Cozumel, Cancun still recovering from Wilma

The Caribbean

December 11, 2005|By ALAN SOLOMON | ALAN SOLOMON,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CANCUN, MEXICO / / The water is still those glorious shades of blue, but much of the beach is gone. The hotel zone is a mess. The nightclubs are silent.

For those who love Cancun, this is not the Cancun they love.

"Have you seen it at night? It looks very dark," said Marcela Guisa, public relations manager for Le Meridien, one of the few functioning hotels along the Caribbean shoreline. "It doesn't look like a live place."

On Oct. 21, Hurricane Wilma, a monster storm that straddled the line between Categories 4 and 5, moved into the Yucatan and did not move out for 36 hours.

Cancun is recovering, but it will be months before Cancun is Cancun again. Most of Riviera Maya, the 80-mile coastal tourist zone south of the city, escaped serious damage, in part because Cozumel, an island in the Caribbean 30 minutes by ferry opposite Playa del Carmen, acted as a natural buffer.

But Cozumel paid the price. "I would say, 'Hold off coming for now,' " said Raul Marrufo, director of the Cozumel Promotion Board.

On a weeklong visit that ended Dec. 2, here's what we found:

Aside from a little beach erosion, Playa del Carmen is fine. And for the most part, Riviera Maya, from Playa del Carmen south to Tulum, is in good shape.

"There's a lot of bad information that's out there, and incomplete information," said Ray Snisky, president of FunJet Vacations and related companies that include ATA Vacations and United Vacations. "The Riviera Maya came through virtually unscathed. It's open, fully operational and looking spectacular."

Cozumel is open, not fully operational and looking spotty. Same with Cancun. They'll both be much better in, say, March.

Whether either place is truly ready for visitors right now depends on the visitors -- their expectations, levels of tolerance and, in a real way, their ability to redefine those destinations to accommodate reality.

Cancun

Cancun, in the best of times, is special. It is the astonishingly gorgeous Caribbean Sea, broad white-powder beaches, side-by-side-by-side big corporate resort-spa-hotels, some high-end restaurants and middling franchise places, not a few bars and discos, and shopping malls of all ilks.

These are not the best of times.

"We depend heavily on the beach," said Rafael Vazquez, director of sales and marketing for the Ritz-Carlton Cancun. "Have you seen the beach?"

The beach along Cancun's prime Caribbean shoreline - where there is beach at all - is a relative sliver. The sliver is an upgrade.

"I was almost crying two days ago," said Guisa, of Le Meridien, "because I saw sand. Finally."

Nature is replenishing, but the process is slow. The government has plans to help it along.

"The machinery that will be taking care of this is here," said Patricia Lopez of the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau. Even so, she said, they're looking at six months at a minimum before things are back where they were.

The hotels? A very few, including Le Meridien, are at or near full strength. Several are expected to reopen at least partially before Christmas. But most, including the two large Marriott properties (with a combined 900 rooms), are looking at February or later; the Ritz-Carlton may not be ready until summer.

Guisa is right: Never really a city that invites an evening stroll, these nights the hotel zone looks absolutely ghostly. Senor Frog's, the iconic restaurant-bar? A wreck. Carlos'n Charlie's? Closed indefinitely.

The party isn't over. Cancun will be back. The airport is in good shape, and water and power are fully restored. But ...

"There's a lot of cleaning and repairing to do," said Vazquez. "We have to be very honest." The CVB's Lopez, desperate to fill rooms, has a suggestion: "Explore Cancun on the side that hasn't been explored."

Downtown Cancun doesn't have beaches or Louis Vuitton but does have good, functioning hotels and some of the city's most interesting restaurants (La Parilla, the magical La Habichuela, Pericos) and liveliest bars.

"We have some wonderful archaeological sights nearby," she said. "How about taking an ethno-tour? The Mayan culture is alive."

She has allies.

"We have shopping open," said Guisa. "The best restaurants are open. If you want to relax, to embrace the local culture like going downtown, I would say yes, come. The only thing that for the moment, today, isn't available is the beach."

And the party.

Puerto Morelos

Anything close to the beach took a major hit at the fishing town of Puerto Morelos, which marks the beginning of Riviera Maya.

Beach houses, some of them exquisite when they were whole, are not whole anymore. Casita del Mar, a cute little hotel, is a shambles. On the other end of the price range, the elegant Ceiba del Mar lost one entire building and most of its thatch roofs and likely won't reopen until early summer.

"We always thought we were going to lose it," general manager Juan Mudespacher said of the destroyed building, the one closest to the sea. "It was a risk, we took it and we lost it."

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