Dario Lopez-mills  /  AP
People enjoy the beach in Cancun, Mexico on Sept. 26. Cancun's new beach is the highlight of an extreme makeover the resort has gone through since it was savaged by Hurricane Wilma on Oct. 21, 2005.
updated 10/11/2006 7:54:59 PM ET 2006-10-11T23:54:59

Carl Johnson said his heart missed a beat when he saw the beach outside his Cancun timeshare.

He was expecting little sand a year after the resort was savaged by the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record. But what he saw took him by complete surprise.

His patch of golden-white sand had tripled in size, stretching a gaping 140 feet toward the crystal-clear Caribbean water.

"After the initial shock, I just burst out laughing. It is so weird when you are used to seeing something and then it completely changes," said Johnson, a 50-year old aircraft mechanic from Chicago.

Cancun's new beach, built by pumping 96 million cubic feet of sand from the ocean floor, is the highlight of an extreme makeover the resort has gone through since it was punished by Hurricane Wilma on Oct. 21, 2005.

Slideshow: Warm destinations Mexican tourist officials are promoting their Caribbean haven as being fully revamped and made bigger, better and more glitzy than it was before Wilma. Public and private investment for the rebuilding has totaled $1.5 billion they say.

In many aspects, the reconstruction has been a Herculean success, letting most tourists enjoy their holidays oblivious to the destruction that wracked the resort a year ago. Bikini-clad sun bathers line the beaches, honeymooning couples sip margaritas in hotel pools and crowds of red-faced revelers croak karaoke songs down at Senor Frog's disco.

But the devastating power of Wilma wrought some damage that could not possibly be fixed within 12 months, and signs of the wreckage can still be found in corners of the Caribbean retreat.

Wilma came with little warning, swelling from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in under 24 hours, then pounding Cancun for two days and nights, felling roofs, hurling palm trees and submerging streets in stinking flood water.

When the storm finally retreated, an 8 mile stretch of beach was almost completely washed away, exposing a line of ragged rocks.

However, worldwide beach erosion has led to rapid advances in the techniques for its reclamation, and Belgian company Jan de Nul made Cancun a showcase for its newest technology.

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Two ships sucked up sand 20 miles off the Mexican coast, carried it to the shore and used colossal pipes to lay down half a mile of beach a week.

"The white beaches are what Cancun is all about. So we wanted to make sure we were getting that same silky sand that people love, and a lot more of it than before," said Patricia Lopez of Cancun's Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

The new beach is an average of 140 feet wide, compared to an average of 70 feet before Wilma, officials say.

The resort's avenues have been lined with 6,000 new, full-grown palm trees and almost all the shops and restaurants have reopened.

However, there are still sporadic construction sites in the row of nearly 100 towering hotels that fill the Cancun skyline.

In October, about 10 percent of the hotels were still having work done, with the last scheduled to be finished by the end of 2007.

Diana Cedillo, 43, of Laredo, Texas, booked a room next to a hotel crawling with construction workers. But she said the work didn't bother her.

"I haven't heard a thing. And as there are no tourists in the next-door hotel, then our bit of beach is that bit more exclusive," she said, sunbathing on a tranquil stretch of sand.

However, Scott Gardner said his parents came to the Cancun Palace to find it was under construction and were shipped off down the coast to the Moon Palace.

"It's a bit of a pain because I have a 45-minute drive from my time-share to be with them," said Gardner, 39, of Washington D.C.

Some resorts used the opportunity to remodel and upgrade their premises. The Ritz Carlton invested $15 million to expand the size of its rooms, add tennis courts and build a culinary center before opening in September.

"We thought that if we are going to rebuild, then let's make it better. If it takes 11 months, then so be it," said marketing director Rafael Vazquez.

Wilma has also left scars in the nearby jungle. Thousands of trees were ripped out of the ground and thrown into dense piles that exploded into forest fires during the summer heat. Environmentalists say the woodland will take decades to fully recover.

Yet there are still millions of acres of jungle for tourists to visit, and the forest's Mayan ruins were untouched.

The biggest problem remaining for the tourist industry is a lack of cruise ship piers on the nearby island of Cozumel, one of the world's busiest cruise ports. For now, the big ships will be moored offshore, with most visitors ferried into ports on smaller boats.

One of the main piers should be finished by the end of the year, and the other will be completed sometime in 2007, officials said.

Tourists have responded well to the rebuilding of Mexico's Caribbean coast, with their numbers rising dramatically as the spring and summer months went on.

By August, Cancun hotels were filled to 79 percent capacity, a drop from the 86 percent in 2005, but an encouraging number under the circumstances.

Cancun resident Maria Ortiz, 41, says those who live there deserve some of the credit. Ortiz joined thousands of residents in cleaning garbage off the streets after Wilma, and she then helped with construction at the hotel where she normally works as a chef.

"All we have here is tourism. That is what we all live by," Ortiz said. "So we gave everything to get those tourists back. We all wanted to make Cancun live again."

If You Go:

WHEN TO GO: High season begins in mid-December and lasts until about May, which is also the dry season. Rates are normally cheaper during the summer and fall, but you also risk hurricanes and tropical storms.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS: The nearby resorts of Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, Tulum and Cozumel suffered some damage during the storm, but all have mostly recovered. The region's famous coral reefs were also hit hard by the storm, and it will be years before they recover fully.

ANNOYANCES: The area has suffered from a recent locust invasion, and the bugs can be found in and around Cancun.

GETTING AROUND: Public buses shuttle guests between hotels, restaurants, shopping and the airport. Taxis and car rentals are an easy, faster option. Roads are well-paved, and it is usually easy for foreigners to find their way around.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: For up-to-date information on which hotels are still closed or under construction, go to http://www.cancun.info.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Marvelous Mexico

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  1. Tempting Tulum

    The Mayan City of Tulum, Mexico is located on the Caribbean Sea coast of the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. (Ml Sinibaldi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. View from Palenque

    Tourists sit atop a pyramid in Palenque, set in the foothills of the Tumbal mountains of Chiapas Mexico. (Marco Ugarte / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Blessings in Chiapas

    A tzotzil child walks in front of the church of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. (Matias Recart / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Luxury in Puerto Vallarta

    The terrace on the Celestial Suite is seen at Hacienda San Angel in Puerto Vallarta. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Ancient stories

    This photo shows details of a Maya stone, relating the coming to power of governor Sir Jupiter Humenate and dated 613 AC, found in Tonina, Ocosingo, Chiapas. (Janet Schwartz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico magic

    Mexico City, the capital city of the nation of Mexico. (Diego Goldberg / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Musical Mexico

    A mariachi band play on a punt at the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco in Mexico City. (Danny Lehman / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cool Cancun

    Cancun, Mexico is ranked as one of the top international vacation destinations. The beaches of Cancun have been completely restored following damage caused by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Travelers will find its newly renovated resorts, restaurants, beaches and attractions better and even more accessible than ever. (Business Wire) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Isla bonita

    The ferry landing on Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Isla Mujeres is a tiny island mere miles from the Yucatan coast, and feels a world away from Cancun's hustle and bustle. Isla Mujeres, thriving in its own tourism, manages to maintain the feeling of a small fishing village. (Anja Schlein / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Soccer and bullfights

    Estadio Azul (left), a soccer stadium; and Plaza Mexico, the world's largest bullring, in Mexico City. (Danny Lehman / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Azure Cortez

    People kayak in the Bahia de Loreto National Park, in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. (Terry Prichard / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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