For the the past year since Hurricane Gilbert, the booming Caribbean coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula has been in a near-constant state of change, precipitated by both man and nature.
A new international airport terminal has opened in Cancun, making arrival even more efficient and speedy. And the resort's beachfront skyline continues to fill in with resort hotels and condos, along a newly widened Paseo Kukulkan.
On the minus side, last September's Hurricane Gilbert stole away much of Cancun's talcum-fine beach sand, and very little has returned.
Since the hurricane there has been almost no rain in this part of the peninsula, so when some slash-and-burn clearing got out of hand recently more than 300,000 acres of brush and jungle were incinerated, causing smoke damage to some of the Mayan friezes in the process.
Fortunately, one of the things that has changed relatively little during this same period is Xcaret (pronounced ish- caret), a small, rocky inlet called a caleta, cut into the coast about an hour's drive south of Cancun.
Tough to Reach
Every one of the dozen best-known beaches, coves and reefs along the scalloped coastline between Cancun and the ruined Mayan city of Tulum has its partisans.
Probably because it has no beach, Xcaret doesn't make it into some of the guidebooks, and when it does, it rates only a sentence or two. For one thing, everything about it is small.
For another, it is not easy to get to. After turning off from the main coast road, Highway 307, you have to drive slowly for about a mile over a bumpy road of crushed limestone, through a working rancho where bulls and turkeys are raised.
But the effort and the 40 cents admission charge are well worth it, especially for families with children and for beginning snorkelers, because in this case small is both beautiful and manageable.
The site is a kind of microcosm of what Yucatan has to offer visitors. Near the parking lot entrance is a small cluster of partially reconstructed Mayan ruins from the post-classic period, next to other ruins that have been left in their discovered state of tumbled, overgrown disarray.
Visible from Ruins
On a clear day the island of Cozumel, eight miles away, is visible from the top of the ruins. One of two paths down to the inlet passes a freshwater spring in a cavern, called a cenote , held sacred by the ancient Mayans.
The shallow, innermost point of the inlet, which is cut off from the rest of the inlet by rocks, forms a small, natural aquarium. Those too young or otherwise unable to snorkel can nonetheless view many of the colorful parrotfish, and French and blue angelfish familiar to divers, just inches from the surface of the crystal-clear water.
The larger part of the inlet, reached by jumping off a wooden pier or climbing over some rocks, is ideal for beginning or first-time snorkelers, or those who just want to swim.
Apart from the gentle tidal push and pull, there is no significant current. Parts of the inlet are shallow enough for an adult to stand in, and the bottom is mostly sand and smooth rocks.
The narrowness of the inlet makes it easy to keep track of youngsters. And as the walls of the inlet are mostly rock, there is little likelihood that swimmers will inadvertently brush against coral, which is sometimes an irritating problem when exploring reefs.
Not Too Warm
Despite the shallow depth, the water does not get uncomfortably warm, because somewhere beneath the rocks the sea water of the inlet joins the fresh water of the cenote . The tidal pull draws cool eddies of fresh water into the inlet. Schools of 30 or more fish were common the morning we visited.
Xcaret is a good addition, or even an alternative, to the more popular, and strenuous, one-day excursion from Cancun to Tulum to explore the ruins, and then to Akumal or Xel-Ha to swim.
The ruins at Xcaret are not in the same category as the walled city overlooking the sea, and Xcaret offers snorkelers only a fraction of the area and variety and number of fish as Xel-Ha, a national park. But Xcaret is one stop, compared to twice that much travel entailed with combining the other stops.
Its relative anonymity notwithstanding, even Xcaret is changing--if only a little. There are now a small restaurant and a dive shop overlooking the inlet, both of which are well integrated into the environment, giving the area a feel as natural and as one with the setting as Cancun's condos and hotels can seem artificial and jarring.
A stone sea wall under construction near the mouth of the inlet will soon create a small marina, making the area accessible to small boats such as the lone dinghy moored at the inlet the day we visited.
Xcaret is about 50 miles south of Cancun, about an hour's drive on Highway 307. Bus connections are available from downtown Cuncun, but it's probably easiest to rent a car for the day at your hotel, or hire a taxi, either of which should run about $50 U.S. Xcaret is less than a half-hour's drive from nearby beaches like Akumal and Kailuum.
In addition to the restaurant at the inlet there is another restaurant and small inn called, appropriately, Rancho Xcaret, at the turnoff of Highway 307.
A few simple rooms are available for $25 to $35 a night (no telephone), but a day-trip is plenty of time to explore the place.
Fun All Year
Except for the late summer and early fall hurricane season, and the unpredictable month of December (which can turn cold and blustery) Xcaret is fun to visit all year. January through March is high season when it is most crowded.
A few words of caution: As with most snorkeling sites, it is best to arrive at Xcaret as early in the morning as possible to avoid crowds, which here can mean a dozen people, or very late in the day, just before sunset.
Wear running shoes rather than flip-flops, because traversing the rocks near the water's edge requires good balance. Also, the terrain is probably too rugged for children under 3.
For the smaller ones, a modest aquarium called Palancar has opened farther north on the ocean side of Highway 307, about 15 minutes south of Cancun. Admission is about 30 cents.
For more information on travel to Mexico, contact the Mexican Government Tourism Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067, (213) 203-8191.