Cancun: The creature from the swamp

Don't go to the artificial Riviera Maya to debate climate change, but it's a great beach resort. Sankha Guha samples Mexico Club-Med style

The delegates gathering this weekend for the 16th United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, must surely be aware of the delicious irony in their choice of location.

Cancun was created out of a remote swamp in the Yucatan peninsula 40 years ago. The infrastructure for the project was built from scratch; building materials, workers, capital and expertise all had to be imported. Cancun's mission was (and still is) to generate Yanqui dollars for the Mexican economy.

And for this to happen it had to attract tourists from thousands of miles distant – Cancun's principal markets are a continent away. Even the local ones are not exactly near; Mexico City is more than a 1,000 miles to the north-west. The very existence of the resort is posited on the emission of greenhouse gases. Without a vast latticework of jet-con trails in the upper atmosphere there can be no Cancun.

The delegates will be meeting at the brand new Cancunmesse Convention Centre on the Riviera Maya, south of the airport. They would see a very different kind of mess if they had chosen the other convention centre on Punta Cancun, at the northernmost tip of the resort's Zona Hotelera. It is sited among giant hotels and timeshares, next to a gaudy strip of bars and clubs, including the local Hooters franchise, the Sweet & Sexy, the obligatory Hard Rock Café, and a restaurant called Margarita & Marijuana – I am assured by a waiter that the name was chosen purely for its alliterative quality.

There is no such ambiguity about the A+ Pharmacy, though, where the signage announces they also sell tequila and snacks. Or the Drugs & Deli Convenience Store, where the window display invites customers to buy "Coffee: Viagra: Food: Prozac", which must make it the most convenient one-stop in the world. From the various bars, the decibels of American heavy rock, and more locally sourced salsa, fight it out for the attention of party-on punters.

The delegates will be staying in the Moon Palace Golf and Spa Resort about 15 miles south of Party Central. The hotel boasts "123 acres of tropical greenery, nearly 2,000 feet of silky white beach, 2,457 air-conditioned rooms with double Jacuzzis, 15 restaurants, 12 bars" and much else. It is, of course, an all-inclusive, which is the preferred mode of accommodation in Cancun. What the Moon Palace does in its high-on-the-hog way, the Club Med, almost next door, where I am staying, does in its own scaled-down, idiosyncratic style.

Club Med, with just 376 rooms, is a welcome low-rise contrast to the bombast of most other hotels in the area. It may be relatively small but it occupies an enviable position at the southern end of the hotel zone where the land hooks out to sea creating a small bay. The beach is consequently more sheltered from the open ocean and much friendlier to swimmers.

Two clocks at reception announce that Club Med does not follow the rules of geographical time. For the rest of Cancun it may be 9pm, but the second clock decrees that here, within the Republic of Club Med, the time is 10pm. Why? They claim it's to do with making the most of daylight, but I suspect it's just because they can. This must cause confusion, not least to guests, who are called "GMs" (Gentils Membres – Nice Members) within the "Village" – and the staff are still called "GOs" (Gentils Organisateurs – Nice Organisers). Such doolally customs were incubated no doubt in Gauloise-wreathed boardrooms in Paris decades ago. The Club Med time zone is not just an hour adrift but seems permanently set to 1976 – which is, coincidentally, the year this complex was built.

The Cancun village had a makeover in 2005 but that does not conceal the Seventies pedigree. On my first morning, I wake up in an episode of Sesame Street. Baby bright colours all over the room – vivid pink, purple, orange and red – are screaming at me. I don't remember hitting the mescal, but this is what the hangover must feel like.

Club Med belongs to an age of travel when a leisure enterprise could be driven by dippy ideas of what it means to go on holiday. Here, you are invited to join a club; a peoplehood of like-minded funsters. In the era of the me generation, Club Med still flies the flag for the collective experience. And a very French one at that.

There is no let-up in a Club day. If you're not playing tennis or volley polo you must be learning trapeze. If you're not tie-dyeing on the beach, you must be at a cooking lesson or competing in the "couple of the week" contest. The demographic of the clientele is extraordinarily wide. I meet Jadwiga and Stanislaw Bala, a Polish couple from San Francisco, who are here for their sixth time. Stanislaw is 88 and took part in the Warsaw uprising in 1944 as a member of the Polish resistance. Jadwiga is 82 and has spent the day snorkelling on the reef.

Presiding over the endless activities are the ever cheerful, ever energetic GOs. After dinner, weighed down by the excellent all-you-can-eat buffet, my partner and I retire to the bar for a quiet drink. It becomes clear the GOs have other ideas; this they've decided is the perfect moment for a jolly aerobic workout. "Absolutely Everybody", a late 1990s dance anthem, thumps out of the sound system. It's not just a tune but a command.

"Here we go," yells the GO cheerleader into his radio mike. It's time for "Les Crazy Signs". Les birds et les bees do it, educated fleas do it, les grandmères and les bébés do it. Everybody does the Club dance; "Les Crazy Signs" is as French as Le Weekend, Minitel and Johnny Hallyday. They twirl, they clap, they shimmy, they make like a kangaroo and screech like a big bird, "Oowa, oowa." My partner Joanna (who is Polish) has a way with misplaced vowels. She's never been to Club Med before. Her jaw has dropped. "Club Mad," she says, between fits of giggles.

There is a strong disincentive to venture out of the all-inclusives. As soon as you leave the bubble, Mexico becomes all-exclusive. The must-do exeat in the Yucatan has to be to the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. By the time you add up the costs of car hire, petrol, site tickets and the not inconsiderable road tolls, the excursion leaves little change out of £200.

Joining the official coach trip from Club Med costs much the same for two. The main advantage of sticking to the group is not having to confront Mexico's very own Crazy Signs – capable of bending the mind of Stephen Hawking into the blackest of holes. But we choose to drive and, immediately outside the complex, we find a road sign that says Cancun to the right, but soon discover it's also to the left. There is no direction whatsoever to Chichen Itza or even to Merida, the main city along the same route. We end up on a two-hour chase through the Zona Hotelera, downtown Cancun, a pointless loop down to the airport and back up to a glorieta (the Mexican name for a roundabout) in the conurbation before finding the first hint of a sign pointing the way to Chichen Itza.

The Autopista 180 from Cancun is eerily empty, which is probably explained by the cost of the tolls – about £30 for the return trip. The highway is flanked by the endless Yucatan jungle, making it easy to understand how entire Mayan cities disappeared from view for more than 1,000 years. The significance of the ruins of Ek' Balam along the same road, for example, became apparent only about 11 years ago. The lost city, dating from 300BC, is still emerging from the jungle under the care of archaeologists. It is being talked of as an attraction to rival Chichen Itza.

For the moment though, Chichen Itza remains the pre-eminent Mayan site in the country. The complex is dominated by the step-pyramid temple of Kukulkan (the Mayan version of Quetzalcoatl – the feathered serpent deity). The site remains untidy, with hawkers and vendors free to roam the precinct. But visitors are no longer allowed to scramble up the near-vertical steps. The monuments are off limits now, following an accident in 2006 when a tourist from California fell to her death. The prohibition is entirely understandable for many reasons, but there is no denying that a part of the thrill – surveying the ruins and the surrounding jungle from the 80ft high platform – is gone.

The new thrill seems to be the Mayan apocalypse, due – according to any number of internet seers – on 22 December 2012. On that date, the world will definitely end – or not, as we shall find out two years hence. There is no shortage of New Age looney-tunes on site who seem to have bought the story. I watch a procession of one group of very solemn visitors circling the monuments silently clutching model skulls crafted from crystal – praying for the end of days.

After sunset on the drive back, a halo of light rises from the coastal belt of Cancun. The synthetic town is shining out across the ancient territory, a beacon of millennial consumption. Somewhere beneath the halo there are people in convention centres and hotels who have come from across the globe to call time on the party. And I am reminded that the Yucatan has a long tradition of lost cities.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Club Med (08453 676767; clubmed offers a seven-night premium all-inclusive holiday from £1,459 per adult and £894 per child, departing 16 January 2011. The price includes return flights from London, transfers, accommodation in a Club Room, all meals with wine, beer, soft drinks, bar drinks and snacks, a choice of group classes and sports activities.

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