Still Standing

A firsthand report in the wake of Wilma as the region continues to rebuild

By: Maribeth Mellin

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 jungle.

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 beautiful?”

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.

Riviera Maya

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 workers.

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.

Isla Mujeres

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.