Headlines have been unkind to Cancún: "Wilma Slams Cancún Resorts," "Cancún Beach Erosion Urgent Problem" even "Cancún Police Chief Questioned over Three Slayings." But then there are these: "JetBlue Starts Nonstop Tampa-Cancún Flight," "Tampa-Cancún Fares Start at $98" and in related news, "Mexico's Peso Sinks to Record Low Against Dollar."
Being the-glass-is-half-full kind of people, we headed to the Yucatán Peninsula to make headlines of our own.
Headline: Frankie Valli rocks Cancún
It takes us longer to slog through the contract at the rental car counter than it did to wing to Cancún on a half-full (see, I told you) JetBlue 100-seat Embraer 190 jet. After an hour and a half we're tooling along the city's Zona Hotelera, a long strip of high-rise beachfront resorts, many of them vast but done up in Mayan architectural motifs.
This part of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo has experienced explosive growth since Hurricane Wilma blasted through in 2005. Much of the new construction is priced above the comfort level of spring break revelers and budget travelers, so Girls Gone Wild has moved on to greener pastures, leaving the Mayan Riviera to families and more sedate carousing.
The blue of the swimming pools is a slightly different shade than that of the dazzling Caribbean on the east and Nichupté and Bojórquez lagoons on the west, all somewhere between Elizabeth Taylor's violet eyes and a robin's egg. The "Hotel Zone," shaped like a 7 with bridges on each end connecting to mainland, may not seem quite like a naturally occurring place. It's not, really. Cancún was Mexico's first master-planned city, cut from dense jungle in 1974.
More than 150 hotels line the Boulevard Kukulkan, those on the long side of the 7 with rockier beaches (beach renourishment since 2005 has washed away again), those on the short side closer to El Centro, Cancún's working downtown. We choose the Gran Meliá Cancún, a monster hotel on the long side, with nearly 700 rooms spread through five Mayan-style pyramids, its many-story atrium draped with thousands of softly swaying vines.
We set out walking, realizing quickly that the Zona Hotelera isn't pedestrian-friendly. A cab to anywhere starts at around 100 pesos (roughly $7.50); we hail one after a lovely Mexican-fusion dinner at Laguna Grill, where we have the first of many Caribbean seafood meals. Back at the Gran Meliá, the party has started. There are conga lines, there are fruity tropical drinks and, lord help us, there is karaoke. We drift off to sleep, serenaded by dozens of voices singing "You're just too good to be true, can't take my eyes off you" from the atrium outside.
Headline: Mayan ruins exert magnetic pull on world's hippies
The soundtrack for the next day is entirely different. We drive south from the city along Route 307 to check out some of the area's most popular day trips. Having been warned to obey traffic rules or face unpleasant run-ins with police, we have a blissfully unremarkable 40-mile drive to Xcaret ecological park, named for a nearby Mayan archaeological site.
We're here for the full-day, family-friendly theme park. It's fairly pricey and a mash-up of aquarium, zoo, farm and Mexican culture celebration. Kids will enjoy the butterfly pavilion, which houses one of the largest fluttering collections in the world, although the working oyster mushroom and tilapia farms may leave them unimpressed.
A manatee lagoon and flamingo pen will remind Floridians of home. The underground river may not. These are sinkholes formed by cave ceilings that collapsed after 3 million years of underground river erosion — suit up, grab a snorkel, life vest and flippers and float down the river, gliding in and out of caves. At river's end (approximately an hour's float), you meet back up with your clothes and a dry towel. Very civilized.
We forgo Xcaret's evening spectacular to head farther south to the city of Tulum, named for its nearby Mayan ruins. The town itself draws expats like flies. Americans, Canadians and Europeans reinvent themselves as potters and jewelers, fishermen and part-time visionaries. Thatched cabanas cluster together at water's edge, serenity as palpable as the little eddies of sand swirling against your flip-flops.
Accommodations in Tulum are mostly in these little cabanas, ranging from bare bones to super swanky. Ours is called Zamas. There is no electrical outlet in our two-room, wood-framed hut, and the water is heated by solar panels. Hammocks rock on every little porch, each bed indoors shrouded in romantic (yet utilitarian) swags of mosquito netting. Before we turn in, we make it to Zamas' restaurant ¡Que Fresco!; a band (more expats) slides through Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry, Be Happy as we nosh stupendous fish tacos, guacamole, margaritas and flan.
We have the ruins of Tulum to ourselves the next morning until 9 o'clock, when tour buses from Cancún begin to arrive. The remains of the walled city sit on a bluff facing the Caribbean, the earliest structures dating to 564 A.D. One of the most compact and best preserved, it's the third-most-visited archaeological site in Mexico after Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan.
Tour guides lead long lines of visitors, pointing at the Castillo on the hill, then back at the city square, spouting largely apocryphal tales of virgin sacrifices. Better to wander on your own, stopping to watch park workers rethatching a roof or repairing a time-ravaged walkway.
Headline: Island of Women, but willing to make exceptions
Akumal and Playa del Carmen, halfway back north to Cancún, get far too little of our time. We wander Fifth Avenue in the latter, the main pedestrian drag that runs parallel with the ocean. A little of New Orleans' Bourbon Street, a little of Key West's Duval, a lot of silver vendors and ice pop stands. Called paletas, these frozen treats are in fact one of Earth's most perfect foods: dozens of exotic pureed fruits in a rainbow of colors, each daring you to eat quickly enough to keep your shoes free of pastel splotches.
Still, we can't tarry. We're aiming to catch a high-speed ferry over to Isla Mujeres. We zoom back to the older El Centro section of Cancún to Avenue Bonampak, where we return the car and hop aboard.
This 5-mile-long, 1/2-mile-wide barrier island, off the short side of Cancún's 7, is where visitors day-trip to snorkel, dive, fish and generally frolic in the water. Boats zip people over all day long to explore the Manchones Reef, the Caves of the Sleeping Sharks, El Garrafón Reef Park, and a half dozen other reefs and shipwreck dive sites.
Isla Mujeres is low rise, casual, slower paced and less expensive than Cancún. We elect to save money by staying on the island three nights, dead-center downtown at the island's westernmost edge. Located on Hidalgo, the main pedestrian street, Hotel Bucaneros is noisy but clean, a great deal for those eager to be in the thick of things.
Head east (taxi, golf cart, scooter and bike are the transportation options) along the more protected southern beaches and you'll find weeklong house rentals and beachside resorts, all smaller scale and more low-key than those in Cancún. Here again are expats drawn by the pace, the sand, the sun and probably the fish tacos. We sing one night with Richart Sowa, a self-described aging hippie, at a restaurant called the Patio. Bob Dylan, some warbly Simon & Garfunkel, and we sit down with Richart, who explains that he lives on a floating island he has constructed of 250,000 recycled plastic bottles. Sure, we say, right.
The next day, on bike, we sneak over to find the British eco-pioneer was not pulling our leg. There it bobs in Laguna Makax mid-island. Shaking our heads a bit, we go on to explore the nearby sea turtle farm, bypassing the island's expensive frolic-with-marine-mammals Dolphin Discovery (we have that here in Florida) in favor of the equally expensive Garrafón park. Another full-day commitment, it's one-stop shopping for reef snorkeling (the reef is in pretty bad shape, but rich with fish), sea kayaking and kooky ziplining out over the turquoise water. Nice men harness you up and send you whooping out into the void.
A fleeting thrill, we preferred the more sustained allures of wandering through the island's La Gloria neighborhood, tourist free and scented with the just-baked pan dulce at Carla y Samuel's panaderia. Surely a warm, crackle-topped concha pastry is headline worthy.
Laura Reiley is the Times' food critic. She can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.