White sands, warm water, and U.S.-friendly attitudes attract visitors to Cancun RICHES OF THE BEACH

April 30, 1995|By Syd Kearney | Syd Kearney,Houston Chronicle

Love it or leave it: This Mexican city seems to elicit just two emotions from North Americans.

Cancun's fans know you cannot find more beautiful beaches for the U.S. dollar.

Many travelers are comforted, too, in knowing they won't experience language problems. You have to wander far off the tourist paths to find someone here who isn't proficient in English.

Cancun enthusiasts also like the familiar names on the resort's hotels and restaurants. Take your pick from Holiday Inn to Hyatt to Denny's. No fears here of indecipherable menus or disappointing accommodations.

On the other side of the peso are folks who wouldn't set foot on the white sands of the Yucatan Peninsula's crown. And their sentiments are based on many of the same reasons others are flocking here.

Naysayers ask: Why travel to another country and never see anything foreign? Who wants Burger King, when we can try the exotic? Why fight the crowds that pack flights to Cancun?

For sun lovers with a few days to spare, plenty of room is available on Cancun's beaches, however. And the beaches rightly are the resort area's No. 1 draw.

It was that white shoreline with its warm Caribbean waters that caught FONATUR's attention in 1967. The Mexican government's tourism agency was looking to create another Acapulco. Instead of throwing darts at a map, FONATUR asked its computer. And the jungle island of Cancun was the computer's pick.

The first hotels on this island opened in 1972, and the rest is tourism history. Cancun greets about 2 million foreign visitors each year. More than 18,000 hotel rooms are available.

But back to the sand. Depending upon which hotel you stay in, the beaches are among the most pure and pristine into which your toes will ever sink. Resorts like the Melia Cancun take it upon themselves to clean their stretches of public beach several times each day.

And hawkers along the beach seem to be at minimum. That doesn't include, of course, a hotel wait staff ready to quench your thirst with a margarita.

The beaches also are the center of much of the action here.

You can watch a parade of scantily clad sun worshipers or view skies colorful with parasailers; participants soar over the water and land gently in the sand.

That is just the beginning of the activities offered in Cancun. You also can Jet Ski, wind surf, sail a catamaran, kayak, try a paddle boat, water-ski, fish, snorkel or go scuba diving.

And for something unusual, take a ride in a submarine. Atlantis Submarines recently began offering 90-minute dives that offer an amazing underwater look at Caribbean wildlife.

Did we say wildlife? Cancun's night life is frenetic and fun, from Planet Hollywood's rocking disco to Senor Frog's tequila-slugging conga lines. For a real Mexican experience, attend a show of the National Folkloric Ballet or head to Mexico Magico Cancun, an amusement park with musical shows, food booths and shopping.

The island's convenient and bargain-priced bus service runs into the wee hours, so that party lovers need not worry about parking or haggle over designated drivers. Some official bus stops exist, but the drivers will stop anytime. Just wave and they'll come, literally, screeching to a halt. Taxis also are plentiful. More than 2,000 work the corridor called the Zona Hotelera and are available 24 hours.

Before you hit the nightclubs, try one of the more than 300 restaurants here. Many are located in malls, which brings to mind another favorite activity among Cancun enthusiasts -- shopping.

You'll find good resort wear, some high-fashion labels and, yes, even some blankets and silver bracelets.

One of the newest shopping malls is Kukulcan Plaza, in the heart of the hotel zone. It has a mad mix of restaurants, a state-of-the-art 20-lane bowling alley, a two-screen movie theater and some high-tech motion-simulator rides.

If you tire of shopping or lying on the beach, Cancun also is a great base for exploring the Yucatan Peninsula, which is rich in Mayan history. Excursions can be booked through travel agencies in hotel lobbies, shopping malls and on nearly every corner.

Of course, you don't have to leave the island to get away. A dreamy siesta has made many a visitor fall in love with Cancun.

IF YOU GO . . .

Cancun is divided into two sections: Cancun City, which has a population of about 300,000, and the narrow, 14-mile Cancun Island, where most tourists stay.

Cancun Island is shaped like the number 7 and is connected to the mainland by bridges at both ends.

Getting around: Unless you are stubbornly independent, there is no need to rent a car.

With 2,000 taxis cruising Cancun, you'll never wait long for a ride. City buses also pass by about every five minutes. You don't even have to be at a designated bus stop; just wave your hand, and the driver will stop. Buses, however, can get crowded during rush hours, so plan accordingly.

Where to stay: There are more than 100 hotels in Cancun City and the hotel zone on Cancun Island. Lodging in the city generally will be less expensive than beach-front resorts. Several resorts offer all-inclusive packages or meal plans that can cut vacation costs. Inquire when booking.

For ideas on lodging, talk to your travel agent or the Cancun Chamber of Commerce at 52 988 84-43-15.

Where to eat: Cancun has more than 300 restaurants, and many are familiar to Americans -- KFC, McDonald's, Domino's, Tony Roma's, Denny's, Subway, Popeye's, Hooters, etc. There also are the popular themed restaurants Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe.

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