As you see yourself, I once saw myself; as you see me now, you will be seen.
      Mexican Proverb


México is the most populous Spanish-
speaking country in the world. According to the latest statistics, México's total population is over 99 million. Mestizos, of Indian and Spanish blood), make up 60% of the population, followed by indigenous peoples  (30%), whites (9%), and other ethnic minorities  (1%).

Carnaval in Mazatlan

Visitors and locals scream, sing, shout and dance amid confetti and ribbons. Bands of all kinds play the infectious rhythms of the State of Sinaloa. And the food–oh, the food–camarones (shrimp) prepared in every way possible, washed down with ice cold Pacifico beer, for it’s Carnaval Time, Mazatlán’s biggest pachanga (fiesta). 
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March 12, 2006

By Ron Butler

Cancun's pristine beaches, and ruins older than time, must now compete with a dazzling array of diversions, including the Tourist Zone (think of Las Vegas without neon), which have made the island the number one resort in Mexico.

Twenty-five years ago there was nothing on Cancun, that slender stretch of island off Quintana Roo at the northernmost tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, except what Mother Nature put there.

And Mother Nature was generous indeed. Kilometres of pristine beaches were swept by the Caribbean on one side and gentle lagoons on the other. The colors of the sky and the water were the colors of Mayan jade, of gold and turquoise, colors that danced and shimmered in the changing light of day. In the late afternoon, when dark storm clouds sometimes gathered low in the sky, the colors intensified with such brilliance that ancient Indians knew this to be a place of wonderment and magic.

Today, the slender, 23-kilometre, elbow-shaped island of Cancun is the number one tourist destination in all of Mexico, outdrawing even Acapulco with over a million visitors a year. The hotel strip along Paseo Kukulcan -- the central boulevard now known as the "Tourist Zone," where taxis and buses roar incessantly -- looks like something out of Scheherazade's wildest dreams. Think of Las Vegas without neon. One mosque-like hotel with turrets and minarets stands next to another. Collectively they resemble the keyboard of an IBM typewriter marching up a graded incline. Pyramids and soaring atriums. Towers. Dozens and dozens of hotels, a great dazzling sprawl of glass, steel and cement, all gleaming with excess and newness, all packages and wrapping.

The ever-changing room count, the barometer by which tourism officials measure a resort's capacity potential, staggers the mind. In 1988, 11,891 rooms. By 1995, 18,500. By century's end, an estimated 26,000 rooms in roughly 130 resort hotels, accommodating an anticipated 1.5 million visitors annually.

Cancun's growth has been so rapid that the area already boasts an Old Cancun section downtown. The island, or hotel zone, is linked to the mainland by two inconspicuous causeways and it's there, downtown, that most of Cancun's 200,000 permanent residents live: the hotel waiters and bartenders, the taxi and bus drivers, the clerks, accountants and secretaries, and their families.

The result, of course, is that much of the culture indigenous to Quintana Roo has disappeared.<br>

Traditional Mayan cooking has been replaced by the likes of Bogart's, something akin to New York's 21 Club, San Francisco's Top of the Mark and New Orlean's Chez Paul all rolled into one. Located in the Hotel Krystal on Punta Cancun, Bogart's recreates the movie Casablanca. The Moorish-Moroccan design is emphasized with ceiling fans, high-backed rattan chairs, billowing silks, waiters in turbans, and giant photos of Bogart and Bacall that seem almost lifelike. Right there in the middle of it all sits a piano player in white tie and tails, stationed at a white piano, who plays As Times Goes By over and over and over. Naturally, the experience comes at a price: $50 to $60 (U.S.) for dinner.

For North American visitors accustomed to slick, clean resorts, these changes mean certain familiar creature comforts. They can safely drink the water here and choose from a sometimes startling range of trendy restaurants that include Carlos 'n Charley., the Bombay Bicycle Club, Casa Rolandi, La Mansion, Maxim's, the Hard Rock Cafe, Sr. Frog's and Mr. Papa's Potato House.

The plaza in the town's center is filled with open-air bars and modern shops that include ACA Joe and designer names. Jazz and country-and-western festivals, featuring top names are now regular attractions.

Visitors will find some Mexican touches -- an open-air market where you can haggle for silver jewelry, pottery, giant straw hats and crafts -- and weekly bullfights that take place when enough tickets have been sold and the matador's plane makes it on time. Still, the place often has a hokey touristy feel; sometimes, it seems, there's about as much Mexican in Cancun as in your local taco restaurant.

So completely established has Cancun become as a resort that North American visitors, like North American travelers everywhere, can't wait to get exploring somewhere else nearby. Almost before their bags are unpacked, they're heading off to Isla Mujeres (the Island of Women), a relatively undeveloped island about 10 kilometers off the Cancun coast, to lounge on Playa Cocoteros, sip salty Margaritas or bum a ride on a fisherman's boat. Or they're on the ferry or air shuttle to Cozumel, 70 kilometers south of Cancun and 19 kilometers off the coast, still said to be ruled by the pagan deity Xchel, the goddess of fertility.

Or they jump into a car or bus and head down the highway to visit the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum (located right on the sea, with a decent beach) or the lovely lagoon of Xel-Ha nearby. Or they go to the ruins of Chichen Itza, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Cancun. These are the most impressive of all Mayan ruins, sprawling over 15 square kilometers and containing hundreds of structures, including an ancient ball court and El Castillo (the Castle), a temple pyramid 23 meters tall with 365 steps leading to its summit.

So great is the crush of traffic along Highway 180 to Chichen Itza that the government has installed dozens of speed bumps to keep drivers from whipping through the tiny villages and settlements along the way at life-threatening speeds. So many tour buses converge at Chichen Itza that by midday it's almost impossible to find the entrance.

Inside the archeological site, people swarm up and down El Castillo like ants on a hill, some frozen in terror at the top, others scampering goat-like up to the peak and down again. Troops of school children follow their instructors about while official guides, in voices weary with repetition, speak of the phenomenon that takes place twice a year. During the spring and summer equinoxes, as the red glow of afternoon sun descends over the pyramid, its slanting rays form the shape of a giant serpent inching its way slowly down the stone steps until finally, with the advent of darkness, its massive head comes to rest at the base.

In the wake of Cancun's spectacular success, new resorts such as those at Akumal, Puerto Venturas, Buena Ventura and Puerto Cancun have extended the development some 130 kilometers down the Yucatan coast.

Thankfully, the development hasn't ruined the place entirely, as I learned from my drive back from Chichen Itza. I stopped at a roadside shack where a crudely lettered sign outside advertised "honey for sale." Unable to decide what kind of honey I wanted from among all the different sizes and shades of bottles on display, I turned to the young man attending the shop for help. With a proud grin, he took my hand and poured a big puddle of honey into my open palm. "Try this one," he said. "It's good." And it was.

Like Pooh, I left the shack with several large jars of honey and continued on down the highway toward Cancun. Still licking my hand, I was content in the knowledge, finally, that no matter how much development went on in Cancun, that no matter how big and grand and marvelous it became, somehow it could never really be spoiled.

Ron Butler, a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona, is the author of Dancing Alone in Mexico.


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