Image: Spreak break in Cancun
Gregory Bull  /  AP
A group of women dance and sing on the tables of the Coco Bongo nightclub in Cancun, Mexico, on Sunday. Despite damage from Wilma five months ago, many Cancun spots are back up and running.
updated 3/14/2006 2:22:35 PM ET 2006-03-14T19:22:35

The sugar-white sand beaches are back after being swept away by Hurricane Wilma five months ago. But there are no stages for wet T-shirt contests, and MTV won’t be hosting its spring break beach party.

Instead, the first wave of winter-weary college students who converged on Cancun found that construction workers nearly outnumbered revelers this week in Mexico’s spring break capital of beer and bikinis.

With nearly half its hotels still closed, Cancun has plunged down the list of destinations for spring breakers from the United States. The Caribbean resort fell from No. 2 last year to No. 8 this year for travelers booking trips through Miami was the top destination.

Tourism officials say they expect about 25,000 visitors in Cancun this season, compared to 40,000 last year. Many spring breakers have moved farther south to the Maya Riviera or to Acapulco, the Pacific playground of the 1950s that has been steadily rising in popularity because of its all-night discos.

“Obviously it’s not going to be the same this year,” said Cancun Tourism Director Jesus Rossano.

Construction everywhere
Many of those who did make the trip found themselves sitting against a backdrop of lumber piles and cement blocks or next to pools lined with brown palms that appeared to have just gotten a buzz cut. Instead of blasting music, the sound of hammers pierced the air.

“It’s not near as nice as I expected,” said MacKenzie Horras, 22, an elementary education student at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “Some of the pools are dirty or don’t have water.”

But while some of the hotels were clearly out of business for some time to come, others were fully functioning beyond their damaged facades. The Oasis hotel, popular with spring breakers, showed few signs of being hit by a major hurricane.

All, however, agreed Mexico’s party resort has slowed down a bit.

Stephanie Streit, who was sunbathing with Horras on the beach, said her friends who’d come the year before described a much wilder place.

“Out of control was the term I heard most used,” said Streit, 22, a psychology major at the University of Northern Iowa. “But it’s pretty tame.”

“I heard boobs and beads,” said her friend, Crystal Whitney, 21, referring to the wet T-shirt contests and beaded necklaces worn by revelers who flock to the all-you-can-drink discos. “But I haven’t seen much of that.”

The Mexican government hoped to use spring break as a way to show the world how the country’s prime resort had bounced back.

Resort town rebuilt
President Vicente Fox’s government poured $19 million into rebuilding the beaches, hiring a Belgian company that dredged sand from the ocean floor and dumped tons of it over rocks and concrete exposed by the hurricane.

With winds reaching 150 mph, Wilma roared ashore 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 line the Caribbean on one side and posh shops and smaller lodges face a lagoon on the other.

Some of the most popular discotheques, like Dady’O and Coco Bongo, packed people in as in years past. But many bars — which once drew thousands with big-name rock bands and over-the-top contests aimed at giving people reasons to get naked in public — were closed.

Cheryl Scott, 45, said when she realized she was taking her 11-year-old son to Cancun during spring break, she feared it would be a disaster.

'This is my speed'
“You hear the ‘woo-hoo’ and the ‘yee-hah’ and you know where they’re coming from,” said Scott, who lives outside Fort Worth, Texas. “But it’s not been an issue at all. It’s safe, normal and he hasn’t seen anything I wouldn’t want him to see.”

“I’m not an old fuddy duddy,” she added. “But this is my speed: My son is making sand castles and I’m drinking strawberry daiquiris.”

Many students also said Wilma did not ruin their vacations.

“Looking at the ocean all day is a lot better than staring at a cornfield,” said 22-year-old University of Nebraska at Lincoln student Ben Hansen.

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