Guillermo Arias  /  AP
A couple of tourists walk on the beach at sunset Dec. 14, 2005, in Playa del Carmen, south of Cancun, Mexico.
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updated 1/16/2006 3:56:58 PM ET 2006-01-16T20:56:58

Five-star resorts stand battered and broken, crawling with construction crews that hammer and bulldoze, weld and re-plaster long into the night.

The discotheques are dark, many shopping centers and restaurants remain smashed, and the beaches have lost much of the sugar-white sand that made them famous.

Two-plus months after Hurricane Wilma, Cancun remains a shattered, shadow of itself.

"Everything we're used to isn't there," said Judy Gilliam, a school bus driver from Methuen, Mass., who was vacationing and doing church missionary work here for the third time. "It's still the same place, but it doesn't really feel like it."

Cancun won't feel like Cancun for months, but many resorts on the nearby Riviera Maya have reopened and are nearly fully recovered.

Cozumel is again teeming with tourists arriving aboard cruise ships, though most of the island's top hotels remain closed and officials say its coral reefs may need a century to recover from Wilma's wrath.

On Isla Mujeres, many hotels have reopened, as have scuba-diving expeditions.

"People should definitely come," said Linda Boechler, a financial adviser from Moose Jaw, Canada, who stayed in Playa del Carmen, the Riviera Maya's best-known destination. "Cancun was more damaged and will take longer. But everywhere else is pretty much normal."

With winds reaching 150 mph, Wilma roared ashore on Oct. 21, then stalled over Cancun for nearly 40 hours. It toppled trees, demolished homes and left much of the city of 700,000 under brown, foul-smelling flood waters.

Rebuilding began almost immediately and continues around the clock, especially in the hotel zone, a 15-mile spit of coast where glamorous resorts rise above the Caribbean on one side and posh shops, restaurants and exchange houses line a lagoon on the other.

"Sorry for the inconvenience. Cancun: Working for a new image," reads a sign in English along the road to the airport. "We will be ready for you very soon and better then ever."

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Yes, but when?

The city was still crippled on Dec. 15 - the Mexican government's target date to have the resort back up and running. Many hotels and restaurants and boutiques are hoping to reopen in late January or February. Things could be largely back to normal in time for spring break _ but fixtures including the Hilton Cancun Golf and Spa Resort and the Hyatt Regency won't be back until May.

Slideshow: Warm destinations Mountains of smashed concrete are everywhere, and scaffolding rises in all directions. Many empty hotels are keeping up appearances, however. Over the holidays, a lawn display at the Cancun Palace featured a towering Christmas tree and snowman made of white lights, while red and green ones made up a blinking poinsettia. But a deserted hotel hulked in the background, not expected to reopen until June.

"It's weird at night," said Javier Hernandez, visiting from Mexico City. "All the lights are on, but there are no people."

Some high-rise hotels have reopened, including the Hotel Riu Cancun. But the effects of Wilma are still being felt.

"There was a mold smell that was really strong," said Mark Taylor, who visited for a week from Sacramento, Calif. "If you go to the Riu, to room 550, and take a whiff, it's all you smell."

Many nearby convenience stores are operating, some with plywood still covering their windows. Gas stations that lost their roofs now pump gas under tents.

"There aren't many hotels open, but they're aren't many restaurants open either and we are taking advantage," said Jorge Mora, assistant manager at Lorenzillo's, a seafood place that relocated to a new building after Wilma blew away most of its original, lagoon-front location.

Downtown Cancun - which was partially under water immediately after Wilma - has recovered quickly, with most of its modest hotels and restaurants open. Nearby archaeological sites, including the breathtaking Mayan ruins at Tulum, were not damaged.

Tourism officials have launched an advertising push to win back tourists who have stayed away. Some airlines and hotels cut prices through the first three weeks of January.

"There are deals out there," said Antonio Pitta, regional director for Mexico, the Caribbean and Latin America for CheapTickets and Orbitz. "Hotels are now releasing allotments that would normally be sold out. Those are creating last-minute opportunities."

Beaches devoid of sand may be a tough sell, however. Some areas actually gained sand, thanks to Wilma, but erosion was a serious problem for the heart of the hotel zone.

"You can still see the ocean, but you miss the beach," said Kevin Wholley, a chef, who came to do missionary work with Gilliam. "A big part of Cancun is missing."

At the Royal Sands, where Wholley and Gilliam stayed, the beach is gone, replaced by exposed rocks and waves that lap up to the concrete steps leading to the pool deck. A foreboding sign warns tourists against setting foot on the sand.

President Vicente Fox's government has earmarked $19 million to rebuild the beaches, hiring a Belgian company that will begin dredging sand from the ocean floor on Jan. 16.

Mario Lazcano, a biologist and the head of a Cancun-based ecological group, said dredging efforts will have to be careful not to further damage the region's coral.

"Loss of sand on one beach and the accumulation of it on another happens in any hurricane," he said. "But in Cancun, we can't wait for nature to replace the sand. The economic pressure to rebuild for the hotels and spas will make everybody hurry."

On Isla Mujeres, mountains of sand covered roads and filled restaurants and businesses. Cleanup has been swift, and the tourism industry is approaching full recovery. The largest hotels on the island probably won't reopen until the end of the year at the earliest, however.

Also gaining beach were many parts of Playa del Carmen, about 45 minutes south of Cancun. The resort is the main draw for the Riviera Maya, stretching along the coast 100 miles south of Cancun.

Visitors to the area fly to Cancun's airport, which is operating normally, and head the rest of the way by bus, van or rental car.

Janet Ring, of Wanamingo, Minn., rescheduled her trip and was staying outside Playa del Carmen because of hurricane damage elsewhere on the Yucatan Peninsula.

"They said there was a lot of stuff closed and not much to do," she said of Cancun. "But Playa's been wonderful."

The Cuban cigar shops, electronic stores and open-air restaurants in downtown Cozumel are also booming anew, thanks to cruise ships that began returning Nov. 14.

One of the world's busiest cruise ports, the island lost its main dock to Wilma, forcing ships to anchor offshore and use smaller vessels to ferry passengers in.

"Without the cruise ships, we'd be the same or even worse than Cancun," said Javier Najera, administrator of Playa Uvas beach club.

Besides the duty-free shopping blitz, cruise passengers heading to beachfront bar and grills for sunbathing and exotic cocktails have also given other parts of the island a lively feel - at least until the late afternoon when guests have to head back to their ships.

A tourist favorite, Atlantis Adventures' 48-passenger submarine, began underwater voyages to Chankanaab marine park, off the west coast of Cozumel on Dec. 20.

Erosion was a problem for some of the island, but in other regions, crews simply moved sand back to the beach after Wilma blew it onto nearby roads and into parking lots. Cozumel's Hotel Association said 2,800 rooms were scheduled to open by late December and January, but many high-rise resorts have begun major remodeling projects and won't be open until months later.

Bonnie Buda, of Raleigh, N.C., said she has been coming to Cozumel for years.

"We're upset because it's not like it was," said Buda, a property manager for a real estate company. "We still love it. We want to support the tourism industry, but when you're diving and you see the reefs and you see the destruction of the hotels back on shore, it's deeply saddening."

Buda said that this year, scuba-diving was a somber experience.

"We weren't able to see much except broken coral," she said. "It brings tears to your eyes."

If you go:

MEXICO POST-HURRICANE INFORMATION: http://www.caribemexicano.gob.mx and http://www.wilmacozumel.com.

MEXICO TOURISM BOARD: (800) 446-3942

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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