Mexican resort taken by storm

A $1.5-billion makeover after Hurricane Wilma aims to make Cancun bigger and better .

By IOAN GRILLO, Associated Press
Published October 22, 2006

CANCUN, Mexico

Carl Johnson said his heart missed a beat when he saw the beach outside his Cancun timeshare.

He was expecting little sand a year after the resort was savaged by the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record. But what he saw took him by complete surprise.

His patch of golden-white sand had tripled in size, stretching a gaping 140 feet toward the crystal-clear Caribbean water.

"After the initial shock, I just burst out laughing. It is so weird when you are used to seeing something and then it completely changes," said Johnson, a 50-year-old aircraft mechanic from Chicago.

Cancun's new beach, built by pumping 96-million cubic feet of sand from the ocean floor, is the highlight of an extreme makeover the resort has gone through since it was punished by Hurricane Wilma on Oct. 21, 2005.

Mexican tourist officials are promoting their Caribbean haven as being fully revamped and made bigger, better and more glitzy than it was before Wilma. The say public and private investment for the rebuilding has totaled $1.5-billion.

In many aspects, the reconstruction has been a Herculean success, letting most tourists enjoy their holidays oblivious to the destruction that wracked the resort a year ago. Bikini-clad sun bathers line the beaches, honeymooning couples sip margaritas in hotel pools and crowds of red-faced revelers croak karaoke songs down at Senor Frog's disco.

But the devastating power of Wilma wrought some damage that could not possibly be fixed within 12 months, and signs of the wreckage can still be seen in corners of the Caribbean resort.

Wilma came with little warning, swelling from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in less than 24 hours, then pounding Cancun for two days and nights, felling roofs, hurling palm trees and submerging streets in stinking flood water.

When the storm finally retreated, an 8-mile stretch of beach was almost completely washed away, exposing a line of ragged rocks.

But worldwide beach erosion has led to rapid advances in the techniques for its reclamation, and Belgian company Jan de Nul made Cancun a showcase for its newest technology.

Two ships sucked up sand 20 miles off the Mexican coast, carried it to the shore and used colossal pipes to lay down half a mile of beach a week.

"The white beaches are what Cancun is all about. So we wanted to make sure we were getting that same silky sand that people love, and a lot more of it than before," said Patricia Lopez of Cancun's Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The new beach is an average of 140 feet wide, compared with an average of 70 feet before Wilma, officials say.

The resort's avenues have been lined with 6,000 new, full-grown palm trees and almost all the shops and restaurants have reopened.

However, there are still sporadic construction sites in the row of nearly 100 towering hotels that fill the Cancun skyline.

This month, about 10 percent of the hotels are still having work done, with the last scheduled to be finished by the end of 2007.

Tourists have responded well to the rebuilding, with their numbers rising dramatically through spring and summer.

By August, Cancun hotels were filled to 79 percent capacity, a drop from 86 percent in 2005, but an encouraging number under the circumstances.




When to go: High season in Cancun begins in mid December and lasts until about May, which is also the dry season. Rates are normally cheaper during the summer and fall, but you also risk hurricanes and tropical storms.

Other attractions: The nearby resorts of Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, Tulum and Cozumel suffered some damage during the storm, but all have mostly recovered. The region's coral reefs were also hit hard by the storm, and it will be years before they fully recover.

Annoyances: The area has suffered from a recent locust invasion, and the bugs can be found in and around Cancun.

Getting around: Public buses shuttle guests between hotels, restaurants, shopping and the airport. Taxis and car rentals are an easy, faster option. Roads are well-paved, and it is usually easy for foreigners to find their way around.

For more information: For up-to-date information on which hotels are still closed or under construction, go to www.cancun.info.