‘Golden Snake’ glitters as attractive destination

Cancun: The historically significant city is a luxurious getaway with its beautiful waters

Cancun's Zona Hoteles is seen from a revolving observation tower.

CANCUN, Mexico » The desk clerk looked up with a smile when we registered here at the new Fiesta Americana.

"You're from Hawaii?" she exclaimed. "Our competition!"

Anyone could be forgiven for thinking so. Cancun, with its population rapidly approaching a million, aspires to be Mexico's fun city. There are beautiful beaches on a tropical island, along with a fascinating local culture to absorb. Yet, like any new experience, Cancun also has its own special identity.

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The traditional Mayan dress has not changed appreciably over the past 2,000 years.

The city of Cancun was created from scratch in 1970, the culmination of a government project to attract tourists to the country's tropical Caribbean coastline. When the Club Med opened up that year, the area's turquoise waters and cool, sugar-white sands were thought to be the exclusive province of the international jet set -- a luxurious, year-around retreat for moneyed foreigners and a way for the privileged to escape the madding crowd.

The new city was named Cancun, picking up an old Mayan word for the area. Cancun is best translated as "a nest of snakes," although I recently saw one piece of local literature that passed it off as "the golden snake."

"Remember that for the Maya, the snake was a sacred animal," said Ana Marie Irabien, an official of the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau. "They never thought of it as something evil!"

If there are any snakes in or around today's Cancun, Sara and I never saw them during a two-week visit. But as Irabien pointed out, there is plenty of evidence of the Maya, a sophisticated ancient civilization. For at least a millennium it dominated Mexico's Yucatan peninsula along with vast areas of what is now Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. The Maya reached their cultural height in about the year 1000.

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A parasail made for two, flying over the beach, is labeled Cancun Honey Moon.

Cancun is a traditional rallying point for visits to some world-famous Mayan ruins, notably Chichen Itza, Tulum and Coba, but we were surprised to find a respectable spread of ruins right in Cancun itself, just across the road from the Hilton. There are 40-some crumbling structures on the site, now called El Rey, populated by families of fearsome-looking but shy iguanas.

The Maya themselves are also far from extinct. You have only to look around to see living examples of the majestic sloping foreheads and other physical characteristics seen in ancient carvings and paintings. Some Mayan women dress much as their ancestors did.

The language also persists. We spent some time with one friendly Mayan, Rogelio Saura, who took pride in teaching us some Mayan phrases to salt into our bad Spanish.

We began substituting "diosh-whatic" for "gracias" (thank you). And we greeted each other with "malokeen" (good morning) instead of "buenos dias."

MUCH OF CANCUN is on a 14-mile-long, snake-thin island, connected to the mainland at its head and tail by bridges. Generally speaking, the ocean side of the island consists of scores of spiffy hotels with

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Dancers perform at the Gran Tlachco folkloric show at Xcaret, which takes place in a re-creation of a Mayan ball court.

manicured grounds, lined up one after another. On the opposite side, the lagoon serves as a venue for various aquatic sports such as water skiing.

The island's middle, known as Punta Cancun, is the home of most of the discos and night life, along with the new convention center. Across the bridge at the north end of the island is "El Centro," also frequently called "Downtown." Although the community is barely 35 years old, some of the atmospheric restaurants there seem as if they have been around for a century or two. You can find trees full of monkeys or even a toucan or two in some residential neighborhoods.

The hotels are mostly on the southern half of the island, in the Zona Hoteles, and everything is easily reached by frequent public bus service.

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"The Church" is one of many structures still standing at Chichen Itza that date from the seventh and eighth centuries.

Recently, Cancun has been fighting an image problem, and Irabien of the CVB maintains it is making progress in that goal. The resort area that initially catered to the rich and famous went mainstream over the past couple of decades. Along with Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and some other places, it became associated with the wilder antics of American youth on spring break.

Spring-breakers still flow into to Cancun in March, but not in the numbers of past years. The marketing effort is now directed to family travel, Irabien said. The city planners have convinced the hotels to stop offering special deals for college students during this period, and there is now an active anti-drug program in force.

"Eight years ago there were 100,000 kids here during spring break. This year, we received fewer than 35,000," she said. That's a relative drop in the bucket for a city with 146 hotels.

Our own recent visit to Cancun took place during this vacation period, and we were only vaguely aware of this group of young merrymakers. The few that we met were well behaved and enjoying themselves, although perhaps some were a little disappointed not to have found the "Girls Gone Wild" scene they had heard about.

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The iguana is seen everywhere, notably in the sunny areas of Mayan ruins.

Cancun is no longeron a hotel-building binge, turning its efforts more toward constructing golf courses, water parks and other family-oriented entertainment in the immediate area.

One day, we caught the ferry to Garrofon, the nature park on Isla Mujeres, a small island about a 20-minute ride offshore. Garrofon offers several activities under, on and even above the water (via one of those zip-line operations, in which harnessed fun-seekers slide along steel cables).

There were several shore-based adventures, too. While others were swimming, snorkeling or zipping, we grabbed an open-air bus tour to the nearby lighthouse and then explored the modern sculpture garden and the ruins of a small Mayan temple. We lunched in one of the Garrofon restaurants and then took advantage of the forest of free hammocks while waiting for the ferry back to Cancun.

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Puerto Morelos is a relatively quiet village on the Riviera Maya.

While carefully groomed Cancun is working to provide plenty to do in the immediate area, many still use it principally as a gateway to explore the several important archeological sites in the Yucatan. Principal among them, of course, is Chichen Itza ("Chicken Pizza," as the young American expatriates back in Cancun might call it).

These mysterious ruins of an ancient Mayan city, about 97 miles west of Cancun, can be visited by rental car on good roads or on a day tour from the city. On warm days, Chichen Itza can be unbearably hot and crowded. Another time, we'll take some local advice and stay overnight in one of several small hotels there. Then we could poke around the ruins during the cooler and quieter hours of late afternoon and early morning, before the busloads arrive or after they leave.

On our way from Chichen Itza back to Cancun, we stopped in Valladolid, as typical a Spanish colonial city as can be found in Mexico, established in the 16th century. We lunched in the inviting patio of the Hotel El Meson del Marques, one of the town's oldest structures, next to the main plaza.

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Swimmers share the waters with flocks of pelicans at Xel-Ha, an ecological park on the Riviera Maya.

SOME REFER TO Cancun as the principal town of the Riviera Maya, although that term is more properly applied to the 80-mile-long coastline just south of Cancun, and one that boasts many slick resorts of its own. The best-known community is Playa del Carmen, and that's where some catch the ferry to the island of Cozumel. For a couple of days we enjoyed the more leisurely pace in Puerto Morelos, a small, friendly, informal village about 11 miles south of Cancun.

The villages and attractions along the Riviera Maya are easily reached from Cancun, and we had fun exploring the commercial ecological parks of Xel-Ha and especially Xcaret. There we donned bathing suits and life vests and dreamily floated along the quarter-mile-long underground river.

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Bathing suit-clad patrons enjoy a water bar at the Garrafon ecological park on Isla Mujeres.

Due to some geological quirks of the Yucatan, rivers are generally underground, with a few sinkholes above them providing occasional access and natural skylights. These are called "cenotes," and they provided hiding places for the Maya in their wars against the Spanish. Today, many recreational areas are centered in and around the cenotes of the Yucatan, including scuba and snorkeling opportunities.

One of the villages along the Riviera Maya is Tulum, and the site of an unusual set of shoreline Mayan ruins. With its spectacular ocean setting, it is a dramatic reminder of the existence of an ancient culture -- the sophisticated society once fortunate enough to have had Cancun and the Riviera Maya all to itself.

If you go ...

Hotels

Many of the familiar worldwide chains are represented in the 146 hotels in Cancun:

» Fiesta Americana Grand Aqua Cancun: The newest, opened in 2005, at Boulevard Kukulcan, Zona Hotelera, Cancun, Mexico, CP 77500. Call 52-998-881-1760; e-mail rinternet@posadas.com; www.fiestaamericana.com.

» Hotel Maria de Lourdes: A much less expensive choice, in the downtown area, at Avenue Yaxchilan 80, Cancun, Mexico 77500. Call 52-998-880-9167; e-mail hotelmariadelourdes@hotelmariadelourdes.com; www.hotelmariadelourdes.com.

Restaurants

» La Habichuela: At 25 Margaritas St. Call 52-998-884-3158; e-mail info@lahabichuela.com; www.lahabichuela.com

» La Parilla: At 51 Avenue Yaxchilan. Call 52-998-884-8193.

» Cenacolo: In the Kukulcan Plaza shopping complex at kilometer 13 in the Hotel Zone. 52-998-885-3603.

Shopping

Of the many shopping centers in town, three are standouts. For an informal, flea-market atmosphere, go to the open-air shops at Mercado 28 (Mercado Veintiocho), one block from the downtown post office. A more up-to-date approach, looking like a modern Venice, is the winsome La Isla Shopping Mall, Boulevard Kukulcan, at kilometer 12.5, approximately opposite the Fiesta Americana Grand Aqua hotel. For luxury items and more glitzy window shopping, wander through the Kukulcan Plaza, at Boulevard Kukulcan kilometer 13.

Information

» Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau: At Boulevard Kukulcan kilometer 9, Zona Hotelera, Cancun, Q. Roo, Mexico. Call 52-998-884-6531; e-mail sistemas@cancunovc.com; www.cancun.info.

» Mexico Tourism Board: Call 800-446-3942; e-mail contact@visitmexico.com; www.visitmexico.com.