Cancun rebuilt, reborn, after Hurricane Wilma

The beaches of Cancun have been restored following damage caused by Hurricane Wilma in 2005.Business Wire / BUSINESS WIRE
/ Source: TravelWorld International Magazine (NATJA)

Time matters in Mexico. The slow, easy, languid kind which wraps you in a comfort zone of no hurry, all is well, manana is soon enough. Relax. This is your holiday.

That calming mood has returned to the Yucatan Peninsula, where Cancun, Cozumel and the Riviera Maya were buffeted by high winds and copious amounts of rain for 63 hours when category five Hurricane Wilma lingered too long in October, 2005.

Mexican serenity morphed into intense deadlines for several months with owners and employees, residents and developers determined to renew hotels and beaches, restaurants and shops, nightspots and breakfast places.

As each reopens in a brand new style, that traditional Mexican calm returns. Cancun, Cozumel and the Riviera Maya are ready to check out, and fun to visit.

They're different too. If you've been before, and want to return this spring or summer, expect sparkling newness. Expect adults and families, not rowdy students, because this Mexican state called Quintana Roo is taking advantage of hurricane recovery to price Spring Break out of the market.

"Spring breakers go where the market will bear, and Cancun hotels which had to take them before are now upgrading," according to the John McCarthy, head of Mexico's master tourism and economic development planning agency, Fonatur.

"The spring break numbers were already dropping before the storm," said McCarthy, Fonatur's director general. "With renewed properties everywhere in the Yucatan, we believe the spring breakers will be looking elsewhere."

Cancun, McCarthy says, is a new place for the second time. Created from the low jungle in 1974 as Mexico's first master-planned city, Cancun's re-creation today from Hurricane Wilma includes more than renewed hotels and refurbished beaches.

Look for three new PGA-rated golf courses, marinas and nautical opportunities for the first time ever at the hotel-oriented Puerto Cancun or at Malecon Cancun with commercial and residential developments.

If three million visitors, a busy international airport, 142 hotels and supporting shops and restaurants, four-lane highways, hospitals and city infrastructure can happen here, they say, it can happen all over Mexico.

That might be a solid reason to visit Cancun, Cozumel and Riviera Maya right now, before you're lured elsewhere in Mexico.

Sure they still have some hotels waiting in the post-hurricane renovation line, but each had enough completed, brand new and ready to show visitors a good time as each new day passes.

In fact, the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau puts out a daily update because change is happening so fast.

The next Cancuns
Cozumel lost its international cruise ship piers to the storm, so now ferries cruisers from ship to shore in vessels provided by the island. No life boats for this short journey.

Claiming 100 percent of the shops to be open, the island's Promotions Board Director Raul Marrufo reports that Cozumel's famous scuba diving reefs are open and the waters are clear.

With the old renewed, and ready again for holiday traffic, Fonatur is taking the Cancun model down the coast in the Yucatan Peninsula and all the way to the west coast of Mexico.

Here are some of the up-and-coming names to claim today so you'll be first in line as they open: Costa Maya, Litibu, Loreto, Los Cabos, and the Sea of Cortez.

Put the Copper Canyon on the list too, although it's familiar and an easier-to-remember name. Five times the size of the Grand Canyon, this region in northern Mexico is scheduled for high budget visitors looking for what developers call grand tourism category rooms, boutique cabins and luxury tents.

Low environmental impact is also what the planners stress, preserving the traditions of the Tarahumara Indians and a wide variety of ecosystems and microclimates.

The nearby Sea of Cortez will add 28 marinas, each attached to a quaint little town and each just 120 nautical miles from the other, all in a day's range, Fonatur's McCarthy said.

Six towns already exist -- the other 22 will be new creations, providing economic opportunities for local people all along the Baja Peninsula. How soon can you go, either on your yacht or by land?

This is a 14-year project and the master plan calls for completion in 2025, but 10 marinas and five communities will be looking for visitors by the close of 2006.

Costa Maya is the eastern project, south of Cancun and Riviera Maya, one of the largest reserves in the world, McCarthy said, and this master plan calls for preserving 85 percent of the land available, including mangrove swamps, marshes and coastal lagoons in the jungle.

Lots are available now in Litibu, on the west coast of the country, 30 minutes from Puerta Vallarta. Look for 4,100 lodging units, 2,280 hotel rooms, 910 homes, 18 holes of golf, beach clubs, shopping and entertainment here.

Master plans for Loreto as the capital of the Sea of Cortez project, also include Napolo with high-income hotels, villas, spa, golf and residential, and Puerto Escondido converting a city into a marina with every house accessed through water channels.

Los Cabos ties in to this massive Sea of Cortez development, which McCarthy calls his Fonatur's most important tourism project in 20 years. Familiar to cruise ship passengers, Cabo San Lucas is here, as is San Jose del Cabo.

The new master plan calls for ecological preservation to be 42.11 percent of the Los Cabos project while still providing lots of golf and nautical tourism.

And what of the next storm? As insurance, officials have devoted millions to increase the once-shallow shore by up to 45 feet. Stationed in the ocean since January, ships with long mechanical arms are scooping sand from the sea's bottom and shooting the granules - snow blower style - to the shore. If hit again, everyone agrees there will be damage. But, planners are hopeful the wider shore will mitigate the kind inflicted by Hurricane Wilma.

"When you build a destination or resort or a town on the Atlantic, Pacific or Caribbean," McCarthy says, "expect a hurricane to hit sooner or later."

Expect, but just keep on planning.