Travel: Cancun: Mexico's last resort

A brand-new scheduled flight to Mexico's main Caribbean resort opens up the Yucatn Peninsula to travellers. But the excesses on the island drove Simon Calder to drink tequila, inevitably
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The Independent Online
Here's a tip for the pilot of the first-ever British Airways flight from Cancn to Gatwick, which takes off this Monday: do the beach departure. It'll guarantee a plane load of pleased passengers and a placid flight back to Gatwick.

The punters should be content, anyway. Mexico's main Caribbean resort is one of those rare places where, whatever you want from a journey, you will probably find it.

If you desire merely to toast on the beach, tipple by the pool and taste nothing riskier than a burger, stay put on the brash stripe of hotels, restaurants and shopping malls that constitutes the Isla Cancn. But allow yourself, and your attention, to drift along the beach past the Sheraton, and you may get caught up in one of the tangled tales of this strange corner of the world: sprouting from an ancient plug of limestone is the Mayan temple of the scorpion. Anyone caring to glance up from their pool- side pina colada sees that tourists are trespassing on the territory of one of the world's greatest civilisations.

Some, no doubt, will use the new air route as a stepping-stone to get deeper into Mayan life. But they, too, should dawdle in Cancn and gawp at what passes for civilisation at the back end of the 20th century.

Travel writers are fond of trotting outthe truism that Cancn was selected by computer - in the early Seventies, the story goes, the Mexican authorities ran a program to identify the ideal spot to develop tourism on the Caribbean coast. Yet even in those technologically olden days, you wouldn't have needed so much as a Sinclair ZX81 to work out that a 12-mile strip of golden sand with the Caribbean sea on one side and a tropical lagoon on the other might prove to be a pretty good place to plant a resort.

My National Geographic map of the Yucatn Peninsula, dated 1970, shows a blank shred of sand dangling from the easternmost point in Mexico. By the end of the century Isla Cancn will eclipse Mexico City as the richest, ritziest place in this wide and wonderful country.

Sunglasses are mandatory - first, to defend your eyes against the blazing tropical sun that dances down to play high-energy hopscotch between the ultra-white sand and eerily blue sea; later, to shade the neon that dazzles through the warm breath of a Caribbean dusk. Almost every yard along the spine of the island is filled with heavy-duty tourism infrastructure: dozens of big, brash hotels, interlaced with familiar names such as the Hard Rock Cafe and TGI Friday's. A frenzy of feeding, and more particularly drinking, takes place each evening.

Close your eyes and you think you could easily be in Florida; open them again and you will be convinced that you've slipped through a time-space puncture and arrived in the vicinity of Daytona Beach, especially at this time of year, when the "spring break" crowds are in town: these under- 21 refugees from harsh US licensing laws take advantage of Mexico's relaxed attitude to alcohol to get sozzled in the sun for a weekend or a week. Forget lager louts; tequila tearaways are much more intimidating.

You get the strong impression that some of them don't know they're in a foreign country, and regard Mexico as just a wayward US state - they don't even need a passport to get in. If you feel mischievous, conduct a survey among your fellow guests to see if they can identify where they are. "I'm in Nirvana, man", was the closest guess of a Kansas student staggering out of the latest eating/drinking/shopping complex.

Not that I have any grounds to feel superior; I'm writing this on the verandah of the Outback Steakhouse, having trawled the length of the island in a vain attempt to find some friendly Mexicans with whom to drink and dine. Not a single cantina has survived the onslaught, so instead of nibbling nachos I am tucking into a bonzer burger at Cancn's first Australian restaurant. It's time to leave.

Departure takes approximately 30 seconds, the frequency of buses roaring back and forth along the strip. Three pesos (20p), 10 minutes and lots of g-forces later, you cross the bridge to the mainland and are deposited in the town of Cancn - a genuine Mexican community that wisely keeps its distance from the faux Florida on the island. The ambient noise here is of animated tiffs rather than amplified riffs. Real dogs scavenge among awkward concrete architecture of the "oh, we'll finish it off later" school of building, while a hilariously Heath Robinson machine in the chunters out the blank discs of corn that constitute the hub of a Mexican diet: tortillas. On the main square, the sharply defined faces of the descendants of the Maya smile as they offer you said tortillas, deep fried and wrapped around cheeses and chicken.

Along the street at one of a rabble of bars, a friendly local will correct your tequila technique. Forget the lime and salt performance; here, they alternate swigs of the fiery cactus spirit with gulps of sangrita, a spicy tomato concoction. The routine is a bit like mixing a bloody Mary in your stomach, only jollier.

And the vast remainder of Mexico beyond the resort is a bit like Cancn, only much jollier. A 40-minute ferry ride takes you across to pepper-shaped Isla Mujeres: literally the island of women, though the genders seem balanced aboard this splinter of rock. Unlike the adjacent island, normal life has never relinquished control. Within moments of landing, you can hear the shrieks from a school playground - and you realise that the artificial resort you have left behind is devoid of such natural phenomena as children. The island's only town looks as though some errant kids have got hold of a giant painting set and plastered each house in increasingly bright colours. Who needs neon when the sun sets alight a dazzling aquamarine apartment block, just along from that impossibly orange cafe? A rare blank wall has been cheered up by a mauve Viva la revolucin. If you hop only as far as this island, your whole trip will have been worthwhile.

Try, though, the ride along the most boring road in the world. The highway east towards Merida and Mexico City strides through wearisome uniformity. The Yucatn Peninsula is as flat as a punctured airbed, a slab of low- level limestone dressed in spindly forest at the sunblasted end of the dry season. Now and again the fragile crust collapses to form a cenote, a giant and mystically circular well, but such secrets are concealed from the autopista. It drones onfor two or three hours before you spot what seems to be a thumbnail appearing on the horizon.

The closer you get, the more your jaw drops at the audacious apparition: the main pyramid at Chichen Itz, the finest Mayan site in Mexico. Check in at one of the overpriced fleapits in the straggly adjacent village of Piste, and rise at dawn. Get to the site five minutes before it officially opens at 8am, and hope that the chaps on the gates let you in a little early. Then sprint to the 80-ft summit of a 1,000-year-oldstructure, called El Castillo ("the castle") by the awestruck Spanish conquistadores.

From the top you will gasp - either at the sight of such a perfectly preserved city, or because the 60-degree rake of the steps makes you feel a tad insecure. Your head may also swim at the thought that the features of this pyramid - steps, terraces and panels - are denominated to describe the mathematically meticulous Mayan calendar.

As the arithmetical city begins to swarm with visitors, join the swirl and try to make sense of the ancient ball courts - gigantic arenas, bigger (and possibly in better nick) than Cancn airport - and civic buildings whose stern formality sneers at the feeble assaults of time and the elements. You will leave Chichen Itz humbled, acutely aware of just how temporary and shallow are you and your fellow tourists.

Back on the beach at Cancn, anyone gazing skywards may see more aeronautical activity than just a biplane towing a banner proclaiming the benefits of Pond's cosmetics. At the airport, demand a window seat on the left of the plane and hope for a pilot in a good mood. The captain of the much- delayed Boeing subdued a plane full of hot, bothered passengers by soothingly promising: "Ladies and gentlemen, for your pleasure we're going to make the beach departure." Huh, I thought grumpily, the pilot just means that the wind direction obliges him to take off towards the sea.

Three minutes later the plane, and my opinion of Continental Airlines, changed course by 180 degrees. Suddenly we were gliding along at 2,000ft around the foot of the island, then following the beach every inch of the way. "See if you can spot your hotel," recommended the captain.

I cheated a bit: looked for the temple of the scorpion instead, and found it cowering between giant cathedrals of indulgence. But from this distance, Mexico's last resort took on a uniform magnificence.

At ground level you would scarcely have credited it, but, gradually, even the island of Cancn began to look beautiful.

Cancun connections

Getting there

Simon Calder paid pounds 455 for a Continental Airlines Gatwick-Cancn ticket, via Houston. The new direct flight on British Airways (0345 222111) costs more than pounds 600 if you book direct, but through agencies such as Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108) the fare for April is pounds 467, including UK and Mexican taxes. Note that the fare can be combined with a Mexico City flight at the same fare.

Charters are also available from Gatwick and Manchester. They are mostly sold as part of package holidays, by operators such as First Choice (0161- 745 7000), Airtours (0541 500479) and Thomson (0990 502580).

Red tape

Visitors require a tourist card, which is issued free by the airline, or at the frontier if you enter by land.

More information

Mexican Ministry of Tourism, 60 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DS (0171- 734 1058). Note that this office takes a substantial siesta, closing each day from 1.30pm to 3pm.