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Between Cancun and the deep blue sea

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Just a few yards from the deep blue sea, the sparkling white sand and the sleek architecture of the luxury hotels, a man and his wife board a bus. They are American tourists bound for the downtown flea market, and they take seats up front.

It is another gorgeous day, and the facades of Cancun flash in the powerful sunlight. The Hyatt, the Marriott, the Sheraton, the Club Med, the Hard Rock Cafe, the Official All-Star Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Sen~or Frog’s, Fat Tuesday. . . . In more than 100 hotels, restaurants and beach clubs on this long, crooked finger of sand, tourists from throughout the world are romping, snoozing, sipping and rubbing in suntan lotion. The man turns to his wife.

“I wanna get away from the tourist part,” he says.

Sir, some bad news.

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Trying to escape “the tourist part” of Cancun is like entering a candy store in search of bran, or searching for the savory part of the entertainment industry. You could try, but I wouldn’t bet on your odds.

Instead of fighting it, the way to be happy in Cancun is to wallow in it. Swim up to the pool bar and order drinks featuring tiny umbrellas. Recognize tan as a legitimate verb. And appreciate restaurants not just for the hiss of their fajitas, but for the bartender’s rubber spiders and the waiter’s ability to balance dishes on his head.

Since 1970, when the first hotel towers rose here above the raw coast and uninhabited jungle in the state of Quintana Roo, the creators of Cancun have made the care and feeding of foreign visitors their supreme mission. They welcome all kinds, from the $275-a-night upscalers at the Ritz-Carlton (where maids vacuum the carpet in a subtle pattern that, when struck by the right light, suggests lapping waves) to the rowdy spring-breakers who sleep four to a room at the Oasis. This government-driven campaign has made the resort the leading tourist destination in all of Mexico, with 2.5 million arrivals last year. And though the demand for service workers has swollen Cancun’s permanent population to about 300,000, the city beyond its hotel zone is essentially a collection of businesses and residential areas that serve the families of tourism workers. No there there.

So, as a tourist, you go to a disco (remember those?) and sleep late. Or rise early for a dawn jog on the beach, take up a beach chair and a tall glass of orange juice, and watch the resort stir to life. Or read a book. Or perfect your Australian crawl. You do not attempt to purchase opera tickets, or attend a museum exhibit opening, or discover colonial architecture. If you must stray from the beaten path, do so on nearby Isla Mujeres.

Being happy in Cancun should be as simple and easy as building a sandcastle: You work with the materials at hand, and gradually, the rest of the world falls away. In fact, add sandcastle-building to that list up above. And while we’re at it, add these tidbits too:

Choose beds with care: In Cancun, your hotel is not just where you will sleep; with its pool area, restaurants and beach frontage, it dictates the manner in which you will live. Further, the more than 60 hotels in the tourist zone along the peninsula are in no way created equal. Most have a good bit of sand between themselves and the ocean, but a few do not and make do with a sea wall that is battered by waves hour after hour. The Krystal, where I stayed and which I do not recommend (mildewy smells in hall, nesting pigeons on my window sill), is such a hotel. So is the otherwise enticing Hyatt Regency next door. Even at the high-end Camino Real, which has a handsome inlet and a fair reservoir of sand, sharp rocks lurk in the shallow water. (Of course, if you’re more interested in the pool than the sand, this doesn’t much matter.)

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There’s no clear choice for the best hotel in town. Though this may seem a strange place for crystal chandeliers, the Ritz-Carlton gets many votes, has spacious, spotless rooms and features a Caribe Grill that serves a fine shrimp quesadilla.

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The Fiesta Americana Coral Beach gets votes, too, but it stands across the street from the convention center and feels too big and corporate for me. For golfers, the Caesar Park (the newest major hotel in town at 3 years old) offers a course of its own. And I was knocked out by the stark modernist architecture, bold colors, sprawling grounds and marimba-fueled happy hour of the Camino Real, even though its 1975 birth date does show up in its smallish bathrooms.

Unfortunately, with overall occupancy rates routinely running above 80%, there are no great Cancun bargains. Even after published rates are adjusted downward when tourism slows in late April, the most modest rooms at all four of these contenders are likely to be listed at more than $200.

Hotels downtown are cheaper than those on the peninsula, but staying there defeats the point of coming to Cancun. If you’re determined to find a pleasant beachfront hotel with rates under $120 (and who could blame you?), look for a package deal that combines air fare and lodging at better rates than travelers can get individually (see Guidebook). Or, if Cancun’s night life holds no great temptation for you, consider the cheaper, more rustic lodgings on Isla Mujeres.

Do not be alarmed by the severed heads: In front of the Hard Rock Cafe one evening, I spied two weary women carrying heads. The women were hair braiders. The heads, plastic and adorned with all sorts of dangling beads and plaits, were samples of their work.

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Let someone else drive: Unless you’re planning road trips to ruins in Tulum (about 80 miles south) or Chichen Itza (about 120 miles west), it probably doesn’t make sense to rent a car. Public buses constantly circle the hotel zone and downtown area of Cancun, and the cost of a ride is about 40 cents. Shuttle buses from the airport to the hotel zone run $8 per person; taxis run roughly $25, depending on your hotel location.

Get outta town: All over Cancun, you see fancy ads for day trips to a sort of Mayan eco-Disneyland called Xcaret and more modest signs offering boat rides to Isla Mujeres, a small island that has harbored a town of little hotels and storefronts since long before Cancun was created. Both Xcaret and Isla Mujeres are worth doing, for different reasons.

Xcaret (pronounced esh-caray) is a slick production. I was wary of it, especially when I read that its private developers (who are also involved in the Xel-Ha snorkeling area 75 miles south of Cancun) had extracted rocks and added a man-made beach before proclaiming the place “nature’s sacred paradise.”

But the 212-acre, $30 million Xcaret, which opened in 1989, compares favorably with Sea World and other commercial parks. It’s 45 miles south of Cancun, a journey of about 75 minutes. It’s likely to entertain a couple or family for many hours, with some marine or Mayan education tossed in along the way.

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There’s a little bay full of fish; snorkeling equipment for rent; horseback-riding and a swim-with-the-dolphins setup (these cost extra); a well-built aquarium, with crocodile pit; butterfly and bat exhibits; four restaurants; some modest stone Mayan ruins; and a startling network of caves that includes an underground river. A first-rate evening entertainment program begins with a horsemanship show and climaxes with a cleverly staged, elaborately costumed survey of Mexican folkloric dancing styles. I am not a folkloric dancing kinda guy, believe me, but I would have happily paid $20 just to see that show alone.

Most people buy bus transportation from Cancun along with their Xcaret admission ticket. It’s $49.90 for all-day admission with transportation, $30 without. I paid $30 for a bus ride and afternoon/evening visit. The bus left Cancun at 2:30 p.m. and returned at 10. (One warning if you do the evening visit: Eat a massive lunch beforehand or plan to snack heavily between 4 and 5. Otherwise, the tight schedule leaves no time to eat, and you end up sneaking a bag of potato chips, a can of Fanta and a 3 Musketeers bar aboard the bus back to Cancun.)

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Isla Mujeres, meanwhile, is a sort of anti-Xcaret. Since a hurricane crippled its one big hotel in the 1980s, the island, just five miles from Cancun, has merrily remained a retreat for boaters, snorkelers and layabouts. It’s dominated by open-air restaurants, barefoot bars and lodgings with fewer than 100 rooms.

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“No McDonald’s. No Burger King,” one Isla Mujeres innkeeper told me. “We want the island to stay small and traditional. Cancun is like Miami.”

A couple of the island’s main streets are now lined with touristy shops in electric colors, but even those main drags seem refreshingly rustic after Cancun. At the south end of the five-mile-long island lies El Garrafon National Park, a marine sanctuary known for its snorkeling, a few pre-Columbian ruins and a ramshackle lighthouse whose operator is likely to let you climb to the top if you leave a tip.

At the island’s north end is Playa Norte, its prime beach for lying around and wading in gentle tides. Most restaurants and lodgings are arrayed nearby, including the Na-Balam Suites Beach Hotel, which features thatched roofs, a good restaurant called Zazil-Ha and rates of about $80 to $100 nightly, depending on the season.

As I stepped into the lobby, a couple of thirtyish New Yorkers were checking out. “There’s nothing to do but lie on the beach and go snorkeling,” one of them said, speaking in tones of utter satisfaction.

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If the slow pace of Isla Mujeres intrigues you, get there fast. In their campaign to get gambling legalized in selected areas of Mexico, tourism leaders have named the island as a likely site for a major casino. Meanwhile, the developers of Xcaret have made a proposal to take over the operation of the now-rudimentary concession operation at El Garrafon National Park.

To reach the island, it’s about a 45-minute ride ($1) in a ferry from Puerto Juarez, which is 15 minutes north of downtown Cancun. Faster boats make the trip in 15 minutes for $2 a head. Party boats work the island route too. Leaving from the Fat Tuesday bar, I joined about 100 others aboard the Fiesta Maya, which offered a 10 a.m. departure, 5 p.m. return, lunch and some free soft drinks and tequila for $36.

Expect hustling: There’s a history of aggressive time-share selling in Cancun--so much aggression that last year time-share sales representatives were banned from working in the street because, in the words of a local reporter, “many tourists couldn’t walk more than 20 feet in the hotel zone without being asked to sit in on a presentation.”

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Now the streets are free of that, but on-property sales gambits continue, as do cash-hungry activites on a smaller scale. In every market I visited, vendors hollered to get me to look at their wares, as did many sidewalk restaurant hosts. (Has carnival-barker recruitment ever led anyone to a really good meal?)

And this: One day at the beach club behind the Xcaret departure point in Cancun, my waiter brought me a 62-peso bill for lunch. I put down a credit card. When he returned with the card and a receipt, he’d already written in the 62 pesos (about $8) and an 11-peso tip. (I guess he figured his initiative was worth 18%.) Then on my departure day, I took a taxi to the airport, paid the 80-peso fare with a 100-peso note, and had to remind the driver that change was due.

Leave the surfboard at home: There’s no surfing in or near Cancun. In fact, for all its foaming turquoise glory, the Caribbean Sea is often dangerously rough along the hotel zone, and buoys are often strung up to discourage swimmers from venturing in over their heads.

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Expect an adventure at mealtime: That is, be prepared for the restaurant’s atmosphere to overshadow the food on your plate. Keeping that in mind, my three favorite Mexican meals were at Pericos, downtown, Maria Bonita at the Camino Real hotel and El Mortero at the Krystal hotel.

At Pericos, the atmosphere includes mandatory customer conga lines, saddles instead of stools at the bar, live music and waiters who arrive at your table with beers balanced on their heads. There was also a midget with balloons. I ordered a fish filet, and it was just fine. (Arrive early or expect a long line. Pericos takes reservations only for large groups and seems to be the busiest restaurant in town.)

At Maria Bonita, the colors are equally riotous and the music is live, but the staff is far more reserved. There’s an ocean view, and the emphasis on actual dining is greater. My menu included five pages of tequilas, plus a pepper-medley dinner: four kinds of chiles prepared four different ways, with beef, potato, corn and beans. (It was excellent, although eating it felt a bit like defusing a bomb.) At El Mortero, a faux 18th-century hacienda, the setting is calmer still, and the food satisfying.

Never judge a man by the beer on his head: Between conga lines and mariachi medleys at Pericos, a busboy saw me reading and hustled over to see the book’s title. It was one of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s diaries. (The supply of English-language books in Cancun is limited.)

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“He was the principal one of the revolution,” the busboy said, grinning and nodding in recognition. Turned out the busboy has a Che poster on his wall at home and has sent away for a book of Che’s advice on how to fight a guerrilla war. The busboy was about to tell me more, but duty called. The last I saw of him, he was balancing Coronas and recruiting diners to join in the Chicken Dance.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GUIDEBOOK

Cancun Note:

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Easy Glitz

Getting there: Mexicana Airlines has nonstop flights daily to Cancun from LAX, with restricted coach fares beginning at $528. Connecting service, involving a change of planes, is available on American, Continental, Mexicana, Northwest and TWA.

Where to stay: Caesar Park Cancun Beach & Golf Resort (a Westin-managed hotel); telephone (800) 228-3000 or 011-52-98-81-8000, fax 011-52-98-81-8080. Rates begin at $185 from April 13 through mid-December (holiday and winter rates higher).

Camino Real Hotel; tel. (800) 722-6466 or 011-52-98-83-01-00, fax 011-52-98-83-17-30. Rates begin at $220 from April 7 through November.

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The Ritz-Carlton; tel. (800) 241-3333 or 011-52-98-85-08-08, fax 011-52-98-85-10-48. Rates begin at $260 from April 1 to Dec. 18.

Na Balam Suites Beach Hotel, Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres; tel. (800) 223-6510 or 011-52-98-77-02-79, fax 011-52-98-77-04-46. Rates for most of its 31 rooms are $79 to $101, depending on the season.

Packages: Package tour operators such as Pleasant Mexico Holidays and Apple Vacations often deliver prices 20% to 50% lower than hotels’ published rates. For instance, last week, through Apple Vacations, a seven-night stay for two at the Caesar Park resort in May, including round-trip air fare, began at about $880 per person.

Where to eat: Pericos, 61 Yaxhilan Ave., Cancun; local telephone 84-08-21; dinner entrees $10-$19. Maria Bonita, Camino Real Hotel, Cancun; tel. 83-01-00; dinner entrees $10-$15. El Mortero, Krystal Hotel, Cancun; tel. 83-11-33; dinner entrees $8-$17. Lobster entrees cost more at all restaurants.

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For more information: Mexican Government Tourism Office, 1801 Century Park East, Suite 1080, Los Angeles 90067, (310) 203-8191; fax (310) 203-8316.


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