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From beauty to battered: Cancun after Wilma

Along the narrow strip of sand that once housed Cancun’s raucous bars and palatial resorts, hotels are now stripped of marble and glass, their skeletal remains rising from the debris.
Mexican soldiers patrol the streets after Hurricane Wilma passed over on Monday in Cancun. Hurricane Wilma unleashed a dark side of this resort city, as hundreds of desperate residents stole everything from food to pizza delivery motorcycles.Jose Luis Magana / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Along the narrow strip of sand that once housed Cancun’s raucous bars and palatial resorts, hotels are now stripped of marble and glass, their skeletal remains rising from a tangle of debris.

Cancun’s famous sugar-white sand is washed away, leaving a muddy coastline strewn with chunks of concrete.

The resort’s clear, sunny skies remain, but little of the Cancun where millions have honeymooned or spent spring break is left. The city lost battles to both Hurricane Wilma and looters, and it will take months to recover. Some say it will be Easter before things are back to normal.

Strolling along the hotel zone Wednesday, I saw groomed resorts and postcard-perfect views replaced by shattered glass glinting from the pavement, reflecting the relentless sun above. Light poles were snapped like twigs, their metal wires snaking in all directions.

Thousands of tourists, desperate for a shower and a full meal, roam the city, looking for a bus out or a plane home.

Picture windows were shattered and glass atriums capping the soaring lobbies of hotels collapsed in the storm, turning hallways into wind tunnels. Soggy furniture and debris littered reservation desks.

Swimming pools washed away
Awnings were ripped away, walls knocked aside. The storm’s waves gobbled up swimming pools and retaining walls, even washing over the marble floors of lobbies.

Instead of lobster dinners on restaurants floating in the city’s lagoon, people now wait in long lines for government-supplied rice and beans.

Cancun’s nightlife has been quelled by a curfew, and cars wait for hours to buy gas.

Cash, running water and electricity are scarce. Until my hotel fired up its generator Wednesday, I hadn’t bathed in a week. Like many, I was running out of money because the automatic teller machines weren’t working and banks weren’t open.

Hundreds waited to make calls home on pay phones, often threatening those who stayed on too long. One group of women screamed until they were hoarse, fighting over who could hook their cell phones to a generator at a school converted into a shelter for thousands.

The roofs of shopping centers were peeled back, car dealerships smashed beyond repair. Satellite television dishes, torn from their roofs, litter roads, parks and sidewalks.

Instead of the gardeners who usually tend manicured laws, Mexican soldiers hacked at the waterlogged remains of palm trees and branches with machetes. Police kept looters away from shattered businesses.

Car rental places, upscale clothing boutiques and restaurants like the Outback Steakhouse and Señor Frog’s lay in ruins. But the flea market was nearly unscathed and was selling cheap trinkets within hours after the hurricane passed.

By Wednesday, bulldozers were already rumbling through the debris. Officials hope to begin welcoming guests again by Christmas, the start of the high season.

Visitors, locals band together
The storm changed the social structure in Cancun, where visitors are often isolated from Mexicans who spend their days cleaning hotel rooms and preparing buffets.

I saw the two groups come together, as residents gave foreigners rides to pick up luggage at abandoned hotels, or opened their cupboards to those with no food. Both groups shared clothing, bottled water and advice.

Hotel employees, accustomed to delivering margaritas poolside, stayed on the job throughout the hurricane, caring for guests at hot, crowded shelters.

Tensions have risen amid confusion over who was going to get out on the few flights available.

Some criticized the Mexican government and foreign embassies for not acting faster. But Cancun’s hospitality survived the storm, and travel agents and hotel directors took over, loading people on buses and planes.

Despite the chaos, the people who lived through it — visitors and locals alike — were kind and patient and generous beyond description.

And that’s what I will take with me when I head home, and what will draw me back here when all the shattered glass is gone.