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Gateway to the Mexican Caribbean

Two realms exist within the balmy reaches of the Cancun. One is a beach resort on the Mexican Caribbean, a place where hotels tower above the trees and the sounds of mariachi music clatter on past midnight. The other, the starting point for treks to eco parks, archeological sites, and thrilling adventures, contributes equally to the town's appeal.

Sculpture Exhibit, Garrafon Park
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

The view of Cancun from a descending plane is eye-popping with indigo waters shading to cobalt, creamy emerald, and pure white ribbons of foam nudging an unbroken strand of alabaster sand. It is everything a resort should be: sybaritic, carefree, and glamorous. But within reach of its sunny beach and beckoning sea is a classroom for learning about nature, culture, excavations, art, folklore, and ecology.

As recently as 1973, Cancun was a hamlet of thatched huts. To attract North Americans to the state of Quintana Roo, the eastern section of the Yucatan peninsula, the Mexican government with the help of developers planned and created Cancun, the hub of the Mayan Riviera, as a tourist destination. Today there are 95 hotels. Most of them line Kulkucan Boulevard, the hotel zone, and face the water on the opposite side.

Close to 3 million visitors a year register at those lodgings. Building hotels has not been the only construction taking place. Remodeled just five years ago Garrafon Park on the Isla Mujeres is the most accessible attraction. A 25-minute ferry ride from town, the nature park provides more entertainment than can be squeezed into one day. Several times daily a guide leads groups on the panoramic trail and talks about ecology, pointing out some of the many types of fish, coral, and herbs, as well as the ancient banyan trees and the caves.

The park also operates as an adventure and sports destination and offers kayaking, reef snorkeling, scuba, snuba, tower and rope climbing, a swimming pool, zip line rides, and Caribbean bungee. The sea trek, which should have allowed divers to walk the ocean floor, was a downer as a strong undertow kept our group clinging to an underwater bar. The ladder off the boat was slippery and no reef shoes were offered. One participant's head was soaked with water because the bottom of the heavy helmet opened. The very reasonable admission to the park includes all you can eat and drink at four restaurants and snack bars. A few activities have a modest surcharge.

Mueseum of Modern Folk Art
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

In an area referred to as Punta Sur on the southern side of Isla Mujeres the impressive cliffs that rise high above the sea form the perfect setting for a permanent international sculpture exhibit that stands side-by-side with the Mayan temple to the goddess Ixchel.


The Museum of Modern Folk Art is conveniently located at the El Embarcadero wharf where the ferries pick up and deposit passengers riding to and from Isla Mujeres. Among its striking exhibits are life-sized dioramas reenacting Mexican Colonial life. Toys, musical instruments, pottery, baskets, embroidery, silver, and other crafts are on display. The Mexicans had a way with pigments and the range of colors with which they worked appears to be broader than that of any other culture.

The expansion at 10-year old Xcaret, an eco-archeological and cultural park, some 75 kms. south of Cancun is quite noticeable since our last visit in 1999. The separate attractions equal about 25, but a swim in the underground river was so in demand that a second one was opened. More than one km. long and 20 feet below sea level, each channel has Mayan sinkholes, caves, rock formations, and marine fossils. Also new is the Paradise River raft ride careening through the jungle and rain forest where monkeys, deer, and flying macaws flit about.

Artist's Mexican Cemetery, Xvaret
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Many exhibits are designed to allow visitors to interact with nature while exploring the quarters for a butterfly collection, sea turtles, flamingoes, a fish and shrimp farm, a bird enclosure, a coral reef aquarium, an apiary for stingless bees, and a cave for bats. Other intense experiences transpire while snorkeling among the coral reefs, swimming with dolphins and mingling with the fish on a sea trek. Things that grow in the ground have private spaces, too: a cultivated mushroom farm, a conservatory for orchids and bromeliads and a botanical garden. Some of the creatures that live at Xcaret must be seen from a distance: Two manatees swim in their own lagoon. Jaguars and pumas cavort on a private island with cliffs all around it so that they can live in the wild, but can never leave the area.

In the cultural realm Xcaret offers the opportunity to visit a Mayan village by water and to glide past artisans at work--weaving, carving, and painting. An artificial Mexican Cemetery was installed by artists on a small hill. The colorful and creative head treatments of imaginary dead people are meant to amuse. A cultural and archeological museum is also on the grounds.

To cap off an exciting day in the park, the best event comes last, the spectacular night show. Over 260 performers participate in an epic two-hour celebration in the Grand Tlachco Theater. Dressed in glorious regional costumes, musicians, singers, and dancers trace Mexico's history beginning from ancient Mayan times before the Spanish conquerors arrived to the present era. Tables can be booked in a special section of the playhouse where dinner is served during the show.


Acropolis, El Baam
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Some 23 archeological sites in the Yucatan peninsula attest to a highly developed Mayan culture in this region centuries before the Spanish conquest. A trip to one of the larger ones should be on the schedule of all Cancun tourists. Ek Balam is lesser known than some of the sites that were uncovered years ago. Discovered in the 1980s, its monumental architecture has been patiently reconstructed by archeologists. Ek Balam had been an important Mayan center before 900 A.D., when the Mayan society died out due to reasons that can only be speculated about. The splendid central plaza is surrounded by three large ceremonial buildings, including a field for playing a kind of ball sport somewhat like soccer. The main pyramid, the "acropolis" is one of the largest in the peninsula. At 96 feet tall, the climb to the top is a challenging one. Most visitors attempt it as it offers a view of the entire excavation.

A long walk or a mountain bike ride through the jungle to the Mayan village, Nuevo Xcan, where one finds three "cenotes" (natural water sink holes) is another segment of this excursion. Some participants rappelled 20 meters into the Tzeldzonot cenote. The Four Halcones cenote, a 50-meter wide sinkhole, is a cave hung with thousand-year old stalactites and stalagmite,s which can also be rappelled into by the brave and adventurous. At La Esperanza you can cross the cenote on a 120-meter zip line. The last activities were a talk about Mayan traditions and legends and a mystical purification ceremony by a native shaman.


Rappelling at a cenote
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

Aquaworld is another Cancun highlight that combines adventure with ecotourism. Among the sponsored activities is a jungle tour. Two persons maneuver their own speed boat through the Nichupte Lagoon and into the ocean to reach the living coral reefs at Punta Nizuc, an exciting place to snorkel.

Cancun possesses all the ingredients--crystal-clear waters, white-sand beaches, the finest hotels, superb restaurants, vibrant nightlife, the Maya World, entertainment, adventure, contact with nature--for happy vacationing in week-long bites. To lift your spirits even more, authentic margaritas are served up in every bar, restaurant, and hotel.

Where to Stay

The Fiestamericana Aqua had only been open for one day when we arrived. Workmen were on the job 24-7 putting on the finishing touches. Staff outnumbered guests many times over. Whenever employees come upon guests they acknowledged them by crossing their arms over their chests. This Mayan greeting means "I am you, you are me" and translates to "I am at your service."

The rough spots are quickly being smoothed out. Despite several glitches, not too many people complained. The hotel is so extraordinarily beautiful that you instead concentrate on the resplendent surroundings. Water and its movement is the hotel's theme and falls, fountains, and pools are used prodigiously in the design.

Fiestamericana Aqua Hotel
Credit: Edwin C. Fancher

The homage to water continues in the rooms, all have balconies facing the ocean. Eight shimmering pools, many of them heated, of all sizes and shapes including infinity pools that flow into other infinity pools anchor the lounging areas at the beach. At check-in guests are presented with naturally-flavored waters.

Fiestamericana Aqua offers a new riff on turndown. Whimsical items, such as a zen garden or a bowl with Siamese fighting fish and feed, will be changed each night.

The spa was not yet ready, but Victor, the affable instructor of Asian movements, taught yoga, tai chi and chi king at 9 each morning in a beach pavilion. Water shiatsu will be on the spa menu and the steam room will be be modeled after an old Aztec Temazcal.

Only Siete, one of several planned restaurants, served meals during our stay. It has an industrial Mexican look and pop art-style paintings on floor to ceiling columns of seven icons, including artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera.

The best trained of the staff were those who served at the abundant breakfast buffet. What a meal it was--an extraordinary array of every possible breakfast food imaginable and some that were surprising like steak, chicken, fish and Japanese. Dinner was uneven. Duck quesadilla appetizers followed by rich black bean soup tasted like luxurious versions of Mexican comfort food. A slab of white local fish was completely bland, its mango sauce so skimpy that many in our group put down their forks after a bite of two. Coconut pudding, another loser, was soupy and too sugary. Two well-known chefs, Patricia Quintana of Mexican City and Michelle Bernstein of Miami are coming aboard with promises of "bold" and "sophisticated Mexican cuisine."

Fiestamericana Aqua, Boulevard Kukulcan 12.5, 77500, Quintana Roo. Tel. 998-881-7600.



Winter 2004-05