Hurricane Wilma took the beach, ravaged hotels and leveled trees. One year later, the Yucatan is revived and ready for tourists.
"Hey, amigo! Wait just a second," the hawker said, motioning me over to his booth on Boulevard Kukulcan, the frenzied strip of discos, resorts and malls that runs the 14-mile length of the island of Cancun. "For just two hours of your time for a meeting on a great product -- these condos, right behind me -- I can get you two blankets, a bottle of tequila and a snorkel trip."
I wasn't looking for blankets, booze or a hard sell on a condo in the Hotel Zone. I said was more interested in Cancun's recovery from Hurricane Wilma, a Category 4 storm that last October stripped the beach to bedrock, blew out plate glass windows and flooded hotels with torrents of rain.
"Why are you here now?" he asked. "Everything is back to normal."
Well, yes and no.
Up and down the Yucatan Peninsula's east coast -- an area that accounts for 40 percent of Mexico's tourism income -- resorts, restaurants and shops are ready for winter's influx of snow-weary northerners. But the world they'll return to is in the process of a transformation that goes beyond hurricane recovery. Cancun and the Yucatan's east coast are in the midst of a phenomenal new building boom.
In the past year, more than 4,000 hotel rooms were added on the "Mayan Riviera," the fanciful appelation for 70 miles of rapidly developing coast south of Cancun. Three thousand more rooms are planned for 2007.
To help keep those rooms full, a new international airport is being built at Tulum, 80 miles south of Cancun. That will also help relieve congestion at Cancun's airport, which is adding a second terminal to help handle its 170 daily arrivals.
Cancun's developers and promoters have little fear that memories of the hurricane will keep anyone away. "As soon as the rooms opened after Wilma, they were full," said Patricia Lopez Mancera of the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We're optmistic that won't change."
Here, area by area, is a look at the rebuilt, and rebuilding, Yucatan east coast.
Wilma roared onto the Mexican coast with roughly the same force as Hurricane Katrina when it hit New Orleans. The similarities end there.
The Mexican government was ready for Wilma; vulnerable areas were evacuated and not one person died.
Still, Cancun appeared ruined. Broken glass, trashed furniture and upturned palm trees littered the ground. Some homes and hotels were beyond repair. The foliage was brown, ruined by salt spray.
The government sent in federal troops immediately after the storm to open roads, remove debris and help residents return home. More than $2 billion in insurance claims were filed. With government assistance, the city began to rebuild itself. A year later, the results are stunning.
About 90 percent of Cancun's hotel rooms are open, 6,000 newly planted palms on Kukulcan Boulevard sway in the nearly constant Caribbean breeze, and chaise longues stand ready on a restored beach that is significantly bigger and broader than it was before the hurricane.
The Mexican government paid a Belgian company $21 million to dredge the sand (which had drifted to the ocean floor near Isla Mujeres) and pump it back onto the beaches in front of the resorts. The company accomplished the task in only 12 weeks this summer.
The efficiency and speed of the recovery in Cancun prompted the United Nations World Tourism Organization to declare it a model to emulate in future disasters.
The reconstruction transcends appearances. Hotels and developers used Wilma as a springboard to recast the nature of the destination. The renewed Cancun boasts fancier hotels, more condos and pricier shopping.