Cozumel’s jewelry
shops. The rebuilding effort has moved along speedily since
Hurricane Wilma blasted the region on Oct. 21.
Despite optimistic reports, however, I quickly learned all was
not well when I flew to Cancun one month after the storm. As our
plane approached Cancun’s airport, the ground looked brown and
desolate with large pools of water dotting the once lush, green
The devastation was staggering as I drove into Cancun’s Hotel
Zone with Carlos Mora, media coordinator for the Cancun Convention
& Visitors Bureau. Palm trees that once framed the golf course
were all gone; piles of concrete, tree branches and steel edged the
road. Traffic wound past bulldozers, dump trucks and ravaged condos
and hotels. I caught a glimpse of the sea through the blown-out
windows of the sleek Fiesta Americana Grand Aqua, one of the most
luxurious hotels on the strip. My favorite dance club, Azucar, was
merely a shell.
By the time we reached the little Dos Playas hotel I was nearly
in tears. But inside, my room had electricity, air conditioning,
hot water and a view of the gorgeous sea. As I strolled along the
beach at sunset, a man on a lounge chair asked, “Isn’t it
It certainly was, as long as I focused on Cancun’s most valuable
asset its natural beauty. As I toured the region over the next
week, I was impressed by the rebuilding effort. There’s no reason
for travelers to stay away from the Mexican Caribbean, as long as
they tame their expectations. The sound of hammers and drills was
as constant as the swoosh of the surf. But flowers brightened the
tangled vegetation, and the smiles on the faces of the hotel staff
greeting tourists were heart-warming and genuine.
“I believe that by the beginning of the winter season, which is
in January, we’ll have 20,000 rooms working, flights will begin
running again, and we will be back,” said Javier Aranda Pedrero,
sub-secretary of tourism for the state of Quintana Roo.
Wilma’s impact was most evident in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, where
the line-up of lavish resorts was virtually deserted except for
work crews. Only a few places, including Le Meridien and the
massive Riu Cancun and Riu Palace, were open, and tourists were
scarce. Famed nightclubs near the convention center were silent and
the few open restaurants nearly deserted.
But guests happily splashed in blue pools at timeshare properties,
including the Royal Sands, the Best Western Clipper Club and Club
Internacional. Pirate ship tours departed from the Embarcadero, and
buses ferried tourists to Tulum and Chichen Itza. Vendors hawked
hammocks and serapes at Ki Huic and Mercado 28 in downtown. And
travelers lounged on the white sand in front of Mocambo, a great
open-air seafood restaurant.
Cancun’s hotels are gradually rebuilding and about 12,000 rooms
should be open by Dec. 20. Several attractions, including La Isla
and The Forum, are slated to open before the end of the year. By
mid-January the Hotel Zone should begin bustling once again.
Most of the passengers on my packed plane were headed to
all-inclusive resorts south of Cancun. Wilma skirted through the
area, blasting Puerto Morelos and breezing past Playa del Carmen.
Weddings were in progress at Secrets Excellence, and Playa’s Fifth
Avenue was packed with shoppers. Tulum’s hotels were operating
normally, with guests lounging in pools and hot tubs overlooking
fabulous white beaches.
Xcaret, the busiest attraction in the region, was slated to open
Dec. 12, the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe and a huge
Mexican holiday. The park’s animals rode out the storm in
underground shelters. As I checked out the lagoons and beaches,
baby monkeys swung from tree limbs and scarlet macaws squawked
overhead. Employees were replacing fallen wooden structures with
concrete and setting out lounge chairs. Nearby Xel-ha park opened
Dec. 1 with free passes for the hundreds of construction and safety
The Riviera Maya is almost completely the same as it was before
the storm. A few hotels are still closed and some openings have
been delayed. But travelers here will find plenty to see and do
while staying at fully operational hotels and resorts.
With electricity and water restored to 100 percent of the
island, Cozumel is gradually returning to normal. Several beach
clubs south of town are open and busy with cruise passengers. The
windward side of the island is gorgeous, with more sand on the
beaches and favorite cafes up and running. Rebuilding was under way
at hotels north and south of town, though it will take months for
some to reopen.
Divers were eagerly boarding boats for trips to the reefs, and
Benny Ocampo, manager of the Cozumel Country Club, proudly showed
off the lush, green golf course, which opened Dec. 1.
Islanders are delighted with their new and improved Playa Norte,
which gained length and depth after the storm. Beach volleyball
games were taking place during my visit, and residents were taking
a break from their worries to play at Isla’s beaches and cafes. The
sounds of reconstruction reverberated through the air as hotels
repaired palapas and reconstructed flawed facades. But Isla is more
than ready for tourists to discover her simple pleasures.